How can you fail better as a writer?

Reading time: About 3 minutes

Most of us prefer to succeed, but if we have to fail, it’s possible to fail better as a writer…

You’ve undoubtedly already heard Samuel Beckett’s advice: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” 

It comes from his second-to-last piece of work ever published, Worstward Ho, a short piece of prose you can read here.

While Beckett wasn’t trying to be positive or inspirational (he was a pretty gloomy guy, genuinely interested in failure), I’m going to take the quote in the way it’s typically interpreted today: a rah-rah encouragement not to let failures get you down.

Of course, some writers expect they should succeed right away. Even though they understand that, say, selling a book is a long-term project, they see the issue as a marketing problem — why aren’t more agents/publishers interested? — or a societal problem — why aren’t more people reading? 

But these are not the kinds of “fails” I’m thinking about. I’m more interested when writing is the problem. After all, writing is not an activity that should flow effortlessly from brain to page. It takes lots of false starts. Lots of experimentation. And many failures. 

If you’re trying to become a better writer, here are seven ways you can fail better:

1-Don’t procrastinate in the early stages

Some writers are so scared of making mistakes, they endlessly delay getting started. I suggest that all writers start working on a piece the very first day it’s assigned to them (or when the idea occurs). The longer we think about writing projects — without doing any work on them — the more challenging and intimidating they become. Before we know it, that writing assignment has become a monster. Don’t let yourself fail that way. Start immediately by doing some research and planning. 

2-Don’t write too soon

On the other hand, I’ve also found that many writers, freaked out by their deadlines, are eager to put words on the page as quickly as possible. This is almost always a mistake. Instead, make sure you’re adequately prepared before writing. This means allowing enough time for thinking — ideally when you’re away from your desk. (And if you worry about forgetting something important, have your cellphone with you while you’re out so you can record some notes.) 

3-Stop researching while you write

Researching is interesting, but it’s not nearly as creative as thinking or writing. Do your researching first and your thinking and writing later. This will not only stop you from becoming a glorified recording secretary, but it will also help you preserve the creativity your writing requires. Oh, and be sure to keep a research diary. Such a journal is a great way to make your research process more productive because it will force you to evaluate the quality of what you’re reading and taking notes on.

4-Write as quickly as you can

The sole purpose of writing is to get ideas out of your head and onto the page or screen. This is not the time to have any concerns about quality. It’s the time to be loosey-goosey, crazy, experimental, devil-may-care. Keep reminding yourself that no one else will see your writing until you choose to hand it over to them. (And, of course, you won’t do this until you’ve edited it. See step 6.)

5-Stop editing while you write

People who edit while they write are worse writers and worse editors than they need to be. They’re worse writers because they can’t allow their creative brains to run free while their nasty internal editors are so busy criticizing. And they’re worse editors because they don’t yet have enough perspective on — or distance from — their work. 

6-Give yourself incubation time before editing

When you incubate, take a complete break after having written a piece, before you start editing it. You push your story/manuscript to one side, and you think about or work on something else. This break allows you to form a new perspective on what you’ve written. And it allows you to expect the types of questions your readers are most likely to have. It makes you a much, much better editor. For deadline work, I recommend an incubation time of 24 hours, and for long-form projects such as books or dissertations, I suggest a minimum of six weeks.

7-Allow ample time for editing

The number one mistake I see many writers make is that they don’t allow themselves nearly enough time for editing. They S-T-R-E-T-C-H the writing process as if it were a ball of pulling taffy, and then they run out of time for editing. Don’t allow this to happen! Start your work early, write quickly, edit aggressively.

Sure, you will make some mistakes along the way. You might delay writing too long. You might make an error with a citation. Your first draft may be unbearably crappy. 

But as long as you allow ample time for editing, these are all better mistakes than the ones you were making before. And they are mistakes that will help you improve your writing.

You can learn to write only by doing it. Don’t let perfectionism hold you back. Instead, keep trying secure in the knowledge that you’ll get a little better each time you do it. And remember this anonymous quote, often attributed to Winston Churchill: “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.”

This is a substantially updated version of a post that first appeared on my blog on Sept. 28/21.


Are you a procrastinator looking for help in building a sustainable writing practice? I’m starting a new online workshop next week. You’ll pick a topic you want to write about. I’ll then walk you through, day-by-day, a detailed and easy-to-follow plan for how to do it. You’ll come away with checklists, cheat-sheets and a system in place, all ready to go. Email me if you want more info.


My video podcast last week addressed how to get clients to meet their deadlines. Go here to see the transcript or watch the video, and you can also  subscribe to my YouTube channel. 


How could you fail better as a writer? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below.  Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Jan. 31/24 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!

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