Eleven Ways Writers Annoy Readers

Writers annoy readers all the time.

Hasn’t it happened to you? You pick up a book, intrigued by its premise or cover art. You skim a few pages. And you put it back on the shelf, because something about it just doesn’t work for you. Or you bring the book home, read halfway through, and give up in disgust because the main character keeps making the same mistakes or missing the same clues or doing the same stupid things.

Or—perhaps worse—you make it through to the end of the book and, after several hundred pages of buildup, the author lets you down.

Tambako the Jaguar Photo credit

It’s easy to know when a writer annoys you, but not always so easy to avoid doing the same thing in your own writing.

Start with this checklist of sure-fire ways to irritate your audience—and avoid becoming one of those annoying writers!

Eleven Ways Writers Annoy Readers
  1. Use fancy dialog attributions: snarled, coughed, barked, growled, murmured, muttered, pestered, blathered, etc.
  2. Overuse adverbs: Use adverbs sparingly, carefully, and delicately. Strong verbs communicate more effectively—and more succinctly—than a string of modifiers.
  3. Head hop: Change point of view within a scene, so your reader is confused as to who thinks what.
  4. Wordiness: Are you writing to hear yourself speak, or do you actually have something to say? Cut the lengthy descriptions and lovely turns of phrase; aim for brevity and clarity as well as style.
  5. Preach: Unless you’re a minister, readers probably don’t want to hear your sermons. If you have a lesson to teach, be wary of the sledgehammer approach. Children and adults alike are happy to explore different points of view with your characters, but will drop a thinly-veiled morality play like a hot potato.
  6. Info dump: Maybe your readers need to know that your main character was born in Pennsylvania where she photographed deer, kissed her first boy, and discovered that he was a werewolf—but they probably don’t need to know all of that on the first page. Dole out information sparingly, always leaving your reader wanting more.
  7. Research dump: Similar to the info dump, the research dump refers specifically to the writer’s need to incorporate all the research he’s performed into the book itself. Yes, you have five hundred pages of research. No, no one else wants to know all of it. That’s why you’re the writer: you get to do the research and sort out the best pieces to share.
  8. Make your main character stupid: I’m not talking about honest-to-goodness mentally challenged characters. I’m talking about the character who makes stupid choices without good reasons. The co-ed who goes down into the dark basement to investigate the strange noises after the power goes out even though she knows there’s an escaped murderer in the neighborhood instead of, say, dialing 911. Or the character who can’t solve the mystery that your reader figured out on page 2. It’s harder to sympathize when a character when deep-down you’re pretty sure they got what they deserved.
  9. Break your promises: If you build up an event early in the story, don’t skip over it in chapter 20. Similarly, if your book promises a love story, don’t kill off the male lead halfway through. I’ve noticed that many books in which a major character dies begin by foreshadowing the event, and I think it’s for this reason. If something bad is going to happen, we want to prepare ourselves.
  10. Break your rules: Whatever genre you write, you spend a great deal of your book establishing ground rules, whether those are for characters, a magic system, or a dystopian government. If your character pulls out a longbow during the climax, you need to establish her archery skills earlier. If your wizard casts a spell to defeat the big bad guy on page 200, you need to establish that the spell exists—or at least that it could exist—in the pages preceding.
  11. Cheat the ending: When you build up an astonishing series of events, the absolute bomb to drop is “And then she woke up.” If your story resolves by the discover that it’s all been a dream, you’d darned well better prepare your reader for the possibility in advance. Another cheat ending is deus ex machina—the sort of ending when the parent swoops in to save the child or the destitute mother solves all her problems by winning the lottery. Just. Don’t.
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You’ve probably read the same tips I have: Have a smart phone? Check Facebook while standing in line at the post office! Respond to Twitter messages while waiting for your dentist! Catch up on your news feed while sitting on the pot! For years, I thought the path to increased productivity was to squeeze in MORE–more […]


  1. says

    Cheating the ending is probably the biggest no-no for me. I don’t want to spend all that time reading without a payoff!

    • says

      I know, this is probably my biggest as well…although any one of the above will drive me crazy in excess!

      I can think of great books that break most of the rules, but NOT cheating the ending.

  2. says

    Great list of no no’s. I agree with Sarah about being cheated in the ending. I would forgive the rest, but the ending is in no forgive zone. The pressure is on now, lol.

    • says

      I know, doesn’t it make you nervous about your own writing? Hopefully this list won’t come back to haunt me 😛

  3. says

    Wow, just reading this list has annoyed me! I do recognize these offenses. Cheating the ending is one of those “there ought to be a law” offenses. #1 is a real irritant as well. My son and I have noticed that 100% of children’s novels use the word “gasped” repeatedly. We’re about ready to start a drinking game where you take a sip every time the author uses that word. Drinking homemade lemonade, of course…in his glass, anyway. ;-D

    • says

      Oh, that’s too funny. I’ll be VERY hesitant to use “gasped” in my writing from now on….

  4. says

    I was recently annoyed by a head-hopping scene, so I identified with # 3–although this whole list is great. Thanks! (And I had to gasp…I mean laugh..at Sue’s comment. You better believe I’m going to delete all ‘gasps’ in my story now!)

  5. says

    This list is so good. I really can’t stand the info dump. Have you noticed all the prologues floating around lately? So many of them are just excuses to unload a ton of information.

    I agree with the others–cheating the ending is THE WORST.

    • says

      I’ve heard that The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo has a huge prologue with an immense info dump–and obviously it’s been quite successful. (The premise sounds too violent/disturbing for me, although it sounds like a great book.) I guess the info-dump isn’t a deal-breaker if the rest of the book is good enough

  6. says

    Great list, Cheryl! I’m sure we’re all guilty of these from time to time, so it’s always good to be reminded so we cut it out during editing!

    • says

      Thanks so much, Jenny! I definitely find these things in my own writing…hopefully, they all get eradicated on the rewrite :)

  7. says

    Awesome post! Clearly I’m going to have to check my story for #1… I have managed to destroy most adverbs, but wound up replacing them with dialogue attributions. *siiigh*

    • says

      Aw Kaitlin, don’t worry–guess why I made this list? Because I make all these mistakes! Have fun rewriting :)

  8. says

    Ha! I especially can’t stand #8, a stupid character. But I admit I’ve caught my own characters doing something just as stupid (for the sake of the plot, ya know). This is a GREAT list; I’ve bookmarked it. #9 is important too, especially if a death of a character is involved–excellent point. I HATE it when characters die!

    • says

      Hi Carol! I know, I’m guilty of this one as well. I’m so glad you found this post helpful!

  9. says

    For #1 I’m actually more irritated by an author who only uses “said” for a dialogue tag. And even more so when they put a tag on every line of dialogue. Most dialogue should be able to speak for itself if you’re doing a good job of writing it.

    • says

      Hi Jen–yeah, any kind of repetition will bug me after a bit. You say it perfectly: if the dialog is well-written, the reader should be able to tell who is speaking without an endless array of tags. Thanks for the comment!

  10. says

    I’m annoyed by #2, which (with no hint of irony) uses five adverbs in order to prove how bad they are. Double bonus points for stacking it on top of #1; apparently it’s a bad thing to describe vocal cues that give emotional context to the dialogue.

    Are those things bad when overused? Of course; any writing habit is. It’s a shame that they head the list, though, because they seem like nitpicks leading off a list of far more serious sins.

    • says

      Hi Baxil–perhaps my irony was too subtle, then, since I intended it to be obvious that I was using adverbs there in excess :).

      As for why those two head the list–I confess I had just quit reading a book because of items #1, #2, and #3. They aren’t necessarily the worst of the list, just the ones that were top of my mind at the moment!

      Thanks for stopping by and for clarifying that not all of these things are inherently “bad” writing; they primarily become annoying if overdone.

      Especially if overdone excessively, gratingly, or inelegantly :)

      • says

        Ah – thanks for the clarification. I wasn’t picking up the irony because none of the other 10 was a self-illustrating example in the same way that #2 was.

        I agree. Poorly done head-hopping is one of the quickest ways to break me out of my reading zone.