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.
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.
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!
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.
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