Getting It Wrong the First Time

In elementary school, all of my teachers seemed to have the same poster, detailing the Ten Rules of the Classroom. I only remember the first two: “Follow directions the first time given” and “Keep hands, feet, and objects to yourself”. Being the little nerd that I was, I was pretty good at following rules, but I always prided myself on that first one. I was damn good at following directions the first time given, mostly because I hated getting in trouble. I still am, and I still do.

Sixteen years of martial arts training has further taught me the importance of following directions, or more accurately, the value of precision and attention to detail. I frequently tell my students that an attention to detail is what separates an average martial artist from a great one. You need to know if that’s supposed to be a back punch or a thrust punch. You need to know how your weight should be distributed in a certain stance. You need to know what part of your foot you’re using to kick the imaginary bad guy in the face. These things matter. It’s the difference between an effective kick and broken toes.

Recently, I was given the opportunity to contribute a guest post to another website, the author of which I respect very much. I was thrilled and grateful. I labored over my article — writing, reading, rewriting, rereading — wanting, as I always do, to get it right the first time.

Eventually I was satisfied and sent it off. I was proud of what I had written and excited to share it with others. I got a response back a little while later with his feedback, and my heart sank a little.

I got it wrong.

I opened the email, and I winced as my eyes glossed over a few critical phrases. Nothing mean, of course, but what I had written wasn’t what he was looking for. I had missed the point, even though I didn’t quite understand how.

After a moment, I realized that the way I reacted to this criticism was crucial. I could have been argumentative. I could have been defensive. No one likes to be criticized, and I knew my piece was good.

But I also knew that taking this feedback graciously was the only way to get better. Not only would it make my article better, but it would make me a better writer. My piece was, for all intents and purposes, well-written. It just wasn’t what he was looking for. I hadn’t followed directions. And not intentionally, either.

I wrote back with some questions, explaining what I was struggling with and emphasizing that I wanted to try again. I wanted to get it right. He sent me back an additional explanation, and it completely elucidated what I had missed. Now, I understood. It felt good, as it always does, to struggle with something and have it finally click.

At the bottom of his email, he wrote something that surprised me. He thanked me for working with him on the article, and he said, “This is the work that writers do.”

That really stuck with me. It was a great lesson on working to deliver what the client wants, even if that means rewriting the entire thing, which I did. A lot of writing is rewriting. It was a valuable lesson in following directions. I’m grateful for the criticism and the experience. Sometimes getting it right the second time teaches us more than getting it right the first time. I ended up writing twice as much, but that’s a good thing. Writers write. The more the better.