The Writer Doubt Epidemic: Why it hits us all, and how to strike back

1159639_doubtI have been doubting myself as a writer lately. A lot. Specifically, I’ve been doubting the quality of my fiction. Wondering if I did things completely wrong.

I do that from time to time. It goes in cycles. Working on “Writing for You: A Novelist’s Guide to the Craft of Fiction” has really got me thinking about the mechanics of creative writing.

As an MA in literature studies who completed doctoral coursework, I know I can pick apart literature. I can describe good writing and good fiction. I was trained for years to do that. That’s how my blog evolved to be what it is. And I wonder:

Am I a case of “Do as I say, not as I do?”

A case of “Those who can’t do, teach?”

I’d like to think I’m not. I have plenty of good reviews that say I’m not, though I do have some bad reviews and mixed reviews thrown in there.

The thing is, everybody gets those bad reviews. And mixed reviews. Every writer doubts his or herself from time to time.We all have an inner editor who loves to kill our confidence flat. (This post is one of my favs: all about how the inner editor attacks.)

Doubting is normal. In its way, it’s a good thing. No author who thought he could “write no wrong” and had no room for improvement would be a person I’d want anything to do with. And that author’s work would probably be swill.

Today’s post, then, is a PSA to announce: it’s normal, and natural, and all right to doubt yourself. Keep that in mind as you search inside yourself and rediscover your inner writer. The you that has to tell a story the way a shark has to swim, or it dies.

It dies! Dies if it doesn’t swim!

thought you'd see a shark here, didn't you? FISH FACE TIME!

thought you’d see a shark here, didn’t you? FISH FACE TIME!

Just to show how normal doubting is, I’m going to throw my own doubts out there. I’m going to put them in categories, so my fellow writers can see we are all the same.

  • DID I PUBLISH TOO SOON? This one is pretty much omnipresent. Was my novel good enough? Should I have split “The Crimson League” into two novels and worked for more development? Should I have edited it more? Had more beta readers?
  • DID I EDIT TOO MUCH? Did I pull a classic “Victoria” and tinker with something so much that I made it worse? Did I effectively break something that was working? Was my “cure” worse than the “disease”?
  • ARE MY CHARACTERS DYNAMIC ENOUGH? ARE THEY REAL PEOPLE? The more I write about character, and explore characterization as a “science” on the blog and in my writer’s handbook, the more I don’t want to think about my characters. Because I’m a perfectionist, and I fear they don’t hold up.
  • I AM COMMITTING THE UNFORGIVABLE SIN OF BORING MY READER. I sometimes worry about this in regards to book II of my trilogy. Book I and Book III are classic sword and sorcery. Book II is slower. A bit more political. A bit more of a coming of age story. There is action and danger, for sure, but not as much and of a slightly different kind. Many people have liked the book. Others have told me they preferred Book I. (Which is fine. Book II is different from the first installment, so everyone is going to prefer one or the other. That’s how things go.)
  • I DON’T HOLD UP TO THE COMPETITION. I think of myself as a little fish swimming among big ones. I worry I won’t be noticed, and to be honest, a part of me is frightened I will be noticed. The more noticed I become, the more people will read my work. The more people who read, the greater the number who haven’t liked the book. I have to remind myself: it’s honestly all right if some people don’t like the book.

I hope I’m not coming across as though I’m in some kind of existential authorial crisis. I’m definitely not.  I am actually doing great. I could not be more excited about “Writing for You,” and I have been getting slow but steady streams of positive feedback on my trilogy.

This post is about describing in detail the doubts that flicker here and there in the author part of my brain, really delving into them, in order to make some points.

Like I said before: to point out we all go through these doubts.

To point out most of us will always be the harshest critics of our own work. We will always see the flaws and the minor issues. The key is not to let minor textual issues become major confidence issues. No novel is ever “perfect.”

To point out that none of us is ever satisfied with our own writing. We always, and should always, strive for improvement. At some point that means moving on to a second, third, or fourth novel and writing one that’s better than what we wrote before, rather than continuing to “fix up” an older piece that is good enough to be, or has been, published.

In order to drive those points home, I had to really blow the doubting up so it could be seen and studied, if that makes sense.

How does the doubt get you? What are your coping strategies to restore momentum and keep yourself feeling positive? (I reread a good review, or remind myself my perfectionism is acting up and nothing more. No big deal.)

There’s nothing like a group therapy session, haha! I feel better just having written this post.

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51 responses to “The Writer Doubt Epidemic: Why it hits us all, and how to strike back

  1. I am writing this precisely because I doubt myself as a writer. I find it easier to respond to your blog than create something original and present it in a way that is interesting.

    Someone once said (I can’t remember who), that a work of art is never finished, just abandoned. But that doesn’t apply to me because what I write could never be described as art.

    • I think all writing is art in its way: even scientific writing. I guess it depends on how you look at it!

      I love that quote. I don’t know who said it either, but it’s very true, and I think it’s one of the most difficult parts of being a writer: knowing when to abandon your novel. I guess it’s like a parent sending a kid off to college in some ways 🙂

      One way, you know, to get the creative juices flowing is just to write. Set aside fifteen minutes and write. Don’t worry if it’s good. If it’s original. You don’t ever have to show it anybody else. But a habit of simply writing will get you to the place where you are original and interesting and are producing something that really makes you think and that you’re proud of.

      Just a thought if you’re struggling right now. I’ve definitely been there. Definitely.

      • My comments were slightly tongue in cheek, but still targeting my own frailties. To begin with, I was mashing the art and craft of writing into one. I know that I still have a lot to learn about the craft. In fact, your earlier and much appreciated blog about “IT” helped me take another step along that particular path. “Art”, on the other hand, is something for others to judge.

        My actual stumbling block at the moment is that I have been writing short pieces that paddle about in the shallows of meaning and now I feel that I should tackle deeper waters; but the fear of drowning is daunting me. So perhaps, earlier, I was drowning, not waving. (With apologies to Stevie Smith). 🙂

        • hahaha! 😛 Got ya. There really is a thin line between the science and art of writing. some of it IS science. There are definitely scientific aspects, many of them.

          Best of luck going into deeper waters!!! Try not to worry about drowning. You won’t drown. The worst that can happy is that you aren’t happy with the piece and you’ll learn from it. I try to think of branching out as experimentation and having fun and trying something new rather than taking things to the next level. It makes me less serious and helps me feel more confident.

          And I’m so glad the “it” post helped you! 😛 I really do like that one. It’s gotten lots of positive feedback and writing it was a great reminder for me as well. Put style back at the forefront.

  2. Thank you for telling us that we are not alone. I’ve been trying my hand at fiction for a while but I never completed anything I started, simply because it lost its charm to me after a point. So thank you.

    • You’re welcome! I’m glad the post was encouraging! You can always go back to an old project after a break: I’ve done that. Or you can start something new. If novels end up feeling too “big” you can write short stories. I’ve always said I want to write more stories but I haven’t written one in years.

      I’ve definitely reach the point on each novel I’ve written where it’s lost its charm. It’s so, so hard to power through at that point and remember why I liked the project in the first place!

  3. I think doubt is what has me slowed down recently. That and a slew of birthdays, anniversaries, and family visits, but I digress. I’ve found that my most recent book is coming out differently than the last 4. Every chapter seems to have at least one big action scene, which is needed. The subtle investigation and the defensive actions of the earlier books has been replaced by the full-on melees. I’m not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing. Every fight is necessary, but I’m worried that my readers will be thrown off when they come to this book. So, I write slower and doubt almost every line.

    • I doubted in just the opposite way for my second book: it felt too slow. Slower than normal. Not enough melees.

      If they’re needed, then they’re needed. I personally think it’s fun when a series book isn’t the same thing over and over and over again. That works for me in TV episodes but I prefer more variation and development in series novels. I’m sure a large part of your readers will feel the same way!

      Beta readers who are familiar with your other work can give you feedback once you’re done. But I totally get how when you’re doubting whether the book will please your readers, it’s hard to write. That is so, so hard.

      Easier said than done, but try to trust yourself. You write tons and you have lots of experience. If you feel those scenes need to be there, even if they’re a bit different from your norm, then I’d bet you know what you’re doing 🙂

      • Thanks. I know the next book won’t be as action-packed, so maybe it’s the trade-off. It could be with a long series that you hit a book where several conflicts and emotions come to a head, so everyone is going to throw down with each other. Though, I can’t believe the list of fight types on this one. I’m tempted to list them in a post to see what reactions I get.

        • that makes sense, that you’d have a bit of ebb and flow in a long series. Total sense. With readers invested in your characters, they’ll be fine with a bit less or more action in one installment than they find in their favorite one. That’s what I tell myself, at least.

          And that post sounds like a lot of fun!!!

        • I keep joking that this is the only book in my series that I would let Michael Bay touch.

        • hahahaha!!!!!!! I just snorted on my cereal. Seriously.

  4. Oh dear. Doubt. I actually amuse myself sometimes because I fluctuate so drastically between loving what I write and thinking it sucks. Like, from one day to the next. I’ve contemplated quitting writing practically on a weekly basis for the past few years. I think I’ll never be good enough. I read someone else’s book and I think, “I’ll never write something that good!” Mostly what I do to deal with the doubt is wait for it to pass, because I’ve learned that it does pass. And then I just focus on getting better at writing.

    Thank you for this post! It feels so nice to know I’m not alone. So many of the weird things we experience as writers turn out to be something all writers go through.

    PS: I had so much trouble writing this comment. My cat kept clicking my mouse and pressing my keys. That also seems to be a common writer problem, from what I’ve heard. 😛

    • oh my gosh, the kitties! gotta love the kitties, even when they get in the way 😛

      I’m so glad you said that about fluctuating from “I write pretty well” to “I am horrible and what the heck am I thinking, thinking I can write?” I do the same thing. I think we all do that and we need to know it’s normal or we will give up.

      Like you said: it’s about waiting for the doubt to pass, realizing we all can keep developing and our writing does have strengths, and keeping plodding on.

  5. Yup, Victoria, I should say that’s absolutely normal. For myself, I saunter between literary genius and posturing clown… Most of my writing friends and acquaintances have said the self same thing about themselves and their work. I think that the real test is when you read back over things you’ve written, at a much later date. If they make you cringe, then they’re probably cringe-worthy! I can’t bear to read more than a few sentences of my first three efforts. Later ones, I can. I’d known for a long time what a good book was, but that isn’t the same thing as being able to write one. That takes time and commitment.

    And I think that you’re right that doubt is productive, up to a point. If a writer doesn’t question his or her work and isn’t prepared to put in the time to improve it, why should a reader bother to read it?

    • You are so right. Every writer cycles between faith in his or her abilities and belief that everything s/he’s ever written is utter swill. I think it comes with the creative territory and the fact that any and all art involves that inherent risk of rejection by many (and always, rejection by some). I love the way you describe the “posturing clown” phase. That’s EXACTLY how I feel at the low points.

  6. I have so many doubts lately! First of all, I have 8 books published -9 by the end of the month – and I feel like I should be making more from them than I am. (Yes, I’ve been lax on promo in recent months, but I have goals to get back to that. Because of the lack of steady sales, I over analyze what I could be doing wrong, despite the positive reviews.

    The book I’m editing now (Oct release) is completely different than what I’ve been writing, while staying in the same genre. It also deals with a lot of things that I’m not familiar with and a non-linear timeline. So, my doubts there are: Will my readers enjoy it? Can I get new readers? Did I include enough research ? Too much? How much can I deviate from how things are typically done? Some things are flexible, others are not. It’s a massive balancing act that’s making me nervous.

    Great post! I love your blog!

    • Thanks so much! I definitely understand the doubts that arise when sales are slow/nonexistent. I’m in the same boat right now, because like you, I don’t have time to promo. I’m job hunting. When I”m not job hunting I’m running the blog or working on my writer’s handbook. That’s pretty much my life right now.

      It’s discouraging, and it does make me wonder if my books just aren’t good, you know? UGH! :-/ That’s life, I guess!

      • The doubt is made even worse by the fact that the ‘experts’ say the next book will sell your last. You have to decide what to spend time on, writing or promotion.

        Further complicated because I’m an editor, so I see really great books and not so great books (inserting LOL in narration about life in the 1950s South, for example) and seeing those not so great books doing better than mine… It just makes me want to bang my head on something hard while reevaluating what I’m doing.

  7. I try to write for me. Writing was my love long before it was my work; so, I try to get back to why I write and the joy it brings. When I let go of the idea of writing for others, I can keep going.
    J.G. Chayko

    • I could not agree more. That is exact reason I titled my writer’s handbook “Writing for You.” It has got to be about fulfilling yourself in some way. It’s got to be. Or you’ll never get through it.

  8. I doubt myself a lot as a writer, mainly because I also feel I should’ve waited longer before releasing my book, so I could’ve polished it more. Now as I write it’s sequel, I’m putting loads of pressure on myself to not only write better, but to fix what should’ve been fixed in the first book. As in, make up for what should’ve been done right the first time around.

    • I feel that EXACT same way, Megan! Oh my gosh, thanks for commenting and letting me know I’m not the only one who used a sequel to fix things!

      • No problem! I had to ask around writing forums to make sure that was OK. After all, I kind of wish I had written my characters differently, but I don’t want to make it so obvious that I am cleaning up my mess – or supposed mess 🙂

        • yeah, that is the key. When you realize something needs clarification, clarifying it in a natural and fun way in the sequel is challenging, but I had fun doing it. Feel horrible about my writing skills aside 🙂

  9. This is exactly what I needed to hear today! Thanks for being so transparent and sharing this with the rest of us who are in the same boat.

  10. Victoria, I’ve been noticing you a lot on the author’s discussion page on Facebook. After reading this very personalized article about not only your writing, but yourself, I’ve decided to actually look into your work.
    First and foremost, let me congratulate you on actually being one of those writers that gives a damn and offers quality work; some may call that insecurity, but when it comes to the world of literature, it’s a grand trait to possess.
    So, after finishing this, I read both your reviews and your previews on Amazon… annnd, let’s face it, your only 2-star rating was from someone who probably didn’t have the patience to read a fantasy book. He/she was in the right place at the wrong time.
    So that’s one area you can ease up on a little bit. After I self-published through Amazon, my 2-star review was a harsh dagger in the gut… but it was also a fantastic chance to realize what I was doing wrong.

    I can’t offer any real help to ease your mind at this point (as you’ve undoubtedly been writing longer than I have), but I can reassure you by saying that I’ve purchased a copy of your story on my Kindle.

    Best wishes in all your writing endeavors!

    • oh my gosh, thank you so much for your comment!!! It means than I can say! It is so nice to hear that giving a damn can make a difference for me as well as for others.

      I really do hope you enjoy the novel. I had a blast putting it together over the years and working on it and then working some more.

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  12. I think one of the advantages to Writer’s Doubt is that it keeps you grounded. If you don’t doubt yourself every once in a while you may be publishing mountains of rubbish that not even seagulls would fancy.

    Even season veterans of various jobs; writers, musicians, or performers have a sense of doubt in themselves and it can only serve to make you better if you take it to heart and further study where you might have gone wrong.

  13. Man, this hits me where I live. How do I deal with doubt? Imperfectly. I pout and whine about it, which gets me nowhere. I whine to my writer friends. Then I read some positive feedback I received. I pray, then I try again. Because in the end, I have to keep trying to move past the doubt.

    • That’s the key, for sure. We all have to keep plugging along and doing what we can with the time and resources we have. It isn’t easy, but it does help me to know other writers doubt themselves the same way and for the same reasons I do.

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  15. Oh, yes, the doubt…. I too go back and forth between thinking my work is good to thinking it’s total crap and why did I ever believe I could do this. I’m working on the second book in my series, and in some ways it’s more difficult than the first. I worry that I’m not doing justice to my characters and that my readers won’t love them as much as I do. I worry that the story is moving in the wrong direction–though I know that down deep it feels like that’s where it has to go. And I doubt my ability to pull this thing off. But I just keep, as you say in your comment above, “plugging along and doing what [I] can.” And, in a non-schadenfreude kind of way, I take comfort in the fact that we are all in this together. As you point out so well, we all doubt ourselves. And that’s normal. So we just say to The Doubt, “Thanks for sharing. I need to go write some more now.”

    • Thanks so much for sharing. It sounds to me like you have a really healthy mindset approaching your second novel, and you’re considering all the right things. Best of luck to you!

      I love that quip to the writer’s doubt. I need to remember that!

  16. Reblogged this on Lara S. Chase and commented:
    As I’m in the middle of intensive edits, Victoria’s post couldn’t have come at a better time. It’s worth a read for any of you, like me, that have ever felt you’re writing meaningless drivel. Lie down and let the feeling pass. Then get up and start writing again.

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  18. Re-reading good reviews is the more direct cure, yes, but re-reading older material helps too. Every once in a while, an author needs to get away from the first/second/third draft because early drafts are always crap and go re-read something that’s in the 15th draft

  19. Self-doubt: A perfectionist’s greatest enemy.

    I almost envy those authors who are not perfectionists. The thing is, no matter how much we perfectionists work on our projects, they will never be perfect. Never. This is a hard lesson for a perfectionist. (It was for me.) At some point we must call a halt to our work and share what we have. We know it will be torn apart by some who review it, but that would happen even if we reached a point where we thought our work was perfect. We should do the best we can in a reasonable amount of time and then give the results of our efforts to the world. We will learn from our mistakes and make our next projects better.

    • I could not have said it better myself! We perfectionists have to learn that letting something go when it’s ready but not “perfect” isn’t settling, it’s doing what we need to do. If we waited until something was perfect, it would never be read by anyone.

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