No writer is perfect. All of us mess up from time to time. Writing mistakes are as common as grains of sand or stars in the sky. Some of us beginning writers mess up our writing, some of us don’t write as often as we should and let ourselves get rusty, and some of us focus on quantity over quality.
Other writers, new to the writing game, don’t approach the craft in the right way. They write only with the end goal in mind—publication, bestseller lists, literary awards, book signings, fame and glory. Or they never think their writing is good enough, and can’t shut off the little voice in their head telling them they’ll never write a decent story. Or they don’t realize that the first million words are practice (a possibly apocryphal quote often attributed to Stephen King). As a result, they get fed up with not producing quality work and give up just before they get good.
Okay, I’ll stop with the stupid GIFs. But seriously, folks. Don’t let these rookie writing mistakes stop you from writing the story only you can tell. Read on to find out about the four biggest writing mistakes nearly all writers make at some point in their careers, and how you can avoid them.
1. Trying to write like another writer
I chose to talk about this writing mistake first, because it’s one I committed for nearly ten years, and it severely hampered my writing career and almost made me quit. When I first started writing, at the age of 19, I was doing it for all the wrong reasons: I wanted to tell a good story, yes, which is what all writers want to do, but I wanted to tell it better than my literary heroes, H.G. Wells and Jules Verne and other sci-fi writers. I was already being competitive, before I had any right to be. Moreover I was competing with the greats, whom I couldn’t possibly match up to. My writing mistakes were piling up.
So, naturally, I hated everything I wrote, because it wasn’t good enough. Not to mention that my style was derivative. In trying to write a story equal to my idols’ stories, I wound up sounding just like them. You should go over to Amazon and check out my historical fiction novel, Mugunghwa: The Wreck of the Rose of Sharon. It sounds like a half-baked combination of Joseph Conrad and Jules Verne.
By all means, read the works of the authors you admire and want to imitate. But when it comes to writing, don’t try to outdo them, and don’t try to imitate them. It’ll take a while, but you have to let yourself find your own voice. If you want to practice finding your voice, step away from your novels and your short stories and write a letter to a friend, or a journal entry. A lot of times, how we write to the people we know is more natural and conversational than how we write fiction—and it’s the voice we use in letters and journal entries that comes far more naturally to us. Try using that instead of the stilted, puffed-up, derivative style you might be using to try to write your novel.
2. Writing to be published
Don’t do it. Just don’t. This is another unhealthy habit I indulged for the first decade of my writing career, and I can’t understate just how damaging the mindset can be. It’s probably the worst of all writing mistakes.
Remember how I said that, when I began writing, I was writing for all the wrong reasons? This was one of them. I wanted to be famous. I wanted to be special, renowned, adored, rich. Hordes of adoring fans should be screaming my name, I thought, and lining up around the block at my book signings. I wanted five-figure advances on my novels, and five-book deals. I wanted to buy a big house in Hawaii and just sit there all day in the tropical breeze and write my heart out.
As a result, the writing I turned out was awful. I mean really awful. And it still is. I’m only just now learning to not care about whether my writing is published or not, and just write for the fun of it. To write because I have something to say. Write what I want to write, not what I think will sell. I’m finally learning to be true to my craft. And you should too.
3. Not silencing YOUR inner critiC
It’s the truth. If you gave your inner genius half as much credit as he or she deserves, and told your inner critic to take two running jumps and go to blazes, you’d probably be published by now. Nine times out of ten, the only thing holding you back from success is you. I know, because I’ve done this to myself too. Nothing I write feels like it’s good enough. I feel like a hack. I feel like a no-talent and a fraud. An imitator. A poser. A wannabe. The gap between me and the successful writers seems miles wide.
But it isn’t. The gap between you and successful writers is actually very, very small. The only difference between a published writer and an unpublished writer is that the published writer was able to shut off the inner critic, believe in their work, have the courage to show it to others and refine it, and then submit it to an agent or a publisher. That’s it.
There’s a Stephen King quote I really like. Pardon his French.
Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.
Remember that, the next time you think “This is the worst piece of garbage I’ve ever written,” the ghost of William Faulkner might be looking over your shoulder and thinking “Hey, this kid’s got potential.”
4. Giving up
You know the OTHER difference between a published writer and an unpublished writer? The published writer didn’t quit. Here’s a quote by Ray Bradbury I like:
So we should not look down on work nor look down on the forty-five out of fifty-two stories written in our first year as failures. To fail is to give up. But you are in the midst of a moving process. Nothing fails then. All goes on. Work is done. If good, you learn from it. If bad, you learn even more. Work done and behind you is a lesson to be studied. There is no failure unless one stops. Not to work is to cease, tighten up, become nervous and therefore destructive of the creative process.
Or, as Ray Bradbury also said:
You fail only if you stop writing.
I don’t know whether Stephen King really said “The first million words are practice.” I suspect he didn’t. Nevertheless, it’s a useful idea to remember. Until you’ve written one million words, don’t give up. That’s the saddest of all writing mistakes. It’s too early to quit. You’re just practicing. You’re learning. And, story by story, paragraph by paragraph, word by word, you’re getting better. Seriously. You are.
So don’t quit. Keep at it. Continue working. Keep refining. Continue overcoming those writing mistakes. Keep banging down words on the page. Sooner or later, you’re going to write something truly brilliant. All your dreams will come true. And the journey is something to be enjoyed, not tolerated.
See you in the bookshop aisles, my friends.
Now get off the Internet and get writing.