So you’ve just started writing fiction, but you’re not sure you’ve got what it takes. You’re afraid you’ll fail, that you’ll make a ton of writing mistakes and you’ll never be that amazing artist you hope to be someday. Or worse, maybe you think you’ll kill it as soon as you start, and your writing will be so awesome right out of the gate that you’ll never have to practice and improve (only to wonder years down the road why no one ever reads your incredible stories). Whether you suffer from imposter syndrome or unfounded arrogance, your expectations of writing are unreal.
Because guess what? Every writer makes mistakes! That’s how we learn and get better at our craft. But if you want to avoid learning some lessons the hard way (and I don’t blame you), it never hurts to turn to writing resources for help. So for all you blossoming writers out there, here are six common writing mistakes you’re bound to make at least once. Keep an eye out for these the next time you sit down to write!
Writing Mistake #1: Stopping at the first draft (i.e. not editing)
The first draft of anything is sh*t. – Ernest Hemingway
Let’s get this one out of the way first. A common mistake many new fiction writers make (including me when I started) is to write a full story, then set it aside and never touch it again. An important rule of fiction writing: Every piece must go through editing before it’s finished. To be fair, this isn’t as big a deal with private writing, but it’s still good practice for when you’re ready to start sharing your work.
The truth is nothing you write is going to be perfect the first time around. Never assume you’ve created a masterpiece on your first try; even the greatest authors in the world need editors to help them shape their writing into publishable work. Heck, the blog post you’re reading now went through several rounds of revisions before I published it, and it still isn’t perfect!
So don’t stress about making something awesome right away. If anything, let this fact take away the pressure of having to write well all the time. Just write first, worry about making it publishable later. That’s what editing is for.
Writing Mistake #2: Using flowery language (i.e. purple prose)
Eschew surplusage. – Mark Twain, “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” (1895)
There’s this myth among beginning writers that the best way to be taken seriously is to sound as smart as possible. Maybe you’re insecure about your limited knowledge and vocabulary, so you stuff your stories with fancy words and fluffy sentences, then pat yourself on the back for creating distinguished and eloquent prose. Surely now you’ve proven yourself a great writer, right?
Wrong. While you may think all that fancy writing will give you credibility, you’ve actually just exposed yourself as an amateur. This common writing mistake is known as purple prose, and it can kill your story before it even starts. Counterintuitive as it sounds, using “smart” words and flowery language actually has the opposite effect of driving readers away, because the only people who waste their time reading stories they can’t understand are high school students trying to pass English. Everyone else wants a good story, not a vocabulary lesson.
Purple prose comes in a variety of flavors:
- big, difficult, pretentious words;
- flowery detail;
- too many adjectives and adverbs;
- said bookisms (only using words other than “said” as dialogue tags); and
- exaggerated sentiment (trying to “force” readers to feel certain emotions).
If you’re guilty of making any of these mistakes, stop and rewind. When you edit, make every effort to weed out the purple and strip your story down to the bare bones. You may have trouble getting used to this style, but in time you’ll find that concise and direct writing is the most effective form of storytelling.
Writing Mistake #3: Getting crazy with the punctuation!!!
Jake: Ok, I’m excited. I just don’t happen to like exclamation points.
Elaine: Well, you know, Jake, you should learn to use ’em! Like the way I’m talking right now, I would put exclamation points at the ends of all of these sentences! On this one! And on that one!
Of all the ridiculous situations in Seinfeld‘s nine-season run, few top the time Elaine screwed up her relationship over punctuation. The irony: her boyfriend was a writer whose book she was editing, and he was probably right not to use those exclamation points.
When writing fiction, punctuation is something you don’t want to mess up, because this mistake translates as lazy or incompetent writing. Trust me on this: As much as a scene calls for over-the-top excitement, you don’t need three exclamation points to get your point across. When you overuse punctuation, you’re conveying one of two messages to your reader:
- you don’t trust your writing enough to express emotion through words alone, or
- you don’t trust the reader to grasp the emotion in your words without help.
Either way, it doesn’t make you look good. Writers should always take care not to patronize their audience, and one of the easiest ways to do that is by using exclamation points and other punctuation marks where you don’t need them. That’s not to say you should avoid them altogether; you just shouldn’t use them as a crutch. Instead, trust your words to convey the right messages and emotion on their own. Remember that punctuation is simply an organizational tool; the focus should always be on your words.
Writing Mistake #4: Writing dialogue that falls flat
I confess: even after writing fiction for nearly my whole life, I still have trouble with dialogue. Maybe it’s because I’m shy and have little experience talking to people, but this seems to be my Achilles heel when it comes to writing stories. If you feel this is your weak point too, don’t worry, you’re not alone. In fact, dialogue is so hard to get right that this writing mistake could take up its own blog post, but for the sake of brevity, let’s focus on the main point.
In a nutshell, dialogue is difficult to write well because it’s not quite speech and not quite narrative, but instead constitutes a class of its own. We think differently when we speak than when we write, so it takes a lot of practice to master the balance between both. Writing good dialogue involves removing the boring parts of everyday speech—pauses, ums, stutters, etc.—and refining it to a form that reads naturally while still conveying information relevant to the story. And while this may sound simple on the surface, it can take years of practice to learn how to:
- cut out the unnecessary parts of speech,
- make characters sound natural,
- give each character a distinct voice, and
- use a conversation to move the story forward.
So don’t feel bad if you’ve been writing for a long time and still struggle with this technique. Just keep practicing, and you’ll be writing good dialogue before you know it.
Writing Mistake #5: Telling more than showing
Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass. – Anton Chekhov
From creative writing courses to author blogs, we see this writing advice everywhere: show, don’t tell. This means that instead of outright stating a fact, you should give clues that help your readers figure the fact out for themselves. This technique is designed to create an immersive and engaging experience for your readers, and will often make the difference between a good narrative and a great story.
Granted, there will be times when telling is necessary because showing is impossible—such as telling exactly what a character is thinking or how an event has changed them internally—but conveying a simple idea or action in vivid imagery will add emotion and depth to your story. Instead of focusing on the idea itself, understand what makes that idea apparent and use those details to color the narrative. If a character is sad, describe the tears on her face or the way she hangs her head when someone talks to her. If it’s raining, describe your character hopping over puddles as he runs to the bus stop under a wet umbrella. Wherever possible, set the scene and let your audience fill in the blanks.
Good storytelling is not just telling people a story but bringing them on an emotional journey with you. So the next time you feel compelled to tell readers what’s going on, take a step back and assess how much you should tell and how much you can show instead. Master this balance and you’ll be one step closer to writing truly amazing stories!
Writing Mistake #6: Not writing!
Yes, believe it or not, this is a common problem for beginning and advanced writers alike: not writing. Sounds counterintuitive, right? I mean, how can you be a writer if you don’t write?
That’s just it: you can’t. But too many writers get so caught up in brainstorming, researching, self-editing, and worrying their work isn’t good enough that they don’t set aside enough time to actually write. It should go without saying that writing is the most important part of… well, writing, but most of the time, it’s just not that easy. When you sit for too long without doing any work, you succumb to deep-seated fears of failure and rejection, and before you know it, you stop writing before you even start.
So if you find yourself stuck in writing limbo, do yourself a favor and close your mind off to all your fears. Don’t stress about any of the other aspects of writing; just sit down and write. I know this is much easier said than done (speaking from experience), but once you get those words flowing, everything else will start to fall into place. Remember, unless you actually write, all those other steps are just a waste of time. Don’t be an “aspiring writer”; get out there and write!
What about you? Are you guilty of making these writing mistakes? What other mistakes would you add to this list?