Mistakes happen. Spelling errors. Structural snafus. Out-of-character actions. Dialogue that sounds like a kindergartener may have written it. Writers aren’t machines, we’re humans. And to err is human. No one is perfect, least of all writers (what with our neuroses, crippling self doubt, and tendency to overthink everything).
So why do we expect our work to be perfect all the time? Why do we fight making mistakes, or feel bad about making them? When you find yourself beating yourself up over a mistake, stop the violence, take a deep breath and then review this checklist. Here is how you deal:
1. ALLOW MISTAKES TO BE A WELCOME GUEST
I mean, you don’t want mistakes to crash your writing party, do you? Of course not. First, let’s think about whether or not mistakes can actually be avoided. Now, from a risk-averse point of view, there are statistical facts about minimizing error. I’m not a statistics buff, and the actual numbers aren’t important here anyway.
What’s important is this word: minimizing. You know what minimizing means? It means that it can be reduced but never eliminated. It means that while there are plenty of uncertain things in life, mistakes are absolutely certain. No matter what, you can actually count on a mistake.
Put like that, mistakes sound more reliable than most of my ex-boyfriends. Mistakes are actually bound to happen. Considering this, why not actually expect and even look forward to them? What would shift in your writing if you allowed mistakes to be a welcome guest?
2. STOP MAKING THEM MEAN SOMETHING
I wish I had a dollar for every writer who took one mistake or criticism and made it about their overall talent and potential. “That scene I wrote sounds so stupid! – I’m a terrible writer and I’ll never make it!” Don’t give me those looks, I know you know what I’m talking about. We’ve all done it. Some of us look for reasons to do that shrinking thing, where we bash ourselves against all mental repair, and mistakes are an easy in. Hey, some of us writers are shameless masochists.
Here’s the truth about making mistakes: they don’t mean a damn thing. They don’t mean a thing about you or about your script or novel. They just are. They happen. As we know from above, they will happen no matter what. They will happen whether you’ve been writing for 5 days or 25 years. So stop attaching the value of your writing to them.
They even enhance the value of your writing (crazy, right?) which brings me to our next item:
3. LOOK FOR THE HIDDEN TREASURE
Mistakes are miniature miracles. Just think about babies that were conceived unexpectedly. (Awwwww!) But seriously, go with me with this metaphor for a minute. Mistakes are a way to breathe life into areas of your writing that didn’t exist before.
For example, in one of my first scripts, I created a character that was a possible love interest for a recent divorcee: her daughter’s art teacher. As the script developed further, I realized I didn’t want her to have a new love interest at all: his character just didn’t serve the story I really wanted to tell. That said, he brought important values to the story that I kept: my lead character could grow from becoming involved in an art community and find other ways to connect to her daughter (besides getting to know her through her teacher’s eyes). So his character was a mistake, and clarified important values for my main character.
Sometimes the hidden treasure is just simple learning as we develop our ideas. Writing a scene that sounds “off” directs us to what “on” would sound like. We have to try things out to find what works (in writing and life). In this way, every mistake is a gift, a treasure, a miracle. And they are not only bound to happen, but part of the process, so open your arms and invite them in for a big group hug.
Mistakes are signs we are growing. Kinda cool, right?
Now, go out there and make some mistakes!
Jamie Jensen is a writer-director and writing coach from New York City. She earned her BA from NYU in storytelling, then her MFA from USC in film producing before making her own feature comedy Hannah Has a Ho-Phase. She helps stuck and newbie writers get moving with their projects at yourignitedlife.com.