Writing mistakes are frustrating—especially when that mistake is novel-sized and cost you months of work before you realized it was, indeed, a mistake. Because frustration is a negative emotion, we usually do everything in our power to, first, avoid making writing mistakes and, then, when we inevitably do make them, distance ourselves from them as quickly as possible. But maybe that’s a mistake in itself.
Recently, I read a study suggesting that the messier someone’s desk, the more creative they are likely to be (which presents a problem for me). Some might suggest the messy desk, in itself, is actually a mistake. But perhaps in our pursuit of perfection, we are robbing ourselves of opportunities for even greater growth.
Writers put tremendous pressure upon themselves to be perfect. Search “writing perfectionism” and you’ll get page after page of helpful tips. It’s a popular topic because almost all writers suffer the fear, shame, and crippling rigidity of perfectionism at some point or another.
Which is ridiculous, since no writer nowhere at no point in time has, or ever will, write the perfect book. In short, all this self-flagellation is not only pointless, it’s even counter-productive.
Every Novel I’ve Written Was a Mistake
Granted, some of my novels have been bigger mistakes than others. But even the ones that garner great reviews and win awards are full of things I could have done better.
Sometimes I beat myself up over that. Sometimes I even cringe when I hear a reader say, “I’m so excited! I’m going to read one of your novels!” I have to resist the urge to make excuses for everything my 20/20 hindsight tells me is wrong with all my beautiful babies.
And that’s the good books!
We won’t even talk about the four novels I wrote before being published. We won’t talk about the three failed interim books that stumbled out of the gates, crippled as much by what I thought I knew about storytelling as what I didn’t.
But I am so thankful for all of those books, warts and all. If they were perfect—or, worse, if I somehow misguidedly believed they were perfect—I would miss out on so many amazing opportunities to improve my writing and to make better mistakes in my future books.
It’s time to stop beating yourself up for making writing mistakes. Scratch that. It’s time to stop hoping you won’t make writing mistakes. Instead, it’s time to embrace those mistakes as one of the most rewarding and advantageous parts of the entire writing process.
6 Ways to Make the Most of Your Writing Mistakes
Here are six positive mindsets to consciously pursue in making the most of your writing mistakes.
1. Realize Nothing Is Ever Wasted
This is one of my favorite sayings. Everything that happens in life, even the stuff we wouldn’t choose for ourselves, even the downright awful stuff, is a cause that creates an effect. Many of the most valuable lessons, in life as in writing, are those mined from the discomfort of mistakes.
When you put the time, effort, and thought into writing a story, that investment will always bear fruit—even if that fruit isn’t a spectacular story. The experience itself was worthwhile, and the lessons you’ll carry away from it will provide you with tools to move forward in proactive ways.
When you complete a story and it’s, well, stinky, don’t count it as a waste of time or effort. Tap into gratitude for the experience and trust it will lead you into another worthwhile experience—and perhaps a better story down the road.
2. Don’t Beat Yourself Up for Writing Mistakes
No one will ever be harder on you than you are on yourself. Once you realize that, it’s surprising how easy it is to step out from under the cloud of blame and accept your mistakes as a natural and needed progression.
Please tell me what possible benefit could come of beating yourself up for your writing mistakes? So you didn’t write a perfect story. So what? Does telling yourself you’re a terrible writer, that you’ll never measure up, that you just wasted your life on this story—does any of that help you write a better story? Does it help you be a better person?
Absolutely not. So just stop. Think of your writer self as an eager, creative child. When that child doesn’t succeed, are you going to hold him in your arms—or spank him?
Forgive yourself for your writing mistakes. Truly, they only matter to you. You’re not letting anyone else down, and when you think about it, you’re not letting yourself down either. Rejoice in the experience and move on.
3. Purposefully Give Yourself Space to Mess Up
Let’s hark back to this whole myth of perfectionism once more. It’s the bar all writers are aiming at: the perfect story. But it’s a myth, people! We’re trashing our self-esteem for nothing. Think of it this way: what’s the perfect time for a competitor in a race?
Zero seconds. That’s perfection.
It’s also impossible, and you don’t see Michael Phelps throwing a fit in the pool every time he fails to get there.
It’s time for writers to embrace the beauty of writing mistakes. You will never write a book that is perfect in your own eyes. And even if you did, it still wouldn’t be perfect in the eyes of others. And that’s okay. That’s awesome. That’s exciting!
We have a tendency to create standards for ourselves that are far too high. Writing your first book? Trust me, it’s not going to outsell Stephen King and become an instant classic. So don’t even go there. Determine realistic goals (and realize it’s okay if it takes you longer than you wanted to get there).
Instead of striving for the impossible, consciously give yourself permission to mess up. When you do, the floodgates of creativity burst open in your mind. You may not even realize how much you’re holding yourself back by studiously attempting to avoid writing mistakes. When you throw your own false expectations out the window, you open yourself and your writing up to all kinds of previously unforeseen possibilities.
4. Accept Writing Mistakes as the Opportunity to Experiment
This is where writing mistakes get fun. As that unmitigated failure known as Albert Einstein once said:
Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.
If you cling to your fear of mistakes, it will, without question, prevent you from reaching your full potential. That’s the irony of perfectionism: it doesn’t create perfection; it cripples it.
What would happen if, instead of trying avoid writing mistakes, you started trying to make them?
]Just think about that for a minute.
True, your logical brain is going to guide you away from most of the full-on foolhardy mistakes (like, say, purposeful spelling and grammar gaffes). But doesn’t the idea of making mistakes on purpose perk up your creative brain a little bit? Doesn’t it inspire a little swirl of color and excitement back there? What if you could write anything without worrying about the “rules”? What would happen? What would you write? Would it be better or worse than otherwise? Who knows? That’s the point.
Stop thinking about mistakes as mistakes. Think of them, instead, as opportunities. They are opportunities to consider old problems in new ways, to come up with fascinating workarounds you would never have discovered otherwise, and to learn and grow into a better mastery of your craft.
5. Examine Your Writing Mistakes for Lessons to Move Forward
On the rare occasions when my writing has just worked, when a story has flown onto the page fully formed and nearly flawless, I rarely know why it worked. There was some magic ingredient at play, and darned if I can find it half the time, much less bottle it for future use.
Ah, but the mistakes. The moment I know enough to identify a mistake is the moment I have just made an inimitable new discovery about my craft and, usually, myself.
Perfection is impossible to analyze. It just… is. Sometimes it’s tougher to examine and break down a good story to figure out how it works than it is to take apart a less-than-good story and identify exactly why it didn’t work. Writing mistakes provide you with the opportunity to look through the cracks and explore the mechanics of storytelling. In her May/June 2016 Writer’s Digest article “Secrets to Success With Both Approaches,” Paula Manier observed:
Every mistake is just you “figuring out how to do it.”
Whenever you discover how to do something wrong, you’re one step closer to doing it right the next time. You’ll never make the discovery if you don’t first make the mistake.
Don’t shy away from your writing mistakes. Examine everything you write for its weak points. Why didn’t this work? You might not have known the answer to that when you wrote the story, but the very fact that you know something is wrong means you will find the answer if you keep at it. Do this with other people’s stories as well. I am constantly breaking down books and movies, identifying what doesn’t work, so I can figure out how to do it right in my own writing.
6. Realize Sometimes the Only Path to Finding the Right Way Is to Explore the Wrong Ways First
Stories are not straightforward. Even if you were to follow every single writing rule to the letter, this does not mean you will get a story right the first time out of the gates. Every story is unique and requires a unique understanding from the writer.
This being so, sometimes the only path to finding the best way to right your story is to first be willing to explore all the wrong ways. In a May 2016 interview with The Writer, award-winning author Tea Obreht explained:
Even work you consider to be your worst is good for something. Every effort teaches you about your desires and tendencies, or guides you towards some new possibility, or shuts the door on an avenue you mistakenly thought was the right one. It’s a trial and error game, and every line you write—especially those that never make it to the printed page—has value.
Even as you try to streamline your writing process, don’t put too much pressure on yourself to “get it right” the first time. Sometimes the best parts of our stories are buried deep within ourselves. Sometimes we have to do a lot of digging to unearth their true beauty. Does all the time and effort of these false starts qualify as a mistake? Of course not. Rather, it’s a necessary, downright invaluable part of the process.
Embrace your writing mistakes, both large and small. Give yourself permission to think outside the box, to wander off road, to follow your instincts. Sometimes those instincts will be wrong, but you will always learn something worthwhile. And the more you follow your instincts down the wrong roads, the more you hone them into an awareness of the right roads.
When your surrender your fear of mistakes, the tremendous surge of possibilities can be overwhelming. Take it slow at first, but give yourself permission to swim in the deep water where true creativity lives, unshackled by the limited idea that making a mistake is the worst thing you could possibly do. It’s not. It might even be the best thing.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What is your knee-jerk reaction when you realize you’ve made writing mistakes? Tell me in the comments!
Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).