Common Beginner Writer Mistakes

Somebody asked me if I could do an article on beginner writer mistakes, so I decided to write down the ones that I've observed the most. As much as I tried to keep it brief, there turned out to be quite a few that needed tackled. And even though all of these are mistakes I see new writers make, some of them are still made by industry professionals, so even if you're not a new writer this might still be helpful to you.

Last revision: June 26, 2020.

Table of Contents

Failing to broaden your media exposure.

Way too many beginners only engage with media and media genres they already know and like. However, it's very important to check out a wide variety of media, both fictional and educational. Fictional and educational media alike will give you a bigger range of ideas to draw inspiration from, and fiction will help you hone your sense of what makes a fun and satisfying story. The exact works of media you check out don't really matter so long as you get a wide variety.

At some point, sit down and take a look at the media you engage with. What does it have in common? What isn't represented there? Make a list of some of the missing pieces and make a point of checking them out soon.

You should also expose yourself to bad media. Yes, really. This is one of the best ways to get a feel for what doesn't work so you have a better sense of what to avoid. Plus, reading bad media can inspire you because inevitably you'll eventually find some little element in there that you actually like and want to put into a better story. (And a quick piece of advice: anyone who wants you to stay away from a piece of "bad" media either 1. doesn't want you to think for yourself, 2. believes you can't think for yourslf and will get 'brainwashed' by anything you see, or 3. thinks purity is a form of social capital, which it shouldn't be.)

Failing to engage with media made by marginalized creators.

Way too many writers think it's fine to not engage with media created by POC, LGBTQ+ folks, religious minorities, etc. They often make the excuse that they don't care who creates a piece of media, as long as the quality is good. Here's why it's not fine.

First, claiming that you only care about "quality" implies that you don't think anyone but cishet white folks are capable of creating quality media, or at least that you don't try very hard to find quality media.

Secondly, privileged people have very biased perspective of the world. They've lived a relatively sheltered life and have no idea just how much they don't know about other people's experiences. Engaging with media made by marginalized creators gives you the opportunity to see the world through their eyes and patch the gaps in your knowledge. Without that kind of knowledge, it's impossible to write good diverse characters and to capture the complexity of the world for what it is.

Simply put, engaging with media made by marginalized creators is non-optional. As before, the specific pieces of media don't matter so much as engaging with a wide variety. Take a look at the media you engage with and ask yourself which marginalized groups aren't represented among its creators, then make a point of seeking out media made by them.

Not picking a target audience.

It's important to have at least some idea of who you're writing for, whether it's a for a general audience, a niche market, a group of friends, or just yourself. Once you have this figured out, making decisions for your story becomes a lot easier because you can ask yourself whether the themes and subject material you're considering would likely be appropriate for them, or do research as necessary. Without a solid idea of who you're writing for and what they want, you can easily end up with a story that doesn't work out for anyone.

Not realizing that creativity is a skill that must be practiced.

A lot of people are under the impression that creative people have amazing ideas just pop into their heads out of the blue, or see something strange or interesting and immediately know what their next project will be about. This can happen sometimes, but it's usually pretty rare. Furthermore, what we call "creativity" is actually a set of skills that anyone can practice and learn. These include lateral thinking, thought experimenting, overcoming functional fixedness, learning to recognize false dichotomies, and a general willingness to slap different concepts together and see what you can make out of them. Never assume you're incapable of being creative because you aren't good at these skills right now - all you need is some practice.

Additionally, practice is a necessity. I've seen people who try to write as if their first book is going to be their masterpiece. In reality, not every famous author got famous because of their first book. Additionally, many of them continue to improve as they gain more experience and practice. So instead of trying to write your masterpiece from the very start, write some things for fun and practice to build up your skill, and don't feel discouraged if they're not the greatest - you still gained important experience that will help you write better the next time.

This misconception also has people thinking they should only write when they're feeling "inspired." While it's definitely easier to write when you're in an inspired mood, these moods don't usually happen often or last long enough to get a story done. You have to sit down and write whether or not you're feeling "inspired" if you want to actually finish anything. It's not always fun, but that's how it is.

Not doing enough research.

Too many writers don't do nearly enough research, if they do any research at all. One story I read described castles in ancient Ireland. Another referred to acid as a chemical (as opposed to a type of chemical or substance). And way too many people still believe that alpha and omega wolves are a thing.

Fortunately, doing research these days isn't particularly hard. You can find a fair amount of information on just about anything you want or need to know about just by searching for it. If you can't seem to find anything, try wording your search string differently and/or try using your chosen search engine's advanced options. Also, don't give up too soon - it can sometimes take a few hours to a few days to find what you're looking for.

While you're researching, it's also important to make sure you find more than one source or perspective on it. For example, don't only read one article on how to write an interesting protagonist; read a few and decide what from each of them rings truest for you. Don't limit your research on ancient religion to the Greeks; find out what the Scandinavians, Chinese, and Zoroastrians were doing, too. Don't read one website on Medieval life and assume that everything there is entirely correct; go find some different resources and see if any of that information is challenged or contradicted, and if so, do what you can to find out which source is more likely to be correct. Also, make sure you know how to evaluate your sources - check out Evaluating Sources for Credibility for information.

And while we're here, way too many rookie writers think that writing fantasy or science fiction will get them out of doing any research. Nope, sorry! Most sci-fi and fantasy stories have quite a few elements that are similar, if not identical, to things that actually exist in real life, and this means you need to research them. If your story heavily features swords and castles, you'd do well to research swords and castles. If your plot focuses on prejudice and oppression, you need to research how that kind of thing is motivated and how it plays out. If your setting has a secretive organization, you need to find out how secretive organizations operate. Basically, writing fantasy and science fiction will get you out of researching some things, but there's a whole lot you'll still have to look up.

Not paying enough attention to the real world.

It doesn't matter what genre you're writing, the real world is always the best point of reference and source of inspiration. The reason for this is simple: without some amount of reality to ground your story in, nothing will feel authentic.

Paying attention to the real world requires more than simply looking at things and taking them in at face value. It requires you to watch for and notice causes and effects, common correlations, and how things connect to and affect each other. It requires you to be mindful that there's a story and reason behind everything and that nothing "just is." You must spend quite a bit of time looking the world through a holistic lens where connections and causes are prioritized over kinds and categories. It also requires you to test your preconceptions and current beliefs, to see how they stack up against the real world. And most importantly, it requires you to set aside your ego and pass no judgment on what you observe.

Observing the real world also includes observing and examining your own mind. What do you feel? Why are you feeling this way? How do your current perceptions and beliefs affect what you feel? Where did you acquire your beliefs? Why did you believe them? Have you critically examined or fact checked them lately?

And finally, you must examine your place in the world, and notice where you may have some gaps in your knowledge. You fully understand what it's like to live the life you've lived so far and what kind of feelings and beliefs that life leads to, but other people's lives and experiences, and what they feel and believe as a consequence, is something you won't be able to grasp unless you make an effort to seek out and empathize with their perspectives and listen to the stories they have to tell you.

Not studying people enough, period.

Most writers create stories about people, yet astonishingly few of them have a good grasp on how they work. As a result, they can't write characters with realistic depth and motivation to save their lives. It's very important that you observe people, both in individuals and as groups. You also need to pay attention to all kinds of different people, not just those close or similar to you. You also need to look at people and society through a holistic lens - observe how things interconnect, interact, and affect each other.

Practice empathy on people you talk to, characters you watch, and even books you read. Look into news and research on psychology and sociology. Even if you can't devote a lot of time to this, some is still better than none and your ability to write authentic characters will improve.

Not using any critical thinking skills when reading writing advice.

There's a thing about writing advice: you shouldn't always follow it!

Most writing advice is context-sensitive. While it might be helpful to follow a given piece of advice some or even most of the time, there may be cases where it doesn't actually apply. For example, "don't give your character hair colors you can't find on real people" is good advice to follow most of the time, but that's only because most stories are placed in settings where there's no plausible reason they'd have anything else. You could give a Doctor Who OC hair that grows in blue for some science fiction reason (EG, "they were giving out free DNA upgrade samples on this one planet I visited"), and you could be just fine.

Unfortunately, people often frame their writing advice as absolute. You're essentially told to always or never use certain tropes and conventions as if they're intrinsically good or bad. Very often, those giving advice won't even bother to explain why something did or didn't work in the media they saw it in; or if they do, they'll be hilariously off the mark. For example, someone might tell you that the best way to write a successful fantasy story is to follow the structure of The Hero's Journey while pointing to the success of Star Wars as proof that it works. This person doesn't consider or mention the numerous other reasons that Star Wars succeeded, such as characters with fun personalities and an enticing setting. Nor do they consider the fact that it's not everyone's cup of tea, nor that there are many successful stories that don't follow this formula, nor that there are many terrible ones that follow it to the letter.

And of course, some writing advice is simply somebody's personal opinion being presented as absolute fact. While it might be the case that this person's advice is good sometimes, it doesn't necessarily follow that it's good advice for what you want to create.

And finally, some writing advice is outright terrible. A few examples I've seen include "your characters won't be interesting unless they have severe trauma in their backstories," "never use the word 'said'," and "you shouldn't write characters who belong to more than one marginalized/minority group or have most of your protagonists be marginalized/minority characters because that's unrealistic." Yikes! So basically, always think critically about any piece of writing advice you come across - including mine!

Believing certain tropes and ideas are inherently "good" or "bad."

I'll cut to the chase: there's no such thing as an intrinsically "good" or "bad" concept. It all comes down to how and where you're using it. Most of the time, you need to ask yourself five basic questions: Does it serve your goals for your story? Does it make sense in context? Are you using it in a tasteful and appropriate way? Is it appropriate material for your target audience? And is it something your target audience will likely enjoy or at least won't mind? If the answers aren't obvious, do some research and get some opinions. You can also look at "Is This A Good Idea For My Story/Setting/Character?" - How To Answer This For Yourself! for more in-depth help.

This is also one reason why you should never ask people if your character seems like a Mary Sue. Asking this question typically gets people looking for stereotypical Mary Sue traits instead of traits that might not work in context. So the aforementioned Doctor Who OC might be criticized for her blue hair, while the fact that she's so inept and unmotivated that she's basically just dead weight goes ignored. So instead of asking people if your character is a Mary Sue, you might ask them if everything about your character seems to make sense in context, whether they feel like their impression of your character as a person lines up with how you want them to perceive your character, and whether they think anything else could stand to be polished up or refined. You can also look at "Does My Character Work Okay?" - How To Tell For Yourself! for more in-depth help.

Thinking that following other people's advice to the letter makes you smarter and better than other amateur writers.

Advice often helps you make better-informed creative choices, but it doesn't mean you're necessarily smarter and better than those who didn't. I've seen people be obnoxiously smug over how their stories don't have all those "bad" tropes, or how their characters are so much more "realistic" than someone else's characters.

If you have that kind of attitude, you're not actually any better. You might even be worse.

Ultimately, the best stories and characters come from a place of humility and compassion: recognizing that it's okay if you're not the best or the most important, and that what really matters is that you do your best to be decent and kind to others while respecting yourself, and that there will be days you won't be your best self and you'll have to swallow your pride and admit you're wrong. The worst stories come from a place of selfishness and pride: believing you don't owe anything to anyone you're not outright indebted to, and believing that personal value comes from being superior to someone else.

If you're writing with the latter attitude, it doesn't matter how well you follow other people's rules; it's going to be terrible because your arrogance will ooze out of every page. And what's even worse is that you've failed at being a decent human being. So if you find yourself with this attitude, it's time to smush it. Do your best, but don't go thinking you've got to be the best or that having more knowledge and skill than someone else makes you a better, more valuable human being.

Trying to be a writer you're not.

Too many newbie writers think that in order to write a "good" book, they need to do it just like somebody else did. I know I've already mentioned this in How To Become A Creative Writer & Figure Out What You Should Write, but it bears repeating. You can't be just like that other author, because you're a different person with a different life, you most likely have a different audience. Go ahead and take inspiration from other writers, but always aim to find a balance between your source of inspiration and what works for you and your audience.

Trying too hard to be original.

Sure, you don't want to make something that feels like a cheap knockoff of somebody else's work. On the other hand, way too many writers are so hung up on being "original" that they refuse to use anything that seems even faintly similar to something else. For example, someone might refuse to use dragons simply because Game of Thrones has them, or won't write about mermaids because The Little Mermaid and H2O: Just Add Water exists.

This is not a workable approach. If you can think of it, someone else has already used it in some way. And yes, it's most likely been done in something famous. So if you try to use only 100% "original" ideas and concepts, you're going to end up with nothing at all. It's not a bad thing if your story has a few things in common with someone else's story. Everybody's story does.

Another way writers try too hard is trying to avoid a "cliche" that's actually just an accurate depiction of reality. An example of this is the supposed "cliche" of "stupid" teenage characters - IE, teenage characters who don't have the maturity and wisdom of the average 25-30 year old. The problem is, the writer attempting to be subversive is either deeply ignorant or in deep denial. Teenagers making questionable decisions isn't a "cliche" - it's just how most teenagers are. They lack experience and are neurologically hardwired to make rash decisions. That's not a personal failing, and it doesn't make them inferior. It's just a reality of being an adolescent. Not to mention, the teenager who chooses to avoid doing anything that adults have deemed "stupid" is also making a bad decision, because said teen is uncritically following authority and is probably missing out on many experience-building misadventures and bonding experiences with friends, and is probably being a judgmental twerp about contemporary media besides.

For more information, take a look at "Help! I'm Worried That My Idea Is Too Cliche!" - What To Do When This Happens.

Getting stuck in protagonist-centered thinking.

A lot of writers only consider their worlds and settings from the perspectives of their protagonists, and this leads to a myriad of problems.

For a start, they fail to learn how to write anyone else as a complex, three-dimensional person, so everybody else often comes off flat and cartoonish. They also neglect to consider that other characters should have their own personal obligations, concerns, goals, and priorities, and that they most likely have numerous things going on in their lives that the protagonists have no idea about, and so end up writing these characters as being absurdly concerned with the protagonists in some way. One example are stories where every student in an entire school viciously bully the protagonist, as if not a single one of them has anything else to occupy their thoughts and time and instead they're all fixated on making the protagonist miserable.

Another example are the love interests who apparently have so little going on in their lives that they can spend nearly all their time thinking about the protagonist. In any case, the end result is the same: secondary and tertiary characters who are so poorly developed and thought out that their thoughts and lives end up revolving around the protagonists to an unnecessary degree.

Another problem with protagonist-centered thinking is that you end up with settings where everything ultimately connects to the main characters in some way. While this might seem tempting because feels like a way to build up an epic narrative or mystery, in reality it robs your world of the rich complexity that would make it feel organic and real, and makes your world feel small.

For more information, take a look at Protagonist-Centered Morality: What It Is, And How You Can Avoid It, The Problem With Making The Universe Revolve Around The Main Characters, and Simple Tips To Put Yourself In The Shoes Of Characters Who Aren't You.

Not outlining your plot.

Way too many new writers think that they can just start writing a story without any real course or goal in mind and somehow reach an end. In reality, what's most likely to happen is you'll get stuck partway through with no idea where to go next. Outline your plot from beginning to middle to end, and you'll always know where you need to go next. Outlining your plot also makes it easier to spot plot holes and contradictions before you start writing, so you're less likely to end up having written two thirds of the story and need to throw away half because something doesn't add up. For more information, see How To Plot, Outline, & Finish Your Story.

Putting in too much cruft.

Cruft is essentially anything that doesn't serve your story in some way. If it doesn't help set or maintain a mood or tone, doesn't move the plot forward or further somebody's character development, or doesn't give us insight into something we need or want to know, then it's cruft. Cruft is a problem because it can make your story feel unfocused or laggy in spots, and can make it more difficult for people to remember the details that actually are important. Here's a few examples of what cruft can look like:

More characters than necessary. A large cast of characters isn't necessarily a bad thing, if the story benefits from them and if you can introduce them in a way that doesn't overwhelm the audience. But introducing new characters just for the sake of introducing them is a problem. While it might be tempting to introduce every friend and family member your protagonist knows, or to have every character you think is neat make an appearance at some point, dropping in a bunch of characters with no meaningful role or purpose just bogs down your story.

Overdetailing minor/trivial elements. If the lady who works at the corner gas station is only going to appear once and never be seen again, we really don't need the narration to give us her whole entire backstory in detail. Nor do we need to hear a detailed history of a town monument that's neither relevant right now nor will ever be.

Redundant character description. It's pretty much always helpful to know what your protagonist looks like, but we don't need to hear about it every other page, let alone every other paragraph. (What's more, many writers describe their characters over and over while completely neglecting to describe the scenery and atmosphere. Seriously, watch out for that.)

For more information, take a look at Explaining In Your Story: When You Should, When You Shouldn't, & How To Do It.

Not editing your story before making it public.

If you don't have anyone to edit for you, then you must do the job yourself. Problems you should look for include:

Ignoring issues like these can make your story more difficult to read, which can make readers lose interest. So make sure you scan your text for potential problems. Even if you don't catch all of them, it's better to only have a few here and there than to have many of them all over.

Believing that you must get your story accepted and printed by a publisher at some point.

Getting published is a goal you can have, and there's nothing wrong with it. But it's not a goal that you must have.

There's a common perception that a piece of writing that hasn't been published by an actual publishing house is somehow less valid or less "real" than one that has. This is nothing more than elitism. Again, if you want to get your work published, that's fine. But there are plenty of valid reasons not to, including:

Additionally, having your work accepted by a publisher doesn't necessarily mean it's better quality than one that isn't. Publishing standards don't represent what's objectively good. They simply represent what the publishing company believes will sell. Right after Twilight became popular, many publishers released scores of paranormal romance novels, most of which weren't particularly good. On the other hand, Beatrix Potter resorted to self-publishing The Tale of Peter Rabbit, which is now a beloved classic.

So again, trying to get your story accepted by a publisher is something that you can do, but it's not something you must do. Don't feel bad because some snobby snotwad says you're not a "real" writer because you haven't been published. The only person who can decide what your goals as a writer are is you, and you are allowed to make them whatever you wish.

Not taking care of yourself.

Being a good writer requires you to look after yourself. Eat, shower, do what exercise you can, and practice emotional self-care. Talk to friends. Journal. Whatever you need to do to live and whatever makes you feel better. Like the saying goes, you can't pour from an empty cup.

At some point you'll probably experience creative burnout or general emotional exhaustion. Take a break. Find something else to do for awhile - maybe watch a show, try a new hobby, or find something interesting on YouTube. Talk to a counselor or therapist, if the option is available.

A somewhat less obvious part of self-care is being mindful of how you view people who don't live up to what you consider to be ideal standards. The more you view them with disdain and attempt to drag and shame them, the more you will hate yourself when you will inevitably fail to live up to ideal standards at some point. Understand that nobody is perfect, let alone born knowing how to do everything right, and that the best approach to solving these problems is constructive criticism and generally providing information in a non-hostile manner to help others do better.


Here's what you as a new writer should make sure you do:

More links to check out:

What People Need To Know About The Creative Process
How To Write Well - A Quick Guide
Stuff You Should Cut From Your Story

A Proper Punctuation Primer
How To Use Paragraph Breaks Properly
Commonly Misspelled Words & Mangled Phrases

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