We’ve all heard it. “Do it right the first time.” We’ve also probably heard, “Dude, you’re doing it wrong.” Then there are further admonishments to learn from other people’s mistakes, to listen to the experts, and that we should pay attention to our elders because any fool with half a brain knows better than to do it the way you are. Well, give them their due. They probably know what they’re talking about.
But… there is still a lot of value to doing it the wrong way first.
Now, before you all go skydiving with bedsheets or rewire your homes with twine, I’m mainly talking about learning a new skill, whether it’s hitting a baseball, playing an instrument, or writing a novel. So, don’t run off in pursuit of a Darwin Award. This is for skills where failure doesn’t kill you.
The first valuable thing that comes from doing it wrong the first time is that you’ve actually done it the first time. I can’t tell you how many people I hear talking about the things they want to do someday, as soon as they can take the time to learn how. They’re not actually going to try it out, sign up for lessons, or even pick up the necessary tools, but “someday”, they’re going to learn it.
How? By osmosis?
No. The best way — perhaps the only way — to learn a skill is to do it over and over. That means doing it that very first time, and almost certainly doing it wrong. You’re holding the bat too high. You’re squeezing the reed too hard. And for God’s sake, drop the prologue! Yeah, whatever… at least you’ve done it.
The next valuable result of doing it wrong is that you start to learn what failure looks like. Sure, we see the experts perform, and we sure know what success looks like, but stupefying failure? Not so much. So yeah, sending your bat flying towards the shortstop — not so good. You tried to play a scale, and now the dogs are whimpering. And maybe the sixty-four pages on the preparation of tea leaves distracts a bit from your political thriller.
Knowing what failure looks like is the key to moving towards success, an after multiple encounters with it, you develop a feeling for failure. You know its different shades. You can judge its severity. You can even anticipate it, knowing that the technique you’re about to employ is perhaps not such a good idea.
You’ll also learn the kinds of failure that you are particularly prone to. Do you shift your weight before the pitcher throws? Do you always botch the fingering combinations that require your pinky? Do you drop exposition into dialog with “As you know, Bob….” Sure, others have made these mistakes. Others have made millions of mistakes, and while you want to avoid them, trying to keep all of them in your head will paralyze you into inaction. Don’t stick your butt out too far. Keep your shoulder low. Don’t start the swing too early. Don’t start it too late. Watch your pinky finger. And avoid adverbs when bunting the clarinet!
No, you learn the errors you are prone to, and those are the ones you watch out for. All those other errors you don’t make? Just forget about them. Those mistakes were never part of your style to begin with.
Style? Where did that come from? It turns out that’s the other valuable thing that comes from doing it wrong. Some folks say you should study the styles of the masters: Babe Ruth, Benny Goodman, William Faulkner. While there’s nothing wrong with checking them out, the simple fact is that you’re not them. And more to point, they are not you. Their style might not work for your body, your brain, or your kind of story.
Instead, your unique path of errors and mistakes will set your style, because we all approach success from different directions. While some might see this as saying we all walk up with our own limps and stumbles, by the time we really know what we’re doing, those limps and stumbles have become stylish skips and dramatic rolls. These quirks might look odd and add nothing to our ultimate success, but they are part of what works for us, and they make us stand apart from all the Faulkner wannabe’s out there.
And finally, in rare cases, that thing we’re doing wrong turns out to be better than the” right way”. I point you to Dick Fosby, the failure who revolutionized the high jump. In high school, he could not clear the five-foot bar using the standard straddle method. He then attempted the upright scissors method, which made it look like he was having a seizure in mid-air. It was an improvement, but he still wasn’t doing well.
But then he started doing something wrong. He went over the high-jump bar backwards and landed on his back. This was completely inappropriate, and the only reason it was allowed at all was because the rules required the flexibility between the straddle and scissor methods. And yet, this quirky approach worked for Fosby. In fact, it worked so well, that he began winning competitions, and in 1968, he set a new Olympic record using what had become known as the “Fosby Flop.” Today, it is the standard high jump technique across the globe.
So, on the point of writing, feel free to do it wrong. Most of it will fail, but you’ll get better. Along the way, you’ll find your style, and you just might find something even better, a new way of doing things. Chances are you won’t find anything, but don’t avoid something quirky just because someone told you were doing it wrong. Storytelling is a big world. Who knows what’s out there?
Hell, you might even resurrect the prologue.