The first time I submitted a piece of writing to a publication of my own accord, I was 14. As much as I would love to tell you the amazing tale of how I got published my first time trying, landed a book deal as a freshman in high school, and sold my first bestselling novel before I graduated high school, I’d be doing nothing more than sharing the most fictional story I’ve ever written.
The truth is, the first time I submitted a piece of writing to a publication, I didn’t get rejected. Technically. Instead, I received no response from the submission editor at all.
Any writer who’s gone through any submission process — anyone who’s ever applied to a dozen jobs in one sitting, for that matter — knows that nothing is a thousand times worse than a pre-written rejection email. It’s not just rejection. It’s uncertainty. And it’s awful.
There’s a happy ending to my story, though. I did not get published at 14, no matter how desperately I might have wanted to. But I did get an essay published in a magazine at 16, under a pseudonym, for reasons I still don’t know nine years later. Still, for a then-aspiring essayist, it was a dream come true.
I didn’t go from hearing nothing from a publisher to getting a free copy of a magazine with my essay in it just by hoping hard enough. I wish I’d kept track of how many journal entries, essays, short stories, and novels I wrote in those two years. Spoiler alert: it was a lot. I was in my second year of studying creative writing before I had anything tangible to show for it.
I like to think that essay launched my writing “career,” though. It was because of Teen Ink, NaNoWriMo, and Meg Cabot that I decided I should start plastering my thoughts all over the internet. So I started a blog. And from that, I got my first writing gig. And from that … well, that’s a story for another post.
The point is, I’ve failed just as many times in my nine-year stretch as a “real” writer as anyone. I’ve come to believe not succeeding as an aspiring writer isn’t just normal: it’s a prerequisite.
One of the many reasons writing is so hard is because whether or not you’ve written something good is not black and white. There is no rubric, no point system that says, “Yes, you just wrote a good thing.” Writing is not a simple subject to conquer. We can’t just pick up a textbook or listen to a lecture and take a series of exams and suddenly we know what we’re doing. Not only do we actually have to put hours upon hours of effort into our work — but we also have to do things wrong and fail and fall short until we figure out which style of doing things is best.
I don’t know about you, but that’s my favorite part about writing. There is no “wrong.” There’s “not quite good enough,” but that doesn’t mean you suck — it just means you need to keep trying. There is good writing and there is bad writing, but the only way to fail as a writer is to stop writing, or never start writing at all.
It’s those who fail a thousand times that end up bestselling authors and renowned screenwriters and award-winning journalists. The more you fall short as a writer, the faster you learn exactly what not to do. A writer’s creative strength, their ability to say, “That didn’t work last time, so I’m going to try this instead and see how it goes,” is what makes them good at what they do.
A writer never sits down, writes something, and thinks, “This is going to make me famous.” We have no clue what we’re doing 70 percent of the time. But those of us who are willing to stick with it long enough to transform ‘not quite good enough’ into ‘just enough to make it’ are the ones who are going to make it.
If you enter the early stages of your writing career expecting to fail, I can almost guarantee you’re miles ahead of a large percentage of everyone sprinting along beside you. A handful of writers get published their first time trying. In the grand scheme of things, not many write more than one bestseller in their entire careers, if they do so at all. People fail. Writers try their hardest, and sometimes it just doesn’t quite cut it. But do you know what the best of them do? They say, “Okay,” and they get right back in front of their keyboards and they keep writing.
That’s what I hope you’ll do. Keep writing. Keep failing. It’s how you learn. It’s how you grow. It’s how you find your path to success and go for it — no matter what.
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.