Don't Be Afraid of Failure

Photo credit: photosteve101 on Flickr
Throughout my time in the Twitter/blogosphere, I’ve seen a lot of talk about failure. For writers, failure could be any number of things, whether it’s failing to write a good book, failing to get x amount of subscribers/page views/followers, failing to sell your manuscript, failing to sell enough copies of said manuscript…the list goes on.

I’m not here to talk about all the different ways a writer could fail, because quite frankly, we writers—hell, we as a people in general—tend to be pretty hard on ourselves when it comes to chasing our dreams and goals. Any hiccup, speed bump or letdown could be in one way or another interpreted as a failure.

Failure is a natural part of life—it’s a testament of the risks we’ve taken, they’re battle scars impossible to avoid throughout our lives and in the end, they leave us all the wiser.

But there’s this one particular failure that many writers are afraid of, one that has killed novels before they had a chance to live, one that has thwarted dreams and left many-a-writer feeling unworthy of the title.
By and large, writers are often afraid of writing badly.

I see it all the time on Twitter—writers who want to write, who have this goal, this dream of finishing their manuscript, who have put some words down and see others speeding ahead to meet their daily writing goals…and yet they hesitate. They look at the words they have so far and they pause. They say things like “I’m stuck,” or “I just can’t write today,” or “Maybe I’ll write later.”

And I recognize it because I’ve been there—because at times, I still find myself there. For me, the fear or writing badly is at its worst just before I start a new novel—that lingering whisper that looks at the plot I’ve thrown together or the first words I’ve scratched onto paper and sneers while it says the words: your writing sucks. They’re the doubts that crawl in and say, you can’t really write that—it’s going to be terrible.

For others, the fear of writing badly kicks in part-way through the story. It doesn’t matter when it kicks in though, because the result is the same: a seeming inability to write.

Something you need to understand—something I occasionally need to remind myself of—is this fear of failure is a lie. It’s a trick, because by being so afraid to put down a word, you’re already failing. By not writing anything at all, you lose by default.

Something you need to understand is it's infinitely better to have 80,000 words of a mediocre story than nothing at all.

Something you need to understand is even if you have to toss those 80,000 words and rewrite the whole thing entirely, even if the manuscript ends up in the bottom of a drawer, even if the words are so awful you’re embarrassed to show even your closest friends, you haven’t failed at all.

You haven’t failed because you wrote something; you created something, something that no one else could create the way you did. And maybe it’s ugly, and maybe it’s not the way you imagined it, but none of that matters because with every word you write, with every chapter you string together, with every novel you finish—terrible or not—you learn something. Those 80,000 words didn’t write themselves—you learn from the process just as much as you learn from reading and studying the craft.

The fear of failure is a lie, because you cannot fail, not really—you can only learn from your experience. And maybe you learn that you went about it the wrong way, or that you really need to study how to write dialogue, or that you’ve possibly written the most cliché-ridden antagonist in the history of terrible antagonists, but you learned something. And you’ll take whatever you’ve learned with you as you write the next book, the next short story or poem or whatever it is you write.

When you’re afraid of writing badly, don’t be. Put the words down and let them be God-awful and know that it doesn’t matter. These words are yours and one way or another, you’ll learn from them.

So go forth and write, friends. I’ll be cheering you along the way.

Also, read this beautiful post, DON’T BE AFRAID TO WRITE A BAD BOOK, from Tahereh Mafi, which basically covers everything I didn’t, and then some.

Has the fear of writing badly ever stopped you? What do you do to combat your writing fears? 


Daphne Gray-Grant said...

Oh, it's so important not to think about failure WHILE you're writing. That can really mess with your mind and bring on a devastating case of writer's block. If you find yourself doing this, I have two suggestions:
1) Agree with yourself that you'll worry about failure LATER, during the editing phase of your writing, and,
2) Remember, that temporary failure often leads to great success. When chemist Norm Larsen invented the lubricant WD40 he gave it the name WD**40** because he had FAILED on the first 39 attempts! 

Ava Jae said...

As Benjamin Franklin said, "I didn't fail the test, I just found 100 ways to do it wrong." :)

JFeijten said...

I can have bad and good writing days. When it's a bad day, I have the feeling every word I write down stinks and regularly I quit writing rather fast on such a day. When it's a good day, I'm loving the proces of writing very much and I can go on for a very long time. The conclusion is often that what I wrote is the best thing that has ever been written.

The weird thing however is that when I look back on the result of either of these days, I realise that the stinking writing wasn't that bad after all and the superb masterpiece wasn't as perfect as I thought it was.

I don't know which of the days I prefer. Probably the good ones, because I get more 'work' done and it's much easier to write with a good feeling.

Anyway, good or bad writing: failure will always be. And that's a good thing, because when we never fail, we never learn. We need the failures to improve. So, bring those failures on (and let's conquer them!).  

Daniel Swensen said...

I have a favorite quote by Steven Pressfield where he talks about writing his first Hollywood film (King Kong Lives) and watching it bomb. He said he felt okay about it because while he hadn't had a real success yet, he had a real failure, and that was better than having nothing or a bunch of unfinished work.

Ava Jae said...

You have a great attitude! I think we learn just as much--if not more--from our failures as we do our successes. 

Ava Jae said...

That's exactly what I'm talking about--much better to have learned from badly written WIP than not to have a WIP to learn from at all. 

Mari Stroud said...

A very wise friend of mine says the same thing to be every time that I freak out over an imperfect first draft: "All newborns are ugly.  You clean them up."  It's gotten me through my first drafts for around ten years now.  

As for more objective measures of success, such as page hits or sales, I always calm myself down by going, "Look, how much would you manage if you didn't even try?  And aren't you having fun?  Okay, then, whatever money you manage after that is gravy."

rapture22 said...

Awesome post, Ava! It was so well written and heartfelt that I could only detract from it. Instead, I will stand beside you and cheer right along with you.
I hope you're having a great weekend.


Ava Jae said...

That's a great attitude to have, Mari. I also like the advice your friend gave you--it certainly helps to know that an ugly first draft is to be expected. :)

Ava Jae said...

Thanks, Jimmy! I'm really glad to hear you enjoyed the post and I'm having a wonderful weekend. Hope yours is fantastic as well! 

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Matthew Rowe said...

My problem is I start with joy and write and write... but somewhere down the road I will get sad because that awesome, free idea that was running around in my head is now tied down to this event, this plot, and I'm scared that I could have done it better. Then i get over it and try to make the best of it I can'. What I really hate is when I think "It would have been better if I did this... " and then realise that I can't be bothered to make such a huge change because it is so much work. I don't think that has ever happened but I worry about it

Ava Jae said...

What I really hate is when I think "It would have been better if I did this... " and then realise that I can't be bothered to make such a huge change because it is so much work. I don't think that has ever happened but I worry about it

There will almost inevitably come a time when you realize that the way to improve your WIP exponentially is going to be a huge amount of work. When you come to this point, you have two options: 1) do the necessary revisions and 2) trunk the WIP and start a new one. 

Writing is a lot of work--there's no way around it, and sometimes you'll have to undo months or years or work in order to make your WIP that much better. If the extra work doesn't seem worth it, then you might want to consider moving on to a new novel. Either way there is a solution--so nothing to worry about, right? :)

Reading_by_Kindle_Fire said...

Great post! I'm so happy I found your blog! I have that same fear that I will write something really bad that it won't even be worth to write it so I get discouraged, but I think I'm going to bookmark this post and others like this to read when I feel discouraged. It'll help me to keep writing! 

Ava Jae said...

Glad I could help! I'm relatively sure every writer battles that fear from time to time. The best thing we can do is push past it and write despite the fear. Worst comes to worst, the writing isn't great, but you can fix it later. Not so bad, really. :)

Rob said...

How do you know that the failure will actually lead to improvement? I understand the 'value of failure' argument, but I fear that I will just continue to make the same mistakes over and over again. As one writer put it, I would just be a "lighter shade of lousy."

Ava Jae said...

Well, I suppose the key is to try and make a point of learning from our mistakes, so that we don't continue to make them over and over again. I'm not sure exactly what kind of mistake you're referring to, but as far as writing goes, as long as we continue to study our craft (writing books help) and work diligently to improve our writing, we will inevitably improve and the mistakes we make along the way become lessons of what not to do.

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