Fail Faster (So You Can Become a Better Writer)

From Jeff: This is a guest article from Joe Bunting. You can visit Joe online at his blog, The Write Practice, or follow him on Twitter @JoeBunting. His latest eBook, Let’s Write a Short Story, is currently on-sale.

About a year ago, I wrote a guest post that completely failed. It was for a large writing blog, and over the following few days it got about 20 comments from people who all disagreed with me.

Fail Faster Photo
Photo credit: Nima Badiey (Creative Commons)

It felt like someone had poured ice water over my shoulders, kind of like football players do to their coach for winning a football game. Except I didn’t win.

It was painful. Embarrassing. Humbling. However, I learned more about writing from that post than from 10 posts that were well received.

If you want to succeed, do this…

Michael Cunningham says, “One always has a better book in one’s mind than one can manage to get onto paper.”

Writers are terrible judges of their own work, and this should come as no surprise. Our job is to mine our imaginations, to live in worlds that don’t exist, to create things from nothing.

This doesn’t make us the best judges of what is good or bad. And it shouldn’t.

Failure is a reality check; it’s the best teacher. And the sooner you fail, the sooner you can not fail. The faster you realize your need to change, the faster you’ll learn the skills you need to succeed.

Why you shouldn’t write a novel (yet)

To get better at writing, you need to fail faster. It’s just that simple.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many of the great writers — Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Leo Tolstoy, and Stephen King — wrote short stories before they wrote novels.

If you want to write fiction, you’re probably focusing on writing novels. The problem with this is that novels can take years to write and publish before you know if they’re any good.

In other words, if you write a novel, it will take years to fail.

If you write short stories, though, you can publish within months or even weeks. Short stories allow you to fail sooner and more often. Thus, you become a better writer faster.

What I mean by “publish”

Publishing can be more flexible than you think:

  • You can “publish” by sending your work to a critique group made up of friends and other writers.
  • You can “publish” by posting on your blog.
  • You can “publish”by submiting a literary magazine.
  • You can publish on Amazon.

When you “publish,” especially when you’re just starting out, don’t have unrealistic expectations. Don’t think you’re going to win a Pulitzer or be the next J.K. Rowling. That’s not the point.

This is practice, publishing practice. The point of is not to succeed; it’s to fail. The more times you fail, the more learn what not to do.

Fail in public

Practice in public — you’ve heard this before. It’s one of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever heard. But I’d like to take it a step further: Don’t just practice in public; fail in public.

You need people to tell you you’re wrong, that your story isn’t interesting, that the information you think is so important actually isn’t.

  • Sometimes they’ll tell you through their silence.
  • Sometimes they’ll tell you in the comments.
  • Sometimes they’ll send emails.

Make no mistake; failing sucks. It feels like being naked in a crowded room, like being talked about behind your back. And yet, it’s the best way to get better.

Before you can succeed, you need to fail. As C.S. Lewis said, “Failures are the finger posts on the road to achievement.”

Get in the habit of publishing your work sooner than you want. Write about the subject that scares you. Write a story that you’re not sure you’re good enough to write.

The secret lesson of failure

You’re not a failure if you fail — not really. Quite the opposite, actually. The biggest failures in life are those too afraid to try.

To be a failure all you have to do is never fail. (You may want to tweet that.)

If you want to be a success, you need to learn to fail big. That’s where the lessons that lead to success are found.

Most artists are not born great. They become great by growing into their potential. Failure helps you to achieve it.

What have you learned about writing through failure? Tell your failure story in the comments.

Note: You can pick up Joe’s new eBook for a fraction of the usual cost if you get it before next Wednesday (Aug. 29, 2012). See all the packages here.

*Photo credit: Nima Badiey (Creative Commons)

Hi, I’m Jeff. Can I send you something?

Hi, I’m Jeff. Can I send you something?

For a free guide on growing your blog audience, enter your email address in the form below.

64 thoughts on “Fail Faster (So You Can Become a Better Writer)

  1. Great post, Joe.  I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned since facing my fear of writing is that it will never be perfect.  I feared looking at my imperfections on paper for so long that I chose not to write.  But facing my mistakes and growing from them has brought incredible joy into my life.  The slow growth I experience makes all the times I fail worth it to me.  Because at least now I am feeling something rather than nothing. 

      1. Anesthetic…that’s a great description of it, Joe.  Yes.  I can’t speak for anyone else but for me, someone who feared failing (and still do more often than I like), I resisted the hard things which caused a ripple effect.  I didn’t grow and I slowly started dying on the inside.  Facing my fear of failure brought me to life.

  2. One of those multiple personality type tests (there may have been a good reason for typing “multiple personality” and how I did amuse myself there) stated that my type always feels that whatever I write or say is completely understood by others.  I wrote a weekly musing to the volunteer staff each Monday, and often would click “send” believing all was at peace with man and womankind  and that ministry would boom over the course of the next week.  Every so often it would only be a brief moment before 12 comments would almost tumble over each other either completely negating what I had just written or taking strong issue with one another over it.  Maturity and longevity taught me how to use that give and take to help the staff dig deeper into their work, but at first the confusion about how my writing could have so failed to say what was in my mind used to bring me to a dead stop for a week or more.  

    1. YES! I’ve certainly been there. It’s so painful, isn’t it? It’s like the emperor, suddenly realizing he has no clothes on. (Except you’re the emperor not wearing any clothes).

  3. Painful truth.  A friend of mine who trains at Mixed Martial Arts once told me the Black Belt has been tapped out more than anyone else, and has learned from it.

  4. Great thoughts!  Good to think about broadening our view of what it means to “publish”, and to pay attention to the different ways people give feedback.   It makes me think of an image from Jim Collins’ book, Great by Choice.  He talks about checking to see what’s hitting the target by shooting bullets rather than lobbing bombs.  Smaller failures lead to adjustments so we can achieve success.

  5. Thankyou Jeff, brilliant tips sharing your link, i love the honesty, we are not often told failure is part of it…thanks again

  6. No one (well, not me at least) wants to practice in public because it’s so out there, so vulnerable.  But I guess practice isn’t just private preparation for the performance, it’s also what makes the “performer” better at her craft.  

    I’ve only recently started to explore my writing and art, and while I could tell you what I’ve learned about art through failure, I can’t say the same about writing.  I think that’s because I haven’t taken nearly as many risks with writing.  I’m going to change that. 

    In the end, though, I think it’s less about discovering how other people view my work and more about my discovering the work I was created to do.

    Thanks for the insight.

      1. Joe, your post really got me thinking, and I’m actually working on a post in response.  Somewhere in there, I’ll answer your question.  I’ll email you the link — or response, if it doesn’t end up as a post on my blog.   

  7. Whew!  Now that’s a challenge.  Failing publicly hurts.  I read Stephen King’s “On Writing” (which I need to read again) and that was incredible to know he failed his way to his success too. I’ve been working on a novel, but you definitely got me thinking here.  I’ve got several ideas for short stories (series).  You think that’s the way to go though first huh?

    1. I don’t think it’s THE way but I definitely think it’s A way that most writers overlook when they shouldn’t. It just increases your opportunities to fail (and thus get feedback), which can only help you improve faster.

  8. Great word, Joe. I can remember doing just what you suggest for months on end about fifteen years ago. I wrote my heart out and posted to a writer’s forum then got hacked to pieces. I would cry and at times protest, but most of all I settled in and just began to write. Eventually things were noticed and I even sold a piece of flash fiction for $5.00. Then I married and settled headlong into blending five kids into a family. 

    Writing left me for a season. But, my heart never forgot I am a writer. In 2007 I sat down to begin my blog. I had been regularly posting on another Christian forum and getting good responses. Still, I had to sit back and evaluate whether or not I would put my writing, my soul, on display for others to read, critique and well, hack up if need be. I have returned home to write and communicate in various creative forms in this season and am discovering I still have much to say. PUBLISH is the next leg of the journey and I am working my way toward it one word at a time. 

    Will I fail in public? The answer remains yes, most likely so, but I will also succeed there as well if I listen to the honest evaluations of my work. Thank you for sharing this encouragement and reminding us that becoming better is not just about approval, it is also about pruning. Thank you very much. 


  9. Thanks, Joe, for encouraging us to learn the craft through public
    practice and failure, great advice. Helps you develop a thick skin as

    I failed and succeeded  with writing and publishing over 50 flash fictions in the Writing Challenge. I made a commitment to never miss a week until I reached the Masters Level. It launched my writing career. Each story received a dozen or more comments from an incredibly supportive community. Some offered “red ink” but even when they didn’t, I could gauge their level of enthusiasm to tell if it was really any good or not.

    I’m so thankful I learned all the “newbie” stuff before I invested in a full length novel. Now I can get serious and write one or a dozen 🙂

  10. Just had a wonderfully humbling failure…won a big writing comp. this fabulous prize was that I would have my novel line edited. I was sure when the editors were done doing their “duty” to my masterpiece they’d be fighting over which publishing house would be good for me. Ya, not really.

    While they were gentile in their comments, it was very obvious that my work was not up to professional standard yet. My POV was mixed at times, my voice wandered, my paragraphs were not broken up right, my tenses were off at times and oh the worse part was the stupid spell checked wrong words! …all this after I thought I had it in the bag! I was discouraged for a day…if I could have crumpled up my computer like a wad a paper, I would have. I envisioned doing it multiple times….then taking it out of the trash and laying it flat to mourn over once again.
    Now I’ve just bought three books to help me better self edit. Feel like I’ve learn more in one failure than all the nice compliments put together.

    1. Everyone needs an editor, Furrong, even me (and I’ve worked as an editor!). I wouldn’t let it get you down. Good for you for letting it motivate you to get better though!

  11. I always knew I was scared into inaction by my fear of failure.   Now the need to write has become more powerful, and failure doesn’t carry the weight it once did.

    Thanks for helping me make sense of it and to fear it even less.

  12. Joe and Jeff,

    I can see why you two are friends.  Your writing styles and perceptions are very similar.  Jeff, if I didn’t read the header, I would have thought it was you!

    Joe, great advice about failure, and the fear of it.  I try to keep in mind what Thomas Edison, the inventor, said.  He fully expected to fail the vast majority of times in his experiments, but he knew that would only fine tune his successes, and look how many great successes he had!

    Thanks again, Joe.

  13. Really like and agree with the theme of your post but I think feedback might be a better word to use than fail. Fail has such negative overtones even if it does make a better headline.  

    As a big student of deliberate practice one of its key principles is to undertake a task and receive immediate feedback: ‘a feedback loop’.  It’s why I think blogs are such a wonderful new, or reasonably new, tool for writers that were not available previously. They provide a very quick feedback loop as you, and every other blogger has found out. As a side comment it’s always interesting when I find a new blog I like to go back and read old blog posts and almost invariably the guys worth reading have improved in both style and content as their blog has matured.  

    I happen to think writers of old wrote short stories for this feedback loop (even if that’s not what they called it or realised at the time).  It hones the craft and the writer can get much quicker feedback. 

  14. Brilliant post- thanks, Joe.
    Don’t just practice publicly, fail publicly- wow.
    Perfectionism can be so crippling – we need people to set us free to fail. Thank you.

  15. Joe, excellent post. I was one of the fiction writers that only wanted to write novels. I refused to dabble at short stories to improve my craft rather kept working on my manuscript. And kept working on the MS. Fortunately, I kept getting lots of positive confirmation about the story and also lots of constructive advice about improving the craft.

    10 years later it’s going to be published. Fail fast, fail publicly. Great advice to all new writers and some not so new.

    Well done Joe. Ian

  16. This is partially why I started my site. Even though I’ve written only short fiction, it would take me so long to get something finalized that I may as well have written a book. I decided I wanted to write 100 stories in 100 weeks as a way of getting myself to really focus on creating a story, rather than constantly editing it, and to learn through peoples’ reactions where my strengths and weaknesses are.

    I definitely agree with the point of writing short fiction before you move on to longer fiction. It helps you be a more concise writer. You also have to choose your words very carefully. It’s a lot of fun though.

  17. There’s a great image floating around Facebook of Michael Jordan that reads: “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to make the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” 

    Failure is a matter of perspective. I love the quote: “Failure is the opportunity to try again, more intelligently.”

    Thanks Jeff for the reminder to keep getting up!

  18. I used to plan, or should I say, over-plan things I wanted to do. I wanted them to be perfect. And they never, not ever, turned out the way I planned them. And for a long time I though those results to be failures. And it made me angry. And I would try to “plan better”, but slowly, very slowly, I began to understand that in life there is only so much one can actually control, and the rest happens. So I started going on trips without planning, I stopped choosing my clothes for the next day. And if I noticed that I had though about the blue shirt and there was only the yellow one, I´d smile and “yellow it is” -I´d say. I started accepting the spontaneity of life as the natural course of things. Now as I want to give myself to writing, I´m learning to let my feelings go and the words flow. I believe on checking, reviewing, even when that will change the point of view that I originally wanted to take. But I will put myself out-there and really let it go and enjoy the ride! 
    Embrace failure, eh? OK. Thanks Joe.

  19. Great post! This takes a lot of the pressure off. Sometimes when I post something to my blog that I think is hilarious, I’m left hearing crickets in the comments section. Then I’ll write something that I don’t think will get much reaction and I get a lot. The problem is I don’t always know specifically what failed or what was great about a particular post. Or was it because I posted over the weekend or at some other bad time? I’m not even sure which posts are my best posts. Any advice?

    1. Good point, Kate. I think one thing your experience speaks to is that sometimes whether a post is successful or not is out of your control. Sometimes you just get lucky, and a post gets really popular. Other times a really good post, something that really should be successful, just doesn’t get lucky. There are a couple of things you can do to take random luck out of the picture, though. 

      First, make sure your sample size is big enough. If you only have 100 people who read your blog, you might not be big enough to get a good picture. That’s why guest posting is so great. You can try out new ideas (or old ideas) in front of a larger sample size and get a better sense of whether it worked or not. 

      Second, you can build a core team. There are five or ten readers who I’m pretty close to. I’ve called a lot of them on the phone. I email them regularly. They’re not just my readers. They’re my friends. Getting close to people in your audience can give you a better qualitative sense. 

      The last thing is just time and experience. I don’t know how long you’ve been writing your blog, but after about six months on The Write Practice, I just had an intuitive sense of what was working for my audience. Sometimes it just takes a while to develop that slow understanding.

  20. Excellent Concept.  To put it out and open so people understand the path.  

    I look at it a little bit differently though because FAILURE isn’t in not achieving your desired results right away it really is when you quit.  

    Success is seeing your progress however small and finding motivation to keep going.  Where you end up is a function of time, right?

  21. Great post Joe. I must admit I now desperately want to read this “failed” post. Do you REALLY fail if you have readers? Just a thought. 

    1. Ha thanks Jim. Actually, the blogger I guest posted for just let me post because she thought it would start a debate. She thought I failed before I even began!

      And of course you can fail if you have readers. The Emperor had a lot of followers, but he still wasn’t wearing any clothes.

  22. I agree so much about failing faster. When I studied architecture we had one project in the fall and one in the spring semester. I would have learned so much more if we had three smaller projects per semester.

  23. True, Jeff. And the hardest thing about failing is when you know you’re right – but the world disagrees!

    A long while back I spent two years writing a novel that failed. Why? I fell in love with it. Now I draft a chapter fast and give myself permission to write dross. A week later, I can go back and edit it at my leisure. The first draft is a deliberate failure. So no matter how bad it is, I’ve achieved my objective!

    Maybe we should encourage ourselves to fail a little more, the first time?

      1.  Thanks, Joe. Nice to chat with you again. I’ve always been inspired by the character in a UK sitcom who started a small business, making wire trays for freezers, that he wanted to fail. (I forget why.)  Alas, it become a roaring success. Result: misery.

        If we expect our stories to fail (though we write them the best way we can), we don’t become clinicallydepressed by rejection notes. That’s what we wanted! And when by accident we’re famous, we can sell all those rejection notes, laminated into bookmarks, on EBay 🙂

        1. Totally. Which is why I wrote, “If you want to be a success, you need to learn to fail big. That’s where the lessons that lead to success are found.” Like the author I talked to who was working at getting 100 rejection letters and on the way, published 6 of his stories. He was thrilled about both!

  24. I´m teaching writing skills in college. Of course I see lots tip toeing where running and stumping, and even failing, would serve. So in an effort of freeing my students I´m not grading their work, I´m just helping them to correct some grammatical errors, some style errors, but I´m letting them try to find the voice they have but are afraid to use. So far the going is slow, but I´m beginning to see some buds of hope starting to come out. Stronger phrases, more meaningful thoughts, it´s really like tending a garden that has been let alone. Cheers!

    1. I like that Torrouno. I think in a school situation what you’re doing really works. You can’t fail in the way I’m talking about if you’re not passionate, and it seems like what you’re doing is planting the seeds of passion. 

  25. So true I started writing fiction Feb of 2014. My first eBook that I gave away free I was told point blank I would never be a writer. I think the whole book of short stories had maybe two comas. My grammar sucked big time. But I am a great plotter. This weekend I gave away 3 of my new titles. All three are on amazon’s best sellers list. One is the number 1 best selling short story compilation on kindle as I write this. Great post!

  26. Bravo! Came to the same conclusions myself. I am writing a lot of ‘flash’ fiction and love it. The more I write the more I realize that a novel is a series of flash fiction pieces. Telling a story in 1500 words or less is an excellent way to hone the craft.

  27. I have written a lot of stuff so far for myself. I believe it’s time for people to critique my work now. Thanks for the post. It has given me the courage I need.

Comments are closed.