The F-Word

The F-Word

Picture this: you’re sitting at your computer surfing the net in search of open calls for publication submissions. You stumble across one that seems perfect for a short story you just finished pounding out a day or two ago. You confidently submit the story, and you wait… and wait… and wait…

Finally, you receive an email from the publication. You excitedly open it and begin to read, “Thank you for sending us your manuscript. We appreciate the chance to read it. Unfortunately, we’re going to have to pass on this one as it isn’t quite the right match for this publication.” You’re immediately crushed, and you lock that short story away never to be seen again.

This is literally what happened to me the first time I worked up the courage to submit to a publication. I tried, and I failed.

Last week, I talked about how negative experiences as a writer shape how you approach writing in the future. But how does the F-word fit into this larger conversation about writing?

For many writers, failure (or the fear of failure) can be a paralyzing thing. From a sub-par grade on a classroom assignment to a denied business proposal to a rejected manuscript, failing to accomplish what you’ve set out to do as a writer can make you resent writing–it can even make you put the pen down for good. But what if I told you that failure was a necessary component for growth and improvement as a writer? (Brooke and Carr 1837).

In writing there is no magical formulation that will produce award-winning content every time the pen hits the page. You don’t just wake up and have an epiphany that you’re a writer with all the knowledge of writing that has ever been or ever will be. In fact, it is the opposite. Writing is a series of experiments concerning rhetoric, storytelling, language, and grammar. We try things. We fail. We regroup and try again. I think Brooke and Carr summarize the process best in their article “Failure Can Be an Important Part of Writing Development.”

The ability to write well comes neither naturally nor easily; the thinkers we praise and admire are not the lucky few born with innate talent. Rather, they are the ones who are able to make mistakes, learn from them, and keep writing until they get it right. (1844)


When you approach failure as a part of the writing process, new doors appear for you as a writer. Instead of locking away that rejected manuscript, you begin a process of revision. You ask peers and colleagues for feedback. You study genre and form to sharpen your skills. You recognize the fact that you don’t know everything there is to know, and you set out on a journey seeking new knowledge. According to William Arruda, “someone who survives failure has gained irreplaceable knowledge and the unstoppable perseverance born from overcoming hardship,” (Forbes). Suddenly failure takes on new meaning as a writer. It’s not simply a negative, paralyzing experience. It is opportunity for the expansion of knowledge and skill-building.

When you embrace the idea that “Writers never cease learning to write, [and] never completely perfect their writing ability,” (Rose 1787), the F-word becomes less intimidating. You embrace it as an inevitable (albeit sometimes unwelcome) necessity for the improvement of your writing. Then the F-word doesn’t seem so bad.

Arruda, William. “Why Failure Is Essential To Success.” Forbes. 14 May 2015, Accessed 24 Sep. 2019.

Brooke, Collin and Allison Carr. “Failure Can Be an Important Part of Writing Development,” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies. Ed. Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle, Kindle ed., Utah State University Press, 2016.

Rose, Shirley. “All Writers Ha,” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies. Ed. Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle, Kindle ed., Utah State University Press, 2016.


  1. Hey Willie,

    I couldn’t agree more with this. Fear can keep students from experimenting and growing. I hope that as professors, we can do low-stakes assignments that take away fear’s power in the classroom. Do you have any specific steps you would like to take in order to promote growth and risk-taking/experimenting in the classroom?

    1. W. Lawson

      During my undergrad career, I had a professor who had a specific way of grading assignments that I always said I wanted to duplicate. Looking back now, it addresses the idea of failure as a means of growth. She would grade an assignment (on first submission) as either an A, B, or R. If you received an R, you had the opportunity to take her feedback and revise the paper. You were then allowed to resubmit the revised assignment for a new grade. Sometimes she even allowed for multiple revisions. That is something I would like to try.

  2. Will, being rejected from publications is very relatable. It can be discouraging, but I tell myself that at least I am trying. It also gives me a chance to revise my submissions because I know they can be better! Do you think in upper level courses you will encourage students to submit into publications?

    1. W. Lawson

      I would not only encourage students in upper level courses to submit to publications; I would encourage students at all stages of their academic career to submit their work. I think that if we normalize the submission and rejection process as early as possible, it will help writers to overcome the anxiety of putting their work out there.

  3. Whew. I definitely feel this. Rejection can be a sobering thing, especially when you aren’t used to it. Its important for us to accept early on that, as you said, failure and rejection are a part of the process of writing. I wish you good luck in placing that piece somewhere! I know you’ll find the perfect home for it 🙂

  4. Fear of failure is, I believe, the most paralyzing fear. Here, there is no feeling of fight or flight, there is no hand waiting to pull you safely to the other side. It is ALL on you to get make your feet move, or in this case, your fingers. Low-stakes assignments and revision opportunities will encourage students to overcome this fear. Do you think peer review will come into play as well?

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