What I Learned From Feeling Like a Failure in School

My writing teacher was so hard on me, and I realized that perfectionism isn't always the answer.


I failed as a writer, but ultimately I got better. During college, I had this wonderful writing teacher who made sure we knew all the rules, and that we submitted meticulous writing pieces. She corrected our mistakes with passion. No errors were accepted, minor or not. She would get furious over a misplaced comma, or a sentence starting with “and.” She was an excellent writer herself — I’ll give her that. She knew all the rules and tips for good writing, and I wouldn’t be so ungrateful as to say I didn’t learn all that from her. But writing was never only about getting the rules right. Teaching writing is not an easy endeavor, and assessing papers can be tricky. I once read about a writing teacher who said how challenging it was to grade her students for writing because they don’t have the same background, personalities, etc. I agree it can be really difficult, because no one knows the challenges some students go through.

Before I started my writing course, I would write long pieces — not-so-great pieces that were full of grammatical mistakes, but I would write. After meeting my teacher, I suffered from writer’s block. I knew all the rules, but I couldn’t write. I would think twice before putting pen to paper. I became so conscious about what I was writing. I was so scared of making mistakes. Somehow, my teacher, unintentionally I am sure, has nurtured a voice that “overedited” all my thoughts before they came to life. I suffered from this problem for years after meeting her. I wasn’t happy. It was as if someone always stopped me before I put words on paper. Eventually, I learnt that it takes a lot of courage to write, and being fearful of making mistakes kills all your creative thoughts.

I’m not saying that she harmed all of us with her meticulous or perfectionist approach. I’m just saying that her methods were not suitable for me as an insecure and unconfident student. As I’m writing this now, I’m still thinking about all the mistakes I could be making: confusing tenses, misplacing commas, or many others. But I know now that writing is more than just a piece free from language mistakes. Writing is about finding your voice and expressing yourself. Language is just a medium. Being a perfectionist as a writer can do more damage than good. There’s more to good writing than following the rules.

After I met my teacher, I’ve always made the mistake of editing myself while writing or the horrible mistake of editing my thoughts. Years afterwards, I learnt that editing thoughts before writing is a tried and tested technique for losing any wonderful ideas I may have. I’ve also realized that painting the house is important, but the groundwork has to come first. I’m not underestimating the power of editing. Writing and editing are both equally important. I’ve repeatedly told myself, don’t run before you can walk, and don’t stress over the rules. You’ll eventually learn the rules as you write. It’s true I’ve learnt more about writing through years of practice.  I’ve done my fair share of practice during college, but I’ve written more afterwards.   

I’ve never claimed to be a good writer, but I’m trying to be. Writing is about putting a piece of yourself out there and fearing rejection. Rejection becomes fiercer if you lack the self-confidence needed to continue. My younger self took my teacher’s fierce reactions to my mistakes personally. I remember I felt there was nothing I could do to make my writing better, or that maybe I wasn’t a writer. I was deeply wounded because I took my writing personally. It was the only thing I believed I can do, and suddenly I was told “no.” I felt defeated with every new essay I submitted for her review. My teacher wasn’t a monster. She was a lovely person. She just harshly edited our work with all the best intentions in the world. She wanted to create good writers.

Luckily, I have not stopped writing. Over the years, building my confidence has made me a better writer. I still have the essays I wrote during college, and I look at them with a big smile on my face because they tell me how much I’ve improved. I’m here to say from experience that harshly editing the work of your students is not a good idea. Sometimes, nurturing their confidence is simply better than teaching them the rules. There is a thin line between giving constructive feedback and shaking a student’s confidence. I advise teachers to consider the differences between students when they teach writing. What works for one student may not work for another. Not all of them are the same. You may think lightly of your feedback, but it could make or break a student. It’s better to have a voice even if it’s not the most grammatically correct one, than to have no voice at all.

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