Podoby’s Nerfect: Alexander Pope’s Advice for Writers
Why making mistakes is the only way you’ll ever improve
“To err is human; to forgive, divine.”
I’ve heard that phrase a few times, and while I get the gist—we all make mistakes from time to time—I honestly never really thought too much about it.
But once you dig a little deeper into the original source material, this innocent-seeming pillow stitch philosophy actually has a few truth bombs attached to it.
Because unlike most internet quote memes (I’m looking at you Lincoln, Einstein, and Twain), you can actually trace this quote back to the source—Alexander Pope’s epic three-part poem, “An Essay on Criticism” written all the way back in 1711.
And it’s a doozy.
Pope shares advice about the importance of taking risks as an artist, the value of making mistakes (and graciously overlooking the mistakes of other writers), and how failure can make you a better writer (and a more interesting person).
Because according to the late great Alexander Pope, it’s not just ok to “err” every once in a while—it’s absolutely essential if you want to become a better writer.
Mistakes mean that you’re trying
Alexander Pope loved mistakes. Not because he celebrated mediocrity—Pope was an accomplished poet and one of the earliest founders of English Romanticism—but because he knew that mistakes showed effort.
Basically, if you never screw up, you’re not really pushing yourself.
While this stance might not shock modern readers, ignoring grammar and stylistic rules in the service of more interesting stories was a pretty revolutionary idea in the early 18th century.
For Pope, making a mistake didn’t mean you were a bad writer. It just meant you were willing to take risks.
The intention was what mattered, not just putting all the commas and semicolons in all the right places:
In ev’ry work regard the writer’s end,
Since none can compass more than they intend;
And if the means be just, the conduct true,
Applause, in spite of trivial faults, is due.
Translation: Don’t sweat the small stuff. Mistakes happen, but the act of pushing yourself is more important than getting it right.
In fact, Pope goes on to say that he doesn’t even think there is such thing as perfection, at least not when it comes to writing:
Whoever thinks a faultless piece to see,
Thinks what ne’er was, nor is, nor e’er shall be.
And I don’t know about you, but that feels incredibly liberating.
You should make more mistakes
In it, she urges her readers to make better mistakes—from procrastinating or dating the wrong person to wasting time and eating at a sketchy restaurant—because they inevitably “turn into stories.”
When you make mistakes with the intent of discovery, each faux pas becomes an opportunity to push your limits, define your character, align your priorities, or just enjoy your damn life and the process of learning and growth with all of its flaws and faults.
You are not perfect. No one is. And that’s ok!
In fact, it’s the whole point.
Mistakes are how we learn
Jessica’s article and Alexander Pope’s poem remind me that avoiding mistakes at all cost doesn’t make you a better writer. It just robs you of the chance to learn something.
Or as Pope would say:
Trust not yourself; but your defects to know,
Make use of ev’ry friend — and ev’ry foe.
Failure is life’s greatest teacher. And while we all need encouragement from friends and family, it’s often the case that we learn the most from adversity.
The “mean” editor that returns your submission with pages of notes and edits is a lot more valuable than a friend who says they love your story but can’t tell you why.
Once you realize that failure is just a starting point, you’ll start creating a lot more terrible stuff.
Perfection is the enemy of success
There’s nothing wrong with the pursuit of perfection. We should all strive to be better today than we were yesterday.
The problem is when we let the fear of failure (or embarrassment) keep us from experimentation. Because new experiences—even epic failures—are kind of the whole point of being alive.
And according to Pope, there’s no point in focusing on the flaws:
Survey the whole, nor seek slight faults to find,
Where nature moves, and rapture warms the mind;
Nor lose, for that malignant dull delight,
The gen’rous pleasure to be charm’d with wit.
In wit, as nature, what affects our hearts
Is not th’ exactness of peculiar parts;
’Tis not a lip, or eye, we beauty call,
But the joint force and full result of all.
‘To err is human’
I hope that you made some mistakes today. I really do. Because mistakes show that you possess the humility and the courage to try to be better.
Honestly, there’s nothing worse than a know-it-all who’s never wrong. I think we can all point to someone in our lives (or a politician on tv) that never loses an argument or backs down. Heck, that’s something I struggle with all the time.
But it’s incredibly frustrating to be around someone that can’t admit when they made a mistake. Worse, it’s really sad. Because when you’re too proud to admit you’re wrong, you close yourself off to the transformative power of mistakes:
Of all the causes which conspire to blind
Man’s erring judgment, and misguide the mind,
What the weak head with strongest bias rules,
Is pride, the never-failing vice of fools.
You are going to make a lot of mistakes. Millions of them, probably. I know I have.
But I’m excited about what happens afterward because life isn’t about what you do when everything goes your way.
It’s about how you react when you mess it all up.
Shawn Forno is a freelance copywriter, content manager, travel writer, blogger, and recent poet with over fifteen years of experience. He loves to talk about himself in the third-person.