The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How To Avoid Them)

The stars have aligned, and the notes on 379 pages and 163 paper scraps are ready for the first draft. The desire to become a published fiction writer is climaxing, and the dream is only 60,000 words away from an editor’s approval. Writing club members, family, and friends “really like the story.” Extra hours are dedicated to complete the manuscript. Pride radiates from the soul as the manuscript is mailed to publishers. Then the rejection letters begin to appear in the mail. What do you do?

The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How To Avoid Them) by Jack M. BickhamA suggestion is to read The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How To Avoid Them), by Jack M. Bickham (1930–1997), an accomplished author and journalism professor at the University of Oklahoma.

Jack M. Bickham published seventy-five novels—some under the pseudonym John Miles, Jeff Collins, and Arthur Williams. Two of his books were turned into movies: Apple Dumpling Gang, and Baker’s Hawk. Bickham also wrote seven instructional books about fiction writing.

He was an assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma beginning in 1969 and achieved full professor standing in 1979. The University of Oklahoma recognized him with their highest honor for teaching excellence: a David Ross Boyd Professor.

“In more than twenty years of teaching courses in professional writing at the University of Oklahoma, I think I’ve encountered almost every difficulty an aspiring writer might face. … So, despite the fact that I’ve chosen to write this book from what seems a negative stance, telling you what you shouldn’t do, please don’t fall into the trap of thinking negatively, or backwards, about my writing. … But my message is positive—always.” (From the Forward of The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes)

“Bickham chose the word ‘Forward’ to replace ‘Foreword’ emphasizing two vital points: All good fiction moves forward; all good writers look ahead.” (From the Forward of The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes)

The chapters cover everything from getting your project started to preparing a manuscript package for an editor, and finishes with encouragement to start writing and keep writing.

Several entertaining chapters deal with character development: “Don’t Use Real People in Your Story”, “Don’t Write About Wimps”, and “Don’t Duck Trouble.”

This well written, well organized, and to-the-point book is a great reference for any writer. A sampling of the thirty-eight writing topics includes:

  • Writing vivid compelling characters
  • Getting started
  • Writing to readers
  • Patience
  • Perseverance
  • Using “said”
  • Conflict
  • Avoiding coincidence
  • Clarity for readers
  • Point of view

Bickham offers guidance on who to seek advice from:

“But to ask a club member, relative or friend for criticism is mostly a waste of time for at least two reasons: they won’t be honest; they usually don’t know what they are doing anyway.” (Chapter 30, pg 85).

“A good writing coach is not just a teacher; he is an advisor, hand-holder, slave driver, critic, friend, psychologist, editor, even inspirational guru.” (Chapter 31, pg 89).

The chapters are one to three pages in length, and concisely describe common writing mistakes, and correct methods. Bickham has filled the 112-pages with valuable information, exercises, and examples.

“Where are the problems? Editors rarely take the time to map them out, so Jack Bickham has. In this book, he spotlights the 38 most common fiction writing land minds—writing mistakes that can dynamite story ideas into slush pile rejects.” (From Back Cover of The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes)

I originally thought “minds” was a typo, but have decided it was on purpose—much like the use of “Forward” for “Foreword.” “Minds” emphasizes that good fiction is born from the application of the writer’s craft, quality, knowledge, and understanding. As beauty is in the eye of the beholder, good fiction is in the skilled mind of the writer.



BAheadshotAndean White
– Author of Heroic Fantasy
Twitter: @AndeanWhite

As a young boy at family gatherings, I recall listening to the men after a meal. The opinions around the subjects of politics, car brands, hippies, and rock n roll filled the room with energy like aromatic smoke from a pipe. But, when the story telling began everyone found a seat or patch of floor. We sat for hours absorbing the stories, fact or fiction, that shaped who we became and it strengthened our imaginations. Fifty years later I know that a world without imagination would be pretty boring.

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Author: Andean White

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