Why crippling self-doubt is your friend

You know that Yeats quote (very apposite right now as I think it was about the Easter Rising): ‘The best lack all conviction, the worst are full of passionate intensity?’ *

Well, this could also be said of writers. I mean, we’re all full of passionate intensity or we wouldn’t do this thing at all, but fairly often there are wonderful writers who lack any confidence at all. Equally there are terrible writers who seem convinced they are the next Stephen King.

Both of these annoy me.

However. Self-doubt, if you are experiencing it, is not a bad thing in itself. It’s the thing that’s going to stop you sending out your book when you only have one chapter written (DO NOT do this). It’s the thing that will send you back to draft and re-draft your work until it’s strong and lean and real. Much in the same way your real friends help you check yourself before you wreck yourself, self-doubt is there to help. Don’t fear it.

Because what happens when there is not enough self-doubt is: you send things out before they’re ready.  You don’t do enough drafts (or any). You burn your bridges with agents, as even if they like what you sent you haven’t finished the damn book. You’re incapable of editing, as you think it’s amazing already. (This is another reason not to send work out too soon or post it online or show it to people before it’s ready – it will crystallise for you and changing it will become too hard). Therefore, you never learn anything. Be very clear on why you’re showing your work to people – is it because you know you can’t go any further alone, or because you want a little pat on the back? Don’t talk about it too much during the creative stage. Let it germinate. Zip your lip and if you want a pat on the back, draw your mum a picture. It’s a tricky balance as you must have enough self-belief to keep writing the thing – belief that this is a story worth telling and you’re the one to tell it – but tempered by enough self-doubt to realise you probably have a lot of work ahead of you.

However, like many friends, when you spend too much time with self-doubt it becomes a frenemy, whispering that you look fat in those paragraphs and your semi-colons are bloated. Listen to what other people are telling you. If they tactfully say it’s not ready, it’s not ready. If you’ve done what you can, and you’re showing it to people who know books – who don’t live in the same house as you or haven’t given birth to you – and they like it, listen to them. In this case your self-doubt becomes another block, a way of holding yourself back. Also beware of the frenemy when you’ve started to get some momentum – interest, praise from non-relatives, competition listings, MS requests and so on – and you begin to lose all confidence. Or if you get mixed feedback and the bad parts of it set you back so much you stop altogether. This is self-doubt’s nasty little trick to stop you when you’re starting to get somewhere. Drop its calls, go the mall without it, and tell it on Wednesdays we wear self-confidence. Also remember a lot of feedback you’ll get is pure bunkum. Are you going to quit because that guy in your writing class who once edited ‘Naval Destroyers Monthly’ magazine doesn’t like your work (not enough naval destroyers)? I hope not. Because that guy is never getting published.

To summarise:

-it’s OK to doubt yourself

-not doubting your work at all is a disaster

-it’s not OK to doubt so much you get discouraged, especially if other people have said your work is good. (People who would know).

Good luck.

  • haven’t checked this so might be wrong…
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