Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Permission to Fail

I think it goes without saying that most authors, whatever their capacity or subject matter, want to write well. I think it also goes without saying that this is, in and of itself, a good thing.  But there are constructive and destructive ways to to this, and I want to talk a little bit about one of the things that differentiates the two.  Click below the break for my thoughts on the matter.

In my last post, I mentioned that I'm reading a book about the science and psychology of victory, Top Dog.  I'd like to summarize a couple of the studies cited in that book with you all, as an introduction to my point.

First, there's a study that was done by Drs. Adam Alter and Joshua Aronsen wherein they administered a fairly difficult test to 124 Princeton underclassmen.  Half of the students were given a test labeled "Intellectual Ability Questionnaire," and were asked some "demographic data" questions before taking the test which were designed to stress them out.  The other half were given the exact same test, except that theirs was labeled "Intellectual Challenge Questionnaire" and they weren't asked the demographic questions until after taking the test.

The first group averaged a 72% score; the second averaged 90%.

Second, researchers Geir Jordet and Esther Hartman analyzed the percentage of missed penalty shots in soccer games under various circumstances.  For the non-sporting, on a penalty shot the kicker stands 12 yards away from the 24'x8' goal to make the kick, with no player except the goalie (who isn't allowed to move until the ball is kicked) between him and the net.  Essentially, any solid kick within a yard or so of the outer posts is unblockable at the professional level.  And the data reflects this: on average, professional soccer players make 85% of penalty shots.

The researchers then looked at two specific scenarios.  First, penalty shots to settle a tie where the player's team is down by one, and if they miss their team will lose the game.  Second, penalty shots to settle a tie where the player's team is tied, and if they succeed they'll win the game.

In the first situation, the pros succeed only 62% of the time.  In the second, that number leaps to 92%.

It would be easy to look at these studies and say, "people do worse under pressure," but the data shows a more nuanced point than that.  A soccer player going for the winning goal is still under enormous pressure, after all, and the questions asked of the Princeton underclassmen weren't gimmes.  Rather, what those studies show is that, if a person focuses on what they'll gain by succeeding, they'll typically perform better than if they focus on the costs of failing.

In general, fanfiction writing lends itself to a positive mindset.  There simply isn't very much pressure on an aspiring fanfic writer, beyond any that they place on themselves; there's no outside expectation when an author sits down and starts pounding out their Flutterdash shipfic that it'll be excellent, or even readable.  That can lead to its own set of problems, but it has one very important positive effect: it gives authors permission to fail.  Even as these writers are trying to make something worth reading, they know that if they fall short... well, so what?  It's a liberating feeling, knowing that there's no penalty for writing a terrible story beyond (maybe) a negative comment or two, and it frees authors from worrying about costs and lets them focus on what they could gain: self-satisfaction, e-fame, or whatever it is that motivates them.

But sometimes, that permission can evaporate.  Plenty of ponyfic authors have become extremely well-known (by fanfic standards), sporting thousands of followers and stories with tens of thousands of views.  Some are able to keep plugging away with the same mindset, but others struggle with the attention.  I've seen more than a couple of amateur writers who, not too long after brushing with fanfic popularity, found themselves so obsessed with what would happen if they wrote something "worse" than the stuff that had earned them that popularity--so obsessed with the costs of failing--that they couldn't produce anymore.  They no longer felt they were allowed to be mediocre, even bad, and as a result, their writing ground to a halt.

Many, many professional writers, from Steven King to Steven R. Donaldson, have talked about the importance of giving themselves permission to write poorly, to have bad ideas, and to make mistakes.  This is an important lesson to learn for any writer, amateur or professional: if instead of trying to writer well, you're trying not to write poorly, you set yourself up to fail.  To borrow a sports analogy, if you're "playing not to lose" instead of "playing to win," then it's awfully hard to eke out a victory.

Changing a mindset can be difficult, but one thing that's worth remembering for all fanfic writers is that, well, you're writing fanfiction.  There's no pressure to succeed; great writing is an unexpected bonus, a cherry atop the authorial sundae.  Yes, it should be striven for, but its pursuit should never become a negative.  Just like the soccer player going for the game-winning goal still tries his hardest, but knows that the game isn't over if he misses, writers should try to create something great, but know that if they fall short, it's no great loss.

If this sounds a little strange coming from my mouth ("Wait... isn't this the same guy who picks apart and rates fanfics for fun?") then consider this: when someone writes a terrible fanfic, I don't read it.  Or occasionally, I'll start it, realize it's not very good, and put it down.  What's the cost to me of someone writing bad fiction on the internet?  Nada.  This is all separate from both the issue of people who are genuinely apathetic about their own writing, and of people who think their writing is amazing despite all evidence to the contrary, mind, but the point is that a person who tries to write something good and falls short hasn't done me any harm.  But a person who takes a swing and creates something worth celebrating... well, it is worth celebrating.  And that, not fear of inadequacy, should be what drives an author.


  1. I know it's horribly egotistical, but I really can't help but think of myself when I read this.

    When I started writing fanfiction years ago, I really didn't care much at all about what people thought. I just did the best job I could, updated a lot of stories at a time (I was literally juggling seven or eight at several points, and all of them were receiving daily updates of some kind), and I enjoyed what little fan response I got. I ultimately quit because of simple burnout and real life issues...until ponies came along and I jumped back into the fray.

    But then I wrote My Little Alicorn, and suddenly, I had a fanbase. The fic was so well received that I wrote another, and then another. To put it simply, I just broke 1000 followers on Fimfiction, got interviewed for Golden Vision's Writer's Workshop, and have people honestly listening to my opinion about writing, the canon, and everything else.

    It's terrifying.

    I know it's only fanfiction, but for a while, it got to the point where even the silly "for fun" stories were being ground down by my anxiety. And That's Terrible is about Princess Celestia fighting Lex Luthor after he steals her cakes, and I'm still stuck on the last chapter because I can't figure out just how to perfectly balance Celestia fighting Luthor in his powered armor suit and Luna and Superman fighting his army of magic-powered robots. Seriously, that should just write itself, but every time I try to type it out, I just get this feeling that it's stupid and needs to be redone.

    And really, fanfiction is not something you should get frustrated over. But I can't help it. The moment I saw that so many people were interested in what I had to say and write, everything became a lot more serious.

    That's why this post is so important. I need to go in there and change my mindset before I snap completely. I came damn close with Waning Moon, and now that it's (I think) my first fic to make it to the top of the feature box, and ended up staying there for almost two days straight, I have this feeling I need to bring an even bigger game next time. If I don't prioritize, this fandom will destroy me.

    Also, I need to stop being such a raging egotist. Not everything is about me.

    1. Yeah, that is pretty egotistical. Chris clearly wrote it to motivate me to get over my fear and actually write something for once. It's not gonna work, Chris! Writing something I'd be satisfied with would be far too time consuming

    2. I can see into your souls

      In all seriousness, IAH, I hope you're able to remember as you keep going with Waning Moon that your readers aren't expecting perfection: they're expecting your best effort. If mistakes are made (and they will be), remember all the terrible ideas and unfortunate implications which you caught in editing, and remind yourself of all the genuinely excellent elements which surround that mistake.

      Doing your best doesn't mean never screwing up, nor does it mean topping yourself every time you write--if it did, Transformers III would be the epitome of movie greatness, after all--but rather, putting in your best effort. And that is something I don't doubt you'll do.

    3. Are you implying it isn't the epitome of movie greatness? You, sir, have no taste in cinema!

      Also, I'd think that logic would suggest the honor should go to Riders of the Rio Grande

  2. "One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one's work is terribly important." -Bertrand Russell, Nobel laureate (1872-1970)

    Just gonna leave this here. Little bit of food for thought. Remember! It's all about presentation.

    1. Agreed. Listening to her, I was reminded of some pragmatic/fascist philosophies. Loved the Bertrand Russell quote, though

  3. Long-time reader here, but since this is my first time commenting I’ll say this up front: I love your blog, and always look forward to it updating!

    This was definitely a post that I could relate to. When I started writing fanfiction at the end of 2011, I was in a pretty bad place – amongst other things, I’d had to drop off a teacher training course despite the fact that teaching had been a lifelong ambition of mine. The point is, I felt like a failure, and the last thing I expected from fanfiction was any sort of success... so imagine my surprise when people started telling me they liked what I was writing! Then imagine how shocked I was last April when a story of mine not only hit six stars, but got the most incredible comments you could wish for.

    Now, you’d think all that would act as brilliant motivation, however when the story was posted I was in a worse state than ever. The result was that not only didn’t I feel I deserved any of the success that I’d received, but I also started feeling tremendous pressure where there wasn’t actually any pressure at all. And I convinced myself that the rest of story couldn’t possibly live up to any expectations that had suddenly been placed upon it. Not wanting to 'let anyone down' with a disappointing second half, I set about re-planning it. And re-planning it. And re-planning it.

    By the end of summer, though I continued to occasionally plan it at the back of my head, it was more out of habit than anything else, and in truth I had moved onto other things. The story hasn’t had a proper update in almost a year. I honestly feel very guilty about it.

    Then again, my outlook on life is infinitely more positive compared to this time last year, and like you say...well, it’s fanfiction, and it’s supposed to be fun! Recently, I came back to the story, and even if I mess up, it’s no big deal. It’s a very liberating feeling. True, it’s been almost entirely forgotten about, but that honestly doesn’t bother me in the slightest, not when I’m enjoying writing it more than ever. That’s got to count for something.

    1. It's Not A Cold Dark Place? I remember when that came out! I almost gave it a shot just based on the image, but it was incomplete, so I decided to wait until it was finished

    2. Well now you've got me curious. I must find this story and shower it with praise.

    3. Glad to hear you like the blog, and I'm even gladder to hear that you've found a way to start enjoying your writing again. Good luck with your story!

  4. Great blog, Chris. Nice data. Trying to succeed instead of trying not to fail is generally better. I think the literature says mice learn things that help them get food when they're hungry faster than things that help them avoid shocks.

    I think, though, that when you say "Don't worry about it, because you're writing fan-fiction"--that's not the solution. That's telling people that what they're doing isn't important, that they might as well quit.

    Writing fan-fic is the same as writing a print book. Most novel authors make their living at something else, so their jobs aren't on the line. They want to write a good book, maybe gain some readers, maybe impress their fellow writers, just like us.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Hmm... looks like I used some poor phrasing there. What I meant to suggest, as you probably gathered from the rest of the paragraph, is that it's okay if you fall short of the (given) goal of writing something great, not "it doesn't matter, period."

  5. I could certainly see myself struggling with this in the future. I don't really have enough of a fanbase for this to be a problem, but if I did find myself to be a popular author one day, I would feel the pressure. I'm a perfectionist by nature, and while I do feel like I give myself room to grow (I need it. I'm not the best author... yet), I don't like to go backward. I want each story to outperform the last. That hasn't always happened, upvote-wise, but I think it has quality-wise, for me. I'm currently writing a episodic fic, rather than a one-shot and I feel it in the later chapters. I really like my first chapters and I'm nervous that the later ones won't hold up. I'm trying to give myself room to just write whatever and keep the good and re-write the bad.

  6. First, off that first study you referenced, well, either you or the book your citing is flat out misreporting the results. The actually study, seen here
    , was meant to study stereotype threat, that is feelings of inferiority in a person from their situations. And the study had, four, not two groups as you have it (because there are two variables in the design); one group that took "threat" and did the demographics before the test, one group took "threat" and did the demographics after the test, one that "challenge and took the demographics before the test, and finally, one that took "challenge" and did the demographics after the test. Then the students were marked down as belonging to either a high or low represented in terms of their high school at Princeton (this was not was assigned, so I suspect the numbers for each category vary, they sadly don’t give any descriptive stats). The average of 72 % only occurs for the students who took the demographics first, took the "threat" test, and came from low-representation schools, every other group scored between 88-95% (the highest coming from students who took the "threat", filled out the demographic form first, and can from high-represented high schools). It's not the individual variables or the two-way interactions (as they correctly point out in their article, and tired without with just those ones at first), but instead the interactions between them all three variables are deemed significant. Nor can you report the results as proof as you did, given that there were two variables (when the demographics were given and the title of the test); as you have I could have claimed (with just as much evidence supporting me) that the demographic form was real reason for the score difference, instead of the title of the test. I also have qualms about how the test was analyzed. If you have tired to publish this post in a journal or magazine, I (as the editor) would chew you out because if there's anything I dislike, it's my area of study being abused as evidence. (I cannot find a copy of the other article you cited, so I have no opinion on its accuracy.)

    As for the rest of this piece, I disagree. Sometimes it's creating a fear of failure that works better than giving one permission to be mediocre as I see it (I would at least say this is true for myself; otherwise I would be posting crap). Perfection maybe an impossibility, but striving to achieve it is almost never a bad thing.

    I'd said more but, I need sleep to deal with my cold and I need to limit my computer use because the power adapter is working irregularly (if it's not one thing, it's another).

    1. I just double-checked myself, and feel quite confident that I haven't misrepresented the study as laid out in the book--any cherry-picking of data I lay at the feet of the authors (although I realize that doesn't wholly excuse me).

      As for the question of whether striving to achieve perfection is a good thing, I think it's something that should absolutely be encouraged. The mindset which is dangerous is not one where perfection is the goal, but where anything short of it is a failure. People can find this inability to accept anything imperfect paralyzing, and the result is not a higher quality product, but no product at all. That is what I worry about, not the quest for improvement.

    2. Striving for perfection is not defensible, I think, because it gives rise to the notion that anything less than perfect is "mere". Striving for improvement should be more important. It's like the distinction between making better use of your time and wanting a perfect life; the former is more constructive and realistic, the latter too destructive and idealistic.

  7. I just don't want to disappoint my readers...

    Project Horizons is oh my god bigger than anything should ever be. Really. When I started Horizons, I had an ending in mind, an antagonist, an idea of where to start, minimal understanding of the Fallout games, and FO:E. I ripped off FO:E because that's what I thought Fallout was all about: wandering around the wasteland with a vague idea of an over arching plot. I made more than a few mistakes along the way. Ideas that just seemed cool at the time (Like the Legate... sorry everyone) didn't always work out.

    All I've ever wanted was a story that was okay. One where the reader didn't finish a chapter and regret investing the time and emotion into it. I know I'm a lousy writer. I hope for decent. Some folks like my story, which is good enough for me. But I know the story isn't perfect.

    Recently, I had a shake up of editors because one believed the story was too bloated and needed things cut out. There's no question the story is too big. I shouldn't have included all the things I did. Maybe actually tried this planning thing much earlier. But the story is what it is. My editor wanted to make drastic revisions to cut down the size and improve the story. Things like removing a major character, in addition to entire factions. It was utterly impossible... it would have been better to start over Horizons from scratch!

    Perfection is a dangerous trap. It becomes an excuse to give up. A reason to stop improving; you'll never reach it so why try? Better is obtainable. So that's what I always recommend to new writers: do better.

  8. Well, this has to be tempered and refined by other research, which suggests that another cause for performance failure is visualizing positive results, which turns too easily into escapism and fantasy.


    L.B. Pham and S.E. Taylor (1999). 'From Thought to Action: Effects of Process- Versus Outcome-Based Mental Simulations on Performance'. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25, pages 250-60.

    G. Oettingen and T.A. Wadden (1991). 'Expectation, Fantasy, and Weight Loss: Is the Impact of Positive Thinking Always Positive?'. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 15, pages 167-75.

    G. Oettingen and D. Mayer (2002). 'The Motivating Function of Thinking About the Future: Expectations Versus Fantasies'. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, pages 1198-212.

    So, while obsessing over failure is probably an impediment to actually doing anything, so is spending time idly dreaming of success. This is probably one of those cases of finding middle ground. (The above sources are from 59 Seconds by Richard Wiseman, who develops the theme of motivation in that same chapter and identifies five techniques based on his research that proved more successful than the alternatives).

    That said, there's also known psychological experiments which show that the kind of reward one expects will also alter one's commitment to the activity. Someone who gets an external reward for their work, as opposed to being allowed to practise it on their own for an internal reward, actually has a higher chance of dropping the activity once the reward comes in. Tokens such as money can actually diminish the output of someone because, once they have the reward, they retroactively assign their whole reason for doing it to that reward, and won't spontaneously face any higher challenge than the minimum necessary to get an external reward. By contrast, those who have only their own satisfaction to rely on as a reward for their work express more interest and fascination in the activity because they consider themselves personally involved in it, and their curiosity is not hemmed in by the illusion that an apparently fun activity is really a necessity inferior to some other goal.

    Sadly, I can't give exact sources for this set of claims, but I remember reading about them in psychology textbooks, and I dare say most textbooks you find would describe or make a reference to the research.

    Lastly, while tangential to the topic, the kind of praise given to children between ten and twelve can effect how they approach the activity they are asked to do. Praising a child for their results or for their abilities means things get uncomfortable when the child is faced with a challenge, because it sets up a potential contradiction and room for self-doubt if they don't do as well. By contrast, praising a child for the effort they put in actually increases the chances that they will take on challenges and persist when things aren't working out, because the focus on their efforts and working style means they don't have to obsess over the results or feel they have to compensate for past failures; they are encouraged to persist in the face of difficulties. The same result was found for elder children and even adolescents.


    C.M. Mueller and C.S. Dweck (1998). 'Praise for Intelligence Can Undermine Children's Motivation and Performance'. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,75, pages 33-52.

    C.S. Dweck (1999). 'Caution - Praise Can be Dangerous'. American Educator, 23, pages 4-9.

    (Again, the above sources are from 59 Seconds by Richard Wiseman, on the chapter concerned with parenting)

    Also of interest to the topic at hand, from, are articles on motivation psychology and commitment:

    1. There's also the observation that people tend to moralize art, so that artistic talent is easily confused with moral rectitude or the artist's integrity. Quentin Bell made a point like this, invoking a concept called "sartorial morality". The obvious downside to this is that an artist whose work is criticized for its aesthetics and result can construe criticism of their work as criticism of their character, specifically of their moral character. Naturally, anyone with a conscience who has their art criticized can then start to worry over what this says about them and if they've just been criticized personally.

      Source: Q. Bell (1992). On Human Finery. London: Allison & Busby.

      There's a lot more that can be said about this and a lot more research that can be invoked, but I think overall, I take the research and your post, and agree that using the stick to motivate yourself entails a lot of psychological baggage that does more harm than good. This is not just in terms of productivity, but also in terms of psychological comfort and health. Suggesting even a small and private punishment for producing a poor piece of work is still essentially telling the person that they should care more about the cost than about what they're risking it for, that their actions are punishable and have so much importance as to warrant being punished in the first place, and that if they don't deliver results, something's wrong with them not just in their particular technique or result but in themselves.

      A more fruitful approach is similar to the one we adopt about free speech. People can say and do what they want so long as it does not harm others, and while people have a right to criticize or respond to those views, they don't have a right to push you into silence. The motivation to write should be, first and foremost, for your sake and for your desire to contribute to something. You want to do better not to get the top scores, but because the desire to do better should come naturally from being intimately involved in the subject and because you personally like to devote your time and effort into it. Setbacks aren't proof that you're really a terrible person, and they don't have grave moral or cosmic implications if you "commit" them; they're the knocks and scrapes you get when you play a sport you like, part and parcel of the steps to pulling off that fantastic move you always wanted to try, the tests you can come back to when you want to try and beat them.

      I've probably gone on a little too long, but consider it a testament to how glad I was when I saw the title of your post, and read the article. I feel relieved, to be honest, after chewing over the matter you raised here, and like I remembered why I wrote fanfiction in the first place. I shall have to think about it.