What Am I Doing Wrong? Maybe It’s Answering That Question.

When something doesn’t work out the way we’d hoped it would, or even the way it worked before that didn’t seem to be too bad, there’s one question we immediately ask ourselves: “What am I doing wrong?” It’s pretty much human nature, after all: we remember the bad things and try to fix them.

There are problems with this, of course. First off, just because we ask “What am I doing wrong?” doesn’t mean that the answer will be useful. For one thing, we might not even accept the answer: there’s a tendency among most people to get defensive when hearing negative criticism, take it as a personal attack, or at the very least assume that the person giving the information is misunderstanding the situation somewhere. I know this one for a fact; I’ve done it during one on one critique sessions. This means that it’s likelier to be dismissed, reinterpreted as something lesser, or otherwise changed before being implemented. Not good for a fix, now, is that?

Now, let’s assume that you’ve asked “What am I doing wrong?”, and the answer was something that you didn’t try to dismiss out of hand. So far, so good. But then you hit the next problem: sure, you know what not to do, but what are you supposed to do instead? There are so many options out there; how do you pick just one? At this point, it’s easier just to keep doing what you’ve been doing, and just try to mitigate the effects of that one particular mistake, or to start blundering your way through whatever alternatives you can think of, hoping they aren’t going to be worse.

And meanwhile, focusing only on what you’re doing wrong can be downright discouraging. Even when they’re not trying, people have a tendency to find flaws in things—and if you’re making an effort to find flaws in your work, it’s pretty likely you’ll succeed beyond your wildest expectations. And as the flaws show up, the magnitude of the project seems greater and greater, further decreasing the likelihood that it will be anywhere near successful without more effort than it’s really worth.

So what’s the alternative? In addition to (or possibly even instead of) focusing on what you’re doing wrong, look at what you’re doing right. Find your successes, regardless of how much work it takes to locate them; then acknowledge them, and emulate them. If such and such a character worked well, try to isolate which elements of said character were a success, and apply those somewhere else; if a certain plot worked, try to match the pacing, or create parallels to some of the complications. Do your best to isolate what the contributing factors are: it might be that such and such a character carries success wherever she goes, but it might also be that that one plotline worked because you took a certain suggestion from one of your players, or this scene was a success because you’d either planned it ahead when you usually don’t or gone with the flow when you usually work from an outline. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, but don’t be surprised if it doesn’t work quite as well; your players are just as likely to be better at seeing bad things than good things as you are.

I don’t know about you, but I’m likelier to love a massively flawed game with decently frequent high points than a game that’s rarely truly bad but has trouble rising above mediocre.

So ask yourself, “What am I doing right?” What you’ve done before, it’s that much easier to do again.


  1. Brickwall says:

    It’s really fun when you go in for a critique and “What am I doing wrong” and “What am I doing right” have the same answers. And by ‘fun’ I mean ‘impossible’.

  2. Shakespeare says:

    I like asking, “What do I LOVE about this, and how can I do it better?”

    The hard part is often figuring out which part of an event or chapter needs tweaking. If I think something needs to go, I paste it on another document and see how everything works without it.

    I also sleep on it. Very often I wake up with a solution.

  3. Ravyn says:

    Brick: If they’ve got the same answer, then I’d say the next question is what about whatever you’re doing right/wrong makes it so right and wrong. It takes a lot to create something that can’t be tweaked.

    Shakespeare: Long time no see! Yeah, that’s a tricky one. I don’t need to worry about that quite as much, since my primary format doesn’t really allow for editing once it’s finalized; I’m likelier to have trouble getting up the nerve to try something after [X similar thing] failed.

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