I can’t tell you how many times over the years I’ve watched the late Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” (which you can watch at https://www.ted.com/talks/sir_ken_robinson_do_schools_kill_creativity?subtitle=en). There’s always a new message that hits me each time.
This time, when I watched it, it was the phrase “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original” that stood out to me.
It matches up very well with another concept I’ve been working on, from Austin Kleon’s Show Your Work, a topic I’d like to write another article about later this week, about embracing being an amateur.
How often do you get the opportunity to show up as you are and learn by doing and making mistakes, the best learning opportunity, than when you’re an amateur.
That’s why this quote by Ken Robinson was so great and so timely.
At the core of this message is the idea that embracing mistakes is essential for growth and nurturing originality, which for writers particularly (along with other creatives of course), I think this is particularly key.
The fear of being wrong
Throughout our lives, many of us are conditioned to fear making mistakes. Even as kids. We get bad grades, we have to stay behind to fix things in front of a disappointed teacher, our parents are disappointed or angry, they might punish us. Society often prioritises perfection and correctness over creativity and exploration.
As a result, we learn to hesitate when taking risks or trying new things, blocked by fear of potential failure and judgement. What will people think of us if we’re wrong, or bad, and will we be ostracised for it?
But that’s the space we thrive in and grow in.
Ken Robinson, too, thinks this fear of being wrong can have detrimental effects on our creativity. He suggests it stifles us and the natural creativity that exists in all of us thanks to the human condition and how we developed (see my earlier articles on storytelling and creativity in humans over time).
But we all knew this.
We all know how it feels when we feel stifled creatively, feeling unable to produce or demotivated by what we do produce.
That’s why we have to embrace the possibility of being wrong.
There’s space for amazing, original things to happen there, where others fear to step.
To become truly innovative writers, that’s where we need to go. To the places we could be wrong.
Because we might not be.
Why embracing mistakes matters in writing
We should embrace making and learning from mistakes in exploration and creativity more often, but particularly in the case of writing.
If you’re a writer, I imagine you want to do things right the first time.
You’ll read something online or in a book that someone has spent hours or years on and compare yourself, as you are now, at your baseline, to that level. To their top level. But you won’t know how much practice and experimentation they’ve put into their work.
They’ve found their voice, they know how they want to share it.
To reach the level of the writers you admire, you’ll need to put that time in too.
But putting in the time in writing basically means sitting there and doing it, and pretty much starting from the bottom. Likely starting wrong. Or at least very clumsily.
But here’s why you have to start clumsy, and embrace that.
1. Learning and growth: Every mistake in your writing is an opportunity to learn and grow. It’s through these errors that you refine your skills and develop a unique voice.
2. Resilience: Writing is a journey filled with rejection and setbacks. Sometimes people just won’t read or like your work. It happens. It’s subjective. But keep going. Embracing mistakes helps you build the resilience needed to persist and achieve your writing goals.
3. Originality: Innovation in writing often arises from challenging conventions and taking creative risks. By being open to mistakes, you open doors to fresh perspectives and groundbreaking ideas. And like in point one, here you’ll find your voice. That unique ‘thing’ that all writers are seeking but don’t know how to find. It’s in doing and writing that you’ll find it.
These are the three things I think every writer needs to discover for themselves.
You can’t be given it. You have to go out and earn it yourself. The hard way.
By just writing.
How can you apply this principle to your writing?
This one’s easy. As I mentioned above, you just need to sit and write. Practice. Find your voice.
But I understand it can be nerving.
Here’s a few ways you can start getting into embracing mistakes in your writing and just showing up. Writing. Starting where you are now.
1. Write daily: Make writing a daily habit, even if it’s just a few paragraphs. Understand that not everything you write will be perfect, but every word contributes to your growth. Some days you’ll write more. Other days you’ll find it so hard to write. But that’s fine. The more you write, the more you’ll get used to writing, and the more you’ll be able to write each day. That’s the stage you want to get to. And write about anything.
2. Encourage curiosity: Foster a sense of curiosity. Ask questions, research, explore new subjects, topics, genres, connect ideas you never thought would work, experiment with writing prompts, attend writing workshops and converse with other writers for different views. Don’t be afraid to venture into unfamiliar territory. Just do anything that could spark new ideas or thoughts or mindsets. That’s where the writing material comes in. And you might surprise yourself. You might find your strength in a completely unexpected place.
3. Seek feedback: Don’t be afraid to share your work with others, whether through writing groups, workshops, or beta readers. Constructive feedback can be a treasure trove of learning experiences. Is there someone you know you can safely share your first pieces with to see how you can develop before you publish it or share it online?
4. Find a safe environment: In life, you need to create an environment where mistakes are accepted and seen as opportunities for growth rather than failures. This is physically and in mindset. You need to let yourself see mistakes as a tool for growth. And in the writing world, the environment is where you share your work. Where can you share your work for others to check it out, but in a way you feel no pressure for. For me, that’s writing articles on Medium and sharing short fantasy stories on AO3. I want to get my work out there for people to read and to grow my bank of work, and these are no pressure options for me.
5. Experiment and explore: Venture beyond your comfort zone. Try different genres, styles, or narrative techniques. Mistakes made in experimentation can lead to innovative breakthroughs. This sounds silly, but I always thought I was a strictly 3rd person POV fantasy writer, but I’m currently writing a 1st person POV fantasy YA and loving the process. Again, like with curiosity, experimentation and exploration might teach you something really unexpected about yourself.
6. Accept imperfection: You’re not going to get it right first time. Or likely any time. But that’s fine. You can’t sit and try to make a piece of work absolutely perfect, because then you’re limiting yourself, the time you have to write, and chasing an impossible dream. Everyone will interpret your work differently anyway, and people all have different expectations. So do your best in that moment, accept that’s your best as you are now, and then watch as your work grows over the years instead. Give yourself room to feel free.
There’s so much to learn about yourself in exploring, being free, and letting yourself just write without the fear of making mistakes.
If you stop fearing people judging you, there is so much you can benefit from in writing. All lead to growth and finding your writing voice.
Go embrace mistakes and be original
In your quest to write daily articles, or short stories, or novels of any kind — whatever it is you want to write — remember that embracing mistakes isn’t just acceptable, it’s essential for you to grow as a writer and be the best you can be.
Think of it as your commitment to writing. To being a writer.
When you put words to paper, they might not quite meet your expectations. You know, that grand concept we have in our heads when we create something, but then it comes out more like pixel art. But that’s fine. It’s a stepping stone towards becoming more original, more you, finding your voice, and becoming that accomplished writer you envision yourself as in the future.
‘Practice makes perfect, as they say.’
And they say practice, not ‘Perfect makes perfect’. You don’t have to produce your best each time.
You just need to show up and produce. Because you learn through mistakes.
Let go of the fear of imperfection and have fun with your writing.