This is a much-quoted joke about ambiguity. But when you’re writing a novel you don’t want your reader laughing at the wrong moment. Without a bit of care, it’s all too easy for accidental double entendres to sneak in and dissipate all that tension you’ve spent 200 pages building.
My favourite one recently was “…an old woman with white wavy hair that waited at a bus-stop”. My reaction was to laugh and wonder where the rest of her was. Certainly not the reaction intended by the author. I also particularly like the perennial ‘small businessmen’s conference’ – is it a small conference for businessmen or a normal-sized conference for small businessmen? We just don’t know.
The only way to avoid this kind of error in your writing is to make use of editors, proofreaders and beta-readers. All too often these days we see books published way before they are ready. Unfortunately, as I keep saying, writing a book is a lengthy process, and short-cuts in the hope of making more money by securing sales sooner, will ultimately mean that mistakes slip through and annoy your readers or spoil their enjoyment of your work. And it’s not only the independently published books I am referring to – I have read a number of books from traditional publishers lately and I have been astonished by the number of typos and inconsistencies that have slipped through the net. It’s such a disappointment.
Remember, there is no worse failing for a writer of fiction than to create a world which their reader escapes into, only to be jerked out of it by something that bursts the bubble of the illusion. The reader must suspend disbelief in order to get caught up in your story. And if they happen upon an ambiguous statement or an inconsistency or typo, this will make them do a double-take, trip them up in their reading, and they will be out of the story and back into the real world, possibly too annoyed by the intrusion to work their way back in.
So please, do take the time to get other people to go through your manuscript, and I don’t just mean your mum. Ideally you should ask three or four, or if you can manage it, even more people to read your book before you release it to the public, or to your agent or publisher. I know persistence and perseverance are not fashionable virtues these days, but you have spent so much time and energy writing your book, surely that deserves the final process of proofreading to be done thoroughly?