In preparation for this post, I’ve ruminated on the many ways that I’ve failed as a writer. Honestly, I’ve committed hundreds of mistakes over the years. Cringey, humiliating, disgraceful mistakes that make me wish I could go back in time just to punch myself in the stomach.
But instead of getting lost in sorrow and self-flagellation, I’ve decided to lay bare my faults so that you, fellow writer, can learn from my mistakes. While you’ve probably made some of these mistakes, there’s a good chance that you haven’t made them all. Use my mistakes as a guide for overcoming your own insecurities as a writer.
Here’s what I’ve learned in my 30 years of writing:
Mistake #10: Being Afraid to Fail
There’s a strange sort of pressure that comes with being a writer. Once someone realizes that you have a writing talent (and it’s usually someone else who sees it before you do), they begin blowing all sorts of smoke up your nether region.
“You can be the next J.K. Rowling,” they tell you.
But you can’t. And you know that you can’t. And now you’re stuck because you don’t want to not meet their expectations.
None of this means that you’re not as good of a writer as J.K. Rowling. The point is that there’s only ever going to be one J.K. Rowling, and the same with you. You don’t need to reach J.K. Rowling’s level of commercial success to be validated as a writer.
Well-meaning as they may be, your loved one’s “encouragement” can be discouraging when you fail to live up to their vision of success. Don’t even try. You, and only you, determine what success looks like. If you follow your bliss, you’ll never fail.
Mistake #9: Believing That Fancy Writing is Good Writing
I grew up in a time where paragraphs were always five sentences long and three-syllable words were better than two-syllable words. The prevailing wisdom was to never use one-syllable words if possible.
My “creative” writing professors taught us to “write like Longfellow.” There’s no doubt that American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whom you may know from epic poems like “Evangeline” and “Paul Revere’s Ride,” was a gifted writer.
But imagine me, in 1995, attempting to stylize my writing after the literary embellishments of a Victorian-era poet.
While I can appreciate Browning and Brontë and Dickens because I love the elated lyricism of their language, I had to be myself and write simply for my times. I also had to realize that simple writing isn’t bad. It can still be just as beautiful and engaging as fancy writing, even more so when you consider your reader.
The average American adult reads on a 7th-grade level. Your goal in writing isn’t to advance their reading level but to meet them where they are and elevate their experience. You can do that by writing simply. Write so that your language doesn’t trip up your reader.
Mistake #8: Clinging to Old School Forms of Validation
I made the mistake of thinking that I needed to be published first before I could call myself a writer.
Dear writer, getting published won’t make you a writer. It isn’t the biggest achievement you’ll make as a writer.
You’ll prove yourself as a writer when someone comes up to you and says, “I really liked that story,” or “I love the way you write.”
Whether you get a publishing deal with the Big 5, a smaller press, or do it on your own, your validation as a writer won’t come because you’re published. It will come once you realize that your writing matters to someone else.
Also, remember that your writing won’t ever matter to everyone. Some people will hate your writing, even though others will love it. That’s okay. Your writing isn’t meant for them. It’s meant for those who “get” you.
Validation comes from finding your tribe, even if you have to self-publish to get in front of them.
Mistake #7: Writing What I Don't Know
You can write what you don’t know about, but it’s so much harder to do. You must research before you can write on a topic that you know nothing of, and your writing will be less authentic because you haven’t lived it yourself.
I spent most of my teens writing about being in love.
I didn’t fall in love until I was in my twenties.
When I look back at those works, I see that they were soul-less because I was unable to record the true depths of romantic love.
The goal in all writing is to find the truth that you see and experience and then share it with others. If you’re removed from the topic because you haven’t experienced it yourself, then your writing will likewise be removed, and the reader will know it.
Mistake #6: Trying to Nail It on the First Draft
First drafts are never final drafts.
The goal of the first draft is just to get what’s in your head onto the paper. It’s mostly unintelligible drivel. But you’d be surprised how many people spell-check that draft and share it with others.
I was one of those people.
Your first draft is only for your eyes to see. After writing your first draft, you can then go in and assemble it (like a piece of furniture from IKEA but without the directions). Sure, it’s intimidating at first, but once you get started, things will come together, and eventually, you’ll have a second draft.
The magic always comes in the revision process because it’s then when you can truly show your skill as a writer.
Here are the most common writing mistakes to avoid. Subscribe to receive this extra resource.
Mistake #5: Waiting for Inspiration
Inspiration is elusive and lives with unicorns and bigfoot. You may spot inspiration every once in a while, but don’t wait for it.
I spent the better half of my 30s waiting to be inspired. Then I realized that I don’t need to be inspired to write. I can simply write what I want others to see and know.
It really is that simple.
If you have a talent to write, you don’t need any special arousal or permission to do so. Write about whatever you want and remember who you’re writing to and for. That’s all that matters.
Mistake #4: Desperately Searching for a Unique Idea
I’ve wasted so many years trying to find an idea that no one else had thought up.
Then I realized that there are no original ideas. We live on a planet with seven billion people. Someone else has already thought about what you’re thinking about. Don’t believe me? Type whatever random idea you have right now in Google search. I bet someone’s already written up a blog post about it.
The only thing that’s original in this world is your perspective. You have been shaped by a lifetime of experiences that are unique to you. Don’t chase a fresh idea. Help your readers see an old idea through your eyes.
Mistake #3: Trying to Reinvent the Wheel
If you’re writing in a genre (such as historical, adventure, mystery), obey the conventions of that genre. Don’t mess with standard tropes or structures. Here’s the thing: If someone is a fan of that genre, they like its archetypes and formulas. They don’t need you to come in and wreck their reading experience.
I learned this the hard way when writing a genre-bending novel that attempted to mix fantasy with mystery. I’m not saying that it can’t be done, but just that I couldn’t do it.
In my case, my story wasn’t a full-on fantasy because it missed magic and mysticism, and it wasn’t a full-on mystery because there wasn’t a motivated detective to drive the story. These missing elements lead to an unsatisfying read for both fantasy and mystery audiences.
I wish I had known then about literary fiction. It’s the opposite of genre fiction. There are no rules in literary fiction. You write whatever you want without trying to squeeze into a specific genre. You can learn more about literary fiction here.
If you’re hoping to write in a particular genre and impress fans of that genre, you need to follow the genre’s conventions. After all, is it fantasy without good vs evil or myths and magic? Is it romance without the happily ever after? Is it young adult without angst? Is it horror without vulnerability?
Genre writing is part art and part formula, but remember that convention doesn’t detract from the skill.
Mistake #2: Foregoing a Professional Editor
Peanut butter needs jelly and writers need editors.
I suffer from a common condition known as not being able to spot my own typos. It’s embarrassing. I’m in a support group.
Because it’s so common, you would think that people would be more accepting, but no. Type “their” instead of “there” just once, and watch people go bananas. It’s a cruel world.
In my defense, typos are hard to spot within your own writing. Studies show that once we are familiar with a text, we don’t see typos. Instead, we concentrate on the bigger picture.
However, when you’re new to a text, you see everything, and typos become larger than life.
This is one of the reasons why you need a professional editor. Editors see what you can’t see because you’re too close.
Beyond proofreading, editors also help you develop your story through critiques and comprehensive edits. Editors provide much-needed objectivity and clarity. Your friends and family can’t do that, but a professional editor can. Learn more about our editing services here.
Mistake #1: Waiting Until the Perfect Time
Repeat after me: There will never be a perfect time to write.
Don’t wait to write. Don’t wait for inspiration, a book deal, the stars to align, or retirement. Write now. Your future readers are waiting.
Over to You
What’s the top mistake that you’ve made as a writer? Let us know in the comments section below.
Here are the most common writing mistakes to avoid. Subscribe to receive this extra resource.