Have you ever stopped in the middle of working on an article or manuscript, backtracked a few sentences to reread what you’ve just written, and thought: “I hate this?”
Maybe not to such a hateful extreme. But it’s pretty safe to say all writers have experienced moments when they weren’t sure if what they were writing was “good enough.”
You might be wondering: Is it normal to feel this way? You may be pleased to learn that you are not the only weird writer out there. We are all strange beings with imaginative superpowers. (If everyone is weird, then is anyone even actually “weird” if “weird” is normal?) We all actively decide to make up our own stories and then, days later, question our choices and face the temptation to throw everything out and start again.
The best advice I’ve heard, and will pass on to you, is that it is absolutely normal and acceptable to not feel confident in what you’re writing as you’re actively writing it. What often happens is that when you finish what you’re working on, give it some room to breathe, and then return to it, you actually realize, “Oh. I may not like every word that’s here or how it reads but it’s not terrible. I don’t actually hate it after all.
However, if and when you do finish what you’re working on and go back to reread it later — and you still don’t feel good about it, to the point where you don’t even want to work with it anymore — that means something. It’s a sign you have written something you have little to no confidence in, and may not be worth pursuing further.
If it’s normal to dislike what you’re working on as you’re working on it, is there a reason? And is it possible to keep writing even when you don’t think it’s worth it? What happens if you finish something and you realize you don’t want to work on it anymore — are you a failure for giving up?
Why do you hate what you write as you’re writing it? Short answer: Because you’re more than likely a reader who is used to consuming heavily revised and polished publications.
I think many people who spend significant amounts of time on the internet have become much more forgiving of things like typos and minor grammatical errors (I said many, not all).
But when you’re writing a first draft of a novel, for example, you almost can’t help but compare it to the dozens of published novels you have previously read by other people. When you read back what you have just written, it doesn’t feel like the perfected prose you’re used to seeing. It feels imperfect and shaky and not great, quite honestly because that’s exactly what it is. A first draft, by definition, is the farthest thing from perfect. That’s the point.
So in many cases, you don’t hate what you’re writing as you’re writing it because you think you are a bad writer. You hate it because you’re not used to reading unpublished fiction.
This is actually why I’ve found working as an editor has made me a better writer — not just because it makes me more aware of my errors but almost desensitizes me to the fact that what I’m reading in front of me isn’t ready to be published yet. I spend every day at work reading and fixing up other people’s drafts. So when I open up my own on my own time, I’m not as judgmental of my work as I’m working on it.
Of course, there are other reasons behind low confidence while making progress on a project. Some people, for various reasons, have underlying issues with self-esteem and have a hard time seeing the work they produce as anything other than problematic. This is an added hurdle for many writers, and unfortunately, many people never learn to or find assistance in overcoming this major creative barrier.
The good news is, it can be overcome. It’s just not easy to do, and takes years of practice and patience to master — if “mastering” it is even technically possible.
How do you keep writing when you don’t like what you’re writing? My usual answer to these kinds of questions is “just keep writing.” I know that’s not very helpful for anyone who might be reading this who is frustrated and feeling down about their work but doesn’t want to quit. I understand this frustration. However, there really isn’t a better solution to offer. Let me explain.
As I mentioned above, sometimes we don’t like what we’re currently writing simply because we haven’t had a chance to truly reflect on it yet. If you base your true feelings on only separate pieces of an unfinished draft, how do you know there aren’t at least parts of a whole that you can dismantle and reshape as something worthwhile?
You will never know the difference between “I didn’t like what I was writing as I was doing it but it’s actually not so bad” and “this really isn’t a good product and I’d rather leave it be” until you have a finished product to evaluate. Sometimes the most transformative parts of a story occur when you’re nearing the end of it, and you’ll never get to that point if you quit too soon.
Many people give up before their ideas have a chance to reveal their true forms and potential. You never know what you might find hiding in an idea until you pursue it as far as it will allow you to.
This doesn’t mean that you necessarily HAVE to finish what you start — I personally believe all writers should, but I’m not going to judge you if you don’t. I just hope that if you do give up before finishing something, you do so for a justifiable reason other than “I just wasn’t confident enough.”
As someone who has struggled with confidence her whole life, I get it. But I also get how satisfying it can be to accomplish something like finishing the first draft of a novel when you didn’t think you could do it, even if you don’t end up progressing on that project any further. Achieving goals builds confidence and resilience and teaches you how to persist. This is a more valuable asset in the publishing industry than you might realize.
How do you know when to move on? Let’s say you’ve pushed through your uncertainty and distaste for your work and finished an initial draft. After letting it sit untouched for a few weeks (or months), you pull it back out to review your work and see if your feelings and/or opinions have changed. What happens if you don’t realize you actually love it and instead you have a revelation that it’s not something you would ever want to read, and don’t want to try “fixing it” to make it readable for other people?
In cases like these, you really have to trust your gut. As writers, we are very in tune with our stories and characters and everything else involved. Deep down, even if you don’t want to admit it, you know if something is worth putting more energy into and when it isn’t.
Because in the end, you are quite literally the author of this story, the one who decided how it began and continued and ended. You also have the power and total right to decide you have done all you wish to do with a story. If you feel the right thing to do for you is to put it away and work on something else, no one can tell you this is the “wrong” choice.
People might disagree with you, but no one wants to read a story written by someone who had no interest in finishing it. Ultimately, publishing is a business, and it aims to inform and/or entertain an audience. If a story isn’t going to adequately serve that audience, it may not be worth chasing.
I’m not encouraging you to give up or here to tell you that your story isn’t important or that people won’t like it. The truth is, every decision a writer makes about their work is up to them, and it’s not my place to say “you should have done it this way.” I’m here to offer my perspective and suggest advice. You do you. Do what’s best for you and your work.
There is something to learn from every draft. Even if you get to the end and determine it’s too much of a mess to salvage. This happens. There is nothing wrong with deciding you aren’t going to continue working on something. Sometimes we end up writing stories just to get them out of our heads and realize when it’s all written and done that we’re not interested in spending any more time with them. It doesn’t matter the reason. This happens a lot more often than you might think.
However, keep in mind that just because a finished draft isn’t going to end up as a widespread published work does not mean you wasted all your time writing it or that it has no use to you anymore. Quite the opposite, actually.
As I’ve written many times on this blog before, no time spent writing is wasted time — even if it turns out to be the worst thing you have ever written in your life. (You’re never the best judge of this, of course — we all criticize ourselves much more harshly than we do others — but that doesn’t make your feelings any less valid.)
With every writing project you pursue — whether you finish it or not — you learn something new. The more you push and challenge yourself by exploring different perspectives and subjects and styles, the more you learn. But there is a reason I am very careful about using the word “failure.” Here at Novelty Revisions, we (okay — I) believe that as writers there is only one way to truly fail, and that’s to stop trying.
When you don’t finish something or a project in some other way doesn’t work out, it’s not a failure. It’s a learning experience that gradually drives you closer to success. “Failure” has a lot of negative feelings attached to it and many aspiring writers are already dealing with plenty of negativity. In writing, do your best to focus not on what you didn’t accomplish, but instead on what you learned and can apply to your next project.
You’re never going to love everything you write. That’s pretty much part of what it means to be a human. You will always be overly self-critical and you will always wonder, after the fact, if you could have done something differently or better.
It is, after all, completely normal to feel like what you’ve just written is absolutely terrible and should never see the light of day. We all struggle with this, and if you say you don’t, let’s have a conversation because I quite honestly do not believe you.
The most important thing, though, is that you don’t give up on yourself too soon. There are many things in life that look or feel bad in the moment but actually turn out fine in retrospect. Give yourself the chance to fall in love with what you’re writing. You may not see it now, but there’s a chance it will all come together after it’s done. Just wait and see.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.