Writers: You’re Going to Mess Up

Mistakes happen. They are supposed to happen. It’s the way things work.

I was raised to fear mistakes.

It wasn’t anyone’s fault, it sort of just happened.

This, as you can imagine, made many parts of writing very difficult as I was growing up. Finishing a story was hard because if I didn’t like where it was going, I simply gave up. I developed a habit of rushing through everything I wrote and not checking it over because I didn’t want to spend time with my errors.

While there is nothing wrong with making mistakes, it’s definitely not okay to ignore the fact that you’re probably making mistakes. You’re patiently awaiting a real-life example, aren’t you? Let me set the scene.

It was my sophomore year. I wasn’t officially a part of our student newspaper staff yet, but I had somehow convinced the editor-in-chief to let me write a guest article anyway. I had zero news writing experience, but for some reason — I wish I’d saved that “proposal” — she decided to give me a shot.

Long story short, I wrote the article, submitted it, and was not happy when I received initial feedback. I’d made a bunch of mistakes, and I was embarrassed that I hadn’t taken the time to write an article that would impress a potential future employer.

My attitude was terrible. I’m pretty sure the article was terrible. But guess what I learned? When you mess up, you have to take responsibility for your errors … and not be a toddler about it.

For the record, I never responded to feedback again the way I did then. Here’s a secret: Editors don’t just hire good writers. They hire people who are not difficult to work with. Remember that.

I would go on to work for that paper under several different editors for the next two and a half years. As both a news writer and copy editor, I encountered many mistakes others were making, and learned the importance of teachable moments.

Mistakes happen. It’s not the end of the world, and you have to learn to move past them.

All you really need to know, before you start writing, is that you’re going to mess up. You’re going to do things wrong. You can read all the books and blogs and articles you want to, but none of the advice you find there is going to prevent the inevitable.

The only way to learn how to be a better writer is to do it, and in the process of doing it you are most definitely going to do it incorrectly.

Mistakes are how we learn. Mistakes mean that you are actively trying to make something happen. I tend to look at mistakes as “non-sucesses” instead of “failures.” Because not succeeding doesn’t necessarily mean outright failure. It sometimes means you were on the right track but didn’t quite hit the mark this time. Or an obstacle appeared that you weren’t expecting and couldn’t control, and it prevented you from achieving your goal.

It could be as simple and harmless as forgetting to proofread a personal blog post before publishing it. It could be as big as neglecting to read submission guidelines and submitting something to an agent or editor that wasn’t quite ready for professional review.

What matters isn’t the mistake itself, but what you learn from it, and how you apply that lesson to your future work.

There is one error I know of in publishing that you can’t come back from, and that’s plagiarism. I don’t call this a mistake because it is very much purposeful — those who do it know they are doing it and only hope they won’t get caught and there are no exceptions. It’s the one instance in which you must use common sense and avoid the offense unless you want to ruin your career forever.

I’m talking about mistakes that can be classified as teachable moments. You didn’t know any better, so you didn’t do it right the first time. Discouraging and probably a little embarrassing? Absolutely. But it happens, you realize what you did wrong, you move on. You do everything you know to do in order to avoid making the same mistake in the future, and the process repeats itself as you grow personally and professionally.

You will never stop messing up. It’s simply a part of the game. No one is perfect, and trying to be perfect is overrated, exhausting, and totally not worth your time.

I am a better writer because of my past mistakes. I’ve learned to slow down and proofread. I’ve learned that just because my work didn’t make the cut doesn’t mean it wasn’t good work. I’ve also learned that when someone sends back corrections for you to make on something you’ve written, it’s not because you’ve done a bad job or meant to tear you down. It’s because a draft can always be better. That’s why it’s called a draft.

You should always try to do your absolute best no matter what. Don’t turn things in that are sloppy. Don’t come to a pitch meeting unprepared, don’t treat an editor like their only job is to clean up your messes. Try to do things the right way. But when you do mess up, it’s okay. Admit to it. Own it. And move on.

What’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made as a writer? How did you handle it? What do you do differently now because of it?


Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.


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