Want to be a writer? Get comfortable with failure.

If you’re going to write, you don’t need to show that writing to anyone else. Your benchmark for success could be journalling every morning, or doing a character study once a month. It doesn’t need to be for anyone but yourself. You can win every time you sit down with your notebook or laptop.

But if you’re going to publish, you’re going to face rejection.

Stephen Marche argues, “A paradox defines writing: The public sees writers mainly in their victories but their lives are spent mostly in defeat.” Writers fail more often than they succeed.

Writers evolve constantly—their drafts, their genres, their author photos. Marche furthers the case that we’re currently living through a shift in how we approach the very act of writing. “Just to survive, young writers today will have to live through multiple revisions of who they are and what they do,” he writes in the New York Times. “Within a few years, the modes of expression they’re learning now, the writerly identities they hunger to inhabit, won’t exist or won’t be recognizable.” Readers will always choose the format that’s easiest for them. But what about writers? And with the rapid rise of AI, where will the writer end and their writing begin? We will probably need poets, but will we need copywriters? Or (gulp) editors?

We can worry about this until our deaths, and then roll over in our graves some more. The truth is that writing has never been constant. The methods of writing and publishing have always shifted, and there’s no benchmark for any writer. (You think that Nobel Prize winner wakes up happy every day?) Some writers will succeed while others fail. All writers will fail before they succeed. And the writer who doesn’t know why they’re publishing will never feel they’ve “arrived.” Building on the paradox Marche describes, the path to writerly success is paved with writerly failure.

Becoming comfortable with failure first means defining the opposite: success. What does success look like for you, as a writer vs a published author? What successes would you like to achieve in publishing? Maybe releasing one short story a year is enough, or maybe you’d like to publish a book every three years.

How can you track that success? By counting your attempts (i.e., your failures). That way, you will know that you’re putting yourself out there and taking a chance. Here are a few tips:

  • Enter writing contests. Sure, it’s fun to win contests, and it’s a great way to build your profile as a writer, but more valuable is the practice of writing to word limit, deadline, maybe even a genre that’s outside your comfort level. The CBC hosts excellent writing contests in multiple genres. And if you don’t win? Hey, you still have the story or poem you submitted. Keep working on it and try again.
  • Record your submissions to journals. Make a list of the journals accepting submissions. Follow their submission guidelines, and try to submit one story/essay/poem every month, or a timeline that’s doable and consistent for you. Track it all on your spreadsheet: date submitted, response received. Rejected? No problem. Record that response, and reach out to another publication.
  • Record your submissions to literary agents. Every agency has different submission guidelines. Keep track of when agencies accept submissions (sometimes only a couple times a year), and which agents are accepting which genres. Record it all in your spreadsheet.
  • Follow a consistent writing routine: Your only benchmark for success needs to be your writing routine. It can be every day, once a week, twice a month, but it needs to be consistent. Track it. Have you committed to writing five mornings a week? Make a little “tick” on your calendar when you complete your writing session. 
  • Check your purpose and audience. Do you know why you’re writing your story or book? Do you know who you’re writing it for, what Stephen King (and many others) call your Ideal Reader? If you have achieved your purpose in writing, you are successful. If you write something your audience wants to read, you haven’t really failed.

Every writer experiences rejection. Even writers who are published might not have their work recognized until years later; Marche names James Joyce and Herman Melville as examples. So think about what success could mean for you now, according to your terms. 

One response to “Want to be a writer? Get comfortable with failure.”

  1. Excellent tips on how to be successful in small ways every day. Thanks!

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