My Favorite Writing Advice: Failing on the Page

Posted · 33 Comments

Failing on the page.

Favorite writing advice:

“You must allow yourself to fail on the page.”

Who said it:

Jaimee Wriston Colbert, fiction writing professor

Why:

Perfectionism will kill your writing goals. You’ll never get off the ground if you’re afraid to fail. I was afraid of failure, afraid of what people would think if my writing wasn’t good enough. Jaimee, lovely woman that she is, says we ALL fail on the page, every single one of us, including National-Book-Award and Pulitzer-Prize winners. Accept that it’s going to happen, let it happen, don’t freak out when it does, & keep on writing afterward. Not everything we write is going to be publishable. But those failures, if we let them, can teach us something, first and foremost how to be better writers.

Someone once said to me that writer’s block is about perfectionism. To a degree, I think that’s true. When I don’t worry about how the first draft comes out, when I know I’m not going to be showing it to anyone, I usually don’t have any kind of problem writing. It’s when I start thinking about how readers will react to it that I start to second-guess, when I slow down & start procrastinating, when I choose doing laundry (sad but true) over writing. I think the worst thing you can do to yourself as a writer is to stop writing. Even when it’s hard, keep moving forward. A sentence here, a paragraph there, whatever. As I’ve often heard, the cure to any kind of writing problem is to just keep writing. But the only way you’re going to keep writing is if you let yourself be willing to fail.

How it changed my writing:

I stopped being so uptight about getting it right & changed my attitude to simply getting it onto paper. Sure, I had pages and pages and pages of material that never made it into the book; entire chapters in fact. But because I let the story be a mess, let the failures happen, I got a lot of insight into the characters, their motivations or lack thereof, what was working in the scenes & what wasn’t, what I wanted to say versus what was just clutter. Letting yourself fail also shows you valuable insights into your own process, what works for you & what doesn’t, so it’ll (theoretically~lol) be easier the next time around. Nobody welcomes failure, true, but keep this in mind: it can make you a better writer if you let it.

So do you let yourself fail on the page? Please feel free to share your thoughts & experiences in the comment box below.

33 Responses to "My Favorite Writing Advice: Failing on the Page"
  1. Hi Shelli
    This is great advice and it’s kind of like the dilemma I’m going through with my current WIP. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Shelli,

    I have to admit this is something I struggle with. When I should be writing fluidly, I often find myself agonizing over details that can easily addressed during the editing process.

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts and giving us amazing characters from your story!

    • Hi Rich! Thanks for the lovely compliment. I think a lot of writers struggle with it whether they admit it or not. I know we ended up having a lively discussion about it during that class, so I know you and I (and Karen!) aren’t the only ones. 🙂

  3. I have this ‘syndrome’ too, but you’re right… if we agonise for our first draft to be perfect, we would spend a lifetime planning how and what to write and not actually writing. Love this post – will definitely check back from time to time when my sense of perfectionism kicks in 🙂

    • Hi Maria! Well, just remember you’re in good company & definitely not alone. 🙂 Absolute truth: “spend a lifetime planning how and what to write and not actually writing.”

  4. Deeone says:

    Hi Shelli,

    Loved this post, and definitely needed to read it right now!

    You see, I’m currently writing my first book at the moment, and have run into this problem more often than I’d like to admit.

    Thank you for helping me to see that it’s a perfectly normal part of the process. That’s a relief! I’m not losing it… YAY! 😀

    From now on, I have a name for this occurrence; failing on page. Got it! And Love it! 😉

    • Hi Deeone! You know it’s always lovely to see you. 🙂 I’m glad this post could help you when you needed it. Out of all the things I learned in grad school, that advice was probably the most helpful in terms of letting go & just writing. I love this: “it’s a perfectly normal part of the process” because it’s true for all of us.

  5. Shelley says:

    So spot on! And a much-needed reminder! Sometimes I just sit at the screen and stare… searching for the right words instead of getting it down and going back to play with it. Great advice!

  6. Gale Martin says:

    Hi, Shelli! Another thoughtful post. I just wanted you to know I am featuring your blog on my website this month. You offer a great deal by way of message and example to other writers. All best.

  7. Michelle Baker says:

    Thanks Shelli – great advice! I teach people to turn off their inner critic, but that’s easier said than done. A few suggestions for how to do so – a) keep a journal or a swipe file that’s for your eyes only; b) turn off your spell check and grammar check while you’re drafting; c) buid a cushion into your writing schedule so you have time to revise before sending it out. These help me “fail” without being too hard on myself.

    • Hi Michelle! Yes, it’s often easier said than done, I agree. Although I have found that the more often you shut it down, the easier it gets. Thanks so much for the suggestions; I actually have a journal for my eyes only & that helps tremendously. 🙂

  8. Kelly Leiter says:

    I just wanted to thank you for sharing this article and I wanted to let you know that I recommended it on my blog for beginning writers. http://the-beginning-writer.blogspot.com/2012/03/fridays-link-roundup.html

  9. First time visiting. Your post was passed to me by another writing colleague (who apparently knows this is my weakness). Great post, and now a follower.

  10. Heather Day Gilbert says:

    Yes, this is worth the retweet (I’m going to do it!). I’ve been wrestling w/my WIP all day, and think I’m just going to let this first draft flow, let the chips fall where they may. It’s how I finished my first book, and editing can always refine those problematic scenes.

    • Hi Heather! *waves* Thanks for the compliment & the RT. 🙂 I love this: “let the chips fall where they may.” Letting it flow always seems to work better for me, too. Cheers!

  11. I edit too much while I write, and I know it’s because I’m a perfectionist in all areas of my life.

    It’s a pain because it makes it harder to cut superfluous sections later. (But I worked so hard to make it perfect! No!!!)

    • Hi Kimberlee! That advice really helped me stop being a perfectionist. Although, sometimes I still catch myself editing while I write a first draft, but now I know better & stop doing it sooner. Your end comment (No!!!) made me laugh. 🙂

  12. Susan H. McIntyre says:

    I have learned that I need to turn off my “internal critic” when I write a rough draft. If I do this, my writing is actually better than if I allow my inner critic to speak. That which is deleted from a particular work may have a purpose in another writing, so I make note of it for future thought. You are so right – get it on paper first!

    • Hi Susan! *waves* My writing is always better when I just let myself write without editing the first time around. And I so agree with you about cutting things out of one piece but then using them in another; I’ve found that I do that often. 🙂

  13. Love it! All so true. The paragraph about doing laundry rather than finishing writing something, because you think people might not like it … that’s why my latest blog post is still not posted. I can definitely relate ;-}

    • Hi Nikki! *waves* Yes, I’ve found myself more than once doing laundry instead of writing simply because I felt in over my head. 😀 So, just FYI, you are in good company.

  14. Perry Block says:

    This is really good and comforting advice because I am terrific at failing at first drafts. Never yet written a good one.

    Looks like I’m bound to be the greatest author ever!

    Thanks, Shelli.

    • Hi Perry! I don’t know very many people (maybe one guy and that’s it) who write good first drafts. So you are in excellent company. Cheers! 🙂

      • Perry Block says:

        Shelli,

        Back when I was in college, when people still used typewriters, there was always at least one person around who would say “oh, I always wait until the night before a paper is due, type a 30 page paper right out, and get a really good grade.”

        I have always had extremely violent fantasies regarding these people. Thanks to the advent of PCs, they have at least been somewhat neutralized.

        And maybe based on what you say here, their “really good grade” was only an A-!

        Thanks again!

  15. Jen says:

    After years as a non-fiction writer, mostly as a journalist, but also as a blogger and essayist, I am finally dabbling in fiction and being sooooo hard on myself. Just this month I finally started submitting short stories for publication (twice) and it was really hard to do it, mostly because I was worried that the person on the other end would think “what a joke!” But I hit send anyway. I think there is something about that act alone that = success.

    • Hi Jen!

      I’m so happy to hear that you’re writing fiction & started submitting your work. Congrats to you, doll. You are so right that hitting send = success. The one thing I’ve really come to learn the more I write is that I have to define success for myself. And don’t be hard on yourself. Go do something nice for yourself to celebrate your courage. Write on, sister.

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