We all make mistakes as writers. It's part of how we improve. It's essential to not let fear of making a mistake prevent you from writing, and also to learn from any mistakes you do make.
So here are ten mistakes I've made in my writing—maybe you can learn something from them. These are things I would have warned my younger self to avoid. While I’m waiting for time travel to be invented so I can go back and do that, I might as well impart these cautionary messages to you. I’ve learned their importance the hard way.
1. No Research
When I was younger, I wrote a book that takes place largely in Antarctica. Now, as one might expect, I've never been to the Antarctic, so I should've done my research to make sure details about the environment were accurate, right?
Well... I didn't really do that. So if a reader were familiar with Antarctica, they would have noticed some inaccuracies.
Plus, the book follows a Coast Guard team on a rescue mission. You’d think I would’ve done some research into the Coast Guard, right? Right?
Yeah, well, I didn’t do much. There weren’t as many inaccuracies, but I still could’ve added more dimension and realism if I’d done some research. Especially in the age of the internet, there’s no excuse. Granted, I was ten years old at the time, so factual accuracy wasn’t front of mind. In some sense, that’s a good thing, since I could let my imagination run wild. But when using real-world locations and organizations, you should probably be familiar with the facts. That way, even if you break the rules of how things work in our world, you’re doing so intentionally.
On the bright side, I finished the book. Perhaps research would have slowed me down while writing. And now, I've gone back and revised the book to be more accurate. You learn as you go.
2. Too Much Thinking
I don't mean thinking on my part. As a general rule of thumb, thinking a lot is a good idea. I mean when my characters have internal monologues that go on for pages.
It's good to share what your characters are thinking, but it's best to do that through their actions, instead of by directly conveying their every thought on the page. Even the most complex inner dialogue can get stale after a while.
Worse yet, if your character is always relaying how they feel emotionally through their thoughts, the emotions you’re trying to represent and evoke in your reader can fall flat, or even slip into melodrama. Don’t have your character think about how sad they are. Show us the effects of that sadness. Generally, emotions should go unstated. So demonstrate your characters' emotions and thoughts through what they do.
Another issue that can arise from too much internal dialogue is redundancy. You don’t need to put your main character’s every thought on the page. Much of it can be deduced from their actions and dialogue with other characters. And sometimes, holding back a character’s inner thoughts can create suspense. If your reader is getting a constant feed of your character’s thoughts, it’ll be hard for them to be surprised by that character.
Besides, unless your character has an extraordinarily unique mind, the reader can probably guess what they’re thinking in a given situation. Not only because humans tend to have similar reactions to things, but also because your reader should have gotten to know your character well enough to understand and empathize with their perspective.
Trust your readers—they probably understand more than you think they do.
3. Never Finishing
Like most writers, I've started a whole lot of projects I never finished. This used to be more of a problem when I was younger, and my list of completed works was dwarfed by my list of unfinished projects lost in various phases of development.
Now, let's be clear: quitting a project isn't always bad. If you genuinely don't like the story you're writing, set it aside. But don't delete it forever; you might regret that later.
Still, a bad, finished product is better than a good, unfinished one. Complete your first draft, and you'll be a happier—and better—writer. The story might be terrible, the characters flat, the world uninteresting, the prose dry and clichéd, but it will be finished. Especially if you’ve never completed a book or even a short story before, getting something complete under your belt is an essential step forward. Even failures in writing aren’t a step back. You’ll learn far more from completing one bad story than starting a hundred good ones.
4. Unrealistic Deadlines
Writing—especially writing a novel—usually takes longer than you think.
There have been some exceptions in my experience, like when I completed a 120,000+ word novel in four months, but usually that kind of thing takes at least a year for me.
Know how fast you can write, and build in buffer time too. Underestimate your speed, and maybe you'll surprise yourself. It can be helpful to push yourself and set personal deadlines, but there’s a point at which that becomes excessive. Especially if, like me, you’re not lucky enough to write whenever you want, you have to consider how much—or how little—time you have available to write. You have to have a certain level of awareness about your own capabilities and schedule to set realistic, achievable, but still challenging deadlines. Putting in the work to figure that out can be worth it. Otherwise, be wary of setting unrealistic deadlines for yourself—unless it’s literally your job, you shouldn’t stress out too much about writing. At the end of the day, it should be fun. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t push your creative limits, but it does mean you should know what you’re doing when you plan ahead.
5. Too Few Clues
Most stories have some element of mystery to them, whether a character's secret past or the identity of a murderer. To make the mystery satisfying and engaging for the reader, there have to be clues that point clearly—at least in retrospect—to the answer. Not necessarily in plain sight, but present on the page.
Your reader should have a chance at figuring out the mystery themselves. And your characters should be making progress toward the answer throughout the story.
Some of my older books had mysteries at their core, and while there were clues, there weren’t enough, in my opinion.
6. Too Many Characters
Things can get confusing when you have a cast of dozens. The problem comes from the fact that you won't have enough time to properly flesh out each character in a single book. Something like Avengers: Endgame works only because we already know most of the characters well from previous stories.
A large cast isn't inherently bad, but make sure each major character gets the page time they deserve. Cut any unnecessary roles. Focus only on who's most important. Not only is it easier for the reader to follow, but it’ll also spare you as the writer a lot of headaches. Trust me.
In one of my books, a group of characters was gathered in a cave. As I listed the characters present and described what they were doing, I accidentally included an extra character. Not only was this guy not supposed to be there, but his previous disappearance had been something of a plot point. You know you have a problem when your cast of characters gets so large you forget where everybody’s supposed to be in a given scene.
7. Taking Long Breaks from Writing
Taking a break from a project is perfectly fine, sometimes quite helpful. But when the days turn into weeks and even months, then it becomes a problem.
I’ve sometimes stopped actively writing a story for several months. After that hiatus, it can be hard to get back into it. It’s almost like picking up someone else’s incomplete story and trying to continue it yourself. Even if it’s not hard to get back into the world and characters, breaking a writing habit slows progress and can diminish motivation.
Sure, a break every once in a while helps me to recharge creatively and often return with greater excitement to work on a project, but after too long, the separation between my story and me is a challenge. I much prefer to stay immersed in a story until it’s finished.
And even if you need a break from one project, I’d recommend you keep writing. Work on something else, write a new story or continue one you stopped previously. Whatever you do, don’t let your momentum disappear.
8. Worldbuilding Through Exposition
This one’s similar to the one about too much thinking. If a character stops the story to explain the intricacies of their world or tell their entire backstory, the plot grinds to a halt, often without any emotional connection to what’s being said. This can happen in both dialogue and prose narration.
There is a place for exposition, sometimes, especially if you’re dealing with a fictional world your reader isn’t familiar with. But it’s better to leave your reader wanting to know more than bore and overwhelm them with information. Especially if that information doesn’t pertain specifically to the plot or characters. It can be tempting to tell your reader all about the rich culture and technology and magic of your world, but… you know what I’m going to say: show, don’t tell. If something’s relevant to the story, it’ll probably appear in the story itself, not in dialogue or a long-winded tangent from the narrator. Take your reader through your world, don’t give them a lecture on it.
9. Inconsistent POV
Your book’s point of view is the lens through which your reader sees the story. If you’re constantly switching lenses like an optometrist testing prescriptions, you can disorient your reader and give them far too many perspectives to synthesize. Having too many point-of-view characters also diminishes the effect any one of them can have on a reader, weakening the potential for an emotional connection.
Having a consistent point of view doesn’t mean you have to have only one point of view character. You can switch between perspectives throughout the book, but there should be a clear delineation between those perspectives. Generally, you should avoid switching point of view within a chapter.
In one of my books, told almost entirely from the point of view of a single character, there were a couple sections where the reader was let in on the inner thoughts of a different character. This diversion of point of view lasted a few paragraphs at most, and wasn’t separated from the rest of the narrative at all. I did want the reader to understand and empathize with this side character… but that’s not the way to do it. Don’t randomly enter another character’s head just to get something across. You can have multiple points of view in a story, but make them separate, and maintain some consistency in when you switch between them.
10. Rushing Things
In several of my past works, the plot suddenly sped up at the ending, rushing the story’s resolution and sometimes its dramatic climax.
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Wait! No. See, that would be a terribly rushed ending. In a story—and a blog post, or a video—if you’re going to mess up one part of pacing, it shouldn’t be the end.
A rushed ending makes it seem like the writer was overeager to get finished with the story, either leaving too many loose ends or tying things up too quickly. And, assuming your reader gets to the end, that ending can make or break the whole story. It determines how your reader feels when they put down the book. Done correctly, an ending can improve the entire experience and bring the story to a satisfying conclusion—but done incorrectly, it can tarnish much of what came before, or at least leave a bad taste in your reader’s mouth.
When writing the ending, don’t rush things. Don’t drag them out, either, but find a balance. The finale and denouement of your story need to be given sufficient space to deliver an emotional punch, live up to or even surpass the expectations built by the preceding events, and wrap up the plot in a satisfying manner. Even if it ends on a cliffhanger, the ending shouldn’t suddenly ramp up in speed to get to that cliffhanger.
And look, maybe you’ve been working on the story for a long time, and you just want to have a finished draft. That’s fine. If you have to, you can rush through the ending the first time. But don’t forget to go back and expand it to give your ending the richness it deserves.
This is an idea that doesn’t just apply to this mistake, but most of the ones on this list.
It’s okay to make mistakes when writing your first draft. It’s almost inevitable. Sometimes, making those “mistakes” can help you get over that first finish line of completing your initial draft. That’s often the hardest, and most important, hurdle to overcome.
But especially when editing, these are some pitfalls to watch out for. Last time I checked, time travel technology still isn’t a thing, but if it were, I would’ve warned my past self about these ten mistakes.
On second thought, I’m kind of glad I learned the error of these mistakes the hard way. I’ve learned a lot in the decade plus that I’ve been writing fiction. So don’t be afraid to make mistakes. The worst mistake of all would be trying so hard to avoid mistakes that you never start anything.
If you have any writing lessons you’ve learned the hard way, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.
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– Grayson Taylor