Image: Matthew Loffhagen
The bad news is there is no complete cure for self-doubt. “That’s not peppy,” you’re probably thinking. Well, here’s the good news: you are not alone—it is experienced by even the best writers out there—and it is a feeling that can be both mastered and overcome.
I’m sure if you are in the throes of a hearty dose of it, you’re still thinking that’s of little comfort (and possibly something four-lettered), but the suggestions below will help you find your way out of the fog.
1. Be selfish, write for yourself
On many occasions, perhaps not just in our writing, we become too concerned with what other people think. That concern can turn to fear: “What if I make a fool of myself?” And that fear stops us in our tracks. So, in answer to this, I say don’t write worrying about how someone else will react to your work. Write for yourself. You think this story is important and you think it’s interesting. Set it down for yourself because it’s a story you want to follow.
Remember that early on in the writing process, it is exploratory—you are on an adventure of discovery for yourself and it doesn’t matter what someone else may or may not think.
Hearing someone else’s opinion comes later, when sending it to an editor. By then, hopefully, you will have found your writing rhythm, got it all down and it will simply be a case of tweaking and tightening.
2. Don’t compare yourself to others
One of my favorite authors is Dodi Smith. Her turn of phrase, her ability to show, not tell and the humor she unassumingly slips into her prose is just how I want to write. Yet when I read back over some of my own drafts I am bitterly disappointed.
Yes, appreciate someone else’s work and learn from them, but do not expect to be them. And why should you? You view the world through different eyes, have formed your opinions through different experiences and that will come out in your storytelling. Become your own favorite author by learning the craft and honing it to your own preferences.
Also, look at it from this angle: think about the books, films and programs you admire and love, even about the friends you enjoy spending time with. You have good taste, right? So if you are enjoying spending time with the characters in your story as much as you enjoy spending time with, say, Mal from Firefly, the chances are someone else is going to enjoy spending time with your character as well.
3. Exercise that muscle and give yourself time to grow stronger
I truly believe writing is like a muscle—you have it within you, but to really use it effectively you need to exercise that muscle, tone it and teach it technique.
You might be glancing down at the first paragraph you have written with a feeling of “what is this drivel?” I’m sorry to say that, if this is your first outing as a writer, you will not be writing prose worthy of critics’ praise, but the important thing to note is that this is perfectly okay.
Keep working at it, attacking the story from a different angle, writing a page or two in iambic pentameter—experiment and enjoy experimenting. All of it will help build strength in that muscle and help you find the style that you like, that expresses your voice best.
4. Literally work through it
Perhaps the self-doubt has got a firm grip on you and it’s been days since you wrote. Well—and this will take some discipline—just pick up that pen, turn on that computer, and start writing again. Given your frame of mind, it may well not be of the highest standard, but keep going!
Try to tune out those negative thoughts by turning up the volume of the story. In my experience, through the ruckus of self-doubt can come some of your best work.
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I submitted two pieces to the university short story magazine. One I had spent many hours on, caught up in the magic of an amazing true story, trying my utmost to evoke the feeling through lyrical prose; the other I had written with as much sarcasm I could muster when overcome with writer’s block.
Which do you think was accepted for publishing? The latter. I remember snorting, in a most unladylike fashion, when I received the letter of acceptance.
Perhaps it was because I wasn’t holding myself back and trying to be “clever” with the words I used? I had turned on the computer and filled the page. So try it. And apply sarcasm liberally—it works wonders.
5. Find a collaborator
I suggest this with a little hesitation. My grandmother, the best storyteller I have known (okay, so I might be a little biased), advised me never to tell anyone a story until I had finished writing it. If you tell someone, she said, it’s no longer exciting, you yourself become bored, you lose interest and you stop writing.
However, you may well be too judgmental and too self-deprecating to properly assess your work. So, find someone you trust, someone you know will give you an honest opinion, and ask them to read an excerpt of your story.
Be prepared for the feedback. Sometimes the criticisms sound louder than the compliments and they may be uncomfortable to hear, but write them all down and then put on your explorer’s hat again (mine’s a solar topee)—all right, so this route led to a pit of wooden stakes, but this way was tarred…
Be proud of what’s worked and approach what hasn’t worked with the mind-set of “how can I fix this”.
6. Use it to your advantage
I know it’s certainly easier said than done, but seize that self-doubt by the scruff of the neck and say “I’m going to make you work for me.” Don’t allow the feeling to defeat you. Channel it into something constructive by becoming your own shrink and analyzing the problem: what is it exactly that you are doubting—the story or your ability to write it?
When you have the answer to that, scroll back to the top of this article and look at my suggestions again.
The very fact that you are reading this, Googling ways to overcome the self-doubt and continue writing, says there is a story in you trying to get out. You already are a storyteller. Hit the mute button on those nagging doubts and set it down.