In my Writing Mentorship program, I frequently work with new and aspiring writers—people who have a gift for writing but aren’t sure what they’re supposed to be creating or what their strengths are. My job is to help them uncover their material and discover how they can put their skills to work in a way that will impact and inspire readers.
In setting these writers up for success, I’ve found that many have similar questions about the process or deal with similar pitfalls. Understanding what they are and how to reduce their presence in your work can lead you to discover your writing talents and enjoy the process more.
This isn’t to say you’ll completely escape these challenges—they’re part of growing your creative abilities. But being aware of common difficulties first-time authors face can get you on the road to dodging these issues for yourself.
So, let’s talk about some of the common mistakes of new writers and some ways to navigate them as you set off on the journey of discovering your work.
The Trap of Perfectionism
Let me say this at the outset: every first draft is always flawed. No matter how badly you want every word and every sentence to be immaculate, it’s just not going to be that way. Ernest Hemingway famously said, “The first draft of everything is—” …well, you know. And if he can say that, you can, too.
The initial draft is your playground, a space where your ideas come to life, messy and unfiltered. If you find yourself stuck in the pursuit of perfection, it might be time to change your strategy.
Instead of striving for immaculate prose, permit yourself to write badly.
This might sound counterintuitive, but in reality, it is liberating. Let your ideas flow unimpeded by the constant pressure of perfection. Allow yourself to make mistakes, use cliches, and even venture into melodrama. This uninhibited expression of thought is the raw material with which you can later work.
The crucial point to remember is that writing is a process, and like any process, it involves multiple stages. The creation of a first draft is merely the first step. The real magic happens in the subsequent revision and editing stages, where your raw, unpolished ideas get refined and sharpened. Get your thoughts on paper first, and then worry about perfecting them.
Knowing Your Audience
Newsflash—unless you’re journaling or writing for personal therapy, you aren’t writing for yourself. If your purpose for writing is to be published or share your work with someone eventually, then you have an audience. And one of the biggest mistakes you can make is not defining who that audience is.
Determining your audience is about more than knowing to whom you're speaking but understanding their interests, concerns, and questions. It's about immersing yourself in their world and figuring out how your writing can enrich their lives.
Would you speak to a close friend in the same manner you'd address a business associate? Probably not. That's because we naturally tailor our communication style to our listeners; the same principle applies to writing. An intimate understanding of your reader allows you to adapt your style, tone, and content to suit their needs, ultimately making your work more engaging and impactful.
Start by asking yourself some key questions. What do they want to learn from your writing? What problems are they grappling with? What kind of language do they use? And crucially, how can your writing provide value to them? The answers to these questions can guide you in crafting content that resonates with your readers.
Remember, writing isn't just about expressing your ideas; it's also about connecting with your reader. And to do that effectively, you need to understand their world. So, instead of gazing inward, turn your sights outward. Peer into the minds of your readers. Make it your mission to understand them, to empathize with them, and to write for them.
Over-Complicating the Language
You might think big words and intricate phrases will make your work more intellectual or professional. This is a common pitfall for new writers, and it's one you should sidestep. The reality is that simplicity is the key to any form of effective communication, even fiction writing. Being clear and understandable is more important to connecting with your audience than sounding fancy.
Complex language and industry jargon don't necessarily equate to sounding smart or professional. More often than not, they can lead to confusion and muddle your message. Your main aim as a writer is not to parade your language prowess but to convey your ideas in an easily digestible manner. Unnecessarily complicated language can alienate your audience, leaving them lost in a labyrinth of words.
There's beauty in simplicity. It makes your writing accessible to a wider audience. It builds bridges between complex concepts and readers of varying literacy levels. Opt for clear and direct language instead of using intricate jargon or esoteric phrases. Break down complex ideas into simpler, understandable pieces. This not only enhances the readability of your work but also reinforces your connection with the reader.
Don't be enticed by the allure of ornate language. Instead, focus on maintaining clarity and ensuring your words are easy to comprehend.
Not Finding Your Unique Voice
Okay, writers—listen up. This is by far the most common thing writers I talk to ask about. How do you discover what makes your writing your writing?
Think of your voice as the personal stamp you imprint on every piece of writing you create. It's an intimate expression of your personality, worldview, and values. And while it's natural for new writers to admire and draw inspiration from accomplished authors, succumbing to the temptation of imitation can lead to the eclipse of your distinctive voice.
Your voice is the spark that lights your writing. It breathes life into your characters, adds depth to your narratives, and resonates with your readers. It's not about mimicking the prose of Hemingway or the poetry of Plath. It's about finding your rhythm, your pace, your tone. It's about the choice of words you gravitate towards, the metaphors you weave, and the dialogues you craft. It’s in the subtleties and nuances that you, as a writer, come alive on paper.
Yet, discovering your unique voice can be a challenging journey. It requires self-awareness, introspection, and a willingness to experiment. It demands you let go of inhibitions and venture beyond your comfort zone. It asks you to embrace your eccentricities, quirks, and idiosyncrasies because these are the facets that make your voice authentic, ultimately drawing readers to your work.
Skipping the Editing Process
This is another mistake I’ve seen all too often—in fact, it’s one that the rise of self-publishing has contributed to. Sometimes, authors get so excited to share their writing or publish their books that they speed up instead of slowing down. Instead of taking the time to perfect their work and make sure that it truly reaches its potential, they leapfrog over this essential step in the process.
As a result, their final products are sloppy and incomplete, which doesn’t serve your audience at all.
The editing process is like your second act, a chance to scrutinize your narrative through a magnifying glass. Most authors I’ve talked to don’t like editing—it’s hard work, and it can be painful to take a story you feel attached to and pick it apart, like dissecting a fetal pig in middle school biology. (Anyone else have to do that? I did, and I will never forget the stench. Ever.)
Editing doesn't mean merely hunting for grammatical errors or typos. It’s about enhancing the overall readability of your work and ensuring that your message is delivered clearly and concisely. Embrace this opportunity to weed out unnecessary elements, hone in on compelling details, and tighten the threads of your plot.
One thing that can help is to ask a friend to read your work. Your readers don’t have to be seasoned writers or even writers at all. All they need to be able to do is answer two questions. First, what parts of the piece inspired them or captured their interest? And second, where did they feel confused, want more information, or feel taken out of the story?
This is the feedback formula I use with clients. The authors I work with know their stories better than I do, and when I make them aware of my points of confusion, they intuitively know how to fix those issues. I’m, of course, happy to help them brainstorm ways to solve the problems, but most of the time, knowing where the writing tripped me up points to exactly how the issue should be resolved.
Remember, there's no room for haste when it comes to editing. It's a task that demands patience, meticulousness, and a discerning eye. Whether it's slicing verbose sentences, reworking awkward phrasing, or adding depth to your characters, every modification you make brings you closer to a polished, publish-ready manuscript.
Got Questions About Being a New Writer?
We are a little more than halfway through January, which means that the window is closing to take advantage of my beginning-of-the-year discount on the Writing Mentorship program.
Whether you are a new writer trying to navigate the process or a seasoned author who needs a little guidance, this six-week program can help you discover your voice, find your true material, and get some motivation to produce a draft of a story, essay, group of poems, or other project.
You’ll receive weekly Zoom meetings, personalized feedback, and the chance to reach your full creative potential as an aspiring author.
And for the rest of January, you can sign up for a special reduced rate before the 2024 pricing takes effect.
Want more information? Click the button below to discover how a Writing Mentorship can benefit you.