A creature lurks inside every writer’s brain. For some, he’s small and stealthy. For others, he’s gargantuan and grumpy. Sometimes he breathes fire, and sometimes he sneezes slime. He can be scaly or amphibious, clumsy or graceful, rank or aromatic. But, regardless of his appearance and personality, he always sabotages creative expression.
He hisses fear into your ear, barely audible, but your imagination magnifies his voice until the walls of your mind are quaking from the reverberation. What if no one likes my writing? What if readers don’t find it compelling, informative, or interesting? What if I accidentally break some rules or regurgitate a cliché? What if my inclination to weave words is foolish because I’m not talented enough to produce material worth reading?
Soon you’re staring at the blank page, paralyzed and uninspired.
The beast has won. Or has he?
The dominant side of his persona, which I’ll call Debilitating Doubt, needs muzzling. He conspires to convince you that you’re not good enough and never will be, so it’s pointless to try. He’s especially troublesome to repress if you tend to be pessimistic, because he chokes on positive thinking.
However, the other half of the creature can be tamed and even trained to goad you into action. Driving Doubt is as deft at detecting faults as his counterpart, but he doesn’t blow them out of proportion if you keep a tight lead on his roar. With proper handling, he can become an ally who will alert you to pitfalls.
To subjugate each of the monster’s heads, all you need is a battle plan and change of mindset.
Defeating Debilitating Doubt
Strategy #1: Examine Your Focus.
How do you define success as a writer? What will make you feel fulfilled? Glorifying God? Captivating and impacting readers? Finishing a novel? Getting published? Becoming famous? Winning an award? Having fun? Writing a story that hasn’t been told yet? You probably are spurred by all or most of these motivations, none of which are inherently wrong. But fixating on the temporal rather than the eternal will fuel the monster.
If you seek to serve the Lord first and foremost, your perception of failure won’t be a rejection letter or receiving a bad review on Amazon, but of neglecting to nurture the talent He’s blessed you with. Rather than worrying what any and every publisher/agent/editor/reader might think of your writing, you’ll pour your energy into pursuing excellence in your craft, because that’s what the Lord asks of you—to exert your best effort, not meet someone else’s expectations. This helps eliminate some pressure.
God sees each word you peck out, each sentence you labor over, and each chapter you build. He knows your heart and intent. He desires to refine you through every endeavor—just like you forge change in your characters by generating conflict as they’re chasing a goal. Although the task will be difficult, and the results may not be exactly what you hope, nothing done in God’s name is ever wasted.
Whether your book is read by five people or five thousand, you can rest in the assurance that God has ensured your words reach the people who need them. Trusting in His wisdom and timetable will allay much of your authorial anxiety.
Strategy #2: Believe in Yourself.
This probably sounds like a trite shred of advice that should be tossed into the garbage. But if you won’t be your own advocate, no one else will. Remember that you’re not etching words into stone—you’re sketching a rough draft which can be modified or even scrapped later. Although it’s wise to be aware of deficiencies in your skills, when you’re feeling insecure, you’ll be more productive if you concentrate on your strengths.
Instead of cringing at the typos that litter your work, applaud yourself for exceeding your word-count goal for the day. Instead of bemoaning your meager experience, pat yourself on the back for grasping a new technique. Instead of comparing yourself to other authors, recognize that every writer is gifted with a unique perspective and set of abilities—including you.
Strategy #3: Write Selfishly.
I can hear you all gasping. Am I suggesting that you always write for sheer pleasure, without regard for rules or consideration for others? Of course not. But you’ll be devoting hours upon hours of time to develop, research, polish, and market your ideas—if your heart isn’t invested in your project, your resolve will disintegrate rapidly.
You shouldn’t write in a certain genre solely because it’s popular; you should write that genre because you love it. You shouldn’t write about a missionary because a friend urged you to; you should write about the missionary because you admire him and feel led to record his experiences. You shouldn’t write about betrayal simply because it’ll make a heartrending plot that many can emphasize with; you should write about betrayal because you’ve endured it and are still searching for a way to heal (and maybe, through writing, you will).
Writing is a deeply personal endeavor; the more you embrace this, the more authentic your piece will be, and the more it will resonate with readers. The burdens you carry in your heart might act as an ointment to another person’s wounds, or encourage someone to persevere through a trial, or convict a reader of a sin he’s been harboring. Write freely about matters near and dear to you, and you might be surprised by the outcome.
Domesticating Driving Doubt
Trick #1: Maintain a Healthy Level of Dissatisfaction.
Once you’ve overcome your initial trepidation at assembling words on a page, the revelation that your skills and manuscript aren’t as stellar as they could be will transform from a catastrophe into a challenge. You’ll accept that you have room to improve, and though it may be accompanied by pain, you can bear it because you now realize that the only person you’re competing against is yourself. Discontentment with your aptitude as a writer will propel you onward to greater feats and inhibit you from slipping into mediocrity.
When you review your writing, what flaws do you sense? Ask your writing consorts whether they’ve observed any recurring foibles in your work. Listen to their advice—and your internal critic—without allowing discouragement to seep in. If a character arc needs strengthened, strengthen it. If a chapter needs revised, revise it. If your sentence structure needs corrected, correct it. Don’t agonize over the process or beat yourself up. Just keep learning and applying and growing.
Trick #2: Build Confidence Tempered with Humility.
Eventually you’ll reach a point in your journey where you know who you are as a writer and which styles and techniques you’ve chosen to adopt or discard. You’ll have been published, proving you understand how to communicate your ideas effectively. You’ll edit without overanalyzing, and you’ll welcome feedback but won’t heed every suggestion (professional or not) thrown at you. Maybe you’ll even start coaching writers less experienced than you.
When you arrive at this apex, you’ll face two dangers: losing your footing to either self-deprecation or arrogance. Most talented people struggle more with the former, but no one is immune to the latter attitude either. This is when you need to perform some soul searching. How do you view yourself?
If you’re a perfectionist and tend to be hypercritical, your work is probably not as horrible as you’re apt to think. To stop yourself from backsliding into the monster’s jaws, reminisce of your accomplishments and the praise you’ve received. On the other hand, if writing with abandon is second nature to you, and you don’t usually notice your faults until someone else does, acknowledge that your work may require extra scouring before it’s ready to be shared with others—regardless of your publishing credits. Reread your older writing to remind yourself that you once were an amateur and some of your bad habits might resurface.
I believe God instills a measure of self-doubt in everyone—but writers especially—to prevent ego inflation. Writers hold the power to engage and influence audiences on a large scale. When fans are continually gushing over your stories (even if those fans are merely family and friends), it can be easy to start feeling like you have the craft down pat and that the world owes you acclaim. Doubt rears his head to keep you from becoming intolerable. Maybe your work is a masterpiece, or maybe it’s rubbish (it’s likely somewhere in between); you’ll never confirm for certain.
However, you shouldn’t allow this humility-inducing creature to become a hindrance to your calling. Lasso that monster and teach him to behave!