How to fail better at writing (Part 1)

A few scenarios of failure

English: Algernon Charles Swinburne. A true po...Rupa is sixteen years old. Rupa has a lot of passion for life. Rupa thinks she is a writer. Rupa keeps a pocket book handy at all times in case her inspirations escape from the leaky recesses of her brain and she fails to catch them in flight.

So Rupa has been scribbling for a while, mostly about love, passion, roses. At social gatherings, her parents often urge her to read out her poetry. It’s probably her imagination but she’s been noticing a lot of people heading towards the food or feeling suddenly thirsty the moment her parents mention her most recent inspired moments.

John is finally retired. He has moved to Florida. In addition to watching a lot of TV, walking the dog, meeting his children who are now spread out all over the globe, he is now into writing. Someone told him his life experiences have been invaluable. So he decided to put them down on paper. John intends to self publish these one day.

Strangely, his sons  have been always  getting important phone calls right around the time he has moved towards reading out one of his paragraphs to one of the boys or getting to the point of asking a friend for a foreword to one of his books.

Raina is in college. She always received an A in high school English class. Now she is in a large school in a university town with an overwhelming number of people from various backgrounds very different from hers. At the beginning of the school year, she had no doubt that she would do well in English in college as well.

As a result, she had planned to put more effort into the other difficult courses she had taken but had no doubt she would ace her English classes. It was going to be simple– she had even made a nice cover page template with the teacher’s name spelt correctly on top for the first few papers.

Raina became more and more disappointed through the term as her papers came back with red marks all over. In high school, teachers had never used a red pen. Only blue.

Rupa, John and Raina have largely reacted to this response to their writing in roughly the same way. Rupa is now no longer as keen to note down her ideas in the pocket book. John is thinking fishing might be a better past time after all. Raina has not stepped in the direction of her English instructor’s office in three months. In fact, the other day, she saw someone like her instructor in the bus. She couldn’t be sure because she had stared steadily at the passing trees through the window for the rest of the journey until her stop came.

Why writing failure feels different

In writing, more than in many other aspects of human endeavour, when we fail, we fail badly at taking failure well.

I have often wondered why.

English: An owl on an open book with a hat

I think one of the main reasons why we don’t succeed at facing writing failure is because when we write, we put ourselves out there quite directly making ourselves vulnerable to the reader. It does not matter if it’s fiction or an essay removed from our own experience. The very act of thinking aloud through writing makes us feel exposed.We cannot help feeling that we are our writing.

The less experienced we are, the more a part of us as us gets out there. So a rejection  of our writing seems like a rejection of us, not like something we have done and can do again–a skill we can improve upon.

If a carpenter makes a chair, say a bad chair, and the chair is rejected, he could think of making another with a different design. If a scientist’s paper is disproved, it can lead to professional disappointment. But will it lead to self-doubt regarding the ability of the scientist to solve a problem? I don’t know. I’ve heard that this does happen when it is someone’s life’s work. But when writing is rejected, it is felt like a rejection of the self of the writer too many times even in the realm of the daily and the mundane such as an emotional email or a blog.

This is why, making fun of bad poets is such a good sport. Making fun of bad carpenters? Not so much.

Writing is also different from other pursuits in another aspect. Ultimately, once you have pointed out the flaws in grammar and structure etc. in a piece of writing, other assessment criteria can never be completely objective. So when we fail, not all of us can understand why we’ve failed nor figure out where we can improve. Placing the onus on the reader also comes easy–the audience, the teacher, the friend didn’t really understand what one was trying to say or was biased, if not against the writer personally but against the viewpoints expressed.

If we are trying to learn biking and we fall down a couple of times, we have faith in ourselves that we will ultimately pick ourselves up and learn the skill. It’s just a skill. Everyone learns.

But not so with writing. There is  a romantic aura surrounding writing which makes us think that it can’t be learnt. As though one is born with the inspiration to write.

So if enough people are critical of our writing, we start thinking we are not meant to be writers.

Continued on How to fail better at writing (Part 2)

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47 thoughts on “How to fail better at writing (Part 1)”

  1. Thank you for the like and this great post. I am working my way up to being at home with the conflict between wanting to write and feeling vulnerable. I recommend Brenda Ueland’s book If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit.

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  2. I don’t think writing differs that much from any other art form when it comes to criticism. All artists put themselves out there, and most have to learn to take failure as a matter of course or crawl back into the woodwork.

    Once basic competency is learned, the subjective then comes into play, capturing the elusive duende that sets the work on fire. That is what we struggle to achieve.That is why we sit and work and think and dream. We put ourselves in a position to snag duende in our nets, our traps, weaving and re-weaving throughout the day and night. You have to love the work once the romance is vanquished. That is why those novice writers gave, and continue to give, up. They didn’t realize just how much would be required, just what the toll would be.There are many other things in life that are far easier, like going fishing. But I would rather continue to work, to try to set the night on fire. [Thank you, Jim Morrison.] :o)

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  3. I definately loved it!
    I had a bad time(and have it often) when people compare me to others and say, “why don’t you write like this?” OR “Why did you be so dark?” OR “You could try it like “the name of a great poet/writer” did/does” etc.
    It feels sooo….ahhhh!!!
    Last time my bro told me mine story was not like “Chetan Bhagat” and I should try it like him…I cries my eyes out alone.
    I mean hell! I am not him! So, I cant be, can’t write like him. And why should I?

    Such comments keep on coming and make my heart burst with pain as if someone is taking away my love away from me.
    I dont mind if you say “try again” or “give some more hardwork” or things like that but telling me its worthless, and to be like someone else…it hurts simply too much… 😦

    It makes me confused about my own identity.

    Thankx for this!
    You have a good hand at the pen.
    😀

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        1. Thanks and yes, I do.And I just wish I do that for long enough and become better still!

          And I m too happy and impressed by myself, dont think I can suit to “be” someone else (but who can explain others). Just wish the world accepts me as I am. 😀
          Thanks and enjoy!

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    1. This is a great question. A definition (at least a personal definition) is important. Failure could mean failure to be recognized in general or by specific people as you say but it could also mean failure to get it all together (idea, structure, style, tone etc.) What else? I’m sure there’s more.

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  4. I personally identified with the examples you gave, great stuff. I’ve learnt the hard way that, as a writer, it is really important to know how to fail, and not take criticism to personally. But the only way to learn how to do that is for another writer (be it blogger, mentor, self-help book), or expert teaches you how to deconstruct a pice of writing and how to tell what exactly the criticism means and how to improve upon the criticism you get, however nasty it is. Loved the post 🙂

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  5. I think we also take it ha because we are passionate about trying to convey a deep feeling or sense of confusion, truth or wonder that we are desperate to share. When the words don’t measure up, we are left alone.

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  6. Artistic endeavors are very personal. No matter how we try to disguise it – and sometimes we are successful at this and sometimes not – the writer’s soul is swimming around in there, one way or the other. And so, of course, rejection is very personal. I am contemplating, now, though, how rejection and failure in this context aren’t very different things….

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  7. I think Lakin is right. If you keep going, it does get easier the more rejection you get, because then you start developing your own thicker skin. The sooner you recognize that your writing isn’t you, the sooner you can recognize rejection as a chance to recognize weaknesses.

    Of course, we writers are either crippled with sensitivity or very narcissistic, which makes it harder for us to take that criticism in the vein in which it is meant. And for the sensitives among us, it can kill the will to write. So it’s very hurtful for some of us.

    I think the best thing a writer can do is find a reason to write beyond personal validation, which gives them the impetus to work through the rejection and, eventually, to work with it.

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  8. I’ve found that each rejection gets a little easier to take. The first three I got back in the mail from magazines, I bawled over, but now it hardly phases me. It’s sort of a “Oh, too bad. Time to move on to the next one.”
    I can’t wait to read the rest next time you post.

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    1. Lakin’s totally right. It does get easier. Like some of the other posters said, a lot of it is realizing that the criticism is of your work and not you. But some of it is also when you realize that you are improving. Say you get a rejection–but this time it contains personalized feedback that you then can use for revision. The rejection leads to persistence, which leads to improvement, which ultimately leads to success.

      The mistake is not persisting. Or, persisting, but without being open to change. Like Bottledworder says, so much about writing style is subjective. Unfortunately, there are people who use this as a crutch–“They just don’t get me.”

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  9. Hi – first, thank you for liking my post! (I Love London)…I came over to check out your site and read yours on “How to fail better at writing…” and I think you are right and many of the others who have commented on here have it right too. Part of that inner cringe factor we all have when we want someone to read something we’ve written has to do with the fact that they can compare our writing to others. Your example using a carpenter was great – and even though we could compare that person’s chair to, say for instance, a Sheffield or Chippendale for instance, it’s just not the same thing. Why did we hesitate to raise our hands in class? Why did we hesitate to read our book reports out loud? Because they held our thoughts, our way of thinking about something and we worry about sounding dumb, or someone not agreeing with us. But we have to keep in mind that liking what was written is very subjective – as can be ascertained from the fickle world of publishing. Keep on writing!

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  10. I think a big key to getting feedback is realizing that it’s about your work, not YOU. And also making sure you actually care about the opinion of the person giving you feedback. Some people thing critique means negative and so their feedback is mean for no reason.

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  11. Might I have a little fun with this one:
    Perhaps, what is a rhetorical redundant remedy is to cause, connection and conflict…comes to those who fail in responsible creativity. (ooh ouch)?

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  12. Hmmm. Your post reminded me of 7th grade. I loved writing back then and had an English teacher that loved what I did too. Then she went on maternity leave and the substitute didn’t like my writing. What was frustrating though is that she didn’t even mark my papers – she’d just assign a ‘C’ grade to it. Needless to say, that killed my writing for years to come. Now in my 50s, it is back again. 🙂

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  13. Very accurate assessment. It’s difficult when family and friends ignore my endeavors – not only my blog but my published books as well. I found that too many people simply don’t read, and others just ignore what they don’t understand. At first, it hurt and I took it as judgment on me. I don’t think it has anything to do with my writing at all. It’s something with them.

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  14. Soooo true. And let me add this kind of criticism–you tell your friends that you have a blog now, you’ve written a post that they might like, some of them tell you they read it, only two or three of them sign up to follow you. Could be many reasons including being unfamiliar with how blogs work and how to sign up to follow. But, whatever the reason (that probably has nothing to do with your writing), you feel rejected.
    Remember: I’m writing for me. I’m writing for me. I’m writing for me.

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  15. Writing, like other arts, is a window to the soul of the creator. But like any other endeavor at self-improvement, objective feedback is the only way to move onward and upwards, else we grow stale. May we all have the mettle to move! Thank you for this well-written nudge.

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  16. In college I received very poor feedback on piece I’d written. Remember the feedback sandwich? This was just the bread. Only cons. It was a first person piece and I was too connected to the character. I cried on the spot. I felt attacked. To be fair, they didnt see anything redeeming in the short. After clas the professor apologized for failing to control the room. She then pointed out some things I had done well.

    I don’t think I would react that way today. However, I loved this and I’m anticipating the next installment.

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  17. I so love this piece. I for one, have some trouble accepting critique to my posts. Silly as it sounds, but that is of course, the way you learn to get better. Now I spend more time, doing research, and covering my bases, before posting up a side story or article. I know I put my best foot forward, and in the end, if I enjoy the writing, then maybe others will too. Pleasing ourselves first, I think is important.

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  18. Very true what you said about writing..it is a part of us, whether it is from our imagination or from our experiences. I’m not so sure about what you said about how a carpenter would take the rejection of a chair that he had carved out with his own hands using the tools that he he has learned (or is learning to) use in a process that involves his energies…even his love for his craft.
    I feel that a rejection of that chair would still have an impact on that carpenter. I think any craft where we “give ourselves” to it is something personal…and there is a part of us that will leave it’s imprint on it..and therefore rejections would be personal…at least at a certain level 🙂

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  19. This is exactly how I felt with my blog – at first I felt self-conscious at the thought of all of my friends and reader basically seeing myself spill my personality all over one post. A daunting concept, but you get used to it after a while. Brilliant post and so relevant 🙂

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  20. I have a “hate-love” relationship with feedback. I start out hating it, denying arguing, ranting and raving. Eventually, when I can I identify the “problem” for what it is (and stop arguing)…then revising is easy.

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  21. It’s hard not to feel judged when someone doesn’t like your work, and it’s even harder when it’s over something so inherently subjective. Some people aren’t going to like your stuff, regardless how good it is. Me, I’m not a big fan of J.K. Rowling, but it certainly doesn’t mean she’s not an incredible author. Just personal taste, is all.

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  22. This is so true. Writing is very personal and having it rejected, ridiculed or simply ignored hurts … a lot. Yes, we can blame the reader for not getting what we were trying to say, but putting all the onus on them is unfair, shouldn’t we be more effective at conveying what we want to convey so that they do understand?
    I just say, not everyone will get you all of the time. Keep writing, and eventually someone will sit up and listen.

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