The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes by Jack M. Bickham

Everything I know about craft I’ve learned from writing books. How-to books can’t teach good work habits and they can’t teach artistic vision. They can, however, teach basic writing technique. The more basic, the more easily taught (and learned), so that is what most how-to books focus on.

The title of THE 38 MOST COMMON FICTION WRITING MISTAKES made me wary. Would this be one long rant about everything writers do wrong? But no worries–Bickham lists each mistake and gives examples of it, but quickly moves to the solution. He explains why some things don’t work and gives alternatives. The book is just over 100 pages, so none of the 38 topics is dealt with in any depth. It’s fine for a quick introduction, but it doesn’t go beyond that.

The chapters have titles like “Don’t Describe Sunsets” and “Don’t Lecture Your Reader” and “Don’t Ignore Scene Structure.” These are all things Bickham has encountered several times in student work and he does a decent job of clearing up the mistakes. Other chapters teach things like using all five senses, keeping consistent point of view, and starting in the middle of the action. A few chapters go beyond craft to Bickham’s opinion of critique groups (bad), editors (good), and the market (unpredictable), none of them more than a scant few pages each.

The words “most common” are in the title for a reason. This book helped me avoid obvious errors but it didn’t teach me the subtle stuff that good writers need to know. It might help a new writer finish a story, but the story will probably lack the style and flair that good fiction needs. Another danger is that THE 38 MOST COMMON FICTION WRITING MISTAKES could stifle creativity. Focusing on these absolute rules could strangle artistic vision. In other words, I could avoid all 38 mistakes and still write crap.

Bickham does a good job warning new writers about basic pitfalls and steering them toward something better. If you’re reading a lot of how-to books, adding this one to your to-be-read pile won’t hurt you. But we all have fixed budgets of both time and money, so it’s probably better to spend them elsewhere.


rating: 3 stars


This book is best for: beginning writers


I recommend this book or Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain or Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

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