How to Overcome Self-Doubt as a Writer

    self-doubt as an author - man thinking

    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?

    About the author

      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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      really excellent, regards for your efforts.

    • Thank you so much for this post, Joan.

      I’m frequently plagued by self-doubt and anxiety when facing my writing and have found those feelings have too often lead me into flight instead of fight. As days, weeks, and months accumulate but progress proceeds at snails pace if at all, the self-doubt, anxiety, regret, and guilt accumulate too. The vicious circle makes it harder and harder to begin.

      The key, as you’ve mentioned, is to take action based on those fears and insecurities. Use them as a tool to discover where focus is needed and work to “fix” the work, rather than the doubt.

      Speaking of which, time to stop reading and get back to writing. 🙂

      • So glad you got something out of this Rebecca! And I LOVE that you ended your comment with getting back to your work instead of procrastinating with reading (which is oh-so-easy to do). 🙂 Happy writing to you, and take good care of your doubts.

    • Susan says:

      I very much enjoyed your article. Self-doubt is human. I am just trying not to listen to it in a bad way. If I did, writer’s block would set in. I want to learn from it and let my writing grow. Thanks.

      • Great, Susan! Learning from it is definitely the way to go and listening with an open heart and mind can sure help. Here’s to blocking writer’s block. 🙂

    • samuel maina says:

      I thoroughly enjoyed your article particularly ‘cognitive re-framing’.Keep up!

    • Steven H says:

      At a Barnes and Noble I met one of my favorite fiction authors (Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud Incredibly Close) and he said that 99% of the time he has doubt about how all the pieces of his novel are going to fit together, but he just persists through, and the 1% of “Eureka moments” makes it all come together.

      Sometimes persistence is key, and the doubt will figure itself out as time goes on.

      Good post!

      • Hi Steven, thanks. Such interesting timing to hear what Safran Foer has to say – I’ve just put the (almost) finishing touches on my novel and spent a good part of today just “persisting through” and am confident I’ll have a Eureka moment for the final chapter because of that persistence. Thanks so much for sharing – in creativity comes more creativity!

    • I am an expert in self-doubt with years of experience across multiple mediums. As a Broadway actress/singer-turned-writer I could swap out the word “write” anywhere in the above (wonderful) post and replace it with “act” or “sing” to similar effect.
      I love your five re-framing questions, Joan. I find that dealing with doubt is an ongoing practice, something to be questioned or re-framed each time it comes up. I still wish I could “cure” or “fix” it once and for all, but this post reminds me that self-doubt carries a few gifts. It certainly pushes me to try harder, to go deeper, and to have compassion for every other artist who is undoubtedly dealing with doubt of his own.

      • I hear you, Sandra, about sometimes wishing you could “cure” or “fix” your doubts once and for all, but we know it will always arise again, although hopefully it will be easier and easier to deal with each time.

        I imagine with your experience you’ve found that it does get easier with practice?

    • Niels says:

      Reason 5: Self doubt points out your weaknesses, and lets you act.

      Of course I have doubts myself, just as everybody else. But if you analyze the doubts you face, I experienced most of the time there is a reason to learn underneath.

      I love Perry’s approach by facing his doubt, act and get better at it. I think this is the main reason for self doubt. It motivates you to improve yourself.

      Letting doubt ruin your dreams, means in my opinion you do not care enough, and in this case it is not as bad as it looks to let go of a “dream”.

      • Thanks for #5, Niels.

        I completely agree that by analyzing your doubts you can learn about the underlying reason for that doubt.

        In the e-book I wrote about this (free at http://literaryliving.com) there’s a chapter called “Cognitive Reframing” and it’s all about getting to that underlying reason in order to disarm that particular doubt. In this chapter, in addition to describing the cycle we go through to avoid the pain of our doubts, I suggest that you ask the following 5 questions in order to better understand where our doubt comes from:

        1. Is this belief really true?
        2. Is it true for me now, in the present moment?
        3. Where does this belief originate?
        4. Do I still believe it just because I learned it at one time?
        5. Would I be better off without it?

        Often by taking the time to really dig into the answers to these questions you can uncover the reason for your self-doubts and then it usually becomes easier to live with them.

    • Issa says:

      Is this something like trusting your gut instincts when it comes to freelance writing? Well, I’m doing that 100% of the time and I’m so thankful it saved me from predators out there who want to get your blood and sweat work for free and get away with it. Self doubt has always challenged me to update my writing skills as I don’t have anyone who mentors me right now .. and I’m lucky to have Google as my best friend. I think what you wrote here makes perfect sense.

      • Trusting the gut is now called “emotional intelligence” – scientists have basically discovered that our “gut” reactions are nearly always the correct ones and we should heed them whether we can verbalize what they’re telling us or not. So yes, the gut has a lot to do with how we react to self-doubt. That, and Google, of course. 🙂

    • Hi Joan!

      Thank you for this positive article on self-doubt. I love the glass is half full approach. You made me realize with this post that my biggest self-doubt is “what if I do all this work and I fail”? As many of us try to create a successful blog/website I think we are often afraid to pour our hearts into it completely in case it never amounts to anything. Like your kayak example I think the best way to overcome this self-doubt is to read great articles like this. As I read about other peopl struggles and fears, I realize more that it’s part of the journey.

      Leah

      • Hi Leah, and thanks for your comment. That fear of failure is very real, isn’t it? If we enjoy the journey and learn along the way then all of our eggs aren’t the destination-basket.

        Another thing that motivates me to keep taking risks is to consider people I know and observe who allow self-doubt and fear to keep them “safe”. I find it sad when people limit themselves from trying new things because they are afraid; they never seem terribly fulfilled and I always think they’ll have regrets in later years.

        “A ship in a harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.”

        • Marci says:

          I love the quote about the ship. Another of my favorites is “life is a journey, not a destination.”

          I can relate to your not wanting to work and fail too Leah. My biggest pet peeve is wasting my time. Since there are no sure things, it helps me to remember that writing is always good for me and my growth even if it’s not directly successful in bringing me abundance (as the world measures it in fame and riches).

          • How we measure abundance is an interesting piece of what factors into our fears about failure and success. If we always focus on the “successful” destination we miss the abundance of the journey, don’t we? And if our own measure of abundance is fame and riches then we’re all the poorer for it. Thanks for the thoguhts, Marci.

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    • Marci says:

      It is reassuring to know all writers have doubts. Some face doubt and run. Others lean into the doubt. What do you think makes some run and some lean?

      Although I may want to run, I almost always lean into what stands in my way. I like to think it’s confidence, but I know it’s also who my family groomed me to be. I may sink before I swim, but I always get back in the pool.

      • Hi Marci,

        It’s an excellent question about who faces doubt and who runs and of course the answer is complex and unique to each individual. Some of it’s our personality type, some is nurturing from our families, some is life experience, some is cultural, gender-based . . . the list goes on.

        I believe each person can discover for him or herself the answer to that question and, in the discovery, begin to understand better who he or she is and how to learn how to live with self-doubt.

        One of the most important pieces of learning, I believe, is to understand that self-doubt is a human condition that doesn’t go away. In an interview I did with Leo Babauta (from this blog and ZenHabits.net and “The Power of Less” fame) he said that he got over his initial self-doubts when blogging after a small group of people began to read his work and give him good feedback. As his audience grew and grew his doubts began again and he had to deal with them all over. For him it was sticking with the work and getting used to the response from readers that eased him past his doubts.

    • Sharon says:

      Hi,
      I went to your website and subscribed to your blog/newsletter, but the links to the free e-book does not work. Can you please send one that works?
      Thank you! This looks like a great program and I am looking forward to receiving more details.

      • Sorry for the trouble, Sharon, and anyone else who may have run into this problem today. I’ve responded directly to Sharon in another forum but for those of you who are interested please know that the links should be okay at this point so feel free to check out the free e-book by signing up for more information at http://www.literaryliving.com.

        Thanks for alerting me, Sharon!

    • Perry says:

      Self doubt can also be motivating if you take it as a challenge. When I feel the ‘I’m not a good writer’ blues coming on, I usually write at least a few paragraphs to prove myself wrong.

      • Great way, Perry, to act as your own “other” to give yourself a fresh perspective.

    • Yes, Julie, a dose of doubt is rather like a homeopathic remedy – just a small amount is a good thing and too much can be problemmatic!

    • Self-doubt keeps you on your toes! I think as a writer when you have self-doubt, you don’t lose sight of always striving for improvement. This self-doubt prevents cockiness and becoming too stagnant. Always looking for new ways to improve your skills. As long as it does not become debilitating!

    • Miss Jackson says:

      I’d like to thank you for this post. I’ve noticed that since I started my Master of Arts in Professional Writing graduate program, I’ve struggled continuously with self-doubt. I guess it’s because I’ve only been steadily writing for a few years while it seems like some of my classmates have been writing since they came out of the womb.
      Before grad school, my writing was sporadic. I mostly wrote short stories and poetry. Along the way, I received encouragement from family, friends and teachers, but I developed a dislike for workshop environments. I got good grades in those classes, but I shied away from genres that I didn’t feel I’d mastered. I always feel like I have to catch up to get to their level. It doesn’t stop me from doing my best in classes, but it fills me with anxiety whenever I have to submit an assignment. I feel like an amateur in a classroom full of professionals and as a result, I’m uncomfortable sharing some of my work.
      In a way, I think that some self-doubt is healthy because it keeps me humble, but I’m still working on having full confidence in my writing. I need to learn how to just let it go. I can’t spend time obsessing over minute details like comma placement.
      I’m realizing that I’ve had a misconception about people who are successful writers. I assumed that writing comes easy for them and that their brains are overflowing with original, brilliant ideas for new pieces. I’m slowly realizing that I was wrong because even the best writers struggle. They’re human just like I am. They have the same concerns I have. They want acceptance just like I do. Your post has given me a new lease on my writing life. From this point on, I will no longer allow self-doubt to cripple me. I will no longer allow self-doubt to scare me away from other genres. I will use it as a motivational tool that will propel me to the next level as a writer. If I take that attitude, perhaps the next workshop experience will be more positive than negative.

      • Miss Jackson, thanks for your thoughtfulness about the role of self-doubt in your life. It certainly can be crippling and I completely understand how you feel about being in a workshop setting with others you believe are more accomplished. The workshop setting isn’t for everyone and I think writing programs tend to overlook that fact and some writers get more discouraged than anything by that workshop process.

        I’ve put out a free e-book that might provide you with some additional ideas – those who’ve read it so far have found it really helpful and given what you’ve said here I think you might, too. I’t called “The Power of Deliberate Thinking: 5 Strategies for Staying at the Writing Desk (Despite Your Self-Doubts). You can get it here by signing up at http://literaryliving.com.

        Also, you might find it interesting to check out Steven King’s memoir, “On Writing” – he shares his story about being an inexperienced and uncertain writer and it’s really terrific. Of course we know who he is now! 🙂 Yes, successful writers are in part successful because they’ve just kept on practicing.

        Keep it up, Miss Jackson! And have fun while writing!


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