Novel Writing Pitfalls: Don’t Make These 5 Mistakes

Novel Writing Pitfalls: Don’t Make These 5 Mistakes

In this post, I’m sharing 5 of the most common mistakes I see writers make, as well as how you can avoid them. I want you to be able to identify these pitfalls so you can sidestep them and avoid the stress that comes from making the mistakes in the first place. Sound good? Let’s dive in!


Novel Writing Pitfalls: Don’t Make These 5 Mistakes 

Mistake #1 is believing that you have to write the most beautiful prose in order to write a story that works and that holds readers’ attention.  

And this is a mistake because it’s just not true! I see so many writers agonizing over their sentences only to get feedback (from beta readers, agents, and/or editors) that says their story doesn’t work.

And that can be so disheartening, right?

So, where does this myth come from that says elegant words equals a story that works? Or pretty prose means you’re a “real” writer?

Well, most writers are also readers. And most published novels are already polished. They’ve gone through multiple rounds of editing and various rewrites to end up in that final state. So, we read a published novel, and then we set out to write a novel just like it—which is a totally worthwhile goal. 

BUT there is a time and place to worry about your prose—and that time comes after you’ve written a solid story.

So, let’s talk about how to do that. What is a story, really?

Here’s the definition I like to use:

A story is about how what happens externally affects someone who’s in pursuit of a difficult goal and how he or she changes as a result.

If you don’t have a manuscript that matches this description—and if all you have are pretty words and sentences—then your story just won’t work. It’ll be empty and devoid of meaning.

It’s the STORY underneath the beautiful words and sentences that pull a reader in and make them feel something. 

Readers love to follow the protagonist’s journey and watch their inner struggles as they navigate the external events of the plot.

They love to see how a character will change (or fail to change) in pursuit of their goals.

This is what makes us care—and what makes us feel invested in a story. 

So, give yourself permission to write a draft that isn’t full of pretty words. When you’re confident it works (and when you’ve had some outside feedback from beta readers and/or editors), then you can polish your prose. 

Mistake #2: Believing that you can write a perfect first draft if you justtt do a little more research, planning, or outlining before you write.

And this is such a big mistake because no one can write the perfect first draft. Even experienced writers produce first drafts that need editing.

However, many new writers don’t know this. They set out to write a first draft that’s perfect (or at least really, really good)—and then when it’s not perfect (or really, really good), they feel disappointed and might even give up on their writing altogether.

This is why so many novels go unfinished. 

So, let’s zoom out and talk about the purpose of a first draft because it’s probably not what you think.

The purpose of a first draft is to tell yourself the story—not to write something that’s perfect. 

It’s all about exploring hidden character motivations and surprise subplots and that one random thing you thought was just a fun idea but really becomes a key part of the entire story.

This is why I like to call the very first draft of any story the “discovery draft.” 

You may have heard this term before. It’s not something I invented, but to me, it’s the perfect way to describe what you’re setting out to do when you write a first draft.

So, instead of staying stuck worrying about getting everything “right,” I’d like you to embrace the idea of writing a discovery draft—and let it be a bit messy. 

This one mindset shift will help you get unstuck and into action, no matter where you’re at in the process (or how many books you’ve written before).

Mistake #3 is believing that you need to have a rock-solid, completely original story idea before you start writing.

Or thinking that you need to have everything figured out before you start writing. This is such a mistake, so don’t even go down this road! 

I’ve worked with so many writers who have gone on to publish their novels and be successful, and not one of them had everything figured out. Not one of them felt totally confident in their idea or knew everything there was to know about their story before they started writing.

On some level, there are always those negative thoughts that creep in like, “Is this idea even going to work? Am I really going to be able to turn it into a full-length story that people will actually want to read? What if it's terrible?"

And these are very normal feelings to have—especially when you’re just starting out.

But here’s the thing…

These worries and questions are most likely rooted in self-doubt.

In other words, it’s not really about your idea—it’s a mindset block.

And the best way to get out of any mindset block is to start taking action. 

So, the first step in developing your story idea is to identify your content genre.

Content genres describe the type of content within a story. And each content genre is a "blueprint" that writers can use to inform their drafts, and to craft a story that works. 

Once you know your story's main genre, it will help you create the framework for your entire story. Plus, it’ll help you identify what pieces of your idea still need to be developed.

For example, each content genre tells you things like:

  • What your protagonist wants and needs
  • What your protagonist stands to lose or gain
  • The key scenes & conventions you need to include
  • What emotions your reader expects to feel
  • What theme or topic your story is exploring

So, that’s the very first thing I recommend doing if you’re feeling worried about the quality of your story idea. 

And then I want you to find the courage to take messy action.

Because here’s the thing… I can teach you strategies for writing a novel all day long (and I do this in my Notes to Novel course). But none of these strategies will matter if you don’t believe you’re capable of writing a book. Or that you’re ready to take the leap and start taking action even if you don’t have everything figured out just yet.

So, don’t let this common mistake hold you back!

Mistake #4 is believing that you have to follow every single writing method in existence in order to write a quality novel. 

Each writing method is someone’s interpretation of how to write a novel. 

So, although each method may present a solution or a process for writing a novel, the steps within each method aren't going to line up. And that’s just because no two people interpret something the exact same way.

Think about it like this—if you asked five people how to redecorate your house, you’d get five different answers, right? But all of them might tell you exactly how to redecorate. They’d give you a solution to your problem (based on what has worked for them), but you wouldn’t be able to combine everyone's advice into something that’s cohesive. 

The same thing goes for writing a novel.

Many writers try to combine multiple writing methods, then end up with giant spreadsheets with all these boxes their drafts need to check. And when they can’t check off all those boxes, they end up feeling disappointed, and they interpret this to mean their story is fundamentally broken. 

So, why do writers do this?

Personally, I think it all comes down to perfectionism.

We get into this cycle where we think that if we can just analyze our story through one more lens… 

Or if we can just read one more craft book…

Or take one more writing workshop…

Then maybe we’ll feel like our story is good enough to share with friends and family, or that it’s finally good enough to publish. 

But as I mentioned earlier, your first draft is never going to be perfect. And you really do need to write a "discovery draft" to figure out what your story is all about.

When you write your second draft, you can focus on making things more cohesive. By that point, you’ll have learned more about your story and crystalized your main theme and things like that. 

Now, you’re probably thinking… Well, wait, what about those writing methods? Should I not use one of those to guide me as I write and edit? 

And that’s not what I’m saying at all. I’m a huge fan of almost every writing method out there–I think they all have value, for sure. But what I want you to do is to just pick one or two methods that make sense to you and then lean into those methods.

If you like Save the Cat! and if that method works for you—go with that one. If you like the Hero’s Journey—go with that. If you have another favorite, you do you! 

The same thing goes for scene structure. If you like using the “5 Commandments,” use those to structure your scenes. If you like thinking in terms of scene and sequel, or goal, motivation, and conflict, go with that. 

There's no wrong answer, but you'll be better off focusing on one or two methods than trying to figure them all out and check all the boxes with your draft.

And the truth is that all of these methods will get you to the same place, more or less. 

And layering them on top of each other is really just going to do you more harm than good. You’ll end up feeling confused and/or like you’ve done something wrong because the puzzle pieces don't all line up perfectly.

So, instead, pick one or two methods that you really like (or that really resonate with you) and stick to whatever you choose until you have a finished draft or until you’ve hit publish. 

Because trust me, the more you work with that one method or the one to two methods you choose, the more you'll learn about it and understand it. And eventually, you'll start to internalize what you're learning and it'll become second nature to you. 

But without that focus, or without seeing a project through to the end using one framework, you'll never get that deeper level of understanding.  

Mistake #5 is believing that writing a novel is too hard (or that it's too complicated for someone without an MFA or college education to do). 

And this is a mistake because it's a worry that hasn't proven to be true. In fact, many published authors do not have an MFA or a college degree. 

So, if you’ve ever thought, “What if I can’t write a novel because I don’t have a college education or an MFA?” Then I want you to give equal air time to the positive version of this question.

For example, “What if this does work? What if I write a novel that I’m really proud of? Heck, what if I write a bestselling novel!?”

Because here's the thing...

The question, “What if it doesn’t work?” is a low-energy vibe that you’re putting out into the world, and in reality, you have no idea what is actually possible for you. 

But beyond that, I also recommend following a roadmap or some kind of outline to take the pressure and overwhelm off the writing process. This will help you build confidence, too.

Find someone who has gone before you and is willing to show you their roadmap. And then learn from them so you're not bumbling around in the dark trying to figure out what's going to work and what isn't.  

And if you want me to be your guide, I’d be so honored! You can click here to learn more about my Notes to Novel program and join me the next time we run it live. 

Final Thoughts

So, those are the five biggest mistakes I see new writers make, but more importantly, how to overcome and avoid them. 

Just being aware of these pitfalls can fast-track your way to finishing your draft—and that’s what I want for you more than anything! 

To get yourself into action, put at least one of the suggestions in this article into practice this week, and keep me posted on your progress!

Savannah is a developmental editor and book coach who helps fiction authors write, edit, and publish stories that work. She also hosts the top-rated Fiction Writing Made Easy podcast full of actionable advice that you can put into practice right away. Click here to learn more →