This is the writing advice I needed long, long ago, when I was just starting as a writer. I probably wouldn’t have believed these were all mistakes (because of #1), but I wish I would have.
This writing advice would have saved me a lot of broken drafts and a lot of failed expectations.
After you read this, pick your favorite 3 or 4 points and tape them to the wall above your writing desk. Remind yourself of this writing advice often enough, and you’ll have a much better chance of success.
10 Writing Mistakes
1. Thinking You’re Smart
Why is this a mistake? Because when you believe you’re smart, you don’t work as hard.
Realize that you’re competing with hundreds of thousands of other writers, and that on the IQ and creativity spectrum, you’re smack dab in the middle. Yeah, you’re more intelligent than the average person, but writers are not the average person.
Believing that you’re smart also:
- hinders your ability to take criticism
- your drive to read
- your ability to learn from others
As you can tell, this is probably the biggest mistake you can make as a writer.
What sets you apart as a writer is not your intelligence, but your work ethic. Develop an amazing work ethic and you will succeed as a writer, guaranteed. Keep thinking you’re smart and you’ll dribble away your writing career in half-baked ideas and slipshod work.
You are not half as smart as you think you are. Unless you tend to think of yourself as incredibly dumb, in which case I’d tell you to buck up, gain some confidence, and write the hell out of your novel.
2. Repressing Your Emotions
To be a writer you need a black belt in emotion. If you squelch your emotion, or let it slip away, it’s the biggest mistake you can make. Harness it. Make it work for you. Put it all into your stories. You will never regret spilling it all on the page.
Most writers avoid writing about the things which are hardest to write about, because they are scared of the emotions they’ll have to deal with. This is exactly wrong. You should write about the things which devastate and thrill you.
The purpose of fiction is to channel and purge reader’s emotions. If you think the purpose of fiction is something else — to educate, or to show morality — you’re wrong. Those are good things, but they are secondary things. If you write something that moves people emotionally, you will be a success writer. If you do not, you will be a failure.
And the only way you can move others emotionally is by spreading your messy emotions all over the page.
3. Being Idealistic
This is the scourge of young writers. I say young writers rather than beginning writers (who might be older), because the young are often more idealistic about their lives.
If you have a story published, don’t regret it didn’t get published in a better magazine.
Don’t send stories only to the best magazines first, and rack up 40 rejections before you send it to an appropriate venue for your skill level.
Don’t insist on only having the best, most high profile agent.
Don’t insist on writing only the perfect novel. A novel is great not in spite of its imperfections but because of them.
Be practical. Think about your audience and write a book which will sell. Don’t write books that are narcissistic — aimed mainly at pleasuring your own sense of accomplishment.
You will be poor as a writer, so don’t dream about being rich. If you really want to be rich, choose another profession.
4. Writing for Writers instead of Readers
The majority of writers have their work read by other writers — in classrooms, in workshops, in writing groups. So they instinctively write toward pleasing those writers, whether they know it or not.
But surprise! The vast majority of readers of your books are not other writers. And what other writers want is not necessary what the general public wants.
Don’t be writing trying to please your professors, or your fellow writers. Write to please your audience. And if you don’t know who your audience is, start a book club of exclusively non-writers. It will tell you volumes about how normal readers understand books — what they like and dislike, what they focus on (plot, characters, voice!).
5. Reading Only Good Books
Read bad books. Seriously. Bad books are so educational. I love reading a bad book, especially by a good author (Paul Auster, I’m looking at you).
I make a long list of what doesn’t work in the back, and I remind myself to avoid all those things in my writing. It’s about 10,000 times more instructive than reading a good book.
Because you read a good book seamlessly. You’re caught up in the dream and swept along and by the end you have a wonderful pleasant feeling of being in a bath of words, but you’d be hard pressed to list 5 takeaways from that book that will make you a better writer.
Remember: you don’t have to finish a bad book. Just read enough so that you learn what you need to learn from it.
6. Being a Lone Wolf
Surround yourself with other writers. As many as possible.
Remember: You are the average of your 5 best writing friends.
Write down your five best writing friends. Now, if you are the average, what are your chances for success?
The more writers you know, the more you’ll understand the industry, the more contacts you’ll have for agents and publishers and teaching positions. Go to conferences, join several writing groups, stay in contact with people, make new friends on Twitter and Facebook and exchange stories with them.
7. Lacking a Mentor
Please find someone who can guide you. If you can’t find one, pay one.
It’ll save you the heartbreak of a thousand wrong directions and false hopes.
Mentors don’t only exist to give you feedback on your manuscript — I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about giving you career coaching. I’m talking about giving you strategies for submitting to agents, guide you on your path to self-publication, suggest great conferences for you to attend, tell you when you’re aiming yourself in the wrong direction.
8. Being Impatient
Endurance is the greatest virtue of the writer.
Impatience is the greatest vice.
Everyone wants to hit the bestseller list faster, to have that book published soon, to have the world wake up and recognize their genius.
Patience will get you there.
9. Being the Hare rather than the Turtle
You know the worst writing plan in the world?
“I’ll try it for a year.”
Don’t even think about success with that plan. I guarantee you will fail. Becoming a writer doesn’t take a year. It takes a decade of writing every day. Have you not written every day? Then start your decade from when you start writing every day.
Writing is such a long, long path. Don’t burn out with crazy bursts of writing energy. Go for the long haul.
Slow and steady, working every single day. It’s amazing the amount of words you can pile up when you act like a turtle.
Have a five-year writing plan, and a ten-year writing plan. Make long goals far in the future, and make small daily goals to make sure you accomplish those big plans.
Don’t overcommit yourself to unrealistic goals and burn out.
10. Sticking with the Same Genre
Don’t write the same genre your whole writing life. You’re probably in a rut.
- If you write literary works, try YA.
- If you write YA, try a screenplay.
- If you write screenplays, try a stage play.
- If you write romance, try sci-fi.
It’s called cross-training. By switching genres, you’re strengthening writing muscles that will help you when you return to your favorite genre. The novelist will get much better at dialogue after writing screenplays or plays. The YA writer will get much better at sentences by forcing themselves to write literary works.
Often it’s only by switching to a different mode of writing that you will unleash your full writing potential. And maybe you’ve been writing the wrong genre all along, and you’ll discover a talent for a new style.