Learning from Freelance Writing Mistakes

What I’m reading: God Help the Child by Toni Morrison
What’s on the iPod: Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough by Michael Jackson

After a fantastic Writers Worth Month, I’m settling into a busy June. Typically, June is when things slow down. July and August are usually quiet as graveyards. This year, however, I’m working with new clients and on retainer projects that are keeping the revenue flowing, amen.

I was talking with a writer who is in the first few years of a full-time freelance writing career. She expressed fears that her efforts were going to result in failure. She’d put a great deal of effort into something, and yet she wasn’t seeing results. Does that make her a failure?

No. But it makes her wiser.

I had told this writer that with every experience, you learn something. Maybe that something, I said, was that some things aren’t worth the price you pay. That, dear writer, does not make you a failure. That makes you smarter the next time you’re about to plunk down money on something. Or the next time you let a client tell you what you’ll earn, or the next time you know you should say no to something, etc.

The point is this — whatever the negative experience, you will carry that forward into your future decision-making. 

If you listen, that is.

There’s no shame in paying for something that didn’t deliver or saying yes to terms that you weren’t entirely happy with. Every one of us has made decisions that haven’t suited us in some way or other. In my own writing career, I’ve agreed to underpayment, bad contract terms, accepting bad client behavior, you name it. So you’re not alone in making a decision that wasn’t quite right for you.

Ah, but the shame of it comes when that lesson is one you ignore. If you defend your choices staunchly instead of opening your eyes, admitting it, and vowing to do better next time, you’re going to continue making bad choices.

And the person you’re doing the most damage to? Consult your mirror for the answer.

So for all those moments that test you as a writer — those moments that you may think define you as a failure, remember these things:

Admitting it to yourself (and to others, if need be) is necessary. We’d told our kids (and continue to tell them) that when they can own their decisions and admit openly what they’re doing that we may/may not like, they’re mature enough to do what they want. The same goes for your writing career — if you can admit your mistakes, you’re going to see yourself grow in ways you can’t imagine.

Even the biggest mistakes are teaching moments. I’ve screwed up in ways that today seem silly, but at the time I didn’t know how to handle myself as a professional. The hardest way to learn (but the most effective way) is by screwing up. You learn how to recover from it, how to fix it (if it’s fixable) and how to avoid screwing up in that way again.

If you fail to learn from it, you fail. Don’t defend yourself to that client (they don’t listen anyway), nor to your fellow writers. Nor should you be justifying to yourself why you did what you did, or making excuses that place you right back on the path to screwing up again. If you can’t examine the issue objectively and admit to your own contribution (“I should have done this…”), that, my writer friend, is a failure. Worse, it’s a failure that’s going to repeat until you stop worrying about looking stupid and start doing right by yourself.

Writers, how many lessons have you learned the hard way over the years?
What was the toughest part about making mistakes, either with clients or in decisions? Did you ever think of yourself as a failure because something didn’t work out? 
How hard was it for you to stop rationalizing your mistake or taking blame for someone else just so you can avoid the unpleasant truth?
What would you say to a writer who’s having troubles owning their mistakes?

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  • Cathy Miller June 3, 2015 at 12:58 pm

    Another great thing about admitting our mistakes? Tons of blog post ideas. LOL!

    Maybe it's my age, but I have a much easier time admitting my mistakes. Must be ALL those years of practice. 🙂 In the beginning of my freelancing career, one biggie was buying every book or course to learn my new business.

    That's not a bad thing if you actually complete the book or course and learn something from it. I had a very nasty habit of not finishing them. And some of them were good resources.

    So I gave myself a budget, weeded out the good ones and went back to finish them by scheduling a time for them.

    I've made every newbie mistake imaginable – under-pricing my work, getting sucked into free work for false promises, paying for courses that didn't deliver (or those I abandoned due to my own issues). Like you, Lori, I believe there's something to be learned from every life experience. If it was negative, learn it and move on.

  • Paula June 3, 2015 at 2:33 pm

    Oh, Cathy, you have no idea how many writing books I've sold at garage sales – most of them I never finished reading.

    I do wish I could go back in time knowing what I know now and have a re-do with a couple of my very first clients. In on case so I'd have a better idea what they needed, and in the other to tell the guy he was little more than a self-serving moron taking advantage of the insecurities of newbie writers.

    Here's something I've found helpful in almost every area of life: Stick to doing what you know is right, play fair, be open to constructive criticism, and ignore anyone who isn't doing the same. Their opinions simple don't matter.

  • Anne Wayman June 3, 2015 at 3:25 pm

    Cathy – totally agree, and with you too, Paula… plenty of writing books aren't really helpful… or the time isn't right, etc.

    I love the title, Fail Your Way To Success – I've never read the book… suspect the title tells it all.

  • Lori Widmer June 3, 2015 at 3:35 pm

    Amen, Cathy! LOL I got so much mileage out of my screw-ups, it's unreal.

    Paula, it must be a trend — my books went unfinished, too! Even the best ones were read almost to the end, but never quite the whole way. And if I could go back in time, I'd have dropped one client in particular — an egomaniac who, on our first meeting, said to me "You need to be writing everything I say down."

    Red flag #1 of many.

    That is a great title, Anne! I'd read that one. LOL

  • Ashley June 3, 2015 at 9:42 pm

    Wow, Lori, a client actually told you needed to write down everything s/he said? What an enormous headache that client must have been. And you're right — those failures are the ones that stick with us forever, and we never make that mistake again.

    One other thing. Admitting mistakes like this in writer communities (blogs, forums, or even individually) is incredibly helpful because we're able to learn from each other's mistakes, not just our own.