“Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.” -William Shakespeare
As a writer, there might be many things holding you back from setting pen to paper (or fingers to keys, in most cases). Even Shakespeare, one of the world’s greatest writers ever, had doubts about his work. Despite our desire to write a best-selling novel, a book of poetry, or an award-winning short story, somehow it never gets done. Maybe it’s a motivation issue or time constraints. Adulting is hard, and with careers, family, friends, and other responsibilities, we can tend to put our dreams on hold.
All of these things are true for me as well. Even though I work as a freelance writer, I still have personal creative writing dreams. Some I’ve met: I’ve published two books of poetry, standalone poems, and short stories in many publications, but the one dream I’m still chasing is being a novelist.
As someone who has always written poetry and shorter works like stories (and novelettes as a teenager), I’ve never written a full-length novel. And that’s been my dream since I was a teenager, to walk into a bookstore and see my YA novel front and center on a visually stunning display.
But all these years later, I still haven’t published a novel. While I chased down my other writing dreams and had some success, why haven’t I written a novel?
I have two words for you: self-doubt.
As a writer, you’ve probably felt the same thing when writing or getting ready to submit your latest polished piece for publication. You might compare yourself to other authors, and feel you fall short (I know I do!). It’s normal for all of us to feel that way, especially when we’re first starting out.
But as writers, we can’t do that to ourselves. To loosely quote Maya Angelou, there is nothing worse than harboring an untold story inside of you. We want to write, but our self-doubt is crippling. So how do we overcome our own self-doubt to keep pushing and get our work out there?
Here are some tips that have helped me try to overcome my self-doubt, and I hope they will help you too. Because that story inside of you deserves to be born, and the world needs to hear you tell it in your own voice.
“I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.” —William Blake
Comparison will smother your motivation like flour on a grease fire. Every writer is different. We all have our own separate journeys. So a teenage writer just got a book deal with Tor Publishing and you’re a thirty-something who hasn’t published a word. So what?? That’s ok! We all will have success in our own way, and in our own time if we work at it. Trust the journey, and take your own time. You’ll get there, I promise.
With that being said, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t study other writers, or draw comparisons between your writing style and someone else’s (but in a positive way). Studying a writer’s work and learning from it is different from feeling less than because another writer has been more successful than you.
“I want to be around people that dream and support and do things.” —Amy Poehler
To help keep your self-doubt to a minimum, find someone who will be a positive influence. Having someone in your corner rooting for you will help inspire and motivate you to keep writing when you’re feeling down on yourself. Who lifts you up, who is the wind beneath your wings? That’s your person.
“I seek strength, not to be greater than other, but to fight my greatest enemy, the doubts within myself” ―P.C. Cast
Knowing your own strengths and weaknesses as a writer will help you silence that inner critic, even if that voice is screaming instead of whispering. Reminding yourself of your strengths will help keep your self-doubt to a minimum.
For instance, my imposter syndrome is screaming in my face when I sit down to work on my novel. But if someone asks me for advice on how to get their poem published in a literary journal, for example, I feel confident to help them because I’ve succeeded in that area. This helps with my self-doubt, because it reminds me I’ve done something well as a writer, and I’m not completely incompetent.
Just because you’re a newbie writer doesn’t mean you don’t have the authority to write. Keep working at something, and before long, you’ll have the confidence to say you’re an expert at it.
Even after publishing eleven poetry books and winning multiple writing awards, Maya Angelou even doubted herself. I know, hard to believe right??
“Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember one rule of thumb: the more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.”
You know the old saying: you have to face your fears to overcome them. Your self-doubt is the same way. It won’t disappear overnight (or ever), so facing it is the only way to deal with it. If you’re feeling overwhelmed with the scope of writing a whole novel, for example, break it down into smaller goals. One step at a time, right?
The important thing is to just keep writing, no matter how much you doubt yourself. Writing every day will help you focus on your passion instead of your fears. Write for yourself, first and foremost. Imagine no one else will ever read what you’re writing and just let it flow. You’ll be surprised at what comes out if you have no fear of anyone judging it.
“There is no end to education. It is not that you read a book, pass an examination, and finish with education. The whole of life, from the moment you are born to the moment you die, is a process of learning.” – Jiddu Krishnamurti
One of the first things I was told in my teaching courses was that teachers can never stop learning. We must always push for higher knowledge in order to impart it to our students.
But this lesson is for everyone, especially writers. If you’re feeling self-doubt as a writer because you don’t have an MFA in creative writing degree, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write. Study your favorite authors and read books on writing, editing, how to write better dialogue, etc. You can even study movies and shows to improve your craft.
Even your favorite celebrity authors had to start somewhere, and they weren’t experts when they started out. Keep that in mind the next time you fall victim to self-deprecating inner dialogue.
“If I waited for perfection… I would never write a word.”— Margaret Atwood
I think we as writers beat ourselves up because not everything we write is worthy of a Pulitzer. It’s not all going to be great, and that’s ok!
You can’t edit a blank page.
I think this is some of the best advice ever! The more you write, the better you get as both a writer and an editor.
I was talking to a writer friend of mine, stressed out because I was worried my first few chapters had too much dialogue and not enough descriptive detail.
My friend’s advice: write, write, write, and worry about the rest in the editing stage! These words have changed the way I feel about writing my novel now, truly. Worry about those details later.
Just remember, even the most celebrated authors like Stephen King feel self-doubt. It’s a part of the writing process for most authors, sadly.
“I think self-doubt, as grim as it can be, makes me a better writer. Stasis and hubris would probably be the death knell for my career." ―Kristan Higgins
But if not for self-doubt, we might not push ourselves as hard. Keep writing, keep pushing, and get the story out. You’ve got this.
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