Failing Your Way to Success: 6 Reasons for Writers to Make Mistakes

I never make misteaks.

–Anonymous

To achieve anything you must be brave enough to fail.   

–Kirk Douglas

There is one simple way to avoid ever making another mistake: Do nothing. You’ll never make a mistake if you don’t do anything. But the more ambitious you are, the more mistakes you can count on making in achieving your goals. Failure is as necessary as the success it leads to is inevitable.

Here are six reasons why you should relish failure:

1. Failure is essential to your success.

The Israeli statesman Abba Eban once said that men and nations always act wisely once they’ve exhausted the alternatives. Unfortunately, people keep creating new alternatives. In writing as in life, you back into success by first doing things that don’t work. Sooner or later, you wind up with whatever’s left. The most important rule in The Elements of Style is “Omit needless words.” If you do that, the only words you have left are the ones you need.

2. Failing is the only way for you to succeed.

You will not get your book right on your first draft, but you will have something that you can keep improving until it’s ready to sell. It’s been said that “You don’t have to be good at the start, but you do have to start to be good.” The only thing you can’t fix is a blank page. First, you have to get something written, then revise it until you get it right. First comes the poetry, then comes the carpentry. If you learn from your mistakes, getting your work right is inevitable. It’s not a question of if, only a question of when.

3. The faster you fail, the faster you’ll succeed.

The actor Tallulah Bankhead once said: “If I had to live my life again, I’d make the same mistakes—only sooner.” The faster you fail, the sooner you’ll make all the mistakes you need to make to get your work right, so the faster you’ll succeed. So fail as often as you must, because the faster you fail and learn from your mistakes, the sooner you’ll achieve your literary and publishing goals.

4. You learn more from failure than success.

Success teaches you how to write well enough to sell. But it can also takes the edge off your need to learn, be creative and grow. It can tempt you to write more of the same, only different. Failure prods you to find a more effective way of expressing your ideas. You may remember the famous Thomas Edison quote about inventing the light bulb. “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” You won’t have to write your  book that many times.

5. Writing is a forgiving art.

If a jazz musician screws up when taking a solo, there’s no help for it. But you can make as many mistakes in your writing as you need to before submitting it. Your critique group and early readers will help you know when you’ve written your last draft, and only the draft you submit counts. Because the process takes as long as it takes, the challenge is to have enough patience to to make the execution of your idea   as strong as the idea itself.

6. Making mistakes helps prevents them.

The faster you learn, the more adept you’ll become in avoiding mistakes in later drafts. Spotting them  in advance will enable you to save time. You’ll starting catching them before your fingertips hit the keys. You’ll increase your ability to predict the effectiveness of words and how they flow into each other; sentence structure; and story, setting, and character development.

But take heart. As you grow creatively and try new forms of writing, you’ll find new ways to make mistakes. After all, what could be more boring than perfection?

Comments

  1. Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new. –Einstein

    Accepting that mistakes are inevitable, and keep learning from them, and success is just as inevitable.
    Onward!

    Mike

    [Reply]

  2. I just found your blog today, and couldn’t help but comment on this post. I failed – big time – and I believe I am the better for it. I self-published a book, and found out it was only a first draft. Needless to say, the 100 or so people who sampled it never bought a copy. :)

    Embarrassing to be sure, but it lead me to an editor who got me on the write (I mean right) track. I unpublished the book and am now using his advice to rewrite it. Had I not failed so dramatically, I would not have internalized and applied his critique so completely.

    It’s been just over a year since I published the book, and I could not have come so far in that time had it not been for my ‘epic fail’.

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  3. Admin says:

    Never give up. Many thanks for the links! Good luck with your writing!

    [Reply]

  4. Admin says:

    You’re welcome. Glad you found it helpful.

    [Reply]

  5. Admin says:

    Many thanks for writing about this. There’s truth in what you say and a blog post worth writng about the subject, but it’s the basis of a conversation. There are endless variables that affect success, among them ability, access to resources, the personal and professional circumstances in which one is working, how the market for what is producing changes, the quality of the feedback one receives on one’s efforts, how realistic one’s goals are and whether at some point being successful requires changing them, not to mention luck. Most people who succeed have encountered failure. Will everybody succeed? Of course not. But most people can.

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  6. Kate says:

    “Failure is as necessary as the success it leads to is inevitable.”

    I have serious issues with that statement. I certainly agree that we can learn from failures, and even need them to make us better. BUT what I’ve stopped believing is that life is fair, and those who fail and learn from it will eventually succeed … because that’s just not how it is, or what I’ve truly seen. Sometimes very good people don’t succeed (at writing or academia or sports or music or …) not because there is something horribly wrong with what they’ve done or because they lack talent, but because of other factors over which they have no control. These can range from simply not knowing the right people (sometimes it really is WHO you know, not what you know), to having done something that is not what the “market” wants, or is ahead (or behind) it’s time.

    So no, failing and learning from it will not “inevitably” lead to success. Sometimes it just leads to more failures. The problem is you don’t hear THOSE stories because those aren’t success stories and who wants to print that? But it’s true, and I might have more respect for encouragement to continue trying if the people writing such encouragement at least realistically admitted that sometimes, the end result may never be success at all. One may end up simply failing. Or any success one has may never be known in one’s lifetime (after all, Confucius died a “failure” as far as he was concerned … and even if he’s the Moral Father of China today, who wants to have Confucius’ luck?).

    The REAL reason to keep trying is that, if one doesn’t, then failure is certain. But don’t tell people that if they fail enough, they’ll inevitably succeed … because some of them won’t. It’s not pretty, but it’s true.

    [Reply]

  7. Ah, yes. I fail constantly in my taekwondo tournaments. But I keep training and going back for more. Thanks for the blog.

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  8. This is a treasured find. I was starting to feel like a failure, yet I know I am not because I refuse to give up. It is always nice to know we are at least on the right road or at least headed in the general direction.

    You have a lot of wisdom. Thank you for sharing.

    (hope you don’t mind if I tack a link to here on my blog and website)

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  9. Glad you didn’t fail to read it and found it helpful. Please call or write with questions. Good luck with your writing.

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  10. Many thanks! Please call or write with questions. Best of luck with your writing.

    [Reply]

  11. Hi Mike! Congrats on being listed as one of the top publishing blogs on Writer’s Digest… I’m so glad I found you. I just spent an hour looking through your archives and you have so many great ideas for non-fiction writers. I’ll be back!

    [Reply]

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  1. [...] came out of my funk, I started writing. I also started reading. Here is an amazing blog post about failure. Son of a gun, but that was timely. Here is another about manufacturing writing time. Thank you, I [...]

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