Writers are often plagued with crippling self-doubt and I am no exception. It’s always there, lurking, waiting for opportune moments to show up and throw me into a panic. I’m preparing a book for release, and I always find self-doubt shows up in a big way around about now, so it is something I am currently dealing with. But there are lots of other times I’ve experienced self-doubt about my writing, so I thought I would list them here as well as my tips for dealing with it.
- Childhood. When I was a child, I didn’t know what self-doubt was. Sure, I was shy and introverted, but I also had the child’s innocent optimism and I was utterly convinced that one day I would be a world famous author. Of course, life happens to children. Reality is dictated to them. You can’t do that, you can’t be that, you won’t make money, not many writers are successful, and so on. The worst thing you can do to a child is squash their creativity. If you were that child, be kind to yourself now. Remember that people probably had good intentions. Perhaps their ideals and aims in life differed greatly from yours. And if you know a child who wants to be a writer, for God’s sake don’t crush their dreams. Let them make mistakes. Don’t pick on their grammar, their spelling or their lack of plot. Just let them write! It can all too easily be discouraged in children these days.
- Adolescence. Writing helped me get through my teenage years. Without a doubt, it was my greatest friend and comfort. From the diaries I wrote daily, to the lyrics I scrawled onto my bedroom wall, I wrote endlessly. I was in a constant dream and my head was full of wonderful words. Self-doubt had found me though, and I now accepted I needed a realistic Plan B. I would have to decide on a day job to pay the bills. My advice to anyone at this stage would be this; keep writing. Keep dreaming. Don’t worry about structure or plot, or how many drafts it will take, or how similar your work is to your favourite films or books, or how pointless it seems putting down words that are unlikely to be read by anyone else. Perhaps right now they are only meant for you. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s not useful, worthwhile or beautiful. Keep going. In private, in your bedroom, in your head, in snatched moments. It will all take you somewhere one day.
- Writing Group. Self-doubt may lead you to attend a writers group and they can be a wonderful help. Just remember not to compare yourself to anyone else. No doubt you will all be of different ages, backgrounds and cultures. There will be people there with more and less experience than you. There will be people there with a better grasp of grammar. There will be people there who can write the most beautiful prose. Don’t be intimidated. You are not them. Only you can do what you do. Use writing groups as sound boards and listen to any advice that is helpful but don’t let exposure to other writers encourage self-doubt. You are there to get better and to move forward.
- Twenties. Real life. Graduation. Jobs, Careers. Marriage and babies. All these things get in the way when you are becoming an adult, leaving less and less time and energy for writing. This is the period of life when so many leave writing behind, viewing it as a childish, foolish habit they must move on from. After all, very few writers earn a living from it, and there are bills to pay and rent to find and debts to cover and there will just never be enough time to sit down and write like you used to. And then every now and then someone you used to know will ask if you still do the writing. And saying no, not anymore, will break your heart. So write anyway. Even if it’s just a diary. Or a blog. Or scribbles and rants into a notebook. Even if it’s five minutes or ten minutes a day. Even if you don’t think it will ever go anywhere. Get back in the habit. NOW.
- First draft, We all get there eventually. The first draft. Self-doubt will plague you more than ever before. Are you wasting your precious time? Is everyone laughing at you? Is everyone expecting you to fail? Can you even write? Is anyone ever going to care? Something keeps you going, but self-doubt is clawing at you every step of the way telling you to go back, to quit, to stop before you waste any more energy. Don’t listen. Keep going. The first draft is just the beginning of a long journey, but if you can get it done, if you can get over that hurdle, then all the rest will come. You’ll have fostered the stamina and grit needed to pursue this idea until the finish.
- Feedback. Getting feedback is hard. You need it, but you dread it. You sort of hope everyone is going to gush over your work and say it is the best thing they’ve ever heard. But being realistic, what you really need right now is the cold hard truth. You need to be able to take it. If your characters suck, if your dialogue is stiff, if your middle drags or your ending is unsatisfying, you need someone to tell you. Then you need to take the time to think about it, digest the information and decide what you agree with. Don’t let self-doubt hijack you now. Writers never stop getting better. That is part of the fun.
- Submissions. Submitting your work is a brave step. Maybe it’s competitions, or magazines, or articles. Maybe it’s your novel to agents or publishers. You’ve done all the hard work and now you are handing it over to the ‘experts’. If you are lucky you might get some feedback. It might sting, it might be encouraging. Or you may get the long cold silence. Whatever happens, self-doubt will creep in to remind you that you are a crap writer and nothing you write will ever be published by anyone. Just keep writing and remind yourself that the more you write, the better you get. That rejection is part of the process for ALL writers and that all you can do is learn from it, and refuse to let it make you quit.
- The Final Draft. Nearing the end of a project is exciting and thrilling. Seeing the end in sight after a bumpy road of stops and starts and endless highs and lows, can be a huge reward for a writer. You have finished the book. You have rewritten and edited and proofread and copyread the book and you have probably done all of this so many times you have lost count. In your head, at last, the book is ready. It’s done. It’s the best it can possibly be so it’s time to let it go. But hang on…suddenly the doubts are back in full force. A dark paranoia that you were wrong all along, that no matter what you do to it, no matter how many more times you rewrite or go over it, it still hasn’t worked. It’s not the book you had in your head. It’s failed. You’ve failed. I don’t know why this happens when the final draft is done, but it always seems to happen to me. One moment I will be basking in the relief and the joy of a completed, polished manuscript, ready to move onto the next project, and the next I will be doubting every single word I have written. I will want to change my mind entirely, consider scrapping the entire book even. The only way I get through this is by reminding myself that I felt exactly the same about the previous books. And would I change anything about them now they are out there? No. When it’s time to let go, I think you get a gut feeling, followed by a flood of doubt and fear. Try to accept this as natural and ease it gently to one side.
Feelings of self-doubt are part and parcel of being a writer. They follow you about, peering over your shoulder and niggling at you. They will never go away, and that is perfectly normal. If we were full to the brim with endless confidence, I suspect we might start turning out some pretty poor writing. Self-doubt forces you to aim for perfection, to question yourself and your work again and again, until one day you know you have done all that you can.