So You Failed at Writing. Now What?

How to pick yourself back up when you fail at writing.

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Let me preface this by saying that writing, to me, is a complete miracle. I read the most gut-wrenching, tear-jerking, emotional whirlwinds on a daily basis and I am in awe of the writers who dare to bare their souls to us, the readers.

When you read something so good, that connects you to the writer through however many miles and years separate you two, when you get goosebumps from how deeply they’ve touched your soul? That’s nothing short of magic.

Just by using the written word, just creating letters strung into syllables strung into words, sentences, stories that let us travel and see a new perspective and grow and learn, authors perform magic every day.

And from a writing perspective, I can confirm: writing is hard. The best authors are the ones who make it look effortless, but it’s a lie. Writing means committing yourself, your time, your energy, in the hopes of making that connection. And sometimes, no matter what you do, you fail. You don’t manage to write, or you write and it’s crap.

It happens. It will happen. What matters more is how you learn to pick yourself back up after failing.

Failing spectacularly is better than a safe success.

Last year, I committed to writing a novel in a month, which is called NaNoWriMo, for the uninitiated. I was so excited that I started brainstorming right away. I couldn’t wait to start typing up a storm.

NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month, in November, where writers attempt to complete a 50,000 word novel between November 1st and November 30th.

The first few days, I was flying. I easily wrote more than I needed to every day. Charting my progress was satisfying. I could see the storyline stretching out, faster than my fingers could type.

Then I started to struggle. I couldn’t write both for my blog and NaNoWriMo, so I prioritized NaNoWriMo.

It would have been easier for me to stick to blogging only — easy for me to reach my goals and keep seeing success with that. But I wanted to dream bigger. My goal, ever since I wrote a twenty-page story about zookeepers when I was eight years old, has been to be a published fiction author. I persisted.

It’ll be over in a month, I reasoned, so I should focus on NaNoWriMo.

I focused on the novel, watching with dread as I lost viewership and fans, and consequently money. I consoled myself, trying to imagine how I would feel to have written a story at the end of the month.

It doesn’t matter, I told myself. I can build it back up when I’m done.

I kept writing until I had a weekend with friends. I didn’t jot down a single word — much less the required 1,667 per day. That Sunday, when they’d left, I feverishly typed out the 5,001 words I needed to make up from Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I’d caught up — but only just.

I could still make it work. I just needed to give more time, more energy.

Then I went on vacation. I could have written on the long plane journey. I could have written in the quiet early mornings. I could have made it happen. I’d done it before.

But I didn’t.

This time, the unfulfilled word count mounted higher and higher, until I couldn’t even bear to try because I knew I would fail.

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You need to focus on the wins, not the losses.

On December 1st, I looked at my Google doc. Just over 25,000 words of a half-baked novel. I smiled a little ruefully — I still loved my characters, there were still some scenes I’d written that nearly matched the crystal-clear image in my head. There was an attempt there.

But ultimately, I’d failed. I did not complete NaNoWriMo. What’s worse, after the 17th of November, I didn’t even try anymore.

In my gut, halfway through the month, I could feel that there was no way I would manage to cross the 50,000-word finish line. And I knew it would feel even worse if I tried to and still failed.

So I didn’t even attempt it.

To me, this meant that my sacrifice to stop building my blog up was for nothing. I’d spent hours and hours in the first few weeks of November, giving up painting, reading, and writing, all for what turned out to be absolutely nothing.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

This, in turn, demotivated me to write on my blog. My stats were already down, and it was hard to get started knowing I’d lost so much momentum.

I spent a couple of days moping around and feeling sorry for myself before I snapped out of it and realized a few things about failure at writing.

1. I wasn’t writing to “win” NaNoWriMo, or for stats. I was writing for myself.

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Whether on my blog or NaNoWriMo, I got way too caught up in the numbers. Views, word count, claps or days completed, none of it matters.

All that counts is that I write for the reasons I started writing: to learn more about myself, to enjoy myself, and to practice writing.

I wrote a lot in November — quite a few blog posts at the beginning of the month, not to mention nearly 30,000 words of my unfinished novel. That is more than I’ve ever written in that time frame before.

I developed a storyline. Out of my imagination, nourished only by my thoughts, I grew a seed of an idea into characters, plot, dialogue, story.

I needed to remember that was worth more to me, ultimately that “success” or statistics were not the end goal. Learning was. Trying was.

2. The end of November was not the end of my story.

Somehow I got it into my head that I could only write the story during November. If I didn’t finish it, it was dead.

Photo by Trifon Yurukov on Unsplash

Obviously, that wasn’t true. Although it was painful to open that Google Doc and look at the frenzied words I wrote two weeks before, I still did it, and I added some more.

I didn’t need to give the whole story up — and it was a relief to realize that. I was so invested in it for such a long time that it was a huge weight off to understand, suddenly, that it wasn’t intrinsically tied to NaNoWriMo.

I could and should keep building it up, getting to know my characters and their story.

3. I didn’t fail.

The stated goal of NaNoWriMo is to complete 50,000 words in one month. I did not accomplish that goal.

Photo by Ksenia Makagonova on Unsplash

However, for me, it should never have been about “winning.”

I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I’ve dreamed since I can remember of publishing a novel.

To do that, I need to get better at writing. The only way to get better at writing is by writing. And I can safely say I accomplished that during NaNoWriMo.

November may not have been a perfect novel-writing month, but I was indisputably better at writing than I was before.

To forgive myself for my failure, I needed to change the goalposts. I needed to remember that I don’t have to be perfect. I just have to be better.

Writing is hard. Ask any writer.

Failing is part of writing. But so is succeeding. Every word we put down, every idea we develop, every line we complete, is a success. Writers just need to get better at remembering that, and learn that more than succeeding at writing, it’s important to just keep writing.

Biology MSc. Psychology nerd. She/her. Get my FREE 5-day Medium Starter Kit to make money writing about what you love:

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