Four Reasons Authors Should Embrace Their Writing Mistakes

waste-basket-1218052-mAfter this month’s series of posts on common mistakes authors make with plot–everything ranging from plot holes to not making the “big” moment big enough–I realized that writing mistakes can be a scary thing for a writer, especially a fledgling writer. And I wanted to address that.

We writers should all, of course, strive to make as few mistakes as possible. To make our stories, our grammar, our style as solid as possible. But that doesn’t mean we have to fear making mistakes.

Writing mistakes can be positive experiences. No, seriously…. They’re frustrating, and discouraging, and for that reason it’s important to find a community of writers to support you through the tough times. But equally important is remembering that your writing mistakes can be something to be thankful for.

Believe me, I have my share of awful writing saved on my hard drive. And here’s why I’m proud of it:

YOUR BIG ERROR MIGHT ONLY SEEM LIKE A MISTAKE.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written a scene, thought “oh my gosh, that is awful and I can do nothing with it,” and then been moved to more deeply contemplate my characters and their choices. That contemplation sometimes helps me realize I had things right all along (for reasons I never realized), and if I didn’t…. well, I’d rewrite.

An example from my work: (MINOR SPOILER ALERT ATTACHED. Nothing serious revealed, but still….)

In my novel “The Crimson League” I wrote a first draft of a rescue scene that felt all wrong. As soon as I finished the getaway, I knew in my gut what the problem was: the rescue had been far, far too easy.

The bad guy would want the rescued man dead. And even if my scrappy group of rebels managed to save their guy, they had just done so with far too much grace and simplicity.

My gut instinct: rewrite the scene from scratch. But then I thought, no. No, this sorcerer-villain Zalski, he’s pretty crafty. A real manipulator of people’s actions and emotions. Maybe the rescue was easy because…. Maybe this rescue could play into his hand somehow, so he wanted it to happen?

And BINGO: what I thought was a total disaster turned into a small part of a more complex series of events I hadn’t even realized existed. In this case, a “mistake” turned into a real win for my story.

YOU WON’T COMMIT THE “BIG MISTAKE” MORE THAN ONCE.

I can pretty much promise, if an error is big enough and disastrous enough…. If it disrupts your progress and creative process enough…. You won’t find yourself in that place again.

Writing the last novel in my Herezoth trilogy, I had pure swill after 100 pages and started over from scratch. I was annoyed, but I knew what I had done wrong.

I had pushed myself when I shouldn’t have. I was focusing on words, words, words, and writing every day, and thus making myself continue down a track that I honestly knew wasn’t going anywhere.

I was rushing things. When my instincts started whispering that maybe I could benefit from taking time to plot the story out, I shut them down. Now I know to listen to my instincts, believe me. I know to listen to that little voice. (I just can’t get it confused with all the characters screaming at me all the time!)

MISTAKES CAN CLEAR YOUR PATH FOR YOU

I think I tell this story in “Writing for You,” so some of you might be familiar with it, but it’s really poignant to demonstrate this argument.

In the last section, I mentioned how I rushed that start to the last novel in my trilogy. That’s one major reason that draft was pure swill. The other reason?

I hadn’t let enough time pass between where book two ended and where book three began. I needed to let YEARS more pass.

The thing is, I was determined to write a series of four books. I would never have realized that I needed to combine my ideas for books three and four, and set the action in book four’s time period, without trying and failing to get that original book three off the ground.

I don’t look at those months of writing as wasted time. They were just part of the process. They made me realize that my original idea wasn’t working while simultaneously highlighting for me what would work.

When I started over, I was able to jump right into book three’s true story. No planning, no agonizing over characters or details. I just KNEW what the story was supposed to be.

Writing that “failed” draft was all the prep work I needed. I found myself so stoked to get going on what I knew would be something special, that I hardly let throwing out months of work and thousands of words get to me. I could sense I was moving on to something better and more exciting than that first draft could ever turn into.

MISTAKES ARE SIMPLY PART OF THE PROCESS

We writers and creative types tend to be perfectionists. And while it’s good to shoot for improvement and to put your best work out there, “perfect” isn’t attainable where fiction is concerned.

Mistakes and errors of all kinds are part of the writing process. We all stop and start, all backtrack, all think we have it figured out only to realize we took a wrong turn two chapters back or that passage we thought was brilliant actually needs a serious tune-up.

Writing fiction is a test of perseverance and self-acceptance as much as anything else.

  • If you don’t accept that you will get things wrongs, you will never get a draft down.
  • If you aren’t prepared to confront mistakes, you’ll get so frustrated when you make one you’ll be tempted to give up.
  • If you can’t take yourself and your mistakes lightly, and love them as reflections of who you are, you will be embarrassed of your writing and never share it with anyone.

The mistakes can drive us nuts. Believe me, I know. But don’t ever think you’re the only one who makes them, or that they imply you are a failure as a writer. Just fix them. Start again, or start on something new, if you can’t fix them (or aren’t willing to put in the work to fix them.) Just keep writing.

The mistakes don’t define you as a writer unless you let them do that.

So, what do you think about writing mistakes? Have you experienced any upsides to your errors? How do you keep a positive mindset and embrace the difficulties and “failures” of your writing?

29 responses to “Four Reasons Authors Should Embrace Their Writing Mistakes

  1. So happy to read on of your posts after such a long time! I have been missing your insights into the many facets of the writing world. I have to say, as far as typing errors – I have had some curse set upon me, usually I write beautifully and effortlessly and make little to no mistakes without even editing. This entire week my writing has been filled with typo and typo and it’s driving me crazy!. I always try to see the positive and in this instance I looked at the less skilled writing was a direct result of NaNoWriMo and would subside after it was all over.

    • NaNoWriMo does that! Typos are annoying but I look at it this way too: if they are one of my biggest problems I’m golden πŸ™‚ They are so easy to fix! They are distracting, though, is my trouble with them. When I have a more severe error and a typo I hone in on the typo and sometimes overlook the bigger problem.

  2. This is so great to remember. I finished the first draft of a story I was writing. I had sections that were complete crap, but I knew that I just needed to forge ahead with the writing process itself. I had decided the entire thing was crap and set it aside for a few months. When I began editing, I was excited again because I realized that not *all* of it was crap, and it highlighted exactly where I could cut to make everything tighter. I’ll take me a while, but I decided to hang onto the draft. I think trusting your instincts are the most important thing a writer can do. If you feel like you need to take a break, do it. If you need to write multiple stories at a time, do it. When you get those types of urges, your brain is trying to use other outlets to help you solve your current dilemmas. At least that’s my theory. Thanks for this great article. I love the perspective on “mistakes” and will try to remind myself to think of how I can use a mistake to my benefit.

    • I totally agree. We need to trust our instincts. Writing is about YOU as a person, and as we are all different, we will create our best work and feel fulfilled by writing through changing and adapting the writing process so that it suits us. Sometimes that means taking a break, like you said. Glad you are forging ahead to salvage and improve your draft! Best of luck!!!

  3. Fantastic post, thank you
    Arran

  4. Good advice. I find that I learn far more from writing groups when people can pick my work apart than when they just say ‘yes, this was good’. Don’t get me wrong, the positive feedback’s great, but it’s when they pick the problems that I get to learn and develop.

  5. I’m definitely one who learns from his mistakes. I’ve had characters talk about conversations that never happened, so I learned to add shorter inserts to clear up the confusion. I’ve had battles get repetitive, so I make one be comedic or an utter disaster to change things up.

    I think a lot of new authors are overly concerned with making mistakes. It’s to the point that they won’t leave the planning stage. I’ve had discussions with a few of my friends who want to be authors and lecture me about the process. Yet, they’re still outlining the same book for over a decade because they need it to be perfect. It’s as if making the mistake is grounds for being a failure.

  6. Thoroughly identified with and enjoyed this article series. Thanks so much for sharing; I shared, everywhere!

  7. Writers should always be open to learning from their mistakes. Most importantly, writers shouldn’t fear making mistakes. The only way we really learn the craft is through trial and error, making mistaking and perfecting our craft.

    Wonderful post, as always!

  8. Thanks for this post, Victoria! It is so timely for me. I would also like to thank you too, Charles. I think that is a big problem for me. I am working on my debut novel and I have been researching and plotting for so long. I started to write it once and realized that I hadn’t thought it through enough. There comes a time when you need to jump in. I have understood this, but I think fear overtook me. Victoria, what you said about trying to be a perfectionist is so true! I know I am guilty of that. My roommate, who isn’t a writer, but my biggest supporter, had a wonderful idea for me. She said, “So, you don’t know exactly where the book is going. You don’t have to write it in order do you? Can’t you write scenes that you DO know?” So simple, but so spot on! I can at least get started.

    One thing has happened that is a great inspiration. I am going to have my first publication ever, in a holiday anthology. It is a short story in A World of Joy, written by members of ASMSG. It is due to be published on Smashwords as a free download on Fri. 11/29! I have upgraded my Goodreads profile to an author account. So, that has broken the ice as far as submission anxiety. I am so nervous though. I think the butterflies turned into bats as soon as I clicked enter. πŸ™‚ I’ll send you a link when it goes live. The proofs are supposed to be published tonight in case there are any last minute changes to be made. Other members edited them, so I got a lot of great tips and employed most of them. So, wish me luck! πŸ™‚ haha

    • Yea!!! I’m so excited for you!!! And your roommate had a great insight: if you have an outline of sorts, you can definitely write the scenes you are most sure about, out of order a bit, if that is a style/process that will help you gain confidence πŸ™‚

  9. Reading this post was like seeing myself in a mirror. Recognizing your own mistakes is the surest indicator that you are making progress because you are seeing something now that you didn’t see when you wrote that passage a moment ago. I went through a really low patch in my writing earlier this year when the most demanding question in my mind was: Why am I even bothering? I had been reading a lot of books on the craft of writing, looking for the magic key to perfection. But what was really happening was that I was compiling an endless list of “don’ts” that steadily became an impenetrable disincentive to actually writing anything. Then something happened that made me rediscover why I had started writing in the first place and revitalized my enthusiasm. I still don’t set out to make mistakes. But now, when I find them, that “finding” encourages me even more than the fear of making them used to discourage me.

    • Thanks so much for sharing your story!!! It’s really powerful because that has happened to me before too. It’s important to edit and to focus on improving, but I love how you focus on YOU at the end. I always talking about “writing for you.” It should be fun and meaningful rather than overwhelming.

  10. Had to reblog! Loved it!

  11. Reblogged this on The Creative Space and commented:
    My biggest leaps of faith were my potentially biggest mistakes

  12. Pingback: » The OutRamp Writer’s Wroundup Newsletter #2: November 29 – December 1, 2013 - The OutRamp

  13. Pingback: 5 Ways Authors Can Recycle Their Discarded Material | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  14. Thank you for this post. We are all fallible, and realizing that is part of the learning process. The day I started my current WIP my writing was awful! I had lost my mojo. I didn’t understand it, and it was driving me crazy! What I realized was, I had been editing my previous novel for so long I was still in editing mode and not in creating mode. Once I realized that, it was easy to turn around. And I’m happy to report it’s been smooth sailing ever since. That’s why blogs are so important, in my opinion. They keep our creative mind sharp when we put on the editor hat.

    • I love what you say here. Editing and writing mode, as I call them, are definitely two different things. And I DEFINITELY struggle switching back to writing mode after editing for a long time!!! I had never thought of my blog as a tool to keep creating/writing but it most definitely is!

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