Turn Off That Noise!

BowersThumbby John Bowers

A few years ago I was reading a James Patterson novel and having a jolly old time.  I was deeply immersed in the mystery, which led the protagonist to Southern California and through a number of towns I have visited.  Every single city was correctly identified, until the narrative mentioned Bakersville!

Bakersville?  Bakersville? There is no such city in California.  But there is a Bakersfield, which is obviously what Patterson meant.  (How the error got past his editors, I’ll never know…except they probably live in Manhattan and think California is part of the Gobi Desert).

The reason I bring this up is not to scold Patterson for making a mistake, but because the error stopped me cold as a reader.  It was like driving a Formula One racing car at 250 mph around a pristine 3-mile track and running into a 2-foot pothole…or eating pancakes and biting into a nail.


I once worked with an editor on a non-fiction project who constantly talked about avoiding “noise” in my writing.  Anything, she insisted, that distracts the reader from the tale I am telling is “noise”.  Noise will break the reader’s attention; too much noise and the reader may stop reading altogether.  As a writer, you will work hard to weave a tale that draws the reader into your world, so don’t blow him away with a lot of noise.

Noise comes in many forms.  Bad punctuation creates noise.  Poor spelling creates a lot of noise.  Poor grammar creates a steady wail.  Inconsistent or illogical plots create a shriek.  If I’m reading a book or manuscript and I run into too much noise, I’m likely to turn on the TV.  So will most other readers.

Noise isn’t just confined to nonfiction.  In fact, I’m more likely to notice it in a novel than a nonfiction book.  When I read nonfiction, I don’t expect excellence from the author – I’m reading because I’m interested in the topic, and most nonfiction is written by people with expertise on the subject in question, but who aren’t expert writers.  In fiction, however, I expect professional writing.  I want to be entertained and only a pro can do that.  When the author screws up, my entertainment is ruined, and I may never read that author again.

Examples of Noise

I’ve already mentioned poor spelling, bad grammar, and shoddy punctuation.  In a novel, these are inexcusable.  They are also fairly obvious examples.  Other things that can create noise:

  • Novels with an obvious political slant. Why does the bad guy always belong to the same political party?
  • Preachy novels. A story with a moral (or a lesson) is fine, but don’t tell me what I’m supposed to think. Show me, through the characters in the story.
  • Novels written half-heartedly. Many famous novelists work hard to become successful, but once they’ve “made it” they often get tired. It isn’t unusual to see a poorly written or even sloppy offering after a writer has had a dozen or so best-sellers.
  • Novels where “facts” are incorrect. If you place a city in the wrong state, or a war in the wrong year, that creates explosive noise for anyone who happens to notice it. The James Patterson error mentioned earlier is a perfect example.
  • Novels that drone on forever about things that have no bearing on the story. One rule of good fiction is that every scene must move the story forward. Maybe the scene is useful only for setting, but it must pertain to the story. As one screenwriter once told me, if there’s a shotgun hanging above the fireplace, somebody must use it before the movie ends.

Avoiding Noise

So how do you, as a writer, avoid noise?  The first step is to be aware that it exists.  I had never heard of noise until I worked with that one editor, but after she finished with me I was watching for it.  Read your material aloud – if anything sounds clumsy, or is hard to articulate verbally, it’s noise.  Using too many adjectives too close together is noise, repeating facts already stated is noise…anything that doesn’t read smoothly is noise.

If you can’t find any noise yourself, have someone else look at it, and tell them what to look for.  Ask them to report any awkwardness in the story, anything that confuses them.  And if they can’t help you, run it by a professional editor (or a workshop, at the very least).

Another form of noise is lusterless writing.  Anyone can string subjects and verbs together, but to excite your reader the action must snap! I wrote an article about adding wings to your words by picking exactly the right word every time.

John Bowers is a very prolific science fiction author. His first published science fiction novel, A Vow to Sophia, became a 5-story series called The Fighter Queen Saga. He then published the 3-book Nick Walker, UF Marshal series followed by the 5-part Starport series.

He’s also published a mid-grade book, Joseph Lexxus and the Drug Runners of Altair.

All of his works are available on Amazon.com


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