The Most Important Word Every Writer Should Know


It is a word every writer learns to appreciate with time. In the beginning it is frustrating and angry-making. Along the way it becomes “meh” to the point of quitting completely. Eventually there comes the realization that it is normal and part of the business.

Michael Jordan, basketball icon, said, “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

A Writer’s Guarantee

At some point in your writing journey you will face the question of whether or not it is worth all the work, disappointment, and minuscule dollars. I suspect every writer hits this place. It is embedded in the fabric of the creative gift.

That is because the marketplace is capricious. Your writing is good sometimes and great at other times. Your ideas connect with one set of readers and maybe not the second time around.

But if the big bad ugly traditional publishers don’t want the book you can always Indie publish and reap amazing success! Guaranteed!

You want guarantees? Better talk with your tax accountant or your mortician.

Even Michael Jordan missed a slam dunk every once in a while.

Avoiding Failure

The only guarantee to avoid failure is to stop writing and stop showing your work to anyone. I’ve known many writers who have ended up in this dark and lonely place. The most unusual was a writer who had never experienced rejection. Not once. The author’s first proposal was accepted, another book became a national bestseller, and for years everything (fiction or non-fiction) created was published…until one day it all stopped. Suddenly no one wanted the next book proposal. I talked to this writer at length trying to figure out what happened. This author solved the problem by never submitting a new proposal. No more failure. In my opinion, that is not the right answer.

I have failed more than I care to admit.

As a bookseller I spent thousands of dollars on a big local promotional event only to have only about 50 people show up…and none of them bought anything.

As an editor I acquired books that no one wanted to buy. I also passed on books that became wild bestsellers.

As an agent I signed projects that received 100% rejections from various publishers. I invested time and effort that was for naught.

But none of those failures will be my last one.

Overcoming Failure

A few thoughts on overcoming failure.

1) Define success. Then you have a goal or a threshold to achieve. But be realistic. I once received a proposal where the writer claimed the idea was bigger than Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings … combined. It may be that your “failure” really wasn’t a failure but was simply one more step on the journey.

2) Remember again why you are writing in the first place. Some fall into the idea of writing because it seemed a fun thing to do. Others have the pull from a young age. Others can do nothing else because the call to write is so very strong. Failure can blind or deafen you to remember what brought you to this place where failure confronts you.

3) Embrace your failure. And I mean truly grasp that smelly, prickly, burning, bitter, and nightmarish thing in your arms and pull it close. The sensation can be overwhelming. But it also can reveal itself to be the size of a small stuffed animal and not the scary beast from the forest of your mind. Once you have embraced the failure for what it is…

4) Go out and do it again. The rewards for sticking with it outweigh all the rest. And whether you publish Traditionally, Indie, or Hybrid the words you write will not be void.

As Winston Churchill said, “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”

30 Responses to The Most Important Word Every Writer Should Know

  1. Avatar
    Margo Carmichael October 13, 2014 at 4:12 am #

    I love the image of pulling failure close and seeing it for what it is. Thanks for your personal examples, too. And I love Churchill’s quote. All very encouraging early on a Monday morning. Thank you, Steve. Happy Monday to you, too.

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      John Dante Anaya February 4, 2015 at 10:09 am #

      Thank you so much. I felt like i was beggining to feel lost again. Now i know that i’m alright. Thank you so much.

  2. Avatar
    Henya October 13, 2014 at 5:09 am #

    Thank you!

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    CliffAnn Perry October 13, 2014 at 5:24 am #

    Thank you!

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    Bobbi Junior October 13, 2014 at 5:40 am #

    Here in Canada today is Thanksgiving. I’ve just shared this with all my writer groups and writerly friends. What wonderful encouragement on a day when perceived failure can dampen our spirits even more.

    Thanks Steve.

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    Joe Plemon October 13, 2014 at 6:19 am #

    Thanks, Steve, for the encouraging reality check. Now–if I can learn to embrace those failures instead of avoiding them, I will be on Churchill’s road to success.

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    Lancia E. Smith October 13, 2014 at 6:33 am #

    Thank you, Steve, for this good, bracing word of advice. I love your inclusion of the line from Churchill – “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” I needed this reminder today. Bless you.

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    Ronie October 13, 2014 at 6:52 am #

    YES! Every writer should define success so they don’t do what I did and, five months after my first release (which was only 2 months after my second release) asking her agent if she was a failure. I was SO ready to quit until you told me I was “too young” in this game to even be having that conversation. That enabled me to warrior on.

    Even now, it can be challenging to define success–because you reach one goal, then press on toward another.

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    Chris Storm October 13, 2014 at 6:55 am #

    Great post!! I reached that rejection wall about a year ago and actually said, “This is the point where most people give up.” But not me. Why? Because I love writing! I’m learning, growing, praying like crazy and thanking God for every baby step forward! Isaiah 40:31 “Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles, they will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not be faint.”

  9. Avatar
    Carol Moncado October 13, 2014 at 7:20 am #

    I love that quote from Michael Jordan! I had the poster for years.

    Sadly, many of my college age students no longer no Michael Jordan as anything but the Hanes guy. Sigh.

    Someone on Facebook posted the other day something to the effect of “It’s done. But if I never hit send, I’ll never get rejected, right?”

    I’m so happy to finally be at the point in my career [most of the time ;)] to be able to say, “True. But you’ll never get a yes, either. Send it anyway.” I’m so grateful to those who said [and still do say] those things to me. I hope I was able to help her…

  10. Avatar
    Jennifer Sienes October 13, 2014 at 7:49 am #

    Thank you, Steve, for this wonderful reminder. This post came up just as I was writing my blog for ACFW–on how persistence and discipline benefits so much more than we realize–our children (and others) are watching how we live our lives–and whether that’s our spiritual walk or our struggles with this writing journey God has called us to, it’s not really about us. The journey is more important than the destination and how we go about it teaches more than what becomes of it.

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    Shirley Buxton October 13, 2014 at 8:36 am #

    Powerful! Thank you.

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    Clint Hall October 13, 2014 at 8:39 am #

    Reminds me of a great Steven Pressfield quote: ““It’s better to be in the arena, getting stomped by the bull, than to be up in the stands or out in the parking lot.”

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    Sue Raatjes October 13, 2014 at 8:53 am #

    Thanks, Steve. Came at the perfect time for me. (I just discovered we both wrote devotionals in 100 Motivational Moments for Writers and Speakers back in 1991.)

  14. Avatar
    Jenny Leo October 13, 2014 at 9:15 am #

    Great topic for a Monday morning when I’m debating between picking up my WIP where I left off in deep discouragement last Friday, or setting aside this whole writing thing and taking up something else entirely–what exactly, I’m not sure. You’ve encouraged me to get over myself, open the darn document, find my place, and plant my seat in the chair and my fingers on the keys. So thanks for that.

    FYI, an interesting take on the trajectory of a writing career is the book “Never Too Late” by general-market women’s fiction author Claire Cook. Even though Claire didn’t even begin writing until her forties, her first novel, “Must Love Dogs,” hit pay dirt and was made into a major movie about a decade ago (with Diane Lane and John Cusack, if my memory serves). Several other novels followed. Then the industry shifted, and the traditional activities that had formerly worked for her weren’t working so well anymore. Claire’s pro-active attitude toward reinvigorating her career in middle age, instead of whining and feeling sorry for herself, is an inspiring read.

  15. Avatar
    Rick Barry October 13, 2014 at 10:29 am #

    I was going to use that exact same Winnie in my comment, but you beat me to it.

    Instead I’ll take liberties with one of his speeches: “We shall write on the beaches, we shall write on the landing grounds, we shall write in the fields and in the streets, we shall write in the hills; we shall never surrender….”

  16. Avatar
    Karen Ball October 13, 2014 at 11:03 am #

    Great post, Steve. Such wisdom and encouragement. Thank you!

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    Sandy Faye Mauck October 13, 2014 at 11:16 am #

    Excellent post.
    I was rejected in the writing world a little years back. Gave up, went to the art world. Was both highly rejected and also accepted, but still felt like a failure.

    The bottom line is God is the one who promotes and demotes and He has a reason, so find out the reason. Motives wrong? In the wrong place? Thinking too highly of yourself?….

    Once you stop being angry, hurt and feeling worthless you can hear that still small voice beckon you onward to the place you need to be, whether it is a slight revision of what you have written or whether it is a change of course. Be pliable as a pot in the Potter’s hands.

  18. Avatar
    Jenelle. M October 13, 2014 at 11:48 am #

    I have read this post and comments over and over. How neat that such an ugly word has left us all encouraged and determined to press forward through the pain.

    On my friend’s blog this morning, she lead off her post with this Maya Angelou quote: “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”

    Like Chris said, I too, thank Jesus for holding my hand as I take baby steps. I can’t imagine learning and growing any other way 🙂

  19. Avatar
    m. rochellino October 13, 2014 at 2:54 pm #

    Steve, terrific blog! My life journey has taught me to combat “failure” this way.

    When I was younger I used to see things much more in absolutes. Something was either black or white, hot or cold, you are either for us or against us, someone loved you (or you them) or not, etc. There wasn’t much (if any) middle ground. It was always either THIS or THAT, rarely any other possibility could be seen.

    My Father, our Lord, over the years has patiently taught me many things. Some were conscious, some were sub conscious that manifest themselves as instinct (that little voice as to whether something is right or wrong), some are lessons contained within that will only materialize as needed. I have received countless more gifts that I am not aware of, yet.

    After some (oft times uncomfortable but always for my own good) lessons I now know that in most situations there are countless shades of grey in between total success and total failure. There are still absolutes in life but NOT EVERYTHING is absolute. In fact, most things are not. A few of these lessons I have been taught… Things are subject to change at any time. Things are not always as they appear. NOTHING is beyond the power of God.

    I can apply this knowledge to almost any situation, unfailingly. This would also apply to the word and any circumstance characterized as “failure”. Being “declined” by a publisher or agent isn’t necessarily a failure. It may have brought you to their attention in some positive way. This phenomenon may occur in many other areas of life as well. Romance, business opportunity, health, finances, career, etc. I always say “Who knows?” The answer is God only knows, for sure.

    Jeremiah 29:11
    For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

    Tenacity is a virtue. Failure is not a final fact unless accepted. Keep modifying, refining and adapting your work until “success” is achieved. Don’t allow your writing journey to be a chore or painful. Make it a delight, your burnished joy will eventually shine through.

    Sandy Faye, I have had a world wide journey through the ages in the visual art (painting) world as well. I have found the disciplines,
    techniques and commitment acquired to be of incalculable value to the craft of writing, which does, after all, remain an “art” in and of itself.

    • Avatar
      Sandy Faye Mauck October 13, 2014 at 4:59 pm #

      Yes! m. Absolutely. I cannot believe the similarities. I have taken everything I have learned in both hard and good places and find myself still seeing so many art applications in the writing. Yes we are now “word painters.” Amen. (<:

  20. Avatar
    Jim Camomile October 13, 2014 at 4:20 pm #

    Wow, that is what I needed to hear right now. I think the worst failure is the loss of heart to do something that you could really succeed at if you persevered.

  21. Avatar
    Jim Stormhill October 13, 2014 at 4:27 pm #

    The verse from Jeremiah “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. ” is a great reminder of God’s heart toward His people.

    • Avatar
      Sandy Faye Mauck October 13, 2014 at 5:02 pm #

      Jim, yes, we have to think of Him as the greatest Dad we can imagine and realize He wants us to succeed but not at the expensive of our spiritual life with Him.

  22. Avatar
    Jack Walden October 13, 2014 at 4:31 pm #

    I was an accomplished failure before I started writing.
    The two most successful words I know are, “The End,” and they are really a beginning.
    I write about men and adoption, their women and families, the way they come to know Jesus. All of this happens in a southern location free of house trailers, vampire, and Amish angst.
    Tell me about failure.

  23. Avatar
    Virelle Kidder October 14, 2014 at 6:49 am #

    This is great, Steve. The problem I’ve had is thinking I’m getting too old for this. Nursing thoughts of failure takes many forms. As long as I’m warm and breathing, my calling is to communicate the love of Christ in any and every way possible. Plus, God keeps my mind occupied with new ideas daily. I can’t stop!
    Thank you once again!

    • Avatar
      Sandy Faye Mauck October 14, 2014 at 10:40 am #

      Virelle, I have to remind myself….
      How old was Sarah when she had that baby?
      How old was Moses when he led the people out of Egypt?
      How old was Joshua when he led the people into the land?
      and this list goes on…(<;

  24. Avatar
    Carol Ashby October 14, 2014 at 10:41 am #

    There is a very good reason why work at the forefront of science is called “re-search.” A high tolerance for failure at the intermediate steps is essential in every walk of life. The key is to analyze the reason for the failure and then try something different. I always remind myself that I haven’t really failed until I stop trying.

    I am so grateful that we serve a God of second chances (and third and fourth and…). That thought always lifts me up when I fall short of achieving any goal. If we never failed, we wouldn’t be sinners in need of a savior.

  25. Avatar
    Sabrina Cornman November 8, 2014 at 9:21 am #

    Thank you, Steve for the always timely reminder! Don’t we always have some ghost of Failures Past rattling their chains in our mind? Failed parenting ideas, career moves, relationships and marriages. Failures abound in life.
    When I am confronted by my ghosts, I think of the song “Hello, My Name Is” by Mathew West and all of my ghosts are quiet for a while!


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