Why Failure Can Help You Become a Better Writer

Writers who are new to the craft don’t understand that failure leads to success. The fact is that no writer gets it right the first time out of the gate, but for some reason the fear of failure compels beginning writers to give up. Many actually give up before they can actually fail.

Let’s read that again: they give up before they can actually fail.

Consequently, this means they can’t succeed.

What they’re totally skipping right over is the process. Unless you’re a child progeny, like if JK Rowling and George RR Martin ever decided to have a kid, I could see that child being born with a pen in hand. Beyond that? Everyone has to go through the ritual of process, failure, process, failure, process, small win, process, bigger win, process, failure … you catch my drift.

Why Failure is Important

Imagine the fear, disappointment, frustration, and discouragement as an enormous, thick, noxious cloud of smoke that is hovering in your way, smack-dab in the middle of your writing journey. You have two options: push your way through or give up.

This informative post by Kate Johnston | Author and Story Coach shows why failure is good for writers because you can learn your writing strengths through difficult times, like when you are forced to drive through a storm on a highway.
Failure is good for writers because you can learn your writing strengths through difficult times, like when you are forced to drive through a storm on a highway.

If you give up, that is the end of your writing journey. You stopped when things got too hard.

If you push through, and deal with fear, disappointment, frustration, and discouragement, you will come out to the other side. A little knee-skinned maybe, but you’ll emerge into a new world where the air is clearer, friendlier, and smells a lot better.

Failure means you are trying, which is a much more effective route to success as opposed to giving up because you failed.

Pushing through, facing and dealing with the crappy stuff, may not earn you the big win or the success you dreamed about. But it does give you something you need.

EXPERIENCE

Why Failure is a Good Thing

Failure will prepare you for the next big obstacle. The worst mistake any writer can make is to think this gig will be easy or that their version of success is the only way to be successful. Thoughts like I should have been done by now. Why am I still having trouble with structure? will lead you down a dangerous landslide of limiting beliefs.

You can become stronger through failure if you get up and try again, kind of like trying to climb up a landslide.

Writers who tumble down this slope are usually those who started this journey because they’d been inspired by a great book that they’ve read, or by a beloved author. Nothing wrong with being inspired by success, except for this one small glitch: They’re basing their desire on a finished, polished product. They don’t see the years and years of hard work and previous failures that led to that success. Years of dedication to learning the craft of writing.

Unless you have studied writing or been trained/educated as a writer, and you understand how the industry works, and you’re highly self-disciplined, then it is next to impossible to pump out a great book in a few months that will end up on the bestseller’s lists. An accomplishment like that takes years of experience and practice. And a little magic called belief.

Why Failure Leads You to Success

Even if you hit a win on your first try, and you’re not rare & gifted, what do you think is going to happen on your next try? You will stumble (because you’re not rare and gifted, remember, so it’s time for you to pay your dues).

That stumble is going to feel like the world is crashing in on you all because you never experienced failure (see point above). You see? Now you’re hanging with all the other average, ordinary writers who are still navigating that slope, searching for success.

 

Failure is a writing tool that can help you beome a better and happier writer, you just can't be afraid to use it.Writers ought to stop being fearful of or intimidated by #FAIL. Failure helps you to grow and improve, which as long as you keep trying (see point above), will lead you to success.

The grueling process makes you a skilled writer. You are building your talent, just by writing every day, by working on that one story or five stories, or learning the craft through structure or character development. All of that helps you toward your vision of success.

Instead of looking at failure as an obstacle, treat it as a tool you can use to help you hone your writing process. Once you add failure to your toolkit, you will welcome the things you’re learning, the fact you’re growing. You won’t be taken down quite so easily by discouragement.

That’s because you’ll be confident enough to tell yourself this is what is supposed to happen:

  • I’m becoming a more skilled writer.
  • I’m learning how to put a story together.
  • This is what I need to do before I can even think about completing the book and publishing.
  • I have to learn how to write it first.
  • My failures are leading me to my successes.

The best way to learn writing is to practice writing. Look at failure as a chance to practice writing. Look at failure as an opportunity—tell yourself, Okay that didn’t work, what is my next choice?

How failure can make you stronger

Failure is like a multi-vitamin for the muse. You need to allow yourself the room to explore the realm of writing. It is vast, endless, riveting, and filled with the unknown. The unexpected. This is what you need to be a writer. You need the questions and the mysteries and the untolds. These are the reasons why we write.

If we were to get the writing down properly the first time and find success within first moments of emergence into the world, then that is your liftoff point. Instead of starting at ground zero, you’re starting among the stars.

Do you think it will be easier to keep soaring through the universe with your next project or to tumble down back to earth?

Failure gives us choices. We can rethink our path when things don’t go our way. We can find better books to read, adjust our schedules, build new systems and practices. Failure teaches us more about ourselves and our purposes.

Reasons why failure is important for success are explained in this informative and inspirational post by Kate Johnston | Story Coach and Author. You will learn that overnight success can actually hurt more, kind of like freefalling from a sky.

Along Comes Inner Critic

Inevitably, Inner Critic-itis will flare. I think this is a common ailment among creatives in general. You’re working on art from your soul. Doesn’t even matter if you’re not putting out that soul-art in public. The very fact you’re cultivating it will spark sensitivity. You’ve exposed a nerve, Writer.

We don’t need the help from our inner critic to remind us how vulnerable we are, right? I mean it’s like an I told you so from an overbearing family member or Gloomy Gabs. Who needs that?!

Not us. Not writers who are committed to the craft.

First, make sure that you’ve given yourself permission to write and identified yourself as a writer.

Tell your inner critic to hush up while you write, but that you will appreciate the advice during revision. Writing a letter to your inner critic explaining the difference would help.

Remind your inner critic that failure is expected, even embraced, because of what it will teach you. It is okay to make mistakes, take missteps, turn the wrong corners. That in doing so you are becoming a better writer.

Consider the possibility that your inner critic is protecting you, which I personally believe is part of your natural writing forces, and something every writer must uncover for themselves.

Hal and Sidra Stone, authors of Embracing Your Inner Critic, write, “To go beneath the criticisms of the Inner Critic and convert your distress to understanding, you must always remember how and why the Critic was born. You must remember the important role it has had to play in protecting that very young, vulnerable, unprotected, and sensitive child that you used to be.”

Writing every day is the most effective weapon against your inner critic. Think about it: If you’re focusing on your creative voice, allowing your creative thoughts to fill your mind, then there isn’t a lot of space for your inner critic to roam.

Finding the wins among the failures

Failure is going to come in all shapes and sizes. It will strike half a dozen times, four hundred times, or skeighty-eight thousand times. Somewhere in there, though, you’ll have wins.

Just like failure can be an expected part of your journey, wins are too, but they tend to be much more subtle and fleeting. They don’t exactly heckle us from the crowd, you know?

This is because we often have a different vision or expectation of what a win looks like, so we completely miss the smaller-but-terribly-necessary wins that are actually keeping us on track.

Most important here is that knowing what a daily win looks like will strengthen your acceptance of failure, which in turn, increases your growth as a writer.

Wins look different for every writer, so it’s important to know what kinds of wins will be your personal stepping stones.

  • writing every day
  • finding a new story idea
  • successful research
  • inspiring another writer with your words
  • falling in love with an amazing book
  • saving enough money to go to a writers’ conference
  • finishing a chapter
  • feeling fulfilled while writing

All of these and more count as wins that are hearty enough to keep a writer motivated and dedicated. Don’t take these lightly. Celebrate them every time they show up and grace your life. The more you honor these wins, the more they’ll occur, and soon they’ll outshine and outweigh any failures you’re experiencing.

Sure, failures will still happen because that’s how the world goes ‘round. But the difference is they will present themselves as challenges, setbacks, once you accept them. Harder and harder it will be for them to take you down.

‘Cause we ain’t got time for wrestling with failure. We got books to write!

How do you handle failure? Do you stumble over it or embrace it?

Have a Writerly Day!

41 thoughts on “Why Failure Can Help You Become a Better Writer”

  1. Failures still trip me up big time when it comes to writing. I can more readily overcome them in other parts of my life. But with writing? They feel like continued kicks to the gut every time I think I’m getting up again. I have to break that cycle if I’m ever going to finish another draft, let alone the revision process after that draft.

    • I know what you mean, Jacqueline. I feel as though it’s because writing comes from such a personal place that reflects on our likeability, popularity, intelligence, etc. If we allow ourselves to fail, then it won’t hurt as much. That approach works best as we start our journeys, although not impossible if we’ve already been at this gig for years!

    • I feel similarly, Jacqueline. Failure in other areas of life just makes me more determined to succeed. But writing is so personal, and once it’s out there in the public eye, big failures have the ability to derail us. But as Kate alludes to, it’s the failures that teach us the most, so hopefully we’ll get back up on the chair and keep writing.

      Great article, Kate.

      • Thanks, Carrie. I think having a support system in place really helps keep us in the writing game, too. Only another writer can fully understand what failure means to a writer. I know, for me, this is why I continue with blogging and maintaining personal, long-term connections. I know who I can vent to, and feel safe doing it.

  2. Failures in writing hurt. I go into a little cave for awhile, but not too long. I’ll read a good book, I’ll decide I can write like that too, and then I go back to the ‘drawing board,’ or in this case, the writing notebook.
    Lots of good ‘stuff’ here, Kate. Thanks for the inspiration.

    • Hey Pam,

      Taking a break or going into a “cave” for a bit can be really helpful. Also, finding inspiration from another author’s work can work wonders on our bruised souls. I think it’s so important when we do step away, is to be intentional about how to come back to the notebook, the laptop, the journal, what have you. Sounds like this is exactly how you process failure and turn it around into another attempt–that’s so good! I always feel sad for writers who step away out of pain and then they allow that distance to keep them away. Thanks for commenting!

  3. Here’s a quote from the book I mentioned to you DESIGNING YOUR LIFE that applies to writing as well as life:
    “Some of our greatest learning comes from a failed prototype, because then we know what to build differently next time. Life is not about winning and losing. It’s about learning and playing the infinite game, and when we approach our lives as designers, we are constantly curious to discover what will happen next.” (Burnett and Evans, p.197)
    That rings true for all creative projects. It is the lucky individual who can write brilliance without ever making mistakes, hitting brick walls, and stumbling backwards. Even the most brilliant artists, authors, performers of all types have flops and “failures” but the best of the best learn from them and move on. That is what I hope to do with my life and my writing. Sometimes it is difficult though to just keep writing.

    • Hi Lisa,

      Thank you so much for sharing that quote from Designing Your Life. I keep a personal journal of stories/writing/poetry that I will never share with anyone. This is my sanctuary, my secret garden of words, a place where writing is and always will be safe and easy.

      When things get tough “out there,” then I retreat to my sanctuary for a little bit and channel my creative energy in those pages. Eventually, I am recharged and raring to try my stuff “out there” again.

      I think we have to own our disappointment, acknowledge it, but at the same time, move on and do the next thing. Creatives should always have a next thing, and it doesn’t have to be writing for writers, or painting for painters, or acting for actors. It could be anything that gets us moving and thinking and doing.

      Dwelling on the failure only drives us further into the ground, and that’s why it ends up being difficult to keep writing. If you turn your attention to something else — oh I don’t know, scrapbooking, photography, woodworking, hiking — then you will transcend your pain and be ready to go back to the writing.

  4. Hi Kate,

    You listed my 2 wins for a good day:

    – writing every day
    – finding a new story idea

    I know failure sucks for everyone, not just writers. It’s a solitary profession, and I tend to internalize and deal with it on my own. I’m not one to air my grievances, especially in this age of public disclosure everywhere. Having said this, I think it’s good to talk to other authors and brainstorm productive ideas. I’m fortunate to have author friends I can turn to in this respect. Loving the new site, Kate!

    • Hi Eden! Yes, exactly. I was just commenting above about the importance of a support system and how, for me, it helped me get through the disappointments. There is far too much “sharing” especially about silly things like what people had for dinner at such-and-such restaurant. It’s so trivial — I have to tune out a lot of the noise. Having a few friends that you can turn to is hugely helpful!

  5. I am definitely a fan of failure. I fail every day. And each time I get better. And each time, I figure out something new. And sometimes I succeed. That’s all I need to keep me going. Cheers!

  6. Great article, Kate!

    Failure, for me, always comes down to its opposite: success. I measure myself up against others: Am I as well-respected? Am I as well-loved? Am I as creative, as bold, as smart, as popular, as brave…. The list is endless. And the answer, of course, is no. Living with that constant sense of failure has become tiresome, though.

    My resolution this year is to do my best to set aside my envious and comparing mind, and to embrace the stories in my own heart. I have always believed in those stories, and in my ability to craft them. My hope is that, if I can let go of the infinite, smothering comparisons, I will be able to open myself wholly to my creativity. I already know the worlds in my head are limitless, their characters beautiful and terrifying.

    It’s not so much fearing failure as it is relinquishing ego, for me.

    Here’s to a brighter year.

    • Mayumi, I think for many of us, this becomes a work-in-progress. I also feel that in this day and age, with social media and the internet, the wins of others are always in our faces. It’s hard to not compare ourselves to those who are “making it” because we’re constantly reminded of how quickly someone else’s life has launched, or evolved, or sparkled.

      I also feel that such limiting beliefs negatively impact our creativity, so we’re doing ourselves no favors by wishing we were better, stronger, cuter, braver. Expending our energy on negativity means we draw in more negativity. I know you *know* this, so it’s a matter of actively living it. I have troubles too, sometimes. But that’s why you and I belong to a fantastic writer’s support group where we can vent and feel a little bit better about stuff. 🙂

  7. Great article, Kate. I’m reading this after writing about my own failures to finish my novel. I need to follow your advice and know that writing more regularly whether blogging or working of the novels will kick-start my journey. Hopefully 🙂

    ps. like your new home!

    • Hey Pete!
      Sorry for the late comment! I think we all go through tough starts, and the reasons vary. As long as we keep in mind that our failures signify our efforts then we can use that energy to try again. And also remember that with every attempt, you learn more and become a better writer. 🙂

  8. I’m an accomplished failure-ist, so to speak. Your points ring true with me. I agree that the ways in which you process your failure provide as much learning as the actual failure itself. Stumble on, my friends. Learn something.

    • Hi Ally — apologies for the late comment.

      I love this: “I’m an accomplished failure-ist.” I think that belongs on a T-shirt or a coffee mug!

      Yes! It’s all a matter of mind-set. We really have to flip our way of thinking on its head and understand that failure is necessary in order to learn and grow. So embrace it!!

  9. An excellent and extremely helpful post, Kate. Thanks so much for sharing it! I might later reblog your blog post if I may and if I figure out how that’s done. lol Your explanations on what it means to fail and win are so encouraging. I am so grateful I got to read this. 🙂

    • Hi Dorothy! I’m sorry for the late reply! Of course you may reblog my post. 🙂 I’m not sure how to go about doing that either, unless there’s a “reblog” option on your site somewhere. You can always just link to it if reblogging isn’t easy enough to do.

      I’m thrilled that you found something meaningful from this post. Took me A LOT of failures and do-overs to get to this mind-set, but I’m ever so grateful I did. Embracing failure helps me find courage to keep trying, and for too many years that lack of courage was a major pitfall for me.

      Have a writerly day!

  10. Great post. I fail at just about everything I try, but I use it as a learning tool and I rarely fail at something forever (except water-skiing, ugh). Failing is a wonderful and memorable teacher!

    • Hello D. Wallace Peach!
      I love that you use failure as a learning tool. More of us need to have that positive try-again attitude. I’m with you on the water-skiing. I tried to learn that as a kid, kept crashing, again and again.

      Interestingly, it was the feeling of guilt about making the people in the boat have to endure all my failed attempts that I would give up after just a few tries. I felt badly about making them wait for their turns. I wonder, now, if it was just me, a spotter, and the driver, if I would have stuck it out longer.

      Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting! Have a writerly day!

  11. Yes, I have a book to write/complete too. I wouldn’t identify suggestions for revision from beta readers as failure, but it certainly can become tiresome to imagine the best way to revise and polish.

    My submissions to magazines could be considered failure. I usually don’t hear back from the editors, so that counts as rejection. Still, if I write a blog post that could be crafted into a story, I will continue to submit no matter what. Thanks for the encouragement here!

    • Hello Marian!

      I agree that “failure” can sound harsh in certain circumstances, especially when logic dictates multiple attempts or lessons are required. For instance, learning to drive a car. We accept that there is a learning curve, so few of us would expect to do it exactly right the first time we go for a lesson.

      I think the same is true for writers who expect to run through different stages in the process, such as sending manuscripts to beta readers. Those writers who aren’t prepared to go through different stages of the process, multiple times, are probably the ones who would look at suggestions for revisions from beta readers as “failure.”

      Thank you so much for swinging by and commenting! Have a writerly day!

  12. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Kate. I enjoyed your post. I think some failure is good for all of us. Otherwise, how will we ever learn to grow and improve in our craft? It does hurt though. You have to learn how to deal with failure and conquer it. Best wishes!

    • Failure hurts A LOT. It’s probably why many writers give up eventually. But if we kick off our writing journeys with the expectation of failure–not once or twice, but many times–I think we are more mentally and spirtually prepared to accomplish our writing goals. Thank you so much for swinging by and commenting!

  13. I came from Debbie’s blog. Such a wonderful, informative post on what it means to fail when it comes to writing. Agree with you that failing means you have tried. If you start again, it sort of means it’s a continuation of your writer’s journey. I have been trying to write my first book for over two years now. Reading back my first draft, I realise it’s not something I’m entirely happy with and have been sitting on that for a while – and I thought it would have been done my now. One can say I have failed, but on the positive side I’ve been reworking it. It just takes time for writing to eventuate sometimes 🙂

    • Hello Mabel,

      We all need time to process the process! 🙂 Book development can take years, so the fact you’re two years in is not unusual. In fact, you’re better for it. I feel that far too many writers get impatient and self-publish before their book is ready. Kudos to you for being savvy enough to know that you need to work on it some more.

      I don’t know that I would call that failure, actually. You’re still in the construction stage. You haven’t given up on it and you haven’t tried to query or publish too soon. 🙂

      Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting!

    • Truly, it is. I feel that we need to teach our children this philosophy too, so that we don’t have so many kids struck by anxiety and depression. But, that’s a huge topic fit for another blog post.

      Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting!

  14. This is a good way to look at it. Failure is like those rejection letters you get after submitting an article/story/book idea. They make us stronger, they encourage us to go on and prove everyone wrong. Determination is an important personality trait of the writer. Never give up! The inner critic is hard to fight off, but, over time, with enough practice, enough trial and error, we will get there. “Look at failure as an opportunity”, as you mentioned in the article! Yes! This post is inspirational, as long as we believe in ourselves!

    • Indeed! Those authors who keep their rejection letters or paper their walls with them probably are thinking along these lines. Those letters are evidence of trying–which of course equals determination. Eventually, with enough attempts, we will each find our own way. Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!

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