Posted in writing

The Source of All Writing Mistakes: The Myth of the Vulcan Mind Meld

OK, not all writing mistakes, but most of them.

In my years as an editor, and my life as a reader, I keep running across the same basic problems in manuscripts, and they all come from the same source. Writers forget that their readers are separate from them. Here are 5 examples.

Sluggish plots

I recently tried to read a much-touted book that shall remain titleless. By chapter 5, I gave up. Nothing was happening. I knew some character names and motivating factors (what they wanted, why they wanted it), but the story arch was flat line. Instead, I had 50 pages of subject matter that would have been more digestible as a bulleted outline.

This is a case of a writer thinking, “This is gonna be a kick-butt story” but forgetting to let the reader in on that. If I had wanted a lecture on the subject matter of the book, I would have gone to a nonfiction source. What I want from fiction—or nonfiction narrative—is narrative. A character experiencing something. Anything. I’m not going to care just because the writer cares.

Incomplete characters or ideas

Writers get to know their characters so well that it can borderline on creepy. I once created a dotty grandmother who refused to stay on the page. I knew her likes (Kathy Lee more than Kelly) and dislikes (store bought applesauce). She ran errands with me, bemoaning the replacement of Kathy Lee with Kelly and commenting on tabloid covers. (“Look at these young girls running around in their unmentionables! Don’t they care what people think?”) She was funny and finicky, even when disparaging store-bought applesauce. But the downside to knowing my character so well was that it was easy assume my readers knew her just as well. I had to remember to give readers enough detail to make her real to them, too. Well, maybe not quite as real. Sometimes, a person needs to buy applesauce.

Confusing details

This is particularly evident, and most easily identified, in science fiction. When the Mulations of Guarbox 5 throw aspartame granules at the Snifflebraxians, I need to know why. Maybe not at first (because of course you’re offering intrigue), but eventually you need to walk me through that back story, or alien aversion to sugar substitutes, or whatever. It’s in your head—so don’t forget to share it.


Readers understand the power of words. That’s why they’re readers. But do readers love your words as much as you do? Probably not.

“My writing voice!” I hear you shouting. “My wordiness is part of my craft!” Maybe so. But more likely, your wordiness comes from an assumption that your readers expect no more of you than you do. (See? That last sentence was a little wordy. Even I had to read it twice.)

I’m not recommending a “See Jane run” approach to writing. Instead, I’m advocating reader mindfulness. Think about enticing your reader through your narrative. If they have to hack their way through your verbosity, chances are they’ll tire and move on to a more reader-friendly text. Make their way easy for them, at least until they care enough about the journey to put more effort into it.


I will never forget the fateful day I opened an unsolicited self-help manuscript and spent the next ten minutes in stunned silence. The author had figured out the meaning of life. I knew this because the title of chapter 1 was “Here is the Meaning of Life.” (**Side note: If you have figured out the meaning of life, maybe save that for the end of your book. It seems like ‘big finish’ material.**) I read chapter one of 153 chapters, each approximately 500 words long.  I still don’t know the meaning of life—his or mine. But I became quite certain that this guy loved his ideas. Loved them long. Loved them hard. Loved them in a way that bordered on needing to take them to an hourly motel.

He assumed everyone else would think he was a genius, too. Maybe he was. But if so, he forgot to explain that part. What made him an expert? What validated his ideas? “Because I said so” doesn’t cut it as a reason for my 8-year-old; why would it be sufficient for an adult readership looking for the meaning of life?

Here’s a helpful way to remember your readers. Go somewhere crowded with people that make up your potential readership—a park, the mall, a rock concert or county knit-off. Take a picture of the crowd, then post it somewhere in your work space. These are people you don’t know. They don’t know you. How can you tell them your story or ideas? Yes, use your own writing voice and style, but remember that half of the conversation between text and reader lies squarely with them.

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Award-winning humor columnist and author of the true crime memoir _No Room for Doubt: A True Story of the Reverberations of Murder_ (Penguin Group, 2009). Inspirational speaker on issues of survivors' rights, women's issues, and general you-can-do-it-ness. Marketing consultant.

3 thoughts on “The Source of All Writing Mistakes: The Myth of the Vulcan Mind Meld

  1. I never know my characters that well, even with being two books into Virginia Kate *laughing* – but I do hear of writers doing “character sketches” and outlines and the like. Never has worked for me. I wonder if I suffer any of these maladies….sure hope not! lawd!

    love the blog!

  2. I love the part about the confusing details and the aversion to sugar substitutes. You had to be laughing when you wrote that one!

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