Fail Better: Applying the Scientific Method to Writing

You are a terrible writer.

But that’s okay, because I’m a terrible writer too! We are all terrible! Yay!

No one pops out of the womb magically perfect at writing. At some point or another, we are terrible at it. What matters most is what we do about our terrible-ness.

May I humbly present:  The Scientific Method.

Back when I was still working towards my five eighths of a degree in marine biology, I dealt with the Scientific Method a lot. And, because I’m a huge dork, I adored it. Ah, it’s so structured! So organized! So logical!

The Scientific Method is a beautiful thing, one that I could wax poetically about all day long. I’ll be good though, and present to you here a condensed version, to be applied to your writing process.

Personally, using the Scientific Method as a guide really helps me get over writer’s block, and also helps me work past those pesky writin’ things that I’m terrible at (like dialogue. Stupid dialogue).

My favorite aspect of the Scientific Method? That it’s an entire process dedicated both to failure, and to learning from failure. I shall explain…

*A quick disclaimer:  When I say failing, I consider it to simply be not-succeeding. The term “fail” sounds harsh, but it’s not an ultimatum. One can turn failure into success, and that’s what this piece is going to be focusing on

**Also, this is my interpretation of the Method, and how I personally apply it to issues in my writing. I used Wikipedia as a reference for the basics, and then ran with it. Thanks Wikipedia!

Step 1:  Evaluate

Observe, define, and measure.


First things first, we have to determine where you’re at with your writing. Basically, are you actually failing at it? The answer is not necessarily yes. Writers are by nature perfectionists, and sometimes we just need to let a piece be finished.

If after some thought you’re still unhappy with your work, then consider:  What specific aspects of writing do you think you’re failing at? Is it word choice, pacing, structure, world building, etc. Pick one, that’s your going to be your focus.

Now that you’ve identified something that you’re failing at, how much are you failing at it? Is it just mildly annoying and you wish you were better, or is truly crippling your writing, making it unreadable? Getting a grip on just how much needs to be done is crucial.

I’ll use myself as an example.

Observation:  I am failing at writing dialogue.

Definition:  I am specifically failing at writing believable dialogue that matches my characters’ personalities.

Measurement:  This is a recurring issue throughout multiple pieces, and is bad enough that it pulls the reader out of the story.

Step 2:  Hypothesize


Theorize based on your evaluation.

Here, we’re going to use the If-Then hypothesis format.

Where I need to go, and what do I need to do to get there?

The where is the “if” and the what is the “then.” Egads, I feel like an Alice in Wonderland character just saying that.

The where is:  To what level do you want to improve on the issue? This is the difference between becoming passable, good, or excellent. While we should all strive for excellence in our writing, sometimes settling for good will achieve your goals just as well.

Once you have identified the where, what specific actions can you take to get there? This can be small as practicing and writing more, to as involved as taking a class on the needed skill. Different problems have different solutions, there is no one-size-fits-all method.

Here is my example theory based on my previous evaluation.

If I want to write good, believable dialogue that matches my characters, then I need to spend more time building my characters’ profiles so that I have a better foundation for their speech patterns.” Boom.

Step 3:  Plan


Make a plan based on your hypothesis

This is where instead of taking a step back, you go deep. Figure out all the nitty gritty details behind your hypothesis. Suss out the exact process you’re going to take going forward. Make a chart if you need to, that’s usually what I end up doing.

This step is highly individualized, there’s not much I can tell you about what to do. You know what the problem is, now you have to figure out how to fix it.

So, here’s what I did:  I figured out that what I needed to do was make more in-depth character profiles. I planned a template to fill out when I ran into issues writing a character’s dialogue. The template would have spaces for name, appearance, personality, and history. Depending on the story I could expand or simplify it, with columns for family ties, social ties, vocal tics, physical tics, likes, dislikes, etc. Very intense, very useful.

Whenever I felt like the dialogue I wrote wasn’t working, I would be able to reference the table and draw upon the information therein. Granted this is a very nerdy and time-intensive plan, but that’s where my instincts took me.

This is the spot where I was going to put in the example template so you could ooh and ahh over it, but I’m not good at HTML coding and don’t have the appropriate plugin, so use your imagination. Or Google “character chart,” whichever suits your fancy.

Step 4:  Experiment


Test out your plan

Everything that you just planned out? Go! Do it! Do it now!

Again, this is an individual step. I can’t tell you what to do, only what I did.

I built a large character chart for a story, and filled it out in excruciating detail. The process was long and laborious with tons of information that would never be directly referenced in the story, but was important to the character. Then I wrote the story, referencing and updating the table as needed.

Step 5:  Assess and Re-Evaluate


How’d it go?

Here’s where you look back at what you did and compare the outcome to your theory. Did you get where you needed to go?

If the answer is yes, congratulations! You did it! You improved upon a specific aspect of your writing in a tangible way! Woohoo!

If the answer is no, then…

Do it again.

Go back, do you need to re-evaluate the issue? Make a new hypothesis? Redo the plan? Did something unexpectedly go wrong mid-writing/mid-experiment?

This is the not-so-fun part of the Method, because what you hope will work may not the first time around. You have to try new things, and probably fail more before you find the best solution to your problem.

That labor intensive and highly detailed character chart, for example. I used them for two stories and that was it, I stopped making them. There wasn’t enough wiggle room in the chart; I spent hours filling it out, but then had to spend too much time going back and updating it over and over. The table became intrusive when writing, and eventually I abandoned it.

I am still in the process of improving my dialogue. Even though my first plan was a bit of a bust, I went back and made a new plan based on what I learned. I realized that no matter how detailed a chart I made, my characters’ voices were still stilted and uncomfortable to read. There was something else holding me back.

I’m currently in the midst of a completely different experiment, where I’m choosing to consume media pertinent to what I’m writing about, such as podcasts, television shows, music, etc. My dialogue is improving now, but I’m not yet where I want to be. That’s okay though, because it’s all part of the process of my Scientific Method.

There are two last thoughts I want to leave you with.

One is the importance of peer review. Sometimes when we’re too close to an issue, we can’t see it clearly. I have a poor, beleaguered friend who I regularly accost and have read my pieces mid-process. She is very patient and honest with me, which is extremely helpful. I highly recommend finding a friend or colleague to serve as your peer review.

The other thought is written below. Have fun writing and I’m sorry.

You’re never finished improving, haha! Perfection is an inherently subjective and unattainable goal that us writers will never stop striving for! We are all doomed! approval-female-gesture-hand-41373.jpeg


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