There have been some questions on here recently from new or prospective writers about pen names, summaries, etc, so I pulled this together from an old RRS post about what makes readers want to read a story and why they might stop reading it before it finished.
As an addition to our full-service archive, LOL, I am putting up that collection of helpful information for newbie writers or wannabe writers. These preferences were complied from an informal poll that we did on Riters R Us some time ago in which community members were asked what they look for first when deciding whether or not they want to read a fic, as well as what sorts of things would cause them to bail on it. The goal was to develop a list of areas in which it is important for an author to concentrate on doing well because they are the things most readers look for first.
I’m not going to mention themes or genres – those are such individual preferences that they wouldn’t be helpful to writers. You will write what interests you, and readers who are also interested in that area will read it. And, anyway, even the most vociferous baby/highschool/Bangel/whatever hater seemed to admit to having read and enjoyed at least one fic in the hated category; so I don’t think it matters that much.
Having said that, here, in more or less descending order, are the things most of our responders look at when choosing a fic to read:
Head and shoulders above any other category were Summary and Author. The summary was a very important component of almost everyone’s decision-making process. So, clearly, it is worthwhile to spend some time and effort on writing a good summary that will draw in readers who might be interested in your story. *note to self – stop tossing off one-liners for your summaries *
Information that readers were looking for included pairings, seasons, situations, warnings about character death, violence, etc. In other words, the prospective reader wants to know if your story is going to contain anything they might object to, as well as if the plot is likely to appeal to them. <b>In addition, most prospective readers would be turned off by a summary that contained multiple errors in grammar and spelling; assuming, no doubt correctly, that if the summary is a mess the story is likely to be as well. </b> (emphasis is mine - sentiments were unanimous from poll responders)
Second on the list, and with only one mention fewer than summary, was the author. Almost everyone was willing to try a fic by an author they have enjoyed before, and many actively seek out certain authors. Aside from the obvious – write well, have good plots, characterizations, etc – the main suggestion I could offer here would be to get yourself archived on as many sites as possible so as to get the exposure you need to develop a fan base. Some of us use the author’s name to weed out those we already know we probably don’t want to bother looking at. One member commented that she avoids writers whose work she enjoys, but who, she has learned from experience, never finish their WIP. So, that's probably one reputation you want to avoid getting.
The next most frequently mentioned choice was pairing –This was quite important to the RRU responders who come from all over the fandom. It is, of course, much less important to mention on a site that is devoted to a particular pairing – say, oh...Spike and Buffy.
Tied and frequently mentioned were recommendations, sites and reviews. Almost everyone was willing to try a fic if it was recommended by someone they knew or respected; many of us have certain sites that we trust to provide decently written fics; and when all else fails, many of us check the reviews for specific comments. Much mention was made of “I Lurve it” not being their idea of an intriguing review. LOL Readers prefer to see, “Excellent plot development,” “Wonderful Spike portrayal” etc. (when say "us" or "we" here, I'm referring to the members of RRU who responded with comments on this subject)
Very few people picked a specific rating, and theme and season were only mentioned in the context of hoping to learn from the summary or the author’s notes if they were likely to be objectionable to the reader. Other items that received mention – title (not so much), pen name (an understandable desire to stay away from anything written by someone calling themselves “spikeslurveslavegurrrrl” (made up name!). Author’s notes received a mention, as did awards and nominations.
-- An editorial aside – I think there is pretty general agreement that netspeak has no place in summaries or fics, and possible could be a turn-off in a pen name. It seems immature and lazy, and the perception may well be that the author is too young to write well. Just something for newbies to think about when choosing a name or writing a summary.
I was a little surprised that more people didn’t mention awards sites, as I know I use them all the time to find fics I might not otherwise have seen; and I’m sure I’m not the only one who scrolls down the list of nominated fics looking for ones I haven’t read yet. With (fairly) rare exceptions, stories that have been nominated for awards tend to range from okay to pretty good to wonderful, so it’s a great way to find reading material. (unintended plug for award sites). – Of course, being nominated for an award somewhere is pretty much out of the writer’s hands, so I guess that one isn’t too helpful, is it?
On to, once they’ve selected a fic to read, what can or will make RRU readers bail on it before finishing?
At the top of the list were grammar, punctuation, and spelling – the mechanics of writing that we talk about so much and that we are such sticklers for on this site. Only one responder indicated that she would not stop reading a fic with poor mechanics, and even that person said she would stop if it was giving her a headache. So – wannabe writers? Get thee to a beta!
-- Another editorial comment here – your best friend may not be your best choice for a beta. Your beta is not there to be a cheerleader – although they (bless ‘em) almost all are encouraging and supportive – he/she is there to help you be a better writer. If that means that your first paragraph is ripped apart due to poor sentence construction, misspellings, grammatical errors, etc. that is not a reason to go running off to another, less honest, beta. It is cause for offering profuse thanks, fixing the mistakes, and taking a hard look at the rest of your writing to see where you can use the things your beta is teaching you. Ideally, your writing would improve with each beta’d chapter as you identify your weaknesses and strive to improve those areas the next time. Between spell check and grammar check, there really isn’t much excuse for a beta having to do too much of that sort of correcting. There will always be some – typos, missing words and letters * cough, me, cough *, and confused homonyms, but use your tools <b>before</b> you send it to the beta. –
Okay, rant over, where was I? Oh yeah, right behind mechanics – and I mean right behind, sniffing its butt -- were plot and characterization. A plot that wandered, got boring or repetitive, went on too long, made no sense, veered off into a direction not indicated in the author’s notes-- all these things were cause for readers to abandon a fic before it ended. As were characters that simply did not behave, speak or come across as the characters Joss invented. I’m not going to belabor this, as we know that everyone has their own version of what these people are like. However, pretty much everyone said that they wouldn’t read a fic in which the characters are so off center as to be unrecognizable or objectionable. (Hence, the section in our site’s rules about good characterizations).
That’s pretty much it for things that will make readers quit on a fic – some don’t care to read WIP, some will read nothing else, nobody cares for a writer who is constantly whining for reviews - or threatening, “If I don’t get any reviews, I’m going to stop writing this story.” Hello? No reviews? Chances are nobody gives a hoot if you stop!
I hope you find something helpful here.