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5 Mistakes First-Time Writers Make

This past month I’ve gotten inspiring emails from all sorts of new writers, from high school students to retirees. One thing is clear: you’re never too old (or too young) to write a novel. If you’ve been thinking about writing a book — and who hasn’t? — remind yourself that the best day to start is today.

I’ve fielded a few writing questions lately about some crucial writing basics, like manuscript format and chapter length. If you have a lingering question, don’t make the mistake of guessing at the answer. Find out for sure. Who knows? You might be surprised!

Q: Hello there, I was just about to start my own novel and wanted to know if I double space everything or no?

A: Yes, in your final manuscript, you want to double-space everything except your contact information. It’s easy; just go up to your paragraph spacing and choose 2.0. (Or if you’re using a typewriter, just click the little spacing lever.) Also, remember to give yourself one-inch margins all around.

Q: What size of font do publishers use?

A: Your finished manuscript should be in 12 point Courier New or Times New Roman. Courier used to be the only acceptable font; now, more and more agents are requesting Times. When you’re finally ready to submit your novel, check the submission guidelines of the places you’re sending your manuscript. For your drafts, just use whatever font is comfortable.

Q: How long is a novel?

A: The exact range depends on your genre. In most cases, a novel should be more than 50,000 words and usually less that 120,000. It needs to tell the story of your main character setting out to achieve a specific goal, and then show how that character achieves it (or fails).

Q: Do I decide where a chapter ends? Or does that come later with an editor?

A: You decide on the length of your chapters. In fact, your chapters are one of the best ways to control the pacing of your novel. Take a careful look at published books like the one you want to write: How long are those chapters? How do they end? How do they begin? A little studying goes a long way.

Bonus tip: you can make your chapters as long or as short as you want; Dostoyevsky wrote chapters that went on forever; Kurt Vonnegut’s chapters were sometimes only one word. The key is to make each chapter change something in your story and move it one step closer to the end.

Q: I’m just starting my first novel. Can you recommend a good book of writing tips?

A: I highly recommend the book The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes by Jack M. Bickham. You can find it your library or on Amazon for a buck. It’s priceless.

Got a writing question? Don’t see the answer here? Just ask me. And in the meantime, have fun writing!


  1. Laurence MacNaughton

    The best thing you can do is push on to the end of the novel. You'll learn so much just by doing. Once you've finished the first draft, set it aside for at least a month (and don't peek) before you go back and start editing. If you catch yourself editing out all of the personality in a scene, try writing it in first person (I did this, I said that). That will help keep your voice authentic. Above all, have fun with it!

  2. dj

    Hi, I've never written a novel before but have decided to try. Can you tell me how many scenes are usually in a novel? I have outlined my story into 30 chapters. Does that mean I should have one scene per chapter?

  3. Laurence MacNaughton

    Hi DJ! A novel can have any number of scenes or chapters. They're not the same thing, though. A “scene” involves a character trying to achieve a specific short-term goal, and it ends when the character achieves it or fails. Usually, a scene takes place in just one location. On the other hand, a “chapter” can be one scene or a collection of many scenes. Some genres (like Fantasy) work better with longer chapters, while other genres (like Thrillers) tend to have short chapters. Your best bet is to go ahead and write the book, scene by scene, and then divvy it up into chapters after you're done.

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