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Four Bookish Phrases That Could Use Improvement

Greg Zimmerman

Staff Writer

Greg Zimmerman blogs about contemporary literary fiction at The New Dork Review of Books and holds down a full-time gig as a trade magazine editor. Follow him on Twitter: @NewDorkReview.

A friend once old me about a creative writing professor he had in college who would bracket large swaths of a story in red, and simply write “Do Better.” It wasn’t specific, but he said it sure got his attention. When I hear the following four very common phrases in book-related discussions, that’s the first thought on my mind — arrrrrrgh, do better! It’s not that these phrases are wrong, per se. It’s just that, with a little more effort, something much more meaningful could be said.

1. “Meh.” — Okay, so you’re ambivalent, unimpressed, disappointed. Cool, I get it. It happens. But could you possibly describe your feelings in a way that doesn’t sound like you’ve just eaten an entire bucket of chicken and are now struggling to remove ass from couch? Thanks.

2. “I didn’t connect with the characters.” — I chuckle at this one, because I assume the reader is upset the author didn’t specifically check with him/her before populating the novel. What does “connect” really mean? Were you hoping for Bridget Jones and you got Anton Chigurh instead? Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie touches on this issue to terrific effect in her recent novel Americanah — characters you don’t “connect” with (or who seem unrealistic to you) are probably types of people with whom you’re unfamiliar, and so your not understanding them is your fault, not the author’s. If it’s a case where the characters truly are flat (at one extreme) or inflated caricatures of real people (on the other), explain why you think that’s the case. Give all the reasons!

3. “I wanted to like this book, but I didn’t.” — I know what you’re trying to say. You were excited about a book, maybe because it’s by a favorite writer or it’s about a topic in which you’re interested, or it has a cool cover, but you thought it sucked. And now you’re disappointed, but you want to say something back-handedly positive. I get it — it’s a way to let the author off a little more easily for writing the steaming pile you just suffered through. You WANTED to like it, but forces (i.e., its gravitational suckage) conspired against you, and you didn’t. No worries. But the thing is this: It’s totally and utterly and completely and totally redundant. Unless you’re setting out to hate-read a book, and that’s a whole ‘nother ball of fish, OF COURSE you wanted to like the book. Just skip it.

4. “This novel needed an editor.” — So, what you’re saying here is that you disagree with how long this novel is. Sure. And since you were privy to each stage of the long, arduous revision process, you know that all it would’ve taken to turn this turd to gold is some haughty jerk with a New York corner office and no regard for the author’s sweat, blood, and tears simply chopping a few (hundred) pages. And then you would’ve liked it better, right? Got it. But not really. I need more information! If there were unnecessary digressions, explain why they’re unnecessary. If there’s superfluous plot arcs, think about what the author was trying to accomplish by including them, and then think again if they’re truly superfluous.

Any other bookish phrases you’d like to see stricken from our collective vocabulary? Disagree with striking any of these?


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