Everyone makes mistakes—even writers—but that's OK 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 is ignoring your weaknesses.
Writing is a uniquely mysterious endeavor. We aren’t privy to the process like we are with most other art forms. Movies have making-of documentaries; television shows have behind-the-scenes specials; even fine artists are able to show you step-by-step progress if they so choose. I grew up on 1990s and early-00s MTV and VH1, and I was obsessed with “Making the Video” and “Behind the Music.” I've always loved witnessing the creative process.
This means many of us have come to writing not because of the craft of writing, but because of the way certain stories felt when we read them. We are presented with the final product, the beautifully illustrated copy with words we pore over and emblazon onto our hearts that help aspire us to our own storytelling. We don’t see the wrong turns, the mistakes, the restarts, and the moments the author felt in over their head.
But wrong turns happened, mistakes were made, false starts occurred, and the author likely learned something new about themselves, their writing, and their goals along the way.
This happened to me recently. A few writer friends and I have been participating in NaNoWriMo this year, and we were having an unofficial “write-in” one day. After an hour of writing, we reconvened and talked about how we felt.
“Honestly, not good,” I said. “I realized something that’s making me feel kind of anxious, and I’m nervous to say it out loud.”
What I realized is that I don’t feel like I’m particularly good at storytelling.
Now you might be thinking … what? Yeah, me too. But let me break it down a little bit.
I love writing atmosphere. I feel relatively confident writing about setting and characters. I love making a mirror of the details around a place, the particular aesthetics of a season, and how it might reflect a character’s emotions. I love laying the scene—it’s the most fun I have as a writer.
But often when I write with the purpose of propelling the plot forward, it doesn’t feel natural, authentic … good.
Plot has always eluded me as a writer and impressed me as a reader—especially in books that aren’t particularly plot-driven, and I was worried that acknowledging this so-called weakness would be damning to my process. You’re saying you can’t tell a story and you want to be a storyteller? I asked (bullied) myself. Good luck!
But my friends helped me unpack this and move beyond it.
Confronting the Problem
First, they asked me why I feel this way. “Because I know what I want to happen, but I don’t know how to make it happen,” I said.
Then they asked me to describe elements I felt like I could make happen. Easily and readily, I was able to name several scenes and moments that I wanted to write.
“Okay,” my friend Margie said. “Now tell me what you think your plot is in as few words as possible.”
I wrote down the shell of my idea in 11 words. We called this my five-second plot.
“Sounds to me like you know what you’re doing,” Margie said.
“But keep going,” my other friend, Lily, added. “Because there’s something here.”
And they were right. I was ready to give up completely because I wasn't fitting into what I pictured as a successful writer—not by way of publishing goals, but in the actual act of writing. I was hung up on my definition of plot that I was ignoring my strengths: character, place, and atmosphere. In focusing on what I feel confident writing, the plot presented itself in these moments. Plot can be large, overt, with enormous consequences—or it can be small, subconscious, and personal. Neither is wrong; it all depends on what kind of story you’re trying to tell. I decided to let my story start to speak for itself.
In recognizing what I considered my weakness, I allowed myself to lean into my strengths—and through that, my insecurities started to fade. They will come and go, for writing isn’t painless even after you’ve made a breakthrough, but knowing that I was able to work through an unconfident aspect of my writing felt like I was finally coming into my superpowers.
But it did more than that. It helped reveal just how mean I can be to myself in the process. Above, I mentioned that I felt like my writing wasn’t good when I’d sit down to write the plot. If you do something similar, stop now. There is simply nothing to learn in telling yourself that you’re not good at what you love—you just get in your own way. My friends helping me unpack my insecurity made me realize, too, that the process is beautifully messy, that what is on the page now in scribbles and half-formed thoughts are there for a reason—that they will become something greater in time, and critiquing them for not being perfect now is akin to stopping a haircut midway and saying it doesn’t look good.
So fellow writers, take heed when I advise you not to ignore your weaknesses. Every writer has their strengths, and your strengths are far more powerful than any weakness you think you might have—because a weakness is really just a challenge waiting for you to overcome.