Don’t Worry About Mistakes 6 comments

Note that says 'I think you're making a huge MISTAKE!' - mistake by doobybrain, on Flickr

I came across yet another writing article today warning “Don’t Make These Rookie Mistakes”.

The article made me mad. So I want to offer you an alternative.

Please Make Rookie Mistakes

Here’s the thing: you are going to make writing mistakes. Some of them will be rookie mistakes. That’s okay.

The way you get from being a beginning writer to an advanced, accomplished writer is by making mistakes–and learning from them.

Even when you “know your stuff”, you’ll be distracted sometimes, or focused on a particular aspect of what you’re writing and make a dumb mistake in another area. Big deal: that’s what proofreading, editing and rewriting is for.

Why “Don’t Make Mistakes” Advice Makes Me Angry

We live in a click-bait and listicle-driven web culture now, where everyone wants traffic, and the people looking for traffic don’t seem to care all that much in many cases about providing value or substance so long as you click on their link or visit their vapid site. Articles about “10 Rookie Mistakes to Avoid Before You Kill Your Career!” trade on fear, press psychological buttons, and generate clickthroughs for websites and their advertisers. I don’t know that they do that much for the writers that read them.

Sure, the occasional list is well thought out and works as a valid checklist for editing or rewriting. But most of these lists are rubbish: full of received wisdom, platitudes, and fossilized “rules” of writing.

Perhaps we see so many of them because they’re easy to write. (How hard is it to regurgitate platitudes, after all?) Or, perhaps the authors don’t have a particularly deep or meaningful understanding of writing themselves, and writing up scare-porn lists of writing mistakes is the best job they can do. That’s a sad thought. Plus the burden of churning out new articles means not all will be any given writer’s best work. (Yes, I’m pointing that statement at myself as much as anyone else.)

The Real Problem with Most “Mistakes” Advice

Those rare thoughtful and helpful lists aside, the problem with most “mistakes” articles is they are just wrong-headed.

Most writers, especially but not exclusively beginning writers, don’t need more fear around writing. They don’t need writing to feel harder or more perilous than it already does. They don’t need to be focused on not getting it wrong.

Obsessing about “not getting it wrong” is so small-minded. It’s about achieving a bare minimum of competence. There is so much more to writing and creativity than achieving the bare minimum. That kind of advice redirects your concentration to aiming low when you could be aiming high.

A Better Alternative to “Don’t Make Mistakes”

Instead of focusing on the double negative of “not getting it wrong”, most of us as writers and creatives would benefit from:

  1. Permission and encouragement to write (and create).
  2. Permission and encouragement to fail.
  3. Permission and encouragement to develop your own unique voice and talents.
  4. Permission and encouragement to aim for greatness.

These are all topics close to my heart and guiding principles in what I write here. I promise we will revisit and discuss all of the above items in detail together–and I look forward to it.

Let’s Aim Higher

Regardless of your professional writing aspirations, if you want to improve and grow as a writer, I encourage you to ignore the fear-mongering that is peddled to writers as helpful advice.

All those awful mistakes everyone’s warning you about? Write for long enough and you’ll work your way past them. Do notes for your fellow writers and you’ll probably find mistakes are far easier to spot in a friend’s writing than in your own–which is a great way to learn to identify them. Read great writing, in any form, in any field, and study it; you’ll improve faster and go further.

Most of all, raise your aspirations. Set your own positive creative goals. Write badly on the way to achieving those goals, then writer better, then write well.

And leave all those silly scaremonger articles about mistakes behind. You don’t need them. If you stick with writing you’ll work them all out for yourself.

Photo credit: doobybrain, under a CC BY-ND 2.0 license.

6 thoughts on “Don’t Worry About Mistakes

  • Lydia Mulvey

    Love this.

    I think it’s a lot harder nowadays if you’re just starting out as a screenwriter. When I wrote my first script, all I had was a copy of Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman. There was no internet. I had no one to tell me what I was doing wrong or doing right. I had to feel my way along. And that helped me develop my instincts when it comes to story. 95% of what I wrote was probably not very good. But that 5% kept me going. Then it was 10%. Then it was 30%.

    This is the bit that I feel that much of this writing advice (and much of it is conflicting) is going to snuff out: a writer’s own instinct. Writers are taught nowadays not to trust themselves but instead to listen to this guru or that guru which is giving rise to a kind of hotch potch of styles and a lack of true voice. Writers need space to make the mistakes to discover what kind of writer they are. By doing this, they have a much better chance of creating something that is far more unique to them and I believe they’ll feel far more passionate about their work too.

    • Shaula Evans Post author

      I think there /are/ good writing advice and good writing books out there, but the advantage to your approach is that your instincts are intact and you own your writing. You’re not writing to please an external authority (an issue which I want to address at greater length in a post some time), you’re writing true to your own voice. Your writing history goes a long way to explain how strong your writing is, Lydia.

  • Michael Verona

    Good advice!

    We should establish “Jackson Pollock Writes Day”, on which we encourage participants, particularly new writers, to simply and uncritically throw words at the page, paper, or processor, not with the intention of turning out a masterpiece but to become comfortable with unbridled, wild act of just writing.

    We might turn up one or two Hunter S. Thompsons or Jack Kerouacs, but we will surely build confidence among the awkward, struggling masses. “Write” is an action verb.

  • Mark Walker

    Great advice Shaula, and the best advice for novice and experienced writer’s alike! My mum always told me I would learn from my mistakes, and I have made plenty of them…..she never told me about scare-porn though – that was a new one!

  • Angel Mirou

    Yay, Shaula! It is so refreshing to be encouraged not to agonize over making mistakes! Fear was never a good catalyst for creation, I think. It’s true the tone of those exposés about rookie mistakes is often rather apocalyptic. It’s like “three strikes and you’re out of the game for good!” Well, the game isn’t over until you decide to stop writing. You’ll make lots and lots of mistakes, and if you’re humble enough to listen to feedback and be constructively self-critical and learn from those mistakes, eventually you’ll get better.

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