Facing Failure: 3 Different Ways Writers Fail

fear of failure Sep 18, 2023

Fear of failure personified: your very own sad Frankenstein. (Photo by Ashkan Forouza)

Because facing failure is such an important issue for writers, I wanted to share some thoughts on the topic here on the blog for you.

Take a deep breath...and let’s dive in!

Facing Failure: Some Ways Writers Fail

  • They fail to get stories or poems published.
  • Then the writer has some stories or poems published, but their book is rejected.
  • Then the book is published, but the critics hate it.
  • The critics hate it, but readers love it.
  • Most readers love it, but a few really hate it.
  • The book is nominated for an award, but doesn’t win.
  • The book is nominated for multiple awards, but still doesn’t win.
  • The book wins, but some people still hate it and most people don’t read it.
  • The book wins, but the author still knows all the ways it has failed.
  • The book ends up in the “Sale” bin and then returned to the publisher.
  • Then the author writes the next book, which is always compared to the first.

This is a list of very real possible failures based on both my own experience over the years, as well as the experiences of many writers I know.

Facing Failure: Knowing What Matters Most

Now scroll back up and take a look at that list again. What do you notice? What do all of these items have in common?

They’re all fears related to a writer's CAREER. When we think about failing, most of our fears are focused on failing in public, on all the many and myriad ways we can fail in a writing career. Our deepest fears are about failing in public.

You’re not afraid of failure, you’re afraid of people watching you fail.

And when you think about failing, I’m willing to bet that you can even name specific people, or groups of people, such as family or friends or critics, etc. These are the people who stand over you in your nightmares, your own personal audience for your failures.

But here’s the thing: is your career as a writer really and truly the thing that matters most to you? I’m not saying it’s not important -- we all dream of writing bestsellers that win all the awards -- but there are other critical aspects to life as a writer.

For example:

  • What if your book wasn’t a bestseller, but readers reached out to you to tell you that it mattered to them?
  • What if you couldn’t publish your memoir with a traditional publisher, but the process of writing it changed who you are and how you think about your life?
  • What if your book didn’t win awards, but you grew as a writer and now understood your form (i.e. the short story, or the narrative poem) in a much deeper way?
  • What if writing consistently keeps you grounded and sane in a crazy world?

Facing Failure: The Three Ways Writers Can Fail

Career is only one of the areas in which we can fail as writers, and as artists. In the Masterclass we also talked in depth about two other areas where our fear of failure can rise up for us like some sad Frankenstein monster of our own making.

I believe there are 3 ways writers can fail and every single one of us faces all three:

  1. Attempt
  2. Art
  3. Career

I also believe that the first two of these matter far more than the third. In fact, investing our time and attention in these two areas provides us with an emotional buffer against failure in the third.

I’ve written a lot here about how we can fail in the attempt, and most importantly some ways to avoid it, but essentially we fail as writers in the attempt when we prioritize product over practice, when we compare ourselves to others as we write, and -- the ultimate failure -- when we give up altogether.

I won’t go into detail here about failure in Art (we spent a lot of time on this in the Masterclass), but it refers to how we think about the artistic and craft challenges of writing. It’s where we have to face the gap between the book we dream of writing and the book we are capable of writing right now.

Facing Failure: Reflection Questions

Facing your fear of failure is critical to your progress as a writer. Here are two of the Reflection Questions we used as journaling prompts in the Writer’s Flow Studio Masterclass. Grab a journal and take a few minutes now to think about them and write your responses.


Looking at the list of possible failures above, what are you MOST afraid of? What will you do if that happens?

Whose approval are you looking for? What will happen to you if you don’t get it? (Hint: you will survive!)




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