5 Ways for Writers to Blast Through Self-Doubt

overcome self-doubt Most folks go about their lives without worrying about the judgement of others.

Sure, there might be the occasional performance review at work, and your future in-laws may look you up and down but, for the most part, you get to be your own judge and jury.

Except, of course, if you’re a writer.

In our world, editors, agents, book reviewers and Amazon commenters all get their turn to praise or bury you.  Critique group colleagues pick our work apart.  And readers have the final say, by buying – or ignoring – our books. We live with the awareness that no matter how much we protest that we write only for ourselves, we are dependent upon the whims and opinions of others to make our way.

No wonder so many of us are emotional wrecks.

If doubt and fear are holding you back, it’s time to take a fresh look at how you’re doing things.  And it’s time to shed these burdens once and for all. Having worked with thousands of writers over the past 23 years, I’ve identified five ways that writers can overcome self-doubt and move ahead with confidence and joy.

1. Be a Writer, Not an Author.

I’ve always tried to make a distinction between “writer” and “author”. The first implies a desire to pursue an activity.  The second implies a desire to have others sanction that activity by disseminating one’s work. There’s nothing wrong with thinking of oneself as an author, of course. But it’s often useful to revert to the former in order to gain perspective and overcome self-doubt.

Write for yourself.  Write because it’s fun. Write because it’s an area of your life you can control utterly and completely.  Don’t judge your writing, and don’t ask others to judge it for you.  Don’t worry whether anyone else will ever see what you write.

Just be a writer.

And then, when writing becomes a simple and joyful part of your every day existence, you can start thinking about being an author.  Or not. Your choice. But as long as you feel fulfilled by what you’ve written, the opinions of others should ultimately mean little.

2.  Ignore the Haters

I’ll admit it:  I want to be liked.  I wish I could brush off criticism or rudeness, but that’s not something that comes naturally to me.  Twenty lovely compliments can easily be overshadowed by one nasty e-mail.

To help thicken my skin, I searched the web and found an utterly brilliant piece by Tim Ferris, author of The 4 Hour Workweek.  It’s called Practical Tactics for Dealing with Haters and it needs to be required reading for anyone with a sensitive soul.

I won’t rehash the entire piece, but I’ll discuss two of Ferris’s main points:

Trying to get everyone to like you is a sign of mediocrity.

Man, that one hit home.  But it’s true.  Watering everything down for fear of being criticized is a certain method for generating pablum.  Look at your bookshelf, your CD collection, the art on your walls. How many of the works that you consider to be truly great were made by men and women who were thought to be “difficult”?  How many were created by folks who courted controversy and didn’t back down?

As I stare at my CDs and look at the names:  Miles Davis…Bob Dylan…Billie Holliday…Lou Reed…Mozart…The Sex Pistols, the answer becomes clear.

We aren’t writing to make friends.  We’re writing to create something meaningful and important.  And we shouldn’t confuse the two.

And that’s because…

It doesn’t matter how many people don’t get it. What matters is how many people do.

Bin-go.

A couple of lines back I mentioned The Sex Pistols.  Now I happen to think they created the greatest rock & roll album of all time. Statistically speaking, you probably disagree.  Strongly.  But you know what? It doesn’t matter.

The Sex Pistols didn’t make that album for you.  They made it for the relatively small number of people who would be enthralled by the music, and who would go on to lead lives impacted by what they heard. Everyone else?  Irrelevant.

One of rock’s oldest cliches is about the first Velvet Underground record.  It goes like this: “Only 5,000 people bought it. And every one of them went on to form a band.”

That’s what it’s about.  Really moving some readers, even if their numbers are few.  If other people don’t get it, fine.  Listen to those who do.  Those are your people.

For more on dealing with feedback, both positive and negative, check out this excellent piece: Five Steps Towards Making Peace with Criticism

3. The Pimple Rule

I named this after the best advice I received as a spotty teenager – “No one cares about your pimples because they’re too busy worrying about their own.”

It’s so true in every aspect of life.  We think that people are out there ready to pounce when, in reality, they’re more terrified of being pounced upon.

We’ve met some big-time writers who tell us that even as they prepare to publish their fiftieth book or collect another prize, they still have a voice inside that wonders when everyone will catch on to the fact that they’re frauds.  Yep, that little nagging “you don’t deserve it” voice never goes away, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

If you view the outside world as a place filled with vultures ready to swoop down and pick at your bones, it’s time to rethink things.  The truth is this – all those scary would-be haters are too busy scanning the skies for vultures of their own to bother with you.

Along those lines, here’s a really cool post that can help turn your inner fears into creative gold: Why Feeling Like a Failure Boosts Creativity.

 4. Attain Non-Attachment by Being Prolific.

The Buddha was sure on to something.  Attachment is truly a dangerous thing.  Especially for writers.

The late Spaulding Gray referred to his unfinished manuscript as a “monster in a box”.  It had taken on a life of its own.  He became so attached to it — and so fearful of letting others see it and critique it — that it all but shut down his creative life.

We see this syndrome all the time.  Writers work for months and years on a piece that holds great personal meaning to them.  They eschew all other projects to focus solely on their own “monster in a box”.  And then they never let anyone see it.  And then they’re done as writers.

Listen, if you pour your heart and all your time into one piece of writing, of course you’ll live in  mortal fear of it not being “good” or of someone being critical.  That’s a recipe for creative inertia.

Falling in love with a manuscript is a bad, bad idea.  We have to remove our ego from the process.  As a first step, the best way to do that is to split our ego up into tiny little pieces, by having scores of writing projects rather than one big one.

Write about subjects that have little emotional relevance to you. Write magazine pieces.  Write a column for your local paper.  Blog. Start a journal.  The possibilities are limitless.  And if someone doesn’t like one piece you wrote, big deal.  You’ve got 20 more things out there getting positive attention.

5. Protect (and ultimately subvert) Your Self-Image By Writing in Unfamiliar Genres

One last visit with the Buddha before we part.  This time, it’s about shattering your self-image to free you of fear.

If I strut around declaring myself a “sci-fi author”, of course I’ll be crushed if my sci-fi manuscript meets with rejection or poor reviews.  It makes sense – my very being is defined as something  other people seem to think I’m not especially good at!

The long-term solution is not to maintain a self image as this or that.  Just be a writer.  That’s easier said than done, of course.

So as a starting point I suggest that, as part of their new prolific outlook, writers ply their craft in genres that are new and unfamiliar to them.  Someone doesn’t care for my historical fiction story? Big deal.  I’m a “sci-fi writer”, remember?  Your ego and self-image are taken out of play when you look beyond your comfort zone.

Of course, far more likely is that some people will like my historical fiction novel. Then my self-image expands.  Then someone enjoys my romance story, and it expands some more.  Ultimately, it expands so far that it pops.

And then I’m just a writer.

So, how do you deal with fear and self-doubt?  I’d like to hear your thoughts!

 

About the author:

Jon Bard writes about craft, publishing and marketing for writers at The CBI Clubhouse.  To download a copy of his new free eBook that details the current hot trends and opportunities for children’s & YA writers,  click here.

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44 Responses to “5 Ways for Writers to Blast Through Self-Doubt”

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  1. Dolly P says:

    I write short news pieces. They’re good for practising. If I make each of the first 25 words count, the piece will undoubtedly be published and the readers will go to town with critical comment. This can be good fun as the most damning critiques are, generally, riddled with grammatical inaccuracies.

  2. Yes, we all have the fear of being bashed but I think it’s also helps us write better. And at times, haters might point something out we really need to improve on.

    I wrote a guest post on Oni’s blog on the same topic but from a different perspective a little while ago:
    http://www.youngprepro.com/secret-of-high-earning-freelance-writers/ but focusing mainly on freelance writers
    Ali | Writers Blog recently posted..15 Tips for Writing Mega-Hit Blog PostsMy Profile

  3. Hi Jon,

    I really enjoyed this post, especially point 4 about having more than one project out there. I’ve never thought of the situation quite like that, but it’s so true. Thanks!

    By the way, the links in this post seem to be broken.

    Jessica
    Jessica Baverstock recently posted..Making Orange Juice From Life’s LemonsMy Profile

  4. Gisele LeBlanc says:

    Hi Jon,

    Also wanted to say that I thoroughly enjoyed this post. Great, great advice! I also noticed that as was mentioned in the previous comment, none of the links seem to be working.

  5. Liz says:

    Hi Jon,

    I like your distinction between writer and author. I never really thought of it in those terms, but that’s a great start to overcoming doubt.

    I also like #3 which I think you can apply to many things in life, self esteem is one. We worry so much about what others are thinking when in fact, people are more worried about themselves. That’s one thing I always keep in mind :-)

    Good post!
    Liz
    Liz recently posted..Blog Post Checklist for Publishing and SharingMy Profile

  6. CLJ says:

    This is pure gold to me and it could not have come at a better time. I also plan to go see all the material you have linked.
    CLJ recently posted..Insomnia: The Next DayMy Profile

  7. Great post, Jon.

    Blogging helps me fill my desk with many ideas I want to write about. Reading takes me to different worlds where I enjoy what others have written and at the same time become inspired to write about one of those worlds.

    I have a few “monsters” but I have taken one of them out of the box to work on concurrently with other projects.
    Writing in another genre is a great idea.

    Self-doubt can also be dismissed when you have at least one good hour at the keyboard. THANKS!
    Beth@Boomer Highway
    Beth @ Boomer Highway (twitter) recently posted..Self-Discipline Can Be the Key to HappinessMy Profile

  8. Doug says:

    This was a really thought provoking entry. I liked it very much especially #3, The Pimple Rule. We sometimes forget others have their own vultures to dodge.
    Doug recently posted..What Writing Path Are You On?My Profile

  9. S.C. says:

    This is a serendipitous piece. Great advice, thank you for posting it. I know I’m not alone in my feelings, but it’s great to read extra tips on growing a thicker skin and getting on with it.

  10. Angela Young says:

    Great advice! #3 especially struck me :) Angie

  11. Jevon says:

    Great points Jon. The Ignore the Haters is how I deal with my self-doubt because I understand it’s not possible to write something that everyone would love. But I also use constructive criticism to improve the strength of my writing.

    I never thought about the Pimple Rule, and its definitely hard for me not to get attached to my work since I’m really into the stories I write.

    The Writing Unfamiliar Genres rule is an interesting one, but I don’t think I’ll be writing romance anytime soon.
    Jevon recently posted..Great Regular Places to ThinkMy Profile

  12. Heidi says:

    This is one of the most helpful articles I’ve read. Thank you so much!!! I remind myself that my writing is art. And art means nothing if it’s loved by everyone!

  13. Ron says:

    Life is full of those serendipitous times when you read, see, or hear something that is just right for the moment and mood. This is one…

    Thanks

  14. Jon says:

    Hi all, Jon Bard here.

    Glad you’re enjoying the post! I love writing and talking about the mental side of writing – it’s endlessly fascinating. I’m looking forward to reading how some of you deal with these issues in your own unique way.

  15. Having a down day (not even about writing), so this was a good article for me to read. Thanks for sharing it, Jon.

  16. Irene Roth says:

    Hi Jon,

    I love your post! It about a topic that I am very passionate about.

    We all have doubts and fears as writers. And I absolutely LOVE your tips.

    Thanks so much for sharing!
    Irene S. Roth
    Author and Editor
    Irene Roth recently posted..Balancing Full Time Work AND WritingMy Profile

  17. Jon says:

    Thanks Irene & Evelyn. Sounds like this post hits lots of folks at just the right moment! :)

  18. B.D. Knight says:

    This was a good article. I’m getting ready to read the piece Dealing with Haters but had to comment on this first. I have a number of books on the Kindle under a couple pen names and the reviews are decent. Some give 5 stars, some 3 – 4 stars, a couple 2 star and yet I got irritated at the couple 1 star reviews. Then one comment from a user actually bashed the 1 stars. This article is a big help.

    I’ve also found my sales didn’t go down and sometimes increased with a 1 star review. Possibly some now do as I do. I read the free preview and decide from that if I want to buy the book.
    B.D. Knight recently posted..Real ScaryMy Profile

  19. Jean Grow says:

    Jon, I enjoyed your blog. Number 5 really meant something to me; diversify what you write. Don’t just get stuck on one genre. Thanks for sharing this with us and letting us know about WTD.

  20. Lois says:

    So I tried to go to the links you posted about criticism, etc.; told me page not found. What’s up with that?

    • Dan says:

      Hello Lois,

      I had the same problem with the links contained in the email, but the links in the post above seems to work.

  21. Glori Surban says:

    Wow. Can I just say that was one of the best blogs I’ve seen in a long time?

    I guess the reason why it really hit home with me is because I’ve been doubting myself lately. I keep planning on going a guest blogging spree but, I think, at the back of my mind I’ve been so afraid of being rejected by big-time bloggers.

    Thank you so much for this Jon! It’s something to treasure!
    Glori Surban recently posted..15 Insanely Effective Ways Freelance Writers Can Beat Writer’s BlockMy Profile

  22. Jack Dowden says:

    All of these are excellent points. However, I’d like to disagree with your first sentence. To me, it seems people go about their lives extensively worrying about what others think. It affects how we dress, stand, talk, socialize. Of course, that’s a whole lotta psychological stuff that makes my head spin.

    Personally, I use a success journal to remind me of my VICTORIES! Also, if I ever do feel down about what I’m writing, I pull up some old reviews for pieces I wrote years ago. My writing wasn’t very good, but people enjoyed the story and wanted more. I just read those and think, “I can do better.”
    Jack Dowden recently posted..Week 18: The Three Elements of CharacterMy Profile

  23. Archan Mehta says:

    Thank you for contributing this guest article on this terrific blog: I really enjoyed reading it.

    Writers are a work-in-progress. Writing is experiential learning, that is, learning by doing. That’s why you don’t need formal education to be a writer. There is creeping credentialism everywhere these days, which is why some of the greatest writers dropped out of school and decided to take a hike in the woods or ride on a slow boat to exotic lands. Remember: the author of Moby Dick, Herman Melville? I rest my case.

    When you are enlightened, you tend to look at your work objectively, that is, with spiritual detachment. Praise and criticism are imposters and they should not hold the fort. You need to scamper away into another kingdom, an abode where nobility resides. That nobility views success and failure as fake. What matters, in the final analyis, is to stay engaged with the process. That process is flow of consciousness, awareness.

    Critics are your friends and so are those who praise you….provided they have something significant to say that enables you to grow from your mistakes. Here, learning is key, so stay away from the haters and also those who massage your ego, the flatterers. Don’t listen to those who poison your ears nor to those whose tongues are laced with honey. Honey is bad news, because there are probably killer bees close at hand.

    Finally, writing is a creative enterprise. Creativity=create + activity. So, don’t be afraid to pursue lots of activities. Be resourceful and be resilient and be versatile in your choices.Most writers were bored to death, which is why they started to follow their muse. Your muse knows best where to lead you so follow your muse.
    Curiosity has its own reason for existing, so don’t worry about your book publication. Just write, that’s all.

    Cheerio.

  24. Just plain thanks. ,Very helpful.

  25. julie wright says:

    this is a great post! Thanks for sharing it. It’s a nice reminder for my own writing

  26. Violet says:

    That is right. I’ve been wanting to write a short story about fantasy but I’m stuk on just the names of characters. I proceeded with the plot but I keep changing it, I don’t know if I’ll end up writing but I really wanted to submit it as a christmas story. But the way I just play the words in my thoughts makes me smile. Perhaps if I follow your advice just be a writer not think about where I’ll land the story in whatever contest.

  27. Julia says:

    Great post! Too useful for me.Thanks.

  28. Candi Sary says:

    Thank you. This really spoke to me.

  29. David Ball says:

    Thanks for the great post. Sometimes self-doubt makes it impossible for me to decide between infinite dramatic options, and I can’t get any long-form piece across the finish line. When this happens, I find that working on smaller pieces, and following through to completion, helps tell my brain that I actually can do this.
    David Ball recently posted..Want Great Customer Success Stories? Think Like a ScreenwriterMy Profile