There’s no such thing as failure. Mistakes happen in your life to bring into focus more clearly who you really are. —Oprah Winfrey
Since college, I’ve been both a fiction and a non-fiction writer, and I’ve had two main goals. I would go beyond the poetry and short stories I was writing, and I’d also pump out a knock-out novel. On top of that, I’d write fascinating articles for major magazines.
It’s what I was born to do. But I made mistakes along the way or—more accurately—taken detours that led away from my goals rather than toward them.
If you’re like many writers, you’ve wrestled with at least a couple of the mistakes I’ve made. See which ones ring true for you.
But don’t beat yourself up over mistakes. They’re really just roads we’re drawn to and then we get back on track, wiser for the experience. Recognize them, learn from them, and pat yourself on the back. After all, you’ve ventured into a scary land where mistakes are a part of the landscape.
1. I’ve put other people before myself—and my writing.
To call that a mistake might sound selfish, but it’s not. I’ve cared for others and extended myself well beyond my limits and boundaries I wasn’t guarding carefully. And the price was high: no writing time or peace of mind in which to write.
I’ve learned to
put my oxygen mask on write first, then I help others.
2. I pursued too many other interests.
I don’t spend time on regret, and everything I’ve done is potential writing material. But countless projects and activities robbed my writing time. Hello, self! You can’t do everything.
Did I really have to sew my own drapes and curtains plus a matching bedskirt? Build a hanging glass rack instead of buying one? Spend 18 months planning a wedding? Remodel a house DIY style? Throw outrageous parties and organize events for a club? I could make a long list.
If I don’t make writing a priority, I won’t write. Write first, then spend time on other interests. End of story.
3. I replaced writing with material things.
A manic list of projects and activities meant all sorts of equipment: the right ski clothes, the best skis or skates or surfboard, the perfect furniture, a sewing table, the latest kitchen gadgets, gardening tools—I’ll stop there. You get the picture. It’s not writing. There’s nothing wrong with those things, of course, but I wasn’t writing. Or not writing as much as I wanted to.
Nothing makes me truly happy if I’m not writing.
4. I worried more about designing the perfect home office than writing.
Everyone needs a comfortable place to write. But I used to spend far more time designing an office or buying equipment than I did writing.
Unfortunately, all those paper clips, staples, and the perfect desk and paint color didn’t make me write. Now it’s true I was distracted by a difficult marriage for some time, which eventually ended. And with that kind of stress, I can’t do much of anything. But see #1 and #5.
Writing requires only a few simple tools. Even a pencil and a notebook will do.
5. Instead of writing, I worried about being the perfect person for someone or being what I thought I should be.
I’ll do anything for friends and family. Well, within limits these days. But my “limits” used to be way too broad and far too flexible. And I struggled for years to make an impossible marriage work. Picture a row boat with one person rowing. Round and round we go! I was dedicated, but it takes two.
I’ve set limits on how far I’m willing to go. And if it interferes with my writing, I batten down the hatches and trim the sails. Or jump ship.
6. I got discouraged.
Just out of college, I desperately needed a job.
Unfortunately, a BA in English with minimal “real world” writing experience won’t get you far. Not if you want a writing job at a magazine, newspaper, or in any other business.
I finally took a job at a bookstore. And I applied for a few editorial assistant positions, but rejection got me down. And instead of building a portfolio and getting the experience I needed (even as a volunteer), I… I don’t remember what I did after work. I read a lot, that’s for sure. But I wasn’t writing in any serious way.
If I could do it over, I’d have made contacts in the publishing world and asked for advice. On my own, it took me a few years to figure things out.
7. I’ve let fear get in my way.
Fear’s a tricky adversary. I’m not a fearful person, in general, and I’m not shy or timid. So how did fear stop me?
Insidiously. In #6 above, a lack of self-confidence was part of the problem. But that’s just another word for fear. Fear of rejection. Fear that someone would laugh at me. Fear of looking foolish.
More recently, I’ve feared spending time on projects that don’t pay right away or might never. I’ve worried about not completing them if an established client needs work. I’ve worried that a sick dog or cat will need me (I’ve had three cats and two dogs in addition to the dog I have now, all with medical issues in their later years). And see #5: I feared interruptions and conflict would affect my ability to write (it happened frequently).
Lesson learned: Just write. Forget fear or worry or any other emotion, and make it a priority. It’s pretty simple, as I’ve learned.
8. I didn’t develop a good writing schedule.
I finally started freelancing in the mid-late 90s. I remember thinking, “Boy, this is different from college or a regular job. There’s no schedule, and now I have to decide how to spend my time.”
I knew what I had to do. I knew I had to decide how I would spend my time as a writer. Did I devise a schedule? Um, no.
I looked for work, found it, finished it, then looked for more. I bought a few books on freelance writing. And I’m sure a schedule was mentioned in one of them, at least. But I probably thought, “I don’t need any schedule. I’m dedicated. I can do this.” Or maybe I was lazy or I didn’t know how. But it’s not an efficient way to freelance and make money at it.
I still don’t have a super-strict schedule, but I have one, and it works.
9. I didn’t consider my strengths and weaknesses.
One of my strengths is the ability to stay on task for long stretches of time. Hours, days, or weeks until a project is complete. The flip side is it’s hard for me to switch tasks during the course of a day. Harder still to return to a task after some time has passed.
But juggling various parts of business and life is a must for any writer, so I’ve had to learn and practice switching back and forth. I worked on this blog post, for example, over the course of a week. A little here, and a little there instead of straight through from beginning to end.
Letting everything else fall apart while working on a single project isn’t productive, in the end. But I used to believe it was the only way I could work. Live and learn, right?
10. I failed to make writing a priority.
Not making my writing a priority has been my main mistake. Everything else is just the details and the fine print.
When you make something a priority, that’s what you do. It’s very simple.
I never forget to brush my teeth or take a shower. I don’t forget to wash my clothes or eat. I don’t forget to feed my dog, take him for a walk, or give him his medication. That’s because these are priorities.
Priorities set off alarm bells in our heads because we’ve assigned special significance to them. We don’t blow them off because they’re too important to us.
You might be surprised that my worst writing mistakes don’t concern grammar errors, a poorly targeted query, assignment misunderstandings, that misspelled word in a headline, or something directly related to the technical aspects of writing.
Sure, I’ve made those mistakes and many more. Those are to be expected. But if you’re not writing, nothing happens. Nothing at all. Not even those little mistakes that everyone makes.
The only mistakes that really matter are those that stop you from writing. And as long as writing’s your goal, why not make it a priority?
What have your writing mistakes been? How have you learned from them? Share in the comments!
And if you find this article helpful, don’t forget to share! It will help your writing friends and it will help me.