How can you fail better as a writer?

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Most of us would rather succeed than fail better, but failing is one of the best ways you can learn to be a better writer…

You’ve undoubtedly already heard Samuel Becket’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’s argument was not originally intended to be either positive or inspirational (Beckett 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 tend to see the issue as a marketing problem — why aren’t more agents/publishers interested? — or a societal problem — why aren’t more people reading? 

In researching this piece, I came across a post under the headline “Every mistake in the book: 99 writing, publishing and marketing fails.” 

It included such items as:

  • Trying to be perfect (#11)
  • Hiring the wrong agent (#15)
  • Failing to create a business plan for your book (#18)
  • Failing to ask for reviews (#27)
  • Buying Amazon reviews (#48)

But these are not the kinds of “fails” I’m thinking about. I’m more interested in cases when the 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 five ways you can fail better:

1-Don’t write too soon. I’ve found many writers, freaked out by their deadlines, are eager to start putting 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 so you can record some notes.) 

2-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.  

3-Stop editing while you write. People who edit while they write inevitably dislike writing. Why? Because it’s impossible to allow your creative brain to run free while the nasty internal editor is so busy criticizing. Separate these two tasks (and allow a stretch of time I call incubation to keep them well apart.) 

4-Write as quickly as you can, with no concern for quality. 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 for quality. It’s the time to be loosey-goosey, crazy, experimental, devil-may-care. Keep reminding yourself that no one else will be able to see your words until YOU choose to hand them over to them. (And, of course, you won’t do this until you’ve had a chance to edit them. See next step.)

5-Allow ample time for editing, after you’ve taken a break. 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 to improve your writing.

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Need some help developing a sustainable writing routine? Learn more about my Get It Done program. The group is now full but there is turn-over each month, and priority will go to those who have applied first. You can go directly to the application form and you’ll hear back from me within 24 hours. 

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My video podcast last week addressed the challenge of how to make your writing less ‘blah.’ Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.

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How could you fail better? 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 Sept. 30/21 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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