Creative writing mistakes are nothing to feel down about. All good creative writing is not just writing: it’s writing, revising, editing, and proofreading—not only to polish the beauty of our language, but to work with common creative writing mistakes that pop up for all of us.
Today, we’ll be looking at seven common creative writing mistakes, and how to work with them. Again, the emphasis is not to be self-critical or nitpicky, but to understand the less helpful patterns we all fall into, and how to work with them. This can be a great primer in creative writing for beginners—but it’s all applicable no matter how many Nobel prizes we’ve got.
Why These Common Writing Mistakes Pop Up
English writing mistakes are quite common, even for native speakers, and much of what ultimately needs revising or reexamining in creative writing falls into one of a few patterns.
The English language is tricky. Most other languages have the luxury of consistent (or at least more consistent) spelling and grammar patterns, but English learners have to memorize tons of rules and exceptions. Even native English speakers make these common writing mistakes, to the chagrin of language arts teachers and dictionaries everywhere.
Creative writing is also tricky, and school usually doesn’t teach us much about what makes compelling reading. It’s up to us to find our way, and that starts partly with finding what doesn’t work—so creative writing for beginners is a lot about learning to notice common patterns in our writing that tend to impede the reader’s enjoyment and immersion.
Here’s the frustrating part: even though these mistakes are common, professional publications will still reject your writing if it’s cluttered with them. English writing for beginners is frustrating, but these simple rules will clear some of them up!
7 Common Writing Mistakes to Avoid
1. Lacking a Clear Message
Words without a clear message are like bones without marrow. What do they support? Where do they stand? Far too many English writing mistakes stem from not having a clear “thesis”— whether you’re writing poetry or prose, academic essays or a stand-up comedy routine.
Words without a clear message are like bones without marrow.
What does a thesis for creative writers look like? Think back to your 9th grade English days: the thesis statement summarizes your argument or position in an essay. In essence, the thesis defends why the essay exists; without it, the reader doesn’t know why they’re reading the essay. While creative writing doesn’t have a thesis, per se, it does have a clear reason for existing.
If thesis statements scared you in high school, don’t worry—the creative writing “thesis” is much more pleasurable! For starters, it doesn’t go at the end of the first paragraph in works of fiction and nonfiction. Writers can place the core message anywhere in their work, provided that the reader feels pulled towards this message.
For example, Leo Tolstoy opens his novel Anna Karenina with the novel’s core theme:
The risky writer might place their thesis statement at the end of their work. If they can stick the landing, so to speak, then this strategy could work out fantastically—so long as the story is compelling without a clear thesis in the meantime. Eka Kurniawan does this in his novel Beauty is a Wound. When asked why he loved a “hideous woman,” the character Krisan replies:
“Because beauty is a wound.”
Still, this kind of strategy requires a lot of luck, confidence, and skill. I wouldn’t recommend it as any sort of creative writing tips for beginners.
Poetry can also have a thesis, though sometimes that thesis is implied, rather than directly stated. Some poetic forms require a thesis, like the sonnet or the villanelle. In the sonnet, this thesis is called the “volta”; usually occurring between the 7th and 9th lines, the volta is a “twist” in the poem—something surprising, unexpected, or gutting. Take the following sonnet from Terrance Hayes’ collection American Sonnets for my Past & Future Assassins:
Any day now you will have the ability to feed the name
Of anyone into an engine & your long lost half brother
As well as whoever else possesses a version of his name
Will appear before your face in bits of pixels & data
Displaying his monikers (like Gitmo for trapping, Bang
Bang for banging, Dopamine for dope or brains),
The country he would most like to visit (Heaven),
His nine & middle finger pointing towards the arms
Of the last trill trees of Bluff Estates & the arms
Of the slim fly girls the color of trees cut down & shaped
Into something a nail penetrates. I admit, right now
Technology is insufficient, but you will find them
Flashing grins & money in the photos they took
Before they were ghosts when you click here tomorrow.
The volta here (in bold) is a bit complex because it’s spread between four different lines, but the thesis is clear: there is no safe country (Heaven) for black boys and girls if they are always being “cut down & shaped.”
In other poetic forms, the thesis takes the form of a “through line,” or a line that’s strategically repeated throughout. One form that does this is the villanelle, which requires the first and third lines of the poem to be repeated in successive tercets. Take Dylan Thomas’ poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”:
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
The thesis of this poem (in bold) are the first and third lines, repeated throughout the poem and then reunited in the last two lines.
Not all poems have stated theses, of course. Some poems are a thesis in their own way, while other poems imply their meanings through the use of poetic devices.
To master creative writing for beginners, start with clarity. Your readers need to know why they’re reading your work, so let your writing surprise, educate, challenge, move, and inspire your readers.
2. Using Too Much “Purple Prose”
Writers love words. We love words as much as a fish loves water or a bird loves the sky; we’re constantly trying to make our words better, dreaming and thinking and editing and researching our way to better words. Sometimes, we get a bit carried away, producing what some writers call “purple prose.”
When writers say to “kill your darlings,” they’re referring to purple prose. Purple prose is unnecessarily ornate writing that occurs in all genres, including poetry; even though it’s one of the most common writing mistakes, it’s perfectly normal and happens to even the most experienced writers.
Purple prose is unnecessarily ornate writing that occurs in all genres, including poetry.
Purple involves stretching out simple ideas into lengthy, verbose descriptions, often meandering through the page with delicate, adjective-heavy imagery. For example, let’s say you’re writing a story and your protagonist walks past a large tree. This tree has no effect on the story, it’s just a piece of the overall imagery. A polished, edited sentence would read something like this: “She stumbled down the block, clinging onto mailboxes and tree branches.”
If I was writing with a purple prose mindset, my sentence might run like this:
The purple prose is cluttered, dense, and unnecessarily long. If a woman is stumbling down a block, the sentences should be swift and short. Instead, the purple prose elongates the description into something pretentious, self-important, and Victorian-sounding. The reader is left with slapdash musings on the world, rather than the action of the sentence. What purpose does it serve to the reader?
There are times when purple prose makes sense. If a character is getting lost in their own private musings, then this style of writing can offer a glimpse into the character’s mind. There are opportunities for powerful, poetic language, even in prose writing—just don’t become too self-indulged. Avoid English writing mistakes like purple prose passages, and stay focused on the action (verbs!) in your writing.
3. Overly Erudite Word Choice
In addition to purple prose, poor word choice is one of the most common writing mistakes. There’s a misconception among beginning writers that they need to sound scholarly in their writing, or that they need to use as wide a vocabulary as possible. Instead of writing simple, straightforward sentences, their words meander into paragraph-long sentences, using strange and erudite words like “parataxis,” “luculent,” “phenomenologically,” and “kwashiorkor.”
If you had to look those words up, don’t worry—you’re not supposed to burden your writing with these words, unless they are extremely relevant and necessary to your writing. Otherwise, you end up losing your readers’ attention and, in some instances, their regard for your writing.
Of course, there are exceptions. Personally, I enjoy it when people describe their characters with big phobia and philia words—like, if your character loves wine, it’s fun and interesting to describe them as an oenophile, rather than a wine-lover. Figuring out which words to use in what contexts is a skill cultivated by writing itself, so this isn’t a black-and-white rule by any means, but one to remember nonetheless.
Pay attention to your words, and don’t overdo it on the academic language.
I see this mistake a lot in creative writing for beginners classes, but luckily, there’s an easy solution: revising it out! By all means, the vocabulary in your writing should be rich and diverse, but it should also be well-chosen. Delicate, refined word choice is a skill that can only be mastered through practice, so pay attention to your words, and don’t overdo it on the academic language.
4. Ambiguous Antecedents
Any set of creative writing tips isn’t complete without a brief lesson on grammar. Specifically, the grammatical antecedent. You might remember from your Language Arts days what nouns and pronouns are: a noun is a person, place, thing, or idea, and a pronoun (he, she, they, it, etc.) refers to a noun.
The noun that a pronoun refers to is the “antecedent.” Sometimes, writers will use pronouns without identifying whom the pronoun refers to—this is an ambiguous antecedent, and it can ruin the clarity of your writing.
Ambiguous antecedent: when a writer uses pronouns without identifying whom the pronoun refers to.
Here’s an example of ambiguous antecedents: “The nurse and the doctor got into an argument. He called her a lunatic!”
The nouns “nurse” and “doctor” haven’t been assigned names or gender, so it’s unclear who “he” and “she” are in the second sentence. Both nurses and doctors can be men or women, so we don’t know who insulted whom.
Here’s another example:
In this sentence, “they” could be referring to both Americans and Europeans. You might have assumed one or the other in place of “they,” but the author’s message is unclear, potentially misleading the reader. A better version would be:
Or, for brevity:
This might seem like a simple grammar mistake, but it’s one of the most common writing mistakes. Pay close attention to your pronouns in each sentence!
5. Misused Homophones
Homophones are words that sound similar but have different meanings, such as “bear” and “bare.” Because English spelling is tricky, many writers misspell words by using the wrong homophone, and word processors won’t always catch these mistakes. Spelling errors are some of the most common writing mistakes; our guide on the most commonly misspelled words corrects these errors in detail. Read it below!
6. Refusing to Revise
Writing is revising. If no one told you, then this is the most important creative writing tips for beginners. Take this to heart: revise, revise, revise.
Unfortunately, many beginner writers don’t properly revise their writing, or they don’t revise at all—leading to the many spelling, punctuation, clarity, and other common writing mistakes we’ve covered in this article.
However, real revision doesn’t just mean correcting grammatical mistakes, it can also include the following:
- Restructuring—moving paragraphs or stanzas around the entire piece.
- Killing your darlings—removing parts of the piece that are beautifully written but, as a whole, not essential to the piece.
- Reorganizing—introducing characters in a different order, adding or withholding certain pieces of information, etc.
- Rewriting—choosing better words, developing better metaphors, writing with different sentence types, etc.
Take this to heart: revise, revise, revise.
Revising is essential. Nobody churns out perfect first drafts, otherwise we wouldn’t wait so long for sequels in books and TV shows. Additionally, revising helps you approach your work as a reader might. Seeing the piece from a fresh perspective will help you refine and perfect every word, as well as help you revise the common writing mistakes that all of us make. Try to revise your work with an unbiased, critical gaze—you might be surprised by how much potential your piece has.
7. Refusing to Read
Writers who don’t read are limiting themselves as writers. Reading jogs your creativity like nothing else can, and if you aren’t constantly learning and taking notice of other writers’ craft, then you aren’t challenging yourself to grow.
There’s truly no excuse for not reading, one of the all-too-common English writing mistakes. If you don’t have time or you’re visually impaired, then listen to an audiobook on your commute or while you’re eating. (Yes, audiobooks count as “reading”—you’re still engaging with literary language!) If you’re short on cash, you can still read digital journals or find free ebooks online, including the free archive of classical literature at Project Gutenberg. And, if reading doesn’t appeal to you, then you’re not reading the right books, because there’s definitely something for everyone.
Writers should try to read as often as they write. We’ve discussed many important creative writing tips for beginners, but you’ll learn far more just by reading and paying attention. I’ll close this section with a quote from Stephen King, who says it better than anyone else:
Creative Writing Tips: Find Your Writing Community
Writing doesn’t happen in a vacuum, it happens in a community. The best creative writing coincides with friendship and continuous education.
Sadly, these kinds of resources aren’t always available. Taking a class requires both time and money, and it’s hard to find like-minded writers to share and discuss feedback with, especially in these isolated times.
We get it! That’s why we’ve attempted to make these resources as accessible as possible. Take a look at any of our upcoming courses to find the next milestone in your creative writing journey. Our instructors are welcoming to beginners and experienced writers alike, and there’s something for every writer looking to master the craft.
And if you’re looking for ongoing feedback and community, join our Facebook group and connect with other committed writers.
The only thing that limits us as writers is the reach of our own minds. Pay attention, and keep learning: the more you notice, memorize, and internalize, the richer your writing and vocabulary.
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