The Blank Page is a new weekly series on Novelty Revisions dedicated to any writer who is just beginning their journey or starting again after a long pause. Check back every Monday for more tips and inspiration.
Having been a professional writer for going on eight years (that’s not a lot to some of you out there, I know), I’m no longer ashamed to admit that throughout my time as a writer, as a hobbyist and in my career, I’ve messed up pretty bad on more than one occasion.
My past self has missed deadlines, forfeited assignments, and made excuses. I’ve written things I didn’t know at the time were insensitive to certain groups of people (thankfully on my own time, not for the public to witness — in most cases). I’ve spelled people’s names wrong. I’ve unknowingly published facts that weren’t true thinking they were.
But none of these things were really ever intentional. And that’s how I’ve managed to grow beyond the missteps I’ve taken since I first started writing for my university’s student newspaper. I’ve learned how to manage my procrastination habits. I’ve become a better listener and have educated myself in matters of diversity to the point where I know not only what might offend a member of my audience, but also when to do more research when I’m unsure.
And now that someone pays me to fact-check, well, I’ve gotten a lot better at that, too. That one’s not really optional.
Sure, I’ve messed up a lot. But that doesn’t mean I’m unreliable, or that I’m going to make the same mistakes in the future.
All writers mess up. Successful writers only make a specific mistake once, and never again. How? By their willingness to learn.
You’re probably terrified of the idea of messing up. Aren’t we all, to some degree?
Writers make mistakes all the time — in their actual writing; in how they do/don’t promote their work; you probably already know this. Considering that, then, you would think we’d all be OK with the thought of turning in a draft with a handful of errors or getting a fact wrong … the list goes on.
But many if not most of us aren’t OK with the idea at all. We set extremely high standards for ourselves. We try to be perfect. Why — to impress an editor? To make it look like we’re more experienced than we feel we actually are? To create the illusion that we, for whatever reason, know what we’re doing … when we absolutely don’t?
What’s the point of pretending like you don’t have to work hard to learn something new? I’ve always had a hard time understanding that viewpoint. There’s no reason to be ashamed that you don’t know how to do something well, especially when you’ve only just started doing it.
I do get it from my own perspective — I don’t like letting people down, so for me it’s a matter of how a minor mistake I make might inconvenience someone else. That’s a tough hurdle to clear. But I can tell you that the more times you have to overcome that fear, the easier it gets to overcome in future situations. You may never stop being afraid. But you can learn to create despite that fear.
Making mistakes is how we learn what it takes to do things right and improve. Messing up always has a consequence — some are big; some are very small. But every result of a writer doing something incorrectly can and should serve as a teachable moment.
You can always do better today than you did yesterday. And if that’s the case, then you can always find an area of your craft that needs improvement, something you’ve known you need to work on or didn’t know it until someone pointed it out to you.
This is why, in many cases, criticism is not something to fear. Sure, there are a lot of people who mean well (or don’t) but go about offering feedback in the wrong way. But there are, believe it or not, people who think they can and maybe even want to help. It’s almost never personal. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a mentor who will give you the specific feedback you need and nothing more — none of this “you’re doing it wrong because it’s not the way I do it” nonsense.
But even when it comes from an ill-intentioned stranger, a lot of the criticism you and your writing will get — certainly not all of it by any means — is legitimately worth considering. Maybe the dialogue in your stories is unrealistic, choppy, borderline offensive — hey, it happens. If you’re not writing that way on purpose, then you can learn from that experience and correct your writing in the future.
Yes, as a writer — especially as a beginner without a reputation or a CVs’ worth of experience — you have to remain professional. You have to put out your best work every single time. But that doesn’t mean it’s always going to be perfect. And that’s OK. The more mistakes you make, the more you learn to do better. There are circumstances in which you’d never know you were making a glaring writing error until someone else draws your attention to it.
So go forth. Mess up. Not on purpose — don’t go out of your way to not follow directions or make someone upset. Do the best you know how to do and learn as you go. Don’t let the fear of not doing something perfectly the first time stop you from doing it at all.
And who knows? In time, you might be able to pass the same wisdom on to other new writers who are afraid to go after their dreams.
Just starting out as a writer or returning from an extended hiatus? Let me know how I can help. Just drop a comment below with your questions/concerns — I am here to serve.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is an editor and writer, and a 12-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food, and Star Wars.