A discussion of some things that may turn readers away from your items.
Most of you are probably familiar with the TLC show "What Not to Wear." In the show, there are two fashion experts who surprise random people by saying "you dress like a slob" and then proceed to do a wardrobe makeover. Why? Well, to get TV ratings of course. On the other hand, the aim is to help people learn how to dress their best in order to create a good impression at work, on the social scene, etc.
This article and "What Not to Write: Continued" by Verm serve as my own version of that idea. The points made in these articles are intended to help you "dress your best" so you'll create a favorable impression with your readers. The key principles behind each tip is either minimizing things that could distract readers from your work, or presenting your work in as professional a way as possible.
The question is, why bother? Well, across the site it's possible to find items which have rather a lot of views, but only a couple reviews. One of the implications in this case is that readers are turned away, for one reason or another, from that item once they open it up and look at it. This is a good indication that something about the piece, whether it's formatting or spelling errors, is turning readers away. In other words, said item is "dressing" like a slob.
A poll which touches on this idea is:
"Invalid Item" by A Guest Visitor
In the following articles, I will discuss some of the traits of writing which people tend to avoid. This article focuses on specifically Writing.com issues. The second is about more general writing topics.
Included, you will see a few quotations and links to further this discussion. Everyone quoted, or who has an item linked in this piece, has given me their consent to do so.
There are two points against it. The first is that many people find it hard to read, especially against the tan background. Members who have weaker eyes or vision problems especially have difficulty with colored font.
The other point is that it's unprofessional. A piece in colored font gives the impression of trying to distract the reader from the words by drawing their attention to the color, i.e. the writer isn't confident in their writing abilities and so resorts to excessive presentation.
There are a few exceptions to this rule, primarily forums, polls, or In&Outs. Non-statics don't follow the same rules as novels, short stories, articles, etc. Even so, getting carried away with colors can still be distracting. Colors used with a purpose can enhance an item, colors used superfluously are often a turn-off to viewers.
To get a larger number of people's input, I created a poll which asked the question "Like it or Hate it?" Out of 168 votes, the breakdown was as follows:
35%: It's good for things like forums or poetry, but not long statics.
14%: Save it for e-mail bud.
12%: I hate it with the fiery passion of a thousand suns.
Basically, 61% of the people who answered the poll question would prefer not to read items (particularly long statics) in colored font. Another 26% of readers were neutral about colored font. Only 13% of the total responses were, "It's great, it enhances the piece."
As a writer, the name of the game is appealing to as many readers as possible. If you think colored font is a vital part of your writing, keep in mind that you're only going to directly appeal to 13% of the readers on Writing.com. Kind of a limited audience, isn't it?
"Using color and centering for poetry is also verging on the edge of blasphemy;
hiding behind formats! If I want to read a Hallmark greeting card, I'll go to the store and centering just reminds me of that far too much. (There are exceptions but they are too few and far between!)"
"I think that there can be a place for color in static items - within reason. On the few occasions that I've used color in an item, I chose a darker color and I only use one...In my (always humble) opinion, this reflects and enhances the mood of the poem, without being distracting. But I never use color unless I think it's relevant to the piece and I would never use it in a longer item."
A piece, title, or description written in all caps is essentially screaming for attention. The arguement I'm familiar with to support this, is that it creates "effect" or emphasis. The truth of the matter, is that your readers are accustomed to reading conventionally written font. Their eyes look for the cues that capital letters give them, like the beginning of a sentence or a proper noun, and when something is written in all capital letters, it actually makes that piece more difficult to read.
Another idea behind all caps in a piece is to attract attention to the piece, and to tell the truth, it tends to be effective in that. Unfortunately, it tends to draw negative attention to a piece, which is something we can all do without.
So the question is how to draw attention to a piece without using caps? The description and title are two things that can really stick out to a reader and pull them in. Think about these two things carefully and try to make them both accurate to the piece, and original. Another way to attract attention to a piece is to plug it in the "Request Reviews" page, the "Shameless Plug" page, and to find suitable review forums.
"Ow, my eyes! All caps is generally considered to be the Internet equivalent of shouting. In reality, I think it's laziness ('sorry but i cant be bothered hitting the shift key even for punctuation') or ignorance ('the shift key - huh?'). Learn your keyboard keys and immediately appear more intelligent to the rest of us."
Descriptions: "Great piece" and "Please review"
If someone writes a description that says, "This is a really the best thing you'll ever read," I typically won't believe them. Why? The biggest reason is that chances are good that the writer who created this piece actually doesn't know me. Thus, they don't know the type of genre, style, or subject matter that I prefer to read. What happens if this is a comedy piece and I happen to hate comedy?
I find that one of the negative effects this type of description can have is to hurt the writer's credibility. When much of writing depends on the reader being able to follow where the author leads, this can be problematic.
Also, by telling me I'll like it instead of describing it, all I end up knowing about the piece is that the writer likes it. To me, this manner of describing a piece also sends a somewhat arrogant message as the writer is assuming everyone will love their work.
For reviewers, particularly, I think this type of description is off-putting. One of the biggest ideas of Writing.com is allowing writers to get feedback on their work. A "This is an awesome piece" description from a writer can imply that the author isn't particularly open to suggestions for improvement. As a reviewer, I'd prefer to move on to another item rather than something that's already "perfect." Presumably, this writer doesn't need (read:want) my suggestions.
Another thing I recommend staying away from is describing a piece as "Please review." It's not a description, it's a request. Most people reviewing on this site work under the assumption that if it is posted, the writer wants it reviewed. Thus, this type of "description" is redundant. The http://www.writing.com/main/handler/item_id/819237/system/1 and/or review forums are the appropriate place to ask for reviews, the description is the appropriate place to describe the piece.
The description is an opportunity to hook readers into visiting that item, and can be a powerful tool if used well. If you use the description in the way it is designed to work, it's a beautiful thing.
"I detest 'please review' more than anything in a brief description, but 'a very deep poem, it will change your life' runs it close."
"I think what's worse than a description reading, 'please review' is one that says, 'I know this stinks, but...' or 'you're gonna hate this one'."
I always wonder about a writer who posts something and admits that he/she thinks it's bad."
The standard convention for paragraph breaks, since the writing.com format doesn't make indents too user-friendly, is double spacing between paragraphs. Online, it makes it much easier on the eyes, and it makes the piece much easier to read.
I created a poll, to make sure I wasn't the only one who preferred double spacing. Here's the breakdown on the responses of 183 Writing.com readers:
54%: I prefer it, and sometimes avoid pieces that don't double space.
34%: I can take it or leave it.
4%: I love it, I won't read items without double spaced paragraphs.
4%: I dislike it.
To me, those results make a very strong argument in favor of double spacing. Over half (a total of 58%) of your readers prefer double spacing. Another third doesn't mind it, and only 4% of your potential readership dislikes double spacing. You can't make everyone happy, but would you rather make 58% of your readers happy or 4%?
Some of members like to transfer writing from Word, or a similar program, to writing.com. This is a fine way to do things and offers some advantages, such as automatic spell check. The problem is that sometimes the formatting transfers in odd ways, like having funky line breaks. When transferring items, make sure to take a look at what ends up being posted and double check the line breaks and other formatting. Some formatting transfers strangely or not at all.
If you're having trouble with transferring work, check out this helpful item:
"Invalid Item" by A Guest Visitor
From time to time I come across an author who professes that they don't want any criticism because they write for their own enjoyment. This occurs most commonly as a response to a review I sent someone pointing out a few (or more) errors in the piece which should be corrected. The bottom line: if someone writes solely for their own enjoyment, then why are they posting it for others to read?
By posting an item, or items, online, the writer is automatically opening themselves up for criticism. If they do post it anyway, they should select the option to make the piece unrateable.
If a writer makes it a rateable item, that means they're asking for opinions on their piece. To make it rateable and then say "I write only for myself" really means that they only want praise. Realistically, would you find it very appealing if someone asked you to give them your opinion on their novel, but you were forbidden to say anything but compliments? That's not really asking your opinion, is it?
Each person writes for their own reasons, and I'm not going to say that writing for therapy, self-expression, etc. is a bad thing. However, if someone decides that they write only for those reasons, then they need to make sure that they format their work accordingly. It's more fair to those on this site who review with the intention of helping their peers improve their writing. It's also more fair to the writer because if they write solely for personal reasons, the last thing they want is a succession of reviews saying things like "I thought the first sentence in the third paragraph was a bit awkward."
Here is an official article regarding the topic:
The key here is that they call it chat speak. It's an appreviated form of writing developed to let people minimize effort during long online conversations.
Some writers also find it appropriate for the descriptions and/or body of their online writing. The difficulty here is that chat speak is, by definition, a short cut. Good writing is defined many ways, but never does the phrase "uses short cuts" enter in. Generally, the less effort an author puts into writing a piece, the less effort a reader will put into reading that piece.
Another argument for avoiding chat speak goes back to the idea that readers will skip a piece that is difficult to read. Especially for members of this site who aren't very literate in chat speak, this can create a lot of difficulty in reading an item, forum post, or similar.
Ignoring Your Readership
If a reviewer comments on something they think should be changed, there's a reason they think so. You may disagree, that's fine, but isn't there a reason you decided to post this item in an online format which allows others to give you feedback? Yeah, that's right, you want opinions.
Back when I was in speech and debate, my coach gave me a great general rule for criticism, "If one judge says it, don't worry too much about it; if two judges say it, think about it; if three judges say it, change it." The situation was a bit different, but the basic idea transfers well: if one person makes the comment, and it's something you don't particularly agree with, then don't worry about it. However, if the majority of reviewers for that piece make the same comment, then you need to fix it.
Some reviewer comments are very subjective and based more on stylistic preference than anything else. To try and please everyone can only get messy, but if we automatically discount any comments which we don't agree with, we lose a valuable tool.
There have definitely been times when a reviewer has commented some aspect of a piece and my first reaction was "No, you're wrong, that sentence is perfectly clear" or similar. However, when I went back later, after the comment had time to sit a while, and looked at what they pointed out, I saw that the sentence really was confusing. At this point, I fixed the problem and, as a result, my piece was a little bit better just because some "idiot" reviewer said something I initially thought was off the mark.
Of course there are types of writing and subject matters which will never get universal approval, and that's fine. With this point, I'm talking about when multiple reviewers comment on the same line or passage in a piece and say that it's confusing, vague, or awkward.
I'm all for experimental writing where I define the basic idea as "write what you can get away with." However, if the majority of readers are having difficulty with something, it means you're not getting away with it.
"Regarding 'not listening your audience'...just to add to that I hate it when I make a suggestion and the author disagrees, and to argue the point they say something like, 'Well, three others liked that I did this, so you're wrong.' Hell, I couldn't give a rat's ass if they agree with my suggestion or not, and I've certainly met three people in the world who don't know squat about writing.
Does that make me correct? Not necessarily, but that doesn't mean I need to be whined at for offering constructive criticism. If the author doesn't want to go with my suggestion(s), that's their business...but for God's sake, don't whine about it."
You've written an excellent short story, complete with a great cast of characters and magic carpet. The first review comes in, and you're horrified to see that some reviewer is whining about the need to reclassify the story's genre. What? So you labeled it "non-fiction" who cares?
The key here is attracting your audience. Chances are, someone who usually looks for and reads "Horror" isn't so keen on reading "Comedy" or "Self Help". They may stumble across your item, but how long will they linger?
More importantly, the readers out there who just can't read enough Articles aren't so likely to look for your article on the right way to fly-fish upside down if it's listed as a Short Story. You want to find readers who are interested in what you write, so making sure your item is in the right item type/genre lets those readers find you a heck of a lot easier.
"Using the genres correctly. That would be my peeve, frankly. As a poetryphobe, I loathe clicking on prose to find the rhyming stuff. I thought prose was non-poetry, but am wondering was my definition wrong for years.
Also, it is important - this is mostly something newbies do - to use as many genres as possible (accurately, please: why bother filing your supernatural love story as computer-nonfiction-article?) so that you get exposure to the kind of readers who want to read what you want to write."
Other Comments On This Item
The following comments which I have included are not meant to stroke my own ego, as hard as that may be to believe. Rather, they are to show that there are many others who also feel it is important for an author's work to be professionally presented.
"You've covered many of what I consider to be the most horrid crimes committed against the site's poor readers, and many of them simply point to a tragic lack of effort on the part of writers. You are very right--pieces that scream for attention, hide behind "creative" formatting, over- or underestimate their merit are indeed likely to be received negatively, and avoided like the plague where possible.
This article is one of the most well-researched I've seen thus far on the site. You've been generous in labeling it "opinion;" really, you've covered all the bases as far as informing your points with carefully constructed polls and source quotes. By providing the links to said polls, you give the article a credibility that is refreshing..."
"You covered most of my pet peeves. I have a few to add though. I despise tit-for-tat reviews, meaning the person gives you practically the same review you gave them. I also despise the quid pro quo system that some people adopt. Don't give me a five because you think I'll reciprocate, because for the most part, I will not. Everyone makes mistakes, so I want to know mine, regardless of the color of my suitcase.
The other thing that annoys me greatly is when you take the time to help someone with their writing, only to be told that convention doesn't matter, that their writing comes from inside, their soul. In my opinion, they should keep it there then."
"I think this is extremely helpful and covers a few things that I haven't seen covered in other writing-tip pieces. One other I would add is: Don't address your critics in your piece. I've closed many a piece of writing on here that begins: 'Look, to the person who gave me one-star, you should really have the balls to tell me why....' The last thing I want to read is a petty argument!"
"Dear Verm, as a newbie to this site I appreciate the input...While I am not guilty of most of the errors that you have stated, there are a few that I am guilty of and again I am thankful for having it pointed out..."
PENsive is Meemaw x 3!
"This is an excellent piece that covers tips and pointers from many of our fellow writng.com authors. They are a good reminder of thins we should all keep in mind, as best we can, when we write."
"Thank you for the informative article. It's helpful to get a reminder about some of the ways to best use this site."
Some Related Links
Here are some off-site articles from the Colorado Springs Fiction Writers Group, recently ranked in the top 101 writing websites in "Writers Digest" magazine.