How to fail better at writing (Part 2)

Continued from How to fail better at writing (Part 1)

Why examining failure is important

I think that a lot of current attention on teaching and learning writing is focused on attempts at being successful and on how to write well. Not enough focus is given to understanding failure–why and how we fail to compose a piece properly.

Focusing on how to do better is certainly valuable. But in addition to striving towards success, it’s important to realize what isn’t working in one’s writing and why. It’s important to realize that  information about failure is valuable not just because flaws need to be fixed but because some flaws can tell us more about strengths in our writing than successful bits can.

I am thinking of a TV show as an example. I sometimes watch Elementary on CBS where Sherlock Holmes and a female rendition of Dr. Watson solve crimes in modern day New York. I don’t know if you watch it as well. The show does not work for me although I think individual elements of the show such as characterization and creation of dramatic moments are very well done.

So when I say the show fails, I mean the show has failed to impress me.

Elementary
(Photo credit: andyaldridge)

It’s not such a problem for me that Holmes and Watson have turned out to be Conan Doyle’s characters in name only without much connection to the originals of Victorian London. I have no problem with their new avatars at all. My problem is that stylization of the moments between Holmes and Watson and stylization of characterization in the form of Holmes’ weirdness take over the narrative  and the mystery story is told too fast for a casual viewer to catch the details of the plot.

Now, instead of focusing on how they could have “fixed” the show (for viewers like me) or how they could have turned it into a success, I decided to focus on what fails and see what could be gathered from there. That approach led me to think that perhaps something was wrong with mixing genres here. The original Holmes revealed a lot about the plot through what he said through dialogue (meant to be read) and we found out a lot through Watson’s descriptions (also to be read). In the show, Holmes talks too fast while he mentions vital bits of information here and there that escape the TV viewer.

The fast talking was a part of the weirdness of Holmes’ characterization but in a detective story on TV, it failed to cue the reader in about the plot. He needed to go slower on TV.

Fail quickly and fail well

Writing is not an ideal but a real activity. We may believe we have a book in us or an article, but we will never know what it is until we give it concrete shape. A lot of the nuances of writing come with practice, trial and error and decisions on other things based on readership such as levels of complexity or unpacking of ideas. These can only come once you have put your ideas out there and know how readers are reacting to what you write.

Human-gnome-session-reboot

What I’m saying is that you will never fail until you put your writing out there. And failing is very important for the writing process. The fear of failure often keeps us from sending out our materials for consideration but I think that instead of fearing failure, we could see failure as an important learning opportunity, only second in desirability to success but not a catastrophic event.

One of the ways of failing well is to understand that writing is not a monolithic product we make but is composed of parts that succeed or fail (think content, style, structure etc.) If we think this way, we can always get second chances, depend on trying and fixing parts and not on a sudden windfall-like situation where we write a bestseller straightaway.

When we think like this, writing starts looking like the rigorous activity it is where success comes through repeated trials. If we understand this, we also see that failure is not monolithic. Only parts and juxtaposition of parts of our compositions fail–not the whole thing at one go.

But it logically follows that to go by this route, you’d need to fail many times and fail well, by which I mean thoroughly examine why you failed. You’d have to write an article, a blog, a novel or something else and then know that it did not work fairly quickly to enter back into the loop of examining why you failed and trying again. Since life is short, you’d need failure to come a couple of times and come at you fast in order to keep trying.

This used to be very difficult until recently. You’d send an article out. If it was a relatively unknown journal it would respond in three months. If it was well known, it could be a year or even a year and a half. If you wanted to publish a book, you’d set aside several years in the pursuit of the profession unless you were already famous (or born into a network) by which time the story may have lost relevance!

There are only so many years in life to fail well!

Cold War Clock
(Photo credit: ckaiserca)

The internet has given us a million opportunities to fail well. All of us who know the internet know what new phenomena I’m talking about. It’s possible to move things along much more quickly now. It’s possible to hit jackpot. But I think what we should celebrate more is that it’s so easy to fail, and fail quickly through the internet. All we need to learn is to fail well and fail better to take advantage of the new setup that’s here.

But don’t fail badly

Just as you need to put in a lot of effort to succeed, you need to put in a lot of effort to fail well. This means that if you hastily write a book and self publish it immediately and fail to get good responses, you learn nothing from this failure except that you were impatient. You haven’t failed well.

If a lot of people have been critical of certain aspects of your book that you’ve put a lot of effort into, and you take the criticisms to heart and decide never to write again, you have failed badly, not well. If you decide not to take heed at all, your failure did not amount to anything. If you decide to throw out the whole thing altogether, you have failed to use failure well.

Having said all this, I’ll say that if you fail to fail at the right time, using too many valuable years of your life in a single pursuit at which you have failed repeatedly for whatever reason,  before cutting your losses and quitting an endeavour that clearly is not for you and you fail to choose another while there is still time, you have also failed to fail well.

Previous post: How to fail better at writing (Part 1)

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36 thoughts on “How to fail better at writing (Part 2)”

  1. I agree on this subject. I’m a new writer, I have just tried to compel myself to write short stories and it’s a totally different sort of hard compared to longer formats.
    I’ve been rejected three times from Shimmer magazine, but each time my writing improves, I hear better and better comments from the editors, and I seem to be moving up the hierarchy. My current rejection letter was just one away from the “last level”, the senior editor, and I was told the only reason it was rejected was because although it was a good read it was too surreal for the magazine.
    It’s still a rejection letter, but I see the improvements I’ve made in my writing and other people do as well, so that in and of itself motivates me to keep trying.
    I talk more about my motivation on my blog:

    http://mediaeclectic.wordpress.com/2012/12/19/we-the-struggling-artists/

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  2. I used to produce demos and records for artists back in the olden days. A musician friend of mine stumbled on me listening to one of the most badly produced records I’d ever heard. He was accustomed to seeing me trying to tear down “Sgt. Peppers” and figure out how the Beatles did what they did but he couldn’t understand why I was listening to “that trash”.
    It’s just as important to understand what makes something bad as it is to figure out what makes something else good. Sometimes you can learn far more by figuring out how something was done wrong.
    Good post!!!!
    Mike

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  3. Reblogged this on Tammy J Rizzo and commented:
    Failure is a part of life. We all fail a some point in our lives. However, failure has gotten such a bad rap of late, you’d think failing at something was the end of the world, rather than an opportunity to learn what didn’t work and figure out how to fix it. We need to remember that failure can be our best friend, if we learn to do it well and use it wisely. Here is an excellent post about how to fail well.

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  4. Very well put. It makes a lot of sense. I would like to add additional input to this by saying; There is no shame in accepting failure: only in not accepting someone else’s success. Writing is not only a very competitive field, but is one in which it is often hard to watch another one succeed where we have failed. When our ego is bruised we can get a little defensive, if one offers a bit of ‘constructive criticism,’ to what we already know needs a little fixing.

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  5. So very well written, cogent, precise, and you are so current in using “Elementary” in your examples — you ‘nailed’ the TV show in the points you mention. You are indeed impressive and I thank you for sharing your posts with me and other writers (would-be, wannabe, otherwise…).

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  6. Exactly!!! My middle school math students were very surprised the first time I asked everyone who missed the problem to put their “wrong” work on the board. We all learned where all the little catches could be!
    Love this–“But don’t fail badly…” Learning from your mistakes is invaluable. Thanks for reminding us.

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  7. very few comment “this sucks”. maybe they should. i wouldn’t comment like that on this piece though, to the contrary, being contrary.

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  8. Here’s my feeling about writing, folks and I’m comparatively a new author but one with age. Open your veins and let emotions flow on the page. What happens next? are words I think when a chapter is finished. Critique is wonderful and you still go with your gut. My publisher believes in me and that’s what counts in the long run.
    Love to all and good health. Happy Thanksgiving, my new friends.

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  9. This reminds me of a discussion I had at a forum (personalitycafe.com) about how creative people have often faced a lot of adversity. Did you know that Copernicus, Newton, Darwin, Wagner, Bach, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky all lost a parent at a young age? It may be that hardship is a blessing in disguise in that it makes us more familiar with negative emotions and less inclined to deal with failure by forgetting and moving on. Just a thought.

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  10. Right on. This is part of what I teach in my writing workshops. And writers can learn where an how they fail in what they are writing by getting their writing critiqued at writing critique groups either in person or online. Many a writing piece has risen from failure to success with help and suggestions from objective eyes. We are too subjective in our writing and we can’t see the forest for the trees.

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  11. Two of your comments really struck me:
    “Focusing on how to do better is certainly valuable. But in addition to striving towards success, it’s important to realize what isn’t working in one’s writing and why. It’s important to realize that information about failure is valuable not just because flaws need to be fixed but because some flaws can tell us more about strengths in our writing than successful bits can.”
    – Admitting what isn’t working and then taking the time to figure out why is the hard part. I wrote a book about ten years ago. The drafting was the easy part. The editing and figuring out the “why” was the hard part. I never edited it! In fact, it is still in a bottom drawer in my desk…all 650 pages of it. I let the fear of failure stop me from editing…Now I know better, but I have to be ready for this in my dissertation.

    “One of the ways of failing well is to understand that writing is not a monolithic product we make but is composed of parts that succeed or fail (think content, style, structure etc.) If we think this way, we can always get second chances, depend on trying and fixing parts and not on a sudden windfall-like situation where we write a bestseller straightaway.

    – I can relate my book to this as well. There are a couple chapters that are really good! I could’ve expanded on those. Also, my dissertation advisor told me that in academic writing/publishing, editors will take a 30-page essay and often cut everything but two pages, then the writer has to start with those two pages. Frustrating but true.

    I am so glad you wrote these two posts about failure. Maybe I should take a look at those good chapters in my book and see if I can turn them into something…

    http://dissertationgal.com

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    1. Thank you for your kind words and caring enough to post a post on my post! I really liked two points that you made–writing is not quite like a product and that, at some level, it’s different from other pursuits in that it does have parts of the writer in a way that a computer program doesn’t.

      I think temporarily considering writing as a product with parts could help some writers fix problems to reach a level where they can go back to considering it as a whole (organically–like a living thing–another analogy). I myself have a problem with the product analogy 🙂 Perhaps I should have said writing is like one’s baby/ child–one can’t be objective about criticisms but must take them constructively for the baby’s benefit and also distance themselves from the child so that it gets space to grow up as its own person, not a reflection of the parent.

      The second point about distancing oneself from one’s work is important as a work strategy but in the case of writing, it has the other dimension that the writer must feel like other people and see things from other perspectives as well to be successful. Otherwise, there will be just the one perspective and the one character in every piece–that of the writer’s own! That is bound to get boring soon.

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      1. So true – I agree with all the analogies!!!. Very good idea – as part of the process (in life and in writing) to break one’s work up into smaller “products” – and try to improve each part — and then join them (sew them) all together in the best way possible — cut and paste. I agree about the feeling of having a baby being similar to writing – the protectiveness, the love, the creation of something that one is so close to —- etc.. “Oy Vey” —it’s hard sometimes —- 🙂 .In general, writing is a good metaphor for character growth – it’s all a process. Thanks again for your original post and your terrific follow-up post. Have a great day.

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  12. I have that quote from Beckett above my desk: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” It gets working on my rejections pretty quickly. (Once or twice, successfully).
    Your post reminds me to keep at it and to reach higher.

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  13. I don’t think there’s an aspect of writing more difficult to teach than confidence. Sometimes, I wonder if it can be taught. I’m very comfortable with rejection now and even encourage dismayed readers to voice their negative feedback, though at one time I couldn’t even bring myself to read my professor’s notes marking up my work. Between then and now, I learned to write for myself, write a lot, and to shut up when hearing a response XD.

    To add to the post: a writer that talks back or defends his/her work while receiving critique is also failing badly, or ruining a chance at success. Listen, take notes, and review at a later time and take into consideration the suggestions. Think on the critique, and then determine whether said suggestions work for you or not. Just because someone says “I don’t like this” doesn’t mean it’s bad, “I like this” doesn’t mean it’s good.

    Goodness is determined by the writer. If you are extremely happy with your work, then that’s that. Write for yourself, write well for yourself, and you become a good writer.

    Greatness is determined by peers, and cannot be achieved without first becoming a good writer.

    I think too many upcoming writers strive first for greatness when they should be focusing on goodness, and thus stumble and fail to fail well.

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    1. This distinction between “goodness” and “greatness” is very apt. To add to your point about taking feedback, I think one can talk back, but only after considering the criticisms well.

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      1. Whoops! I guess I should have specified “don’t talk back WHILE they are still talking!” 😄

        But yes, talking back afterwards is perfectly welcome. Thanks for correctin me!

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  14. Wow. You have said a lot. A very lengthy piece but I like the point about failing better. That is my problem . . . fear of failure, which prevents me from putting anything out there until I started my blog. Thanks for the pep talk.

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