Though I'm by no means perfect, I generally consider myself a good writer. The issue is that most older writers I know look back on their writing at my age and cringe at the sentences their artless fingers wrought.

I'm trying to avoid these pitfalls as much as possible. I love words and I would prefer not to butcher them while I learn this craft. Additionally, I have a plot, setting, and group of characters with which I have fallen in love, and I fear that if I butcher them my future self will become disinterested. In short, I don't want my presently vivid story to be brutally murdered by inexperience.

What, in your opinion, are the most common mistakes (in prose, character, or structure) made by writers in high school? College? Is there a way to avoid these issues, or is experience their only remedy?

  • Anton Chekhov once wrote that when a baby is born, you should wash it first, and then lash it vigorously while saying repeatedly, "Don't you ever write! Don't you ever write!"
    – Ricky
    Nov 23, 2015 at 22:12

4 Answers 4


Not only will the potential pitfalls largely vary from person to person (not to mention what different people think they are), but they are innumerable, and in a variety of fields. When you are an experienced writer, you will look back at what you write now, and cringe regardless of what you do. Why?


The more you write, the better you get. You can learn a lot about writing and how to write from books, but nothing will ever beat experience.

So how can you avoid pitfalls? Learn first. Six years ago, I didn't know a thing about writing. All I knew was that I found it mildly interesting, and decided to give it a shot. I thank Heaven above that I did not start with an actual book, and that all my attempts at doing so fell flat. I turned instead to a fan site for a game I was interested in, and started writing fan fiction.

As I got more into writing, I picked up a book: Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass. It taught me the backbone for everything I now know about writing, and it helped me to avoid the pitfalls not only novice, but intermediate authors fall into (mind you, I had to read it over and over for about three years before I finally fully understood every aspect of it). Another book that helped me immensely was The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing from Writer's Digest.

Those two books, plus experience writing floods of fan fiction (and yes, some of it was horrible) have taught me all I know. Now, six or so years later, I am ready to publish.

The point I'm trying to make here is this: Learn and try. Read all you can about writing. Try methods out. See what works. Get experience writing. If you don't have access to somewhere you can write fan fiction, look into creating a local writing group. Write stories and then compare them. Find some kind of outlet for your writing, and get honest criticism on it. The more honest the reviewer is, the better (which is why online fan fiction is so great). Dishonest critique will only lead you in the wrong direction.

If you learn all you can, and see what works for yourself through trial and error, and are willing to wait until you are ready to publish, you will avoid countless pitfalls. That being said, here are some of the largest and most common that I see:

  • Lack of Message. Have something to say. This might not seem all that important at first, but I've learned it really needs to be the bedrock from which your story springs. Have something you really believe in, and you will never lose your fire for writing about it. That fire will fuel the greatness of your words.
  • Lack of Tension. A lot of novice writers don't know about the principle of hooking your reader. This is a fairly basic concept to grasp: you basically get your reader to ask himself questions, and then continue reading to find the answers. 'But why did he say that? What did he see? What does he mean? What is going on? Where are we? Who was that?' The potential one-liners for grabbing interest is infinite.
  • Lack of Stakes. I've heard of some published authors who make this mistake, so mastering it now will really help you. In short, you need two things: something that will be lost if the hero doesn't achieve his goal, and a reason that something matters intensely to the reader. The trick is to get the something (the stake) to matter to the character, and then make the character matter to the reader. This is where character development comes in. Since the reader cares about the character, he cares about what matters to him, meaning the stake. Therefore, the reader cares whether or not the hero succeeds. Master stakes, and your reader will become invested in your novel. Without stakes, the reader can put the book down any time.
  • Superman. This is another great pitfall that a lot of people fall into. Your character needs to have something about him, inherent to who he is, that makes the reader root for him (usually some sort of quality, anywhere from honesty to self-sacrifice). The reader needs to want the character to win (after all, the story is about the character). This 'strength' is great, but the hero also needs conflict inside of him, otherwise he won't seem real. We all have doubts and unresolved arguments within us. Giving these to your hero will bring him down to earth. Making these conflicts related to the goal, so that they pull the hero both towards and away from completing it at the same time, will make the inner conflict a central part of the story. (One side of the argument is for completing the goal, the other against it. Make sure there is no easy way to resolve this dilemma.) Just remember to keep the reader invested in your hero with strength, otherwise he has to no reason to read about him.

You'll find all these concepts and more, explained in detail in Donald Maass' book. I strongly encourage you to read it. Best of luck in your endeavors!

  • It's probably a good thing that I've been writing and publishing fanfiction for… 4+ years now? Dear lord, it's no wonder the theme of most of my stories is the constant passage of time – 4 years ago was yesterday. Nov 22, 2015 at 7:05
  • If I might ask, what is the site that supports your fan fiction? Mine is in a unique situation, so I'd like to see what another one is like. Nov 23, 2015 at 1:05
  • I used fanfiction.net for one story in particular (years ago, and lord does that story make me cringe... I think I'm unique here in that despite being young, I've been writing seriously for six years now, which means I'll probably go through multiple phases of not being able to look at anything penned before a certain point). The rest I've just shared with friends. I'm finishing the outline for a new multi-chapter epic that I plan to upload on Archive of Our Own. Nov 23, 2015 at 2:09
  • Thanks. Already found someone from my site on fanfiction.net... Nov 23, 2015 at 3:31

You just have to write. An average novel of 80,000 words will probably require 250,000 words (via rewriting). My final manuscript looks very little like "the garbage" my brain conjured at first draft.

As for your other question, I've written since grammar school and have some insight. High schoolers lack wisdom and depth, but they can certainly write epic battle scenes, magic, and teen drama. Social commentary and philosophy will look like it was written, well, by a teenager. (This is of course a generalization.)

College students have a greater knowledge base, but the pitfall is in trying to use it too much or in thinking that everyone else has learned what you just took last semester. (At 20, I started writing this sci-fi with magic-wielding dinosaurs, but I forgot what all the dinosaur species were one semester removed from geology and abandoned the project.)

There are lots of successful writers in their 20s, but by and large, best sellers tend to achieve that in their 40s and beyond. Life brings wisdom and perspective. Appealing to a broad audience has to bring in facets from multiple avenues. Of course there are exceptions. But even HARRY POTTER and 50 SHADES OF GREY appeal to those beyond, respectively, tweens and pervs--obviously lots more. If you're young, I'd try reading best-selling authors to see how they communicate their ideas. Their characters leap off the pages. By the end, they're your friend.

It's true: what I wrote half a lifetime ago looks ridiculous now ... and I thought I was so clever then. That's the way life works. If you think you can do it, then go for it. Keep in mind your target audience. There's nothing wrong with a 30,000 word "tween" fantasy.

  • … yeah, I really need to get off of Stackexchange and back on NaNoWriMo now. The paranoia that my every sentence reeks of suckishness is not helping in any way, shape, or form. Nov 22, 2015 at 7:07

Top Three : Most Often Confusing Items

  1. Not knowing what to show. Why would a writer pick certain details instead of others?
  2. Not knowing why structure is important -- it's for readers -- and considering structure as something to be abhorred by fiction writers.
  3. Talking about the story versus showing it play out.

I know these all too well, because I remember the attempts I made at fiction writing when I was much younger and these are what I stumbled upon.

Not Knowing What To Show This one could also be stated as, "Not writing the story as a series of scenes".

"If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired." ~Anton Chekhov

Inexeperienced writers often think something like,

"I'm writing a story about a hero who saves a girl."

Then, they sit down and start writing and wonder where to start. Having no idea about what adds up to the main character being a hero they start out at the beginning and you get something like:

"Tom Johnson's alarm sounded and he rolled over and hit the snooze button."

No. Readers don't care about how he wakes up. Unless... Unless he levitates over to the alarm clock and smashes it with telekinetic powers which he will later use to fight the evil villain and save the damsel in distress. Then, it might make sense to show that alarm clock scene.

Which Details? So, which details should the new writer (and all writer's) pick?
1. The ones that specifically go into telling the exact story you are telling or

  1. display the nature of the character who is acting out the story.

If you're writing something else in your story, then you better have a great reason or be the greatest writer on earth to keep your readers reading. Otherwise, chop it out. When you become a world-famous author, you may be able to keep those other parts in (but still, maybe not). Point: Stay focused!

Well, that leads naturally into our second point:

Understand How Structure Is Important

Unfotunately, many young writers have often been abused by some secondary school English teacher who beat her over the head with blunt outlines.

Then, when the young writer steals away into the work of creative writing there are other victims cowering in the dark corners who have been abused by secondary school Monster Outlines and they whisper to the newly initiated:

"Just sit down and start writing. That's all you do in creative writing. It's freeing and good and you'll go far. Outlines are evil!!"

But the extremes are always* wrong!!!

Yes, that's an extreme statement.

How To Teach Structure

A young writer should be taught, very gently, that a very simple outline provides a structure which the reader will appreciate and follow and will make the young writer's story far more clear and it will provide a loose way of guiding the writer to the story she is trying to write.

An Example : Prototype

The young writer could write the entire 80,000 word novel without nary a thought of structure or scenes or anything. Then come back and notice that the readers cant even tell when something is happening or why the goat which was shown in scene one and talked about for seven pages even matters.

Outline As Prototype Or the writer could use one or two sentences to imagine each chapter in a novel which would move the main character toward the goal (and away -- creating tension) and would get a quick view of the entire thing with very little detailed writing.

Outlines are good as long as they're not used as weapons to prove someone is incompetent (as they've often been used in the past).

Finally, young writers often write about what they are writing instead of writing the story itself.

Here's an extreme (and terrible) example:

Joe was sad. He sat in his lovely home and cried all day. He was sad because his girl did not love him. It was unrequited love and dog gone it he had to do something about it. He decided to go and get rich then he'd show her. He'd get rich and buy the entire town and that stupid little drug store where Sally Mae worked and then he'd fire her. He'd fire her and he'd fire that no good for nothing manager, Jim Bob, who had taken Sally Mae from him. That's it. He'd go and do it.

Here's something better because it shows doing something Joe. It tells a story by showing things happen.

Joe fell down into a seat at Sully's bar and the waitress walked over.

"What'll you have, honey," the waitress asked.

"I want three shots of whiskey with beer chaser."

"Look, I'm not allowed to serve you that many drinks at once. I'll get one shot and a beer chaser." She turned to walk away.

"That's a load of crap," Joe said. "You're all just alike. Manipulating and sour. Can't even think of someone else for once. Just thinking about yourself. Just like Sally Mae."

The waitress paused. Shook her head and then continued to the bar.

"That's right," Joe said. "Keep on walking. You bring them drinks back and I'l just make you go back for more."

The bartender looked up. "What're you yappin' about fella?" Joe looked down. "Nothing."

"Well, keep it down and don't be treating my help that way."

Joe muttered to himself. "You can't tell me what to do."

Not great, but better. It takes a lot more writing and a lot more mental energy to see this stuff and write it out.

These are the three main things that ought to be taught more fully to beginning writers.


I think the biggest "young person mistake" is being too obsessed with posterity. You just need to write the best book you can at any given moment in your life. Second-guessing your future opinions is a losing game. You'll likely dislike your early work as an older author, because life will have made you a different person --but the older author's opinion will not necessarily be the right one.

For a good example, the young George Lucas wrote a movie called Star Wars that was massively successful and influential. The older George Lucas later went back and made changes to his early movies that were almost universally despised by fans. He thought he was fixing mistakes that now made him cringe, but the fans thought he was tampering with a masterpiece.

The one thing that can be guaranteed is that if you try to write a book with no mistakes, that will end up looking like the biggest mistake of all. Nothing sounds more artless than a person trying too hard to be artful.

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