In the Forums, Akila writes:
Self-doubt feeds the author. Without self-doubt, we don’t strive to do our best — to keep writing despite rejections and humiliations. (See Dean Koontz, for example, who writes: “I have more self-doubt than any writer I’ve ever known. That is one reason I revise every page to the point of absurdity! The positive aspect of self-doubt – if you can channel it into useful activity instead of being paralyzed by it – is that by the time you reach the end of a novel, you know precisely why you made every decision in the narrative, the multiple purposes of every metaphor and image. Having been your own hardest critic you still have dreams but not illusions.”). Self-doubt is what propels us to be better, to write better, to fixate on commas and words that most other people ignore.
Writers have a pretty unique challenge.
On the one hand you have to have the confidence to spend and hours at something without really knowing how it’s going to turn out, and often without knowing whether you really have the talent or the right idea to execute a story that people are going to love. It takes fortitude, commitment, and a deep confidence that what you’re doing is worth it.
On the other hand, you have to have the self-doubt to be critical enough of your own work to make it better. You have to turn a cold eye to your writing to spot flaws and weak spots, to know your own weaknesses, to improve on them, and not get carried away.
These impulses seem contradictory, but I’d actually argue that they’re two sides of the same coin: It’s all confidence.
To be able to spot your own flaws requires confidence. Staring your own weaknesses and flaws in the face doesn’t come from a place of self-doubt, it comes from a place of strength. You have to be a strong person in order to own up to your flaws and to shoulder the responsibility of making your work better.
There are some writers out there who seem so boldly confident and brash, but it’s really a mask. When someone suffers from supreme overconfidence and can’t see their own flaws, in truth they’re not confident at all. They lack the strength to admit their own shortcomings. We all have flaws, but not everyone has the strength to confront them.
And on the flip side, it’s important not to overdo the self-doubt and paralyze yourself with indecision either. It’s easy to despair that you’re not good enough, that you’ll never get there, and to magnify the weaknesses in your writing, especially when you’re just beginning. That too is what happens when you are approaching writing with insufficient confidence.
The only way to strike the right balance as a writer it is if you build up your confidence in a healthy, clear-headed way.
Confidence will give you the strength to doubt yourself.
Art: Doubts by Henrietta Rae
Jeff S Fischer says
PS. Yikes! I think I meant May, not March. Man, self-doubt at work in five minutes. I take it all back. The argument was just a little clunky—not sure. Maybe. Ignore me, please. Do yourself a favor.
J. T. Shea says
No wonder that poor girl has doubts, with Austin Powers peering down her front!
S. F. Roney says
You're right–it is only the strong who can examine themselves for weakness and work toward improvement. This is true for writing as well as anything in life. You've definitely inspired this writer to be stronger in self examination and improvement.
I am glad to know that I am in the good company of other self-doubters.
How do you know if your self doubt is justified? I mean what if I really do suck as a writer and will never get published. Is there a point at which you cut and run?
Of course the problem is I can't seem to do that even after I get the harshest criticism.
I am confident enough to doubt. I am glad there are great resources out there (including one another) to help us hone our skills.
I think writing critique groups are an excellent way for iron to sharpen iron. My writing improves when other writers are there to help me see flaws and areas needing improvement.
Kristi Helvig says
This is such a great post. Whenever I get critiques back from my CP's, I tend to skim over the good stuff (though it's important to know what you do well too), and go straight to what's not working. I allow myself a few minutes of "I suck. How am I going to fix this?" Then, like James Scott Bell says, I start pounding the keys.
This was an amazing post! I feel everything you are saying from the first word all the way down to the last. It is good to know that everyone goes through this roller coaster of emotions while writing. I will keep this in mind as I tirelessly edit my word and tell myself I'm not good enough…but the point is that I keep on going no matter that outcome. I'll get there at, I know it. Thanks Nathan
Another great post 🙂 I tend to doubt myself after reading a good book. It always makes me think that I won't be that good — so, what is the point?
The point is that we all have the same insecurities, and that best selling author you love is no exception. You just got to keep striving.
Good words Nathan!
I read this a few times to really absorb it. Seems to me there are layers to this.
I really appreciate this post, very much, and from it, connected with an intuitive sense of balance.
Rebecca Kiel says
I like this post. I would just like to add more emphasis on commitment. At the times when self-doubt isn't the useful editing offspring of confidence, but of the paralyzing I-should- just -give -up variety, we have this option:
When I find myself thinking, "I am such a fraud Then I say to myself, "perhaps I am a fraud but I'm doing this anyway." Then I get back in there. Commitment…can't write books without it.
Sylvie Morgan Flatow says
Really nice post that, if needed, doesn't even have to apply to writing. Hope you're well, Nathan!
Nathan, Thank you so much for posting this excerpt from my post on the Forums! It's funny how self-doubt works. I was in a really bad way on the day that I wrote that post in your forums: strung up, dejected, and downright hard on myself. Basically, I received a critique that my language is too high brow and I shouldn't use so many "dictionary" words. The critiquer didn't have any problems with my plot, story, or interest level but wanted me to dumb down my writing to make it more "mainstream."
So, I took a long hard look at my writing. And, this is what I discovered: I need to have the confidence not to write like everyone else. It's okay for me to write a fantasy novel that uses good language and high-calibre descriptions. It is okay to appeal to the intelligent rather than the masses.
I will continue doubting my work — resulting in agonies over the proper word in the particular paragraph — but I also need to stand up for it. As you said, it's all about confidence. Thank you for this post. I'm going to bookmark it and refer back when I'm feeling down about my writing.
John Rose Putnam says
Some days very much like this one, I wonder what in the world I'm doing all of this writing for anyway. And then, as if guided by an unseen hand from a far, I stumble upon a message like yours. Thank you so much, Nathan.
Dean Koontz is wrong, definitely! The crown belongs to me, and no others. I am the King of self-doubt; I never managed to finish a story – my greatest achievement in the past twelve months or so.
I think it takes an extra push to finish what you start. The extra push is like that of a woman birthing a baby.
If you invest the energy to conceive a story (baby) and carry it for a season, it makes sense to go ahead and give birth to it; although that happens through travail (labor).
Anna Meredith says
Curled up with my insecurities last night after writing a blog, I recognized that it is our quirks and eccentricities that we hide from the world which are exactly what makes us unique. Mandela says, "as we let our own light shine we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same." Thanks, Nelson and Nathan.
I agree with you there are many writers with overconfidence certainly not willing to show their shortcomings or the fact that they sometimes lack confidence, thanks for a wonderful article.
in Self Confidence Deal with the difficulties