8 Red Flags of Writing . . . or How Not to be a Failed Writer

Adron J. Smitley
9 min readDec 2, 2023


1. Not reading and writing every single day: Do you want to know the ‘secret formula’ to becoming a good writer? Read and write for hours every single day for years. That’s it. There’s no magic pill to swallow or special product to buy. It just requires two things most people aren’t willing to apply: hard work and dedication. It may take you one year or twenty years or anywhere in between, but if you read and write for hours every single day then you will go from a bad writer to a good writer and, if you persist for long enough, eventually a great writer. It really is a simple as that, and don’t let anyone (especially yourself) convince you otherwise.

2. Not having a daily minimum word count: How do you know if you are a lazy writer who isn’t taking your writing seriously? 1. if you get less than 1,000 words per day, and 2. if it takes you longer than 3 months to finish your first draft.

The average person types 40 words per minute. That’s 2,400 words per hour. Now obviously you’re not going to write nonstop like this all of the time, so we’ll shrink it down to less than half of that at a bare minimum of 1,000 words per day — not per hour but per day because why not choose the slow and steady tortoise vs. hare route? So we’ll go with getting 1,000 words per day written. That’s 90,000 words in 3 months for your first draft.

Publishers have long since discovered that the preferred length of the average novel a reader is willing to invest their time and money in is 80,000 words (this of course varies by genre, as well when writing YA or adult fiction) which is why most publishers’ submission guidelines hover somewhere around this 80,000 word mark. And if you spend 3 months banging out that measly 1,000 words per day minimum for a 90,000 word first draft then you’re golden like Ponyboy. Now you just need to polish it through revising, rewriting and editing — which you should also set as another 3 months as your goal for a total of 6 months from scratch to finish if you are a serious writer craving authorship. Anything less and you’re just being too lazy to function.

3. Editing while writing: You know who you are. You spend 10 minutes writing then 20 minutes editing what you just wrote, rinse and repeat, all while trying to make everything perfect the first go-around and after several hours you end up having only a couple of pages written at most.

The #1 rule to writing productivity is: write first, edit last.

Stop spinning your wheels by editing while you write because it only slows you down as well you will have to edit your novel again anyways — several times, in fact. Accept that your first draft is not going to be perfect (actually, convincing yourself that it’s going to be nothing more than a steaming pile of crap when you finish it helps relieve you from all the pressure of trying to make it perfect) and this will relax your mind which does creative wonders for your writing.

4. Procrastinating out the wazoo: Do you know what you’re doing by spending months or even years writing all of that backstory and world-building and charting family trees for every character and blah blah blah? You are convincing yourself that you’re writing when you are not actually writing. In other words you are procrastinating. Stop. First, most of that stuff isn’t even going to be in your finished novel but for brief references. Secondly, your job is to get us to care about your characters as soon as possible by establishing empathy and relatability, and until then we won’t care about the long and rich tapestry you’ve woven as their backstory. Sorry to break the news to you but that’s the truth. When you hit your readers from page one with block after block of boring backstory they will skip ahead if not close your book and pick a new one to read. Remember, if your backstory is so damn important then it wouldn’t be backstory, it would be the story.

5. Using NaNoWriMo as your only excuse for writing: If you take your writing seriously then every month to you should be NaNoWriMo. I know so many unsuccessful writers who are lazy all year long and only write sporadically then get excited come October that they are going to write every single day when November starts. News flash: there’s nothing special about November! Again, if you take your writing seriously then every month to you should be NaNoWriMo.

An easy solution for those of you full of ‘too busy’ excuses: go to sleep half an hour later and wake up half an hour earlier. This gives you one hour of writing per day.

6. Planning too far ahead: I get it; you love reading series or trilogies and you want to write one right off the bat as your first go-around but you’ve never written or published anything before. I applaud your enthusiasm, I really do, but you’re putting the cart miles ahead of the horse.

A fun fact I adore about writing is that things will change while writing. All of those wonderful books you’ve spent weeks or months or even years outlining ahead of the first one you haven’t even finished yet can suddenly become null and void because a completely unexpected though undeniably superior scene pops into your head while writing or revising the first draft of the first novel in your planned series and demands you insert it for sake of story improvement, thus changing your story from that point forward in drastically unplanned ways because of that delightful moment of wonderful epiphany. This is why I always refer to plot outlines as starting blueprints only; they are not meant to be paint-by-numbers restrictions but a map of possibilities.

Planning too far ahead also leads you down the dark path of leaving things out (events, scenes, situations, characters, whatnot) from your first novel because you want to save them for future novels as yet unwritten while not understanding that you might be hurting your first novel in so doing.

Also, it is much harder to plot out a trilogy than a standalone novel.

I love using the most famous trilogy as example: The Lord of the Rings!

The midpoint of the Fellowship story by itself is the Council of Elrond when Frodo interrupts all of the arguing with his declaration that he will take the One Ring to Mordor . . . though he does not know the way. But for the overall trilogy, the Council of Elrond is not the midpoint but the Act 1 Key Event.

See the problem?

If you do not have a firm grasp on plot, then trying to map out an entire trilogy as well each of its individual books will lead only to confusion because the plot points won’t match up so they’ll get all jumbled in your head.

Even established authors have a hard time writing trilogies — let alone an entire series of novels — because of this, which is why most of them don’t bother.

That’s why it is well-advised, at least for your first several novels, to plan them as standalones.

It’s also much harder to get potential readers interested in reading the first book in a series for several reasons. The series isn’t finished yet, and lots of readers prefer to wait until it’s completed before investing their time and money into it. Readers also have to worry about the series never being finished due to the author getting distracted by other projects (here’s looking at you George R. R. Martin) or even the author’s untimely demise because they’re old and accidents both natural and unnatural can happen (Robert Jordan, author of The Wheel of Time fantasy series, is a perfect example, though thankfully Brandon Sanderson swooped in to save the day while writing a great finish to the beloved series after Jordan’s death). As well the reader must worry that they might invest years in reading your unfinished series only to discover halfway through that they hate what you’ve done with the characters and/or story so that they don’t want to continue reading it anymore and now feel they’ve wasted all that time and money on a series they’ll never finish. Also, there exists the very real possibility that you write a mediocre first book and readers just won’t want to continue reading despite all that you’ve planned ahead for them to enjoy.

Focus on one novel at a time and make it the best you possibly can, at least until you get some experience under your belt. Only then should you try tackling writing a trilogy or a series.

7. Not planning ahead at all: Every writer starts out as a pantser so I get it, you mainstay pantsers enjoy not knowing what will happen in your stories until you write it. But there’s two problems with that: 1. failing to plan is planning to fail, and 2. specific plot points are necessary because other plot points demand it.

Picture yourself a comedian, with the Act 3 Climax the punch-line and everything in your story leading up to it the set-up of your new joke.

You tell someone the set-up then hit them with the appropriate punch-line and they get your joke while laughing. Because the punch-line matches the set-up. That is a well-plotted story.

Now take the set-up from one joke and the punch-line from a completely unrelated joke then combine them. When you tell your joke and no one laughs it’s not because they don’t understand your ‘artistic vision’, it’s because the punch-line doesn’t match the set-up so the joke isn’t funny a.k.a. the story makes no sense.

Never blame the reader for your bad story; they didn’t write it, you did.

Imagine Star Wars: A New Hope as the same story we know all the way up to Luke seconds away from blowing up the Death Star. That’s the set-up to your story joke, and because of it you already know the appropriate punch-line is Luke using the Force to make the otherwise impossible shot that blows up the Death Star.

Now imagine the same set-up but with a different punch-line: just before Luke can make the impossible shot, Darth Vader bumps Luke’s X-wing aside and blows up the Death Star instead.

You cannot have a triumphant protagonist set-up paired with a tragic protagonist punch-line (or vice versa) because that story makes no sense a.k.a. the joke isn’t funny because the punch-line doesn’t match the set-up.

8. Not leaving enough room for the reader’s imagination: Stop over-describing everything and everyone and leave plenty of room for the reader’s active imagination to fill in the blanks. This helps personalize your story to that particular reader because we all possess different imaginations drawing from different life experiences.

If I say my protagonist hopped into his ’98 Buick and drove away, one of you might imagine it as a faded-red jalopy babe-repellent sputtering along the road because that’s what you used to drive, while another of you might imagine it as a finely-tuned glossy-black sex-machine that hits zero to sixty in less than 5, or anywhere in between.

Obviously you want to describe all the essentials of your story, but make sure to leave plenty of blanks for the reader’s own imagination to fill in too.

It’s okay to give a simplified description of a character having long blonde hair or sharp blue eyes and leave it at that because the reader’s mind will automatically fill in the blanks while detailing the accompanying features with people they know, and often of themselves if they relate to or empathize with or admire the character enough . . . which is what you truly want to happen for them so they can feel as if experiencing your story firsthand even if only in their active imagination.

Never forget: the true joy of all stories is escapism.

The better the writer, the easier the reader’s suspension of disbelief.


The Great Fiction Cheat Sheet: (promotional giveaway: FREE on Amazon all day Saturday, December 2nd, ‘23)
STOMPING KITTENS: a punching babies sequel
The 10 Day Novella Writing Method for Plotters and Pantsers
Steal this Story!: how to write great fiction with one stolen sentence



Adron J. Smitley

Blog for writers on everything plot, character, and story structure architecture at: adronjsmitley.blogspot.com