From all the years I have spent writing about writing and interacting with other writers about productivity and the creative process, I have come to believe the thing that holds most writers back is self-doubt.
People are afraid of not doing well. Of being called out, of being rejected. People want their work to be praised, to be noticed, to be loved. And the second anything threatens to stand in the way of any of that, they freeze up. They make themselves smaller. They say, “No. Okay. Maybe this whole writing thing isn’t for me.”
They are so concerned and preoccupied with being “the best” or “as good as [famous writer]” that they stop believing in themselves. They criticize their own effort. They wonder if they should even keep trying. Because who would ever want to read what they have to say, anyway?
This is not an uncommon problem. But it is one that can be dealt with, if you’re willing to make the attempt.
Self-doubt doesn’t have to be a roadblock. It might make your life as a writer harder. It shouldn’t make it impossible.
Here’s how to deal.
Begin to accept that some people just won’t like you/your work. I know the phrase “don’t take it personally” gets thrown around a lot, and I know a lot of you are tired of hearing it. So I won’t use it. But I will tell you that it is impossible to be liked by everyone, and some people’s dislike of you really isn’t personal. Not personal to you, anyway.
I know what it feels like to want to be liked. I’ve done plenty of stupid things throughout my life for no reason than I thought doing them would convince people I was worth hanging around. But do you know what happens when you seek only to be liked? You stop having your own opinions and/or you become afraid to express them. You don’t say what you want to say. You put all your self-worth into whether or not people like or agree with what you stand for.
You can’t be a writer — not a good writer — if you avoid expressing your own opinions because you want to avoid “making someone angry.” Good writing doesn’t just repeat what everyone else has already said. It challenges beliefs and perceptions. It forces people to think and question themselves. It encourages people to take action and express themselves outside of your work.
That doesn’t always turn out in a positive way. I’m a female who writes about the Star Wars sequel trilogy quite often these days, and there are plenty of people who disagree with me — sometimes to the point where these people get blocked. But there are also plenty out there who appreciate what I have to say. The same happened when I wrote about health. Nutrition has become one of the most controversial topics to write about for some reason. Some people just want to pick fights.
So I’ve learned that there are people who just aren’t going to like me or what I have to say and there isn’t a single thing I can do to change that. I could let their hate tear me apart and I could let them silence me, but why give them that power? What would be the point?
I still feel upset when I get online “hate.” But I don’t let it completely derail me anymore. I can’t. I have a job to do. Maybe you do, too. Maybe that’s all you need to remind yourself that words are just words, and they shouldn’t hold you back from doing what you want to do.
Do a bunch of things that scare you. I’m interviewing a celebrity the day this post will go live. I can’t tell you who it is, but when I was presented with the opportunity, I almost turned it down. Why? Because the thought of even having to dial someone’s number is enough to send me into panic mode (and no, it’s not your typical “ugh I hate calling people” complaint, OK?). Me? Interview someone famous? Why would I do that?
So why did I say yes anyway? Because nothing boosts your confidence more than successfully completing a task you never thought you would be able to force yourself to do. Honestly, even if this interview ends up being terrible, the fact that I’ll have done it will leave me feeling pretty good for at least a day. That’s enough. That’s something.
When we’re too scared to do the things we “wish” we could do, and don’t do them, we start to doubt our ability to do even the simplest things. That doesn’t just destroy our confidence. It completely ruins our productivity and can even change the way we write (and not for the better).
Do things that scare you. Even if they’re small. You don’t know how much fear can teach you until you face it and try to learn from it. And there is so, so much to learn.
You’ll learn to accept failure as something that may not be fun, but that is also just part of what the road to success looks like. You’ll also learn that the more you do things you might actually succeed at, the more success you’ll have … and the better you will feel … and it’s one of those cycles that’s actually not so bad being stuck in.
The more you avoid the things you think you can’t do, the easier it will continue to be to believe that you can’t. And that doesn’t make anyone feel good.
Treat rejection as a success, not a failure. It doesn’t feel good to fail. I’ve done it plenty of times in my life, as I am sure you have as well. We don’t like the idea of sitting down and spending hours upon hours writing something only for it to be turned down — or worse: Torn apart.
But that’s the reality of the line of work we’ve chosen, even if we don’t always like it. Rejection isn’t just something that happens to the unlucky few. It happens to EVERYONE, at varying degrees, for all kinds of reasons. And we all, at some level, wish it wasn’t something we had to deal with.
And yet, we deal with it. How? Some people stop writing for a minute, give themselves some air, and then jump back in. Others turn to their go-to self-care routines and allow themselves as much time as they need to think, to reflect, to wonder if they are truly on the right path after all.
Some people stop completely. They just don’t know how to handle failure. They don’t want to face it. They don’t want to admit they couldn’t do what they set out to do.
Maybe that’s because they are looking at rejection as a failure when it might be the exact opposite.
Think about it. Every rejection isn’t the end of the line. It’s a chance to learn. To grow. To understand something you may not have done right or something you could do better. It’s a reminder that you are not yet the best you could be, or that this isn’t the right place or time for your story, or that you are just getting started, and have such a long way still to go.
It’s a success, in its own way. It means you’re moving forward. That you’re trying. That you’re going somewhere, even if you aren’t getting there as fast as you might want.
Keep working toward your goals even when you’re not seeing progress. One of the hardest things about being a writer and tracking your skill progression is that you can’t look at your work and say, “Oh yeah, I’m totally improving. This feels great.”
It’s not like learning the violin, where even you can start to hear the difference and feel yourself struggling less to play the right notes. It’s not like running, where you start out barely able to run down the block and all of a sudden you can run three miles without stopping and it doesn’t feel like you’re dying. This kind of progress is much easier to see and to measure.
With writing, the only way you really know you’re getting better — or if you’re even any good at all — is often if someone tells you so. And that doesn’t happen unless you put yourself and your work out there for other people to critique at their own convenience.
WHICH IS TERRIFYING, RIGHT? Because what if you aren’t good and people tell you that and …
Wait. What’s actually the worst that could happen if someone tells you your writing isn’t good? You get embarrassed? You feel sad? You sit down and decide to do whatever it takes to get better?
Fear is all in our head. What really helps to combat it, even if we aren’t sure whether or not progress is being made, is to have a goal we can constantly work toward so that we keep writing even on the hardest days.
I’m working toward a pretty massive writing goal right now. I don’t know if I’m going to make it by my self-imposed deadline, but some days it’s the only thing that keeps me going even when I start feeling like I’m the worst writer that has ever written and that no one will ever have anything good to say about my words.
At the end of the day, they’re my words, and I will feel much better having reached my goal despite doubting myself than I would if I didn’t reach it because I let the thought of other people judging me stop me from accomplishing what I wanted to accomplish.
It’s okay to doubt yourself. It’s normal to question whether or not you’re doing what you are supposed to be doing.
Doubt yourself. Question your purpose. Wonder what people will say about you and your words.
But write anyway. Always write. It is the only way through.
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.