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 writers make is only looking to the “classics” for inspiration.
Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Only Looking to the “Classics” for Inspiration
When we think of “classic” literature, a lot of the time, we might automatically think about the literature we were taught in school. From Shakespeare to Hemmingway, our English classrooms are generally where we are taught what “good” writing looks like.
If you would have asked me as a high schooler what writers I wanted to be like, I might have said Steinbeck or Salinger. I equated my English teacher’s respect for them with success—after all, aren’t they the authors of the Greatest American Novels?
What I didn’t realize then is that my “classic” education was extremely narrow. They were usually white, straight, and male. When you google “classic novels,” the definition grows only a little bit with the inclusion of authors like Alice Walker and Louisa May Alcott. This is not to say that they don’t deserve to be on the list—but The Color Purple wasn’t even an option for me to read in my English classes growing up.
The first workshop I ever had in my MFA program, the professor asked us to go around the room and tell the class the most recent book we’d read. When it came to be my turn, I excitedly mentioned a sci-fi book that had absolutely swept me off my feet. Another student immediately wrinkled their nose and said, “Really? That book? That’s not good sci-fi.” But if I loved the book, doesn’t that make it a good book in my eyes?
I think that’s the most dangerous thing about “classic” literature—there can be a culture of snobbery (and, let’s face it, racism, sexism, and about every other -ism under the sun) that could make new writers feel like they need to shoot for their work to be “literary.” But as an adult, if you ask me what writers I want to be like, Steinbeck and Salinger don’t make the list. It’s not because I look down on their work, but because I’ve worked to build my personal canon.
Mistake Fix: Build Your Personal Canon
The concept of a personal canon wasn’t something I considered until I was talking about books with my spouse and a friend of ours. We were discussing starting a book club, and our friend mentioned that she’d never read Dune, which was only a surprise because we know about her deep love for all things sci-fi.
“It’s always been on my TBR list,” she said, “but it never made it into my personal canon.”
That little comment blew my mind. It’s such a simple idea, but when you’re a writer, your understanding of genre can absolutely be shaped by your personal canon. For example, I consider myself a rabid fan of horror. I was raised by a mother who adored reading horror novels and watching horror shows—we spent many a night watching “Creepshow” reruns on TV. But when I told my horror-loving spouse that I’d never read Dracula, it nearly took him off his feet.
No, Dracula isn’t in my personal canon … but Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler is.
When you’re thinking about your personal canon, start with the genre you like to write. Then, think about the books in that genre that were really hard to put down—what sucked you in? Was it the world-building, the surprise twist at the end, the character development? Is there something about those books that you’d like to translate in your work, even if it’s just the way reading it made you feel?
And don’t be afraid to expand your personal canon! Here are a few ways I’ve done that:
- Look at what might be missing in your personal canon. When I was in school, I realized pretty quickly that I wasn’t reading a lot of authors of color, queer authors, neurodivergent, or authors with disabilities. Part of the reason I love reading is that it takes me to worlds and experiences beyond what I see and feel every day—reading books by people who are different than me have opened my eyes to so many things I wouldn’t have learned otherwise, as well as helped me to get to know myself better!
- Following my favorite authors on social media. Writers love to talk about books that excite them! By reading what your favorite authors are reading, you might encounter new favorite books (and authors!) that you might not have known about otherwise.
- Listening to author-run or other book-related podcasts! Our very own Editor Michael Woodson co-hosts the B**k-It Podcast, which so happens to be a perfect example of what I mean when I say that a podcast can give you insights into books that you might not have considered reading before. You can read more about author podcasts in the upcoming January/February 2022 issue of Writer’s Digest, hitting shelves January 1, 2022!
- Another way is by keeping an eye out for our Author Spotlights here on the blog! If you read an interview by an author and you love what they have to say, you might end up with a book on your TBR that can inspire you to take your writing in a new direction. A great example of this for me was Jesse Q. Sutanto’s author spotlight from April 2021; I loved her interview and decided to check out her book Dial A for Aunties, which used humor in a way that I found super relatable and fun! I wouldn’t consider myself a humorous writer, but after reading her book, I thought, “Maybe I could do that, too!”
If you take anything away from this article, I hope it’s that we should all have an open mind about what constitutes a “good” book. Sure, it can be useful to study Great American Novels, especially in an academic setting. But it’s also a good idea to read authors who embody the kind of writing you’d like to give your audience. There are so many amazing books out there for us to explore and celebrate!