All Writers Mess Up, Big Time (How to Earn a Career in Writing, Part 5)

Oops.

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Disappointed.

That’s what they told me – that the spec article I’d worked so hard on left them “disappointed.”

I won’t get into how I feel about that choice of phrasing right now (people say things, it’s not personal, blah blah blah). Anyway.

This was a prospective project that was meant to challenge me, yet when I failed to deliver exactly what the client wanted (not always an easy thing to do in the health space), their response stirred something dark and unsettling inside me.

I write to impress. As you can hopefully guess, I don’t always impress. Who does? I’m just a human. I make human-like errors.

We all fail – yes, even me. It really sways your confidence, though, when you almost grab onto that bar you’ve set so high – your fingertips touch it, you almost have it – but you still end up facedown on the ground, red-faced and wanting nothing more than to crawl into a bottomless hole and never emerge.

I was bored. Freelancing hit a mundane patch for me, so I decided to stretch myself a little – thinking, of course, that I could do just fine.

That particular piece of feedback really messed me up. Not for long – not to the point where I considered quitting and settling for a different career path – but doubt is not friendly. It twists things around and makes you feel like you’re doing everything wrong, even when you’re not.

It scared me. Really. I remember thinking, “Are people just lying to me? Am I a terrible writer, and people are just being nice because they don’t want to hurt my feelings?”

I mean, for all I know, that could be true. Ignorance is bliss. I just don’t like doubt being the one thing that forces me to think about potential realities too hard.

Fear and doubt and self-consciousness brought on by negative commentary – these are the most dangerous obstacles for writers. They’re manipulative and suffocating. Bad, bad, bad.

But leave it to film editor Farah Khalid to say exactly what we all need to hear in situations like this:

“Fear can be an indicator of when you need to push yourself harder. When were you last afraid/uncomfortable? Not recently? Well then, are you really growing as an artist?” (Hustle Economy, p. 49)

Oh. OH. So I was on the right track, then? I did a good thing, even though I almost burst into tears because I started having flashbacks about that one time I disappointed my mom in like, middle school?

(Understand, this is the way the brain of an Anxious person works. I know a client’s feedback has actually nothing to do with me personally. I can’t think rationally when I’m Anxious.)

I was nervous about that spec assignment for days. I put it off for over 48 hours, something I never do when I’m writing to impress. It wasn’t that I was in over my head – it was just stretching me beyond what I was used to.

You see, you get too comfortable when you spend too much time at the same level of writing. I write for a few blogs, which, honestly, means they’re not always too picky about how many scientific studies you mention in your posts. I got a little lazy. I got a little cocky, maybe. And when I thought, “I need a challenge,” I sprinted headfirst into a brick wall of shame and disappointment. Awesome.

You can’t grow unless you work harder than you did yesterday. But you also can’t grow unless you fail – and unless you’re willing to look your mistakes in the eye, learn from them and move on.

I probably could have pushed myself a little harder to impress that client. I could have spent more time on that article. I could have asked more questions, could have put what would have felt like excessive effort into a trial assignment (I’d already spent more than two hours on it – more than usual for cases like this). There are plenty of things I could have done differently. The reason we fail is because we remember how much failing hurts – and we, hopefully, don’t continue to make the same mistakes when something like this comes around again.

I messed up. My biggest fear is messing up. So I’m really glad it happened. I’m not saying you should go out there and purposely make mistakes just to learn how to be a better writer – it’s never purposeful. Just don’t get discouraged when things like this happen (because they will).

We think we’re working as hard as we can, right up until it’s suddenly not quite good enough anymore – oops! Failure is a chance to return to your last checkpoint and evaluate whether or not you did everything you could have before you missed the bar. You’ll try again. Maybe you’ll fail a few more times. But you’ll work harder and harder each time, until you succeed. It’s how you earn the title of ‘writer.’ It’s not always fun. But it teaches you a lot about yourself along the way.


Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a freelance writer and a nine-time NaNoWriMo winner with work published in Teen Ink, Success Story, Lifehack and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.

2 thoughts on “All Writers Mess Up, Big Time (How to Earn a Career in Writing, Part 5)

  1. I’m glad I read this this morning. I have a tremendous fear of screwing up, of being disappointing myself. Of course, that means I’m paralyzed into doing nothing essentially, and how can I be successful if I’m suck in the mud? Yeah, I put away my writing a while because I was trying too hard and becoming crazy perfectionist again. I need to let it sit and stew a bit, and let my mind flow with new ideas. This weekend I oughta be ready to tackle it all again–and I can’t wait.

    1. YES! Take some time to gather yourself and get back to it – taking breaks is good as long as you jump back in. I’ve totally been there. It feels so good to go back. Have fun. :)

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