Nrdly templates
Try Nrdly for free Try Nrdly free

Five rules to overcome self-doubt

I have often bemoaned over the writer’s self-doubt.

Why, of all the other vocations in the world, writers suffer from self-doubt the most?

It is not because we toil at our craft any less than other artists. Why is it then we feel so inadequate, frivolous, phony, and unaccomplished? Why do we feel our ideas are insignificant, our vocabulary limited, our expression plain?

No writer, it doesn’t matter how many books he has written, has ever reported fully getting rid of it.

Stephen King wrote in On Writing:

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.

Neil Gaiman talked about it in Commencement Speech at the University of the Arts Class of 2012

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.

Steven Pressfield wrote about it in his excellent book The War of Art:

The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.

Virginia Woolf captured the anguishing self-doubt with which all writers tussle with in her novel, Orlando: A Biography :

Anyone moderately familiar with the rigours of composition will not need to be told the story in detail; how he wrote and it seemed good; read and it seemed vile; corrected and tore up; cut out; put in; was in ecstasy; in despair; had his good nights and bad mornings; snatched at ideas and lost them; saw his book plain before him and it vanished; acted people’s parts as he ate; mouthed them as he walked; now cried; now laughed; vacillated between this style and that; now preferred the heroic and pompous; next the plain and simple; now the vales of Tempe; then the fields of Kent or Cornwall; and could not decide whether he was the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.

Self-doubt is the worst enemy of writers, a familiar state for all those who put pieces of their inner lives into the outside world.

Determination allows for doubt and for humility — both of which are critical.

Anna Deavere Smith in Letters to a Young Artist

We writers need to learn to live with self-doubt rather than to play hide and seek with it. We ought to embrace it and find ways to work with it.

I have developed five rules to write with confidence and joy even when self-doubt is holding me back.

1. Concentrate On The Verb Rule

The word ‘writer‘ is tricky. It is both a noun and a verb. Most of the time, we get stuck with the noun and forget the verb. The fact is that it is the verb that matters the most. If you can concentrate on the verb, the noun will materialize by itself.

Also, don’t mix up the word ‘writer’ with the words ‘author.’ A writer is someone who writes; an author is someone who has published something. Think of yourself as a ‘writer,’ not as an ‘author.’ It is the former that will make you the latter.

Writing is finally about one thing: going into a room alone and doing it.

— William Goldman

2. Retire The Judge rule

The judge is the inner critic that resides in you. He comes uninvited to critique your work and always finds faults in it. Even if others are raving about how good your work is, he will negate them and pinpoint the faults. He has been working all his life, tirelessly giving judgments. It is time he retires. The way to retire him is to buy him a gold watch for his services and send him home to play with his grandchildren.

In the meantime, you double and triple your writing efforts. If you are writing once a month, write once a week; if you are writing once a week, write once a day. The more often you write, the less daunting it becomes. The prolific writing is the only way to outperform the overworking inner critic.

Bad writers tend to have the self-confidence, while the good ones tend to have self-doubt.

– Charles Bukowski

3. Get it done rule

Elizabeth Gilbert gave the famous words in her book The Big Magic, “done is better than good.”

If you keep on waiting for it to be perfect, it will never be done. If it is 80% there, it is good enough.

No book or story, or article is ever finished. You stop working on it.

So give it your best for the day and let it go to the universe. If it is good, it will survive. If not, it will meet its fate. Meanwhile, you are free to write another one.

4. The Pimple Rule

This one is borrowed from Jon Bard of Write it Done. She named it after the best advice she received as a spotty teenager — “No one cares about your pimples because they’re too busy worrying about their own.”

She writes:

It’s so true in every aspect of life.  We think that people are out there ready to pounce when, in reality, they’re more terrified of being pounced upon.

We’ve met some big-time writers who tell us that even as they prepare to publish their fiftieth book or collect another prize, they still have a voice inside that wonders when everyone will catch on to the fact that they’re frauds.  Yep, that little nagging “you don’t deserve it” voice never goes away, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

If you view the outside world as a place filled with vultures ready to swoop down and pick at your bones, it’s time to rethink things.  The truth is this – all those scary would-be haters are too busy scanning the skies for vultures of their own to bother with you.

5. Nothing is original Rule

One thing that self-doubt instills in us that our work is not original. That we are copying and imitating what we are reading from others.

Tell your self-doubt that there is nothing original. Everything that has been created so far in this universe is from some inspiration from something else that existed before it. Imitation and copying are part of the learning process.

Take the pressure off you by not trying to be original and learn from your idols. Even they learned by imitating and copying their idols. Neil Gaiman, an English author of fiction and nonfiction, said in his commencement speech at the University of the Arts, to the class of 2012.

When you are at it, making your art, doing the stuff that only you can do, the urge to copy will start to emerge. That is not a bad thing.

Most of us find our voices only after we have sounded a lot like other people.

But the one thing that you have that nobody else has is you.

Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision.

So write and draw, and build and play, and dance and live like only you can.

The moment when you feel, that just possibly, you are walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind and what exists inside you, showing too much of yourself, that is the moment you start to get it right.

You can listen to his full talk in the video below.

In summary

Don’t let doubt ruin your passion.

Have faith in yourself and your abilities.

All writers struggle with self-doubt, even the established ones. But they all learn to mange it.

Follow the five rules overcome your self-doubt.

  1. Concentrate on the verb, not the noun of writing.
  2. Retire the inner critic.
  3. Done is better than good.
  4. No one cares about your pimples because they’re too busy worrying about their own.
  5. Nothing is original.

Photo by bruce mars on Unsplash

  1. Stefan says:

    For me, writing exposes you in your most vulnerable state. You and your creative endeavours are naked before everyone and they will judge it, make comments about it, love it, revile it, suggest changes, question your motives, drive a truck over and through it and leave tyre prints on your soul etc etc etc (movie reference/quote by Yul Brenner from The King and I movie) without consideration for your feelings, an understanding that your creative piece has been built with sweat, toil, doubt, joy, and a love for what you do. It is difficult to develop a teflon heart when your creation is being assessed without thought to your writing.
    The other thing that makes it difficult is to sit down before an empty page or return to a page that has already been started with words looking back at you in anticipation is there seems to be no definite endgame and no guarantee that it will be finished, published, seen by anyone else, whereas other work from work related endeavours from a work report to mowing the lawn always have a result (the work paper is delivered to your boss and the lawn is manicured). When you do jobs at work that have “deliverables”, a project scope, a due date, screening time etc etc etc (thanks again, Yul Brenner), you can see the finish line and feel there will be a sense of achievement and people will appreciate the mown lawn with the trimmed edges.
    Yes, one has to develop a mindset that some of your writing will be delivered and published (blog, film review) because we are confident about our style in that regard while other writing, the longer term and more difficult fiction pieces, will end up in a drawer never to see the light of day again although having served a purpose in sharpening your writing skills. Not all writing is meant to be read. It is a development process. That is confidence. Then will come the time when a piece will be accepted because the time is right. I had a manuscript rejected many times by various publishers, large and small, even though some liked the idea of the book although it didn’t meet their publishing list, until 12 months later, a new commissioning editor at ABC Books, who had rejected the book 12 months earlier under a different editor, wrote to say she loved the book and offered a contract. That’s how Film Speak, a guide to terms used in fillums and pitchas got published.
    After all I have just written, perhaps, if, like Dorothy inThe Wizard of Oz (yes, everything is a movie to me), we need to follow the yellow brick road and like the scarecrow from the same movie, get a writer’s heart and believe in ourselves.
    One answer is to find kindred souls, such as Neera, to share ideas and know that critical comments, positive and otherwise, will be offered that are in the best interests of not only your own writing but writing itself. At that point, you need to have a self assessment setting that will evaluate comments to see if you will apply them. This means an understanding of your own writing and an ability to know your strengths and your weaknesses. That is not a perjorative comment simply a sense that you have moved forward significantly as a writer to self awareness as a writer and dispelling that self doubt.

    1. Hi Stefan,

      What a wonderful comment. You have enriched the post with your all-encompassing thoughts and made it more meaningful. Yes, writing (and every other creative work) is about being vulnerable, bearing your soul and leaving yourself open to judgement. But it is also about being true to yourself and grow as an artist and you can’t do that without the help of others even though their comments might hurt you. But for the sake of our ‘art’, we must learn to let to grow from the criticism rather than stop our work. From the beginning, you have been taking time and providing your views on my blog and I can’t tell you how appreciative I am of that. You keep up with your blog and keep writing on this blog because I get to see a different side on you on my blog which you don’t engage much in your own blog. My writing is so enriched by readers like you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.