Everyone makes mistakes—even writers—but that's okay because each mistake is a great learning opportunity. The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many mistakes over the years, so we started this series to help identify them early in the process. Note: The mistakes in this series aren't focused on grammar rules, though we offer help in that area as well.
Rather, we're looking at bigger picture mistakes and mishaps, including the error of using too much exposition, neglecting research, or researching too much. This week's writing mistake writers make is allowing self-doubt to guide you.
Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Allowing Self-Doubt to Guide You
In 2015, I entered my MFA program energetic and grinning and ready to write.
In 2017, I graduated a dead-eyed husk devoid of both inspiration and the will to write.
I think a lot of people experience that dip when they take something they love and turn it into a career or study it in school. There’s something about that 24/7 grind that can blow the lights right out of you.
Since 2017, I’ve done a whole lot of editing. I worked for several wonderful editorial teams doing everything from medical textbook editing to high-fantasy novels to prescriptive nonfiction editing. I participated in (and completed!) a bunch of NaNoWriMo challenges. But I also didn’t finish a single project or even revise any old work to submit for publication. I stopped writing fan-fiction. I joined a bunch of writing groups that I never posted in and I paid for a bunch of writing courses that I never watched.
I let the doubt demons run my writing life.
What I had to learn is that self-doubt isn’t always as obvious as catching yourself thinking, “Am I ever going to be good enough to make it as a writer?” Most of the time, it’s a lot sneakier than that.
Mistake Fix: Learn to Spot Self-Doubt When It’s Not Obvious
I got to a point where I asked myself, “Do I still want to write?” It was a resounding yes. Writing is something zipped into my sense of self; I’m not being me if I’m not working on something. So, then, why wasn’t I getting anything done? After a deep-dive, I realized that self-doubt was bubbling up in ways I’d never expected.
I’ll be upfront: I allow frustration to derail me about 60 percent of the time. I’m working on it! But it is still hard. When a draft isn’t coming out the way I want it to or I realize a large hole in my plot or I just want to get into the flow of writing and I can’t, I have a tendency to rage-quit (any gamers out there familiar with that?). I might think things like “This is dumb” or “This is a waste of my time.” I might close my Google Doc tab and open up YouTube instead. Succumbing to frustration gives me the excuse to not stick to my goals.
When I find myself overwhelmed this way, I’ve learned that instead of playing into the “I’ll just watch one YouTube video” (yeah right), I remind myself of the things that I do like about my writing. I have a whole document dedicated to snippets of old material that I really love. Here’s an example from my MFA thesis project:
This was everything Mason loved about AJ: he was odd and awkward and moon-eyed. He moved as if his long, lanky body surprised him. He wrote a lot of bad poetry and even some good poetry. He wore tweed and corduroy and the occasional bow-tie. AJ was the exact opposite of everything Mason saw himself to be—soft, beautiful, and in love with the very idea of being alive.
Reading things like this bring me back to my center. I remind myself that even if my work-in-progress isn’t coming the way I want it, that’s not a representation of my work as a whole.
This comes up for a lot of writers as “I just don’t have time to write.” Some days, this is a perfectly valid excuse. When I was working two jobs, commuting by car, and trying to make sure the household wasn’t falling to rubble around me, finding time to write was both exhaustive and miserable. The trick is to figure out what’s a valid reason to take a day off and what’s self-doubt in disguise.
For me, avoidance might sound like, “I just don’t have time to put into a project right now” but what’s underneath that is “If I don’t write anything, then I won’t write anything bad.” Yikes. If I don’t write anything, then I can’t write anything good, either!
To combat this, I made it a lot easier for myself to write in small ways. I downloaded Google Docs and Evernote onto my phone, so I always have access to a writing platform. I keep a little notebook in my purse. If I have a good idea, I stop whatever I’m doing and write it down (or dictate a note to my phone). Even if I’m not writing thousands of words a day, I’m still doing small things throughout the day to participate in my project … and you’d be surprised how those little things will pile up over time.
3. Goal Setting
This one might seem strange. Don’t we use goals as a way to get things done? Yes, absolutely. But we can also use goals as an excuse not to work on a project. A big example is NaNoWriMo. There have been years where I think, “Well, I’m so far behind that I’ll never be able to catch up and complete the 50,000-word goal.” So, I just stop writing. If I were really connected with my writing mind, I would still be encouraging myself to write a little bit every day during the challenge instead of giving up completely.
A goal is not a rule. Even a small goal like “I will write 100 words a day” can seem devastating when you realize that the one-day break from it turned into a one-week break. It can convince us to spiral into thinking things like, “Why can’t I do this?” It can force us to compare ourselves to other writers we know who have similarly busy lives and still churn out book after book.
If you find yourself to be a goal-setter-and-quitter, perhaps it’s time to step away from the calendar and stop punishing yourself. When it comes to passion, there’s no deadline. If you don’t write at all today, there’s always tomorrow or next week or next month. Give yourself some space to take breaks when you need to. I’ve found it helpful that when I can’t bring myself to write, I’ll instead participate in something related to my project. I might do some research online, scroll around on Pinterest for inspiration, take personality quizzes for my characters, or even read a book in the same genre as the one that I’m writing. There are ways to engage with your work on the days that you can’t write
Self-doubt shows up differently for everyone. Sometimes, it comes up in really obvious ways; sometimes, it’s a lot more insidious. The trick is to figure out how doubt is enabling your self-sabotage and then figure out ways to combat that.