How to Overcome Self-Doubt as a Writer

Let’s face it – every one of us experiences self-doubt as an author, even the most well-established writers. Dean Koontz, for instance, an author who has sold more than 400 million books and is one of the most highly paid writers in the world, says “I have more self-doubt than any writer I know.”

And Alice Munro, the celebrated Canadian writer who’s been called our Chekhov, worries every time she finishes writing a book that she’ll never write again.

Let’s agree, then, that self-doubt is an ordinary part of every writer’s experience, even yours. You’ll never be without it. The question is, what can you learn from it?

Here are four reasons to appreciate your self-doubt.

1. Self-Doubt is a Protective Instinct

Self-doubt arises out of your own instinctive desire to protect yourself, which is actually a nice impulse that you probably don’t often acknowledge. We usually bemoan or bludgeon our self-doubt; we believe what writer Sylvia Plath famously claimed, that “the worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”

I beg to differ!

You can be more creative if you welcome and examine your self-doubts.

It’s true, though, that we writers allow our doubts to keep us away from our work. Why? To protect ourselves from pain. Author James Baldwin says we’re good at fooling ourselves because we don’t want to get hurt. “We don’t want to have our certainty disturbed,” he said.

Psychologists call this self-handicapping . If you stay away from your work you’ll never have to face the pain of writing poorly, or you can fool yourself into thinking you’ll be a great writer if you do get down to work.

The problem with that, though, is that you’ll never really be a writer. Baldwin believed that the trick is to know when you’re fooling yourself.

The best writers live an examined and therefore honest life, and that includes scrutinizing your self-doubt.

2. Self-Doubt Sounds an Alarm

Not unlike a smoke detector, self-doubt alerts us to the presence of fear, the typical cause of our doubts.

Thich Nhat Hanh, a well-known Buddhist teacher, advises us that because fear is a natural and constant presence in our lives, we’d do well to welcome it rather than fight it:

It is best not to say, “Go away, Fear. I don’t like you. You are not me.” It is much more effective to say, “Hello Fear. How are you today?”

The next time you feel self-doubt, don’t despair or fight – look around to see what might be smoldering; be grateful for the alarm.

3. Self-Doubt is a Call to Action

Dean Koontz is notorious for obsessively polishing his paragraphs. “I began this ceaseless polishing out of self-doubt,” says Koontz, “as a way of preventing self-doubt from turning into writer’s block: by doing something with the unsatisfactory page, I wasn’t just sitting there brooding about it.”

In Koontz’s case, feeling uncertain about his abilities actually motivated him to take an action he might otherwise not have pursued.

Similarly, Write-to-Done Chief Editor, Mary Jaksch, believes that a “healthy dose of self-doubt, of not knowing” can lead writers to the “edge of creativity” by not allowing us to stay complacent.

I learned this first-hand through kayaking. After more than twenty years of paddling, I finally took a safety class. I realized I’d avoided such a class because I was afraid I wouldn’t have the strength to learn the appropriate skills. But the longer I kayaked, the more my fears began to be about saving someone’s life. I knew I didn’t have the right skills to be safe and those doubts about my ability became my call to action. I took a safety course and before long I was happily flipping over in my boat, certain I had the skills to save myself from drowning.

4. Self-Doubt Provides Fresh Perspective

If you keep your doubts to yourself you’re missing a valuable opportunity. By sharing your doubts with friends and writing colleagues you’re bound to get a fresh perspective. Others often don’t see your failings or uncertainties in the same way you do.

By sharing your doubts you’ll likely learn something new about yourself, feel companioned, hear a helpful cheer, or receive a much-needed boost to your self-esteem.

James Baldwin, in discussing why he writes, says he does so to describe. What he means is that by describing something in detail you come to understand it intimately. Describe your doubts in writing, or through dialogue – either way, your new understanding can help disarm your doubts.

The next time self-doubt keeps you away from your writing, try this:

  • Review these four reasons to appreciate your doubts;
  • Say “Hello, self-doubt, how are you today”; and
  • Get to work.

What have you learned from your self-doubts?

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Joan Dempsey

Joan Dempsey helps serious creative writers master the craft of revision through free video training, monthly revision tips and tools, and online courses. Visit www.joandempsey.com to grab your free revision and self-editing resources.

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