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?

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