How to turn “mistakes” into your best writing
We’ve all experienced it — you’re working away on a project and realize after several paragraphs have gone by that you veered substantially off course. Rather than get frustrated at the loss of time or wasted effort at making such a “mistake,” instead, turn your perspective upside down and celebrate it! Such creative mistakes may not be fruitful immediately, but in the long term, they always show you the true energy of your project or become excellent material for another.
It’s a comfort to know that you can turn your mistakes into your best writing: every time.
Going with the flow: seeing the potential in your mistakes
If you know anything about the concept of “Flow” (a term coined by social psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi), you know that when you’re in it, you’re tapping into the magic of your unconscious mind. That magic is rich fertile territory where connections are made, ideation is fulfilled, and you’re at your peak of performance.
When you’re in this state, your brain is in charge happily making connections and doing the good work of articulating what you deep down want to explore.
On one hand, this is thrilling because you’re more “translating” what your unconscious mind is doing than actively creating; on the other, what comes up may or may not be in line with what you consciously intended for the project you’re working on.
It’s easy to get upset at this. You spent time and effort that now isn’t useable– at least for this project or in this exact way. Rather than let your mistake set you back, see it as a way forward!
“The obstacle is the path,” Titus Andronicus
Recognizing the creative potential in your mistakes, and nurturing it, is often what makes for great art and will free you to get to your best writing.
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Some Famous Examples of Mistakes Becoming “Happy Accidents”
- Bob Ross, the famous painter, used to say that there are no mistakes, only “happy little accidents.” Whenever he would mistakenly paint something he hadn’t intended, he would find a way to incorporate it, making his painting better for it; for example, he would turn an accidental line into a tree or create a bird where none had been before.
- When Neil Gaiman misspelled “Caroline” in a letter and wrote “Coraline,” he realized it looked like a name, and that name led to his famous children’s novella (and movie).
- Morton A Meyers, M.D. refers to these “happy accidents” in the medical community as “serendipity.” In his book Happy Accidents : Serendipity in Major Medical Breakthroughs in the Twentieth Century and his podcast, he cites many of the famous “mistakes” that led to miraculous cures we rely on today such as chemotherapy, X-rays, and penicillin.
“At the Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1947, two allergists gave a new antihistamine, Dramamine, to a patient suffering from hives. Some weeks later, she was pleased to report to her doctors that the car sickness she had suffered from all her life had disappeared.”
“Where observation is concerned, chance favors only the prepared mind.” Louis Pasteur
Determining How to Turn Your Mistakes into Your Best Writing
When we’re writing a first draft, we’re meant to simultaneously allow for energetic raw material to emerge and to be receptive to the usefulness of inadvertent connections we make while we’re writing (or the happy accidents that come from our being in flow).
Once we get to the revision stage, however, we must apply a discerning eye to every moment of a text to either incorporate all of the writing into a unified whole or to determine whether some areas are “mistakes” because they take the work in a different direction.
If you determine that some material, whether it’s:
- overused adverbs
- a few shiny lines you love but know deep down are “extra”
- a paragraph or more that veers off course
- even a chapter that explores something interesting but doesn’t fit into the project as a wholeyou can celebrate that you now have fantastic new material for your next project.
Embracing the Mistake to Get Your Best Writing
Where it can be tempting to pound the mistakes into the greater draft like you might do with a puzzle piece that *almost fits*, in the end, you can free up your draft from having to bend over backwards to accommodate for the mistake or lighten it up by removing those lines that don’t work and both you — and your draft — will be leaner, cleaner, and more purposeful for it.
This shift in perspective will also free you up from being afraid at every turn that you have to “kill your darlings.” Instead, it allows you to view your writing on a natural continuum, recognizing that every word you write is never a mistake but a necessary means to an end.
In his book The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle talks about taking your innate gifts and maximizing them to give you the most power and agency in the work you do. This perfect storm of proclivity and perception is how some of the world’s greatest minds and artists have come to be where they are.
Rather than holding tightly to all we write and trying to make it all work within a single context, by allowing your mistakes to be opportunities, you can loosen your grip, knowing all the writing you do is leading you to all the writing you do.
The ability to embrace the mistake as an integral and welcome part of the writing process sets you up for the necessary “bend and sway” you must have: to both welcome your creativity through flow and to have the strength and conviction to know when and how to make sure your work is in service to its readers. And, along with that, enjoying always having a storehouse of new material from which to draw, knowing the best writing is yet to come.