Everyone makes mistakes—even writers—but that's okay because each mistake is a great learning opportunity. The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many mistakes over the years, so we started this series to help identify them early in the process. Note: The mistakes in this series aren't focused on grammar rules, though we offer help in that area as well.
Rather, we're looking at bigger picture mistakes and mishaps, including the error of using too much exposition, neglecting research, or researching too much. This week's writing mistake writers make is relying on perfect conditions to write.
Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Relying on Perfect Conditions to Write
In 2019, a year that seems so-far away now, I’d organized my life into a neat routine. I worked Monday–Friday, looking forward to Saturday mornings when I’d head to my favorite coffee shop, order a big breakfast and a pot of tea, then consume my feast beside my Macbook, typing away at whatever essay ideas came to my mind throughout the week.
I usually stayed at the coffee shop for about three hours and made significant progress with each draft. Although none of these pieces have been published, I defined “progress” by the fact that I established a regular writing process. Process is a great word to use, because after a few weeks of this routine I relied on eating that big breakfast, sipping that pot of tea, skimming through the stack of New Yorker magazines in the coffee shop, and furiously typing upwards of 1,500 words over a few hours to believe that I’d made progress in my writing. My first mistake was relying on one or all of these factors in order to feel accomplished—for we all know what changes would uproot our lives a few months later.
At first, I adapted my writing process to the new circumstances. The same word count, labored over while lying in bed with the Macbook and consuming an entire Reese’s chocolate bunny or some other treat with excessive sugar over the course of the writing session, in which I wrote the first drafts for a handful of new essays.
But with the newfound time I had from not commuting to work, canceled improv classes, and reduced work hours, I had more time than writing ideas and decided to fill that time helping my fiancé with his YouTube channel. He’d been working on the channel full-time for about a year and a half before that—often staying up all night to complete the many tasks that go into producing videos. With my help he could catch up on sleep, we could get more videos uploaded faster, and this would mean more revenue from the channel—helping us accomplish our dream of moving out of Cincinnati and buying our first home. Not to mention the fact that I would spend more time with him—something we didn’t get to do much while we were each dedicated mostly to our own pursuits.
My decision to help produce the YouTube was a win-win for both of us—until it meant that I didn’t have time to write anymore. As I took on more and more duties in producing the YouTube channel, my occasional hours-long blocks to write dried up. I gave up on creating anything useful during the occasional writing blocks I did have, because they were so rare that when they occurred I pressured myself into thinking I had to produce something on the verge of publishable or else that time was wasted. I’d nervously stare at a blank Google Document until I spent my entire free day doing something pointless, like skimming through episodes of “Degrassi: The Next Generation” because I remembered that one episode I saw as a teen that was beyond stupid and couldn’t stop until I refreshed my memory on every other stupid episode in the series. (Which is to say, all of them.)
I mistakenly believed that I could no longer write while working two jobs, and that I’d have to put off every writing idea I had. That all the strange places my mind wanders off to when I have a few spare minutes are simply that—silly ideas that waste time. Until one day I took an online class in writing topical satire through Pandemic University that I’d signed up for a few weeks before.
Mistake Fix: Taking Notes and Advantage of Moments
Seeing the wonderful instructor, Caitlin Kunkel, walk through the steps of writing a topical satire piece changed my theory of how I could produce writing. I had never referenced any articles or classes about how to write satire, despite having attempted to write in the genre a few times before. Caitlin’s process involved reading and researching the thing you’d like to satirize, while highlighting scenes, facts, turns of phrase, etc. that you find funny or interesting. These notes can then evolve into jokes that can be tied to a point of view for the piece.
Caitlin’s instruction gave me a vision of how I could turn my random writing ideas into publishable pieces, and I realized my tendency to get distracted is really just my brain researching a topic—which I could tell myself was “writing progress” and engage with this process even if I didn’t feel like writing.
I put Caitlin’s method to the test for an idea I wrote down last year in the “idea notebook” I keep in my purse: that bath bombs are just a fancy way to give yourself a UTI. Bath bombs never fail to delight me with how glittery and colorful they are—yet I stop short of buying them when I think about actually using them, in a bathtub that I put my feet in, in a bathroom that I should probably clean more often (when writing time evaporates, so too does time for household chores).
In step one of formulating a satire piece out of this idea, I took a few minutes before I went to sleep one night to brainstorm the reasons why I think baths are gross. Then, I spent about an hour one morning reading the copy for bath bombs being sold on the Lush website, writing down everything that stuck out as weird or silly–such as the fact that Lush puts popping candy in one of their bath bombs. (Caitlin also pointed out that good satire comes from a place of love, and I do love Lush.)
With these two sets of notes written, my brain easily paired imagined gross bathroom scenarios with details about Lush products. I organized my jokes, picking a different Lush product for each gross bath-time scenario, and wrote these horror stories in the voice of the Lush catalog, which I learned to emulate by reading the website. Typing the first draft of what turned out to be “Lush Catalog Re-Written to Reflect How Gross Your Bathroom Is,” took about an hour. This became my final draft after reading the piece to my fiancé, who told me it was the best thing I’d ever written and suggested taking out one UTI joke that was TMI. I sent the piece out and within two weeks it was accepted by The Belladonna, a publication I’d set sights on getting a byline in a while ago. Getting my first piece published in over one year whispered progress to my writer brain.
I found success using this strategy again when the joke movie title Rudolph and the Island of Misfit Amazon Returns popped in my head. Still not sure where it came from, but an online shopping addiction, watching a few YouTube videos in which vloggers bought a box of Amazon returns, skimming through Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, and a PS5 joke from my fiancé was all the research I needed before I was writing down jokes for a Rudolph satire piece in between cooking eggs for breakfast. The finished product was accepted by Little Old Lady Comedy and optioned by Amazon Studios for development into a TV series. (One of these things is true.)
The lesson learned is that I shouldn’t put off writing because I don’t have the time or mental energy. It’s better to adjust my strategy to work within the capacity I already have and to shamelessly embrace my current obsessions. Between working two jobs, preparing for a cross-country move, and possibly developing a new TV series, “free time” is a thing of my past. Yet the moments spent waiting for video files to render, the kettle to heat up, the grocery pickup to be ready, etc. are all moments to engage with the writing process.
If you love to write and have a story you want to tell, the only thing that can stand between you and the success you’re seeking isn’t craft, or a good agent, or enough Facebook friends and Twitter followers, but fear. Fear that you aren’t good enough, or fear the market is too crowded, or fear no one wants to hear from you. Fortunately, you can’t write while being in the flow and be afraid simultaneously. The question is whether you will write fearlessly.