Today's topic won't be a comfortable one. I'm going to address an issue I'm pretty sure you don't want to hear—but by the time I'm done, you'll be armed, better prepared, and stronger than you were. And what is this uncomfortable topic? Self-doubt.
No matter what you do, your doubt as a writer will never go away.
The Ugly Truth
We all have a hopeful goal we think will finally kill that self-doubt for good. It's usually phrased like an if-then statement: “If I ever get _____, then I'll ______.” E.g., “If I get published, then I'll call myself a writer.”
Sound familiar? See if any of these feel like your hope:
- If I get an agent, then I'll stop doubting.
- If I earn a certain number of good reviews, then I'll finally feel confident.
- If my writing gets approval from that person, then I'll be a real author.
- If I'm a bestselling author, then I'll finally feel like I made it.
- If I finish my book, then I'll feel like a real writer.
The list could go on, of course. Right now, you may be thinking of your own if-then statement, and that's good. You need to face it.
Here's why: that if-then statement is a lie.
I know, I know, that is the worst possible thing I could tell you. Do I mean to say that you'll never feel more confident about your writing? That you'll struggle with the feeling you're shouting into the void for the rest of your life? That you'll never feel as confident as other authors look?
No, not quite. The self-doubt changes, lessens, and sometimes goes away. It also comes back. I need you to know that nothing you ever gain or accomplish will erase that doubt completely. I need you to know so that when the self-doubt hits, trips you up, bites the back of your neck in the middle of your successes and drains the confidence out of you, you will be prepared.
Writer's doubt does not mean you suck.
Writer's doubt does not mean you can't do this.
Every Writer Has Self-Doubt
I know I do. I'm a twice-over bestselling author, and I'm still plagued with doubts; I feel like I can't do this, that I'm going to be found out somehow as being “less good” than other authors, or less educated, or just somehow a fraud. The amazing thing is I'm not alone.
You know Neil Gaiman? One of the most celebrated living authors today? He's written books for adults, children, and anyone in-between. He's created graphic novels, scripts for movies and television, and won so many awards (four Hugos, two Nebulas, a Newberry medal, six Locus awards, and many more) that it should be really really clear he's a good writer. Right?
Doubt still dogs his heels.
Surely not, you say. Well….
The problems of success can be harder because nobody warns you about them.
The first problem of any kind of even limited success is the unshakable conviction that you are getting away with something, and that any moment now, they will discover you. It’s Impostor Syndrome—something my wife Amanda christened the Fraud Police.
In my case, I was convinced that there would be a knock on the door, and a man with a clipboard (I don’t know why he carried a clipboard, in my head, but he did) would be there to tell me it was all over, and they had caught up with me, and now I would have to go and get a real job, one that didn’t consist of making things up and writing them down, and reading books I wanted to read. And then I would go away quietly and get the kind of job where you don’t get to make things up anymore.
—Neil Gaiman, Commencement Speech at the University of the Arts Class of 2012
You'd think that doubt would have gone away by the third Hugo, perhaps.
Not enough? How about we hear from Stephen King (twelve Stokers, three Locus awards—oh, you get the idea):
I'm afraid of failing at whatever story I'm writing—that it won't come up for me, or that I won't be able to finish it.
—Stephen King, Rolling Stone 2014 interview
I have spent a good many years—too many, I think—being ashamed about what I write. I kept hearing Miss Hisler asking why I wanted to waste my talent, why I wanted to waste my time, why I wanted to write junk. I think I was forty before I realised that almost every writer of fiction and poetry who has ever published a line has been accused by someone of wasting his or her God-given talent.
—Stephen King, On Writing
You'd think being Stephen Freaking King might have slain that doubt-dragon, but nope. It did not.
Really, Every Writer Has Self-Doubt
Those two authors not your cup of tea? No problem. Here are a few more.
Dear God, I am so discouraged about my work. I have the feeling of discouragement that is. I realize I don’t know what I realize. Please help me dear God to be a good writer and to get something else accepted.
Each day is like an enormous rock that I'm trying to push up this hill. I get it up a fair distance, it rolls back a little bit, and I keep pushing it, hoping I'll get it to the top of the hill and that it will go on its own momentum. I'm very deeply inculcated with a sense of failure for some reason. And I'm drawn to failure. I often write about it, and I'm sympathetic with it I think, because I feel I'm contending with it constantly in my own life.
—Joyce Carol Oates
Such fear of writing always expresses itself by my occasionally making up, away from my desk, initial sentences for what I am to write, which immediately prove unusable, dry, broken off long before their end, and pointing with their towering fragments to a sad future.
I have been successful probably because I have always realized that I knew nothing about writing and have merely tried to tell an interesting story entertainingly.
—Edgar Rice Burroughs
The more scared we are about our calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.
I seek strength, not to be greater than other, but to fight my greatest enemy, the doubts within myself.
Writing is finally about one thing: going into a room alone and doing it. Putting words on paper that have never been there in quite that way before. And although you are physically by yourself, the haunting Demon never leaves you, that Demon being the knowledge of your own terrible limitations, your hopeless inadequacy, the impossibility of ever getting it right. No matter how diamond-bright your ideas are dancing in your brain, on paper they are earthbound.
What to Do About That Self-Doubt
So by now, I hope you see the ugly truth: no matter what you do, that doubt will dog you. But that is not the end of your story.
Step one to facing writers doubt is acknowledging you're going to have it. That doesn't make you broken or weird or deficient. That makes you a writer.
I have previously given you this advice: “Write it anyway.” Guess what? You need to write it anyway. Don't listen to the doubt that tells you to quit.
Step two is giving yourself permission to write absolute garbage. Yes, this means what you write may be “all wrong.” In our worst moments, it's often difficult to figure out plot points and character arcs; what we write is just nonsense on the page, deletable, failing to develop characters or move the story in any way at all.
And that's okay. There is no such thing as wasted words. Words you don't use or have to delete are still not wasted. Every time you put words on paper, no matter how clumsy they are, strengthens you as a writer. No, you aren't practicing bad writing; you're just practicing writing. If you keep going, you will improve—even when writing crap.
And now for the really hard one: step three is the choice to believe a truth you cannot see.
Yes, that's faith. It doesn't have to be a religious word. All it means is choosing to believe in something you cannot, at that moment, verify.
There will be times you can verify it—good reviews or responses from beta-readers, good moments when you write something and know it's just right, great moments with your writing group in which they understand exactly what you were trying to say. During those times, you can see the truth: you are a writer, and you are getting better, and if you keep going, the story you're trying to tell will take shape.
When doubt hits, you can't see that truth. When writer's doubt dogs your heels, bites your neck, hides the sun, you can't even feel that truth. That's the moment to hold onto it—even though it doesn't feel real anymore.
The Writer's Manifesto
The way I handle this is to write a manifesto. Something like this:
- I will write when I don't feel like it.
- I will write when it hurts.
- I believe I can write, even if I suck a lot.
- People want to read what I write. I know because I want to read it, too.
- It's okay if I suck right now. I will figure it out and get better.
- I will not stop writing.
The doubt will pass. It will also return. If you hang on to these three steps, you'll make it through.
Facing the Ugly Truth and Winning
- Step one: accept the ugly truth that you will never get rid of your doubt. That means being prepared for its coming.
- Step two: give yourself permission to write terribly when the doubt comes. Do NOT listen to the doubt and stop writing. Writing terribly is far, far better than not writing at all; bad practice is better than no practice.
- Step three: believe you are a writer, and that this time of doubt will pass, and that being a writer is worth the fight.
It's that simple and that hard.
It's also worth it. If I can do this, you can, too. We're in this together, fellow writer. The doubt will return, but that doesn't mean you have to let it win.
How is your battle with writer's doubt going? What do you do to beat it? Let us know in the comments.
Ready for the challenge? Here it is: for fifteen minutes, work on your own writer's manifesto of the truths you will hold on to during those dark and doubting times.
For many of you, you haven't thought much about those truths yet. You may not be published, and may not have a support group or even encouragement from family or friends. That's okay. If all you have is the gut-deep knowledge that the story you have to tell is good, then that is enough. That instinct isn't wrong. If you want to read the thing you want to write, other people will, too.
Take that fifteen minutes and work on your manifesto. Make sure it's truths you can hold on to even when you can't see them. Doubt is coming; that means you'll get the chance to kick it in the behind.
When you're done, share your manifesto in the comments. Remember to leave feedback for your fellow writers—let's spur each other on to out-write our doubt.
Best-Selling author Ruthanne Reid has led a convention panel on world-building, taught courses on plot and character development, and was keynote speaker for The Write Practice 2021 Spring Retreat.
Author of two series with five books and fifty short stories, Ruthanne has lived in her head since childhood, when she wrote her first story about a pony princess and a genocidal snake-kingdom, using up her mom’s red typewriter ribbon.
When she isn’t reading, writing, or reading about writing, Ruthanne enjoys old cartoons with her husband and two cats, and dreams of living on an island beach far, far away.
P.S. Red is still her favorite color.