How to Manage Self-Doubt When Writing

There are ideas. There are good ideas, great ideas. And then there are those ideas that come to you like a lightning strike, hit you in the face and leave you sitting on the floor in the middle of the night breathing heavily, questioning life. Those ideas that let you mumble to yourself: “I’m a genius.” This might possibly the best idea I’ve ever had, this is what I have been waiting on for weeks now. This is the solution to all my problems, my salvation, this is my break-through. Those ideas that send you of running through the house, singing, laughing, crying. Those ideas you don’t want to let go and that you congratulate yourself shamelessly for.

I’ve had a couple of them.

Then I threw them in the bin again.

Let me explain.

Option 1:

Those late-night epiphanies and wonderful story ideas that always come to me are – when revisited in proper daylight, frankly said – utter bullshit. They would never work, they are just a product of my sleep-deprived brain, of my overworked self trying to live in a different world. Straight up: This might just be escapism. I might have spend all night fantasising about that genius idea. About that fantasy story, that gigantic thriller I want to write. When looking at those in the morning I laugh at myself how stupid I have been. A shame to even call them ideas…

Option 2:

I forget them.

Up to this point I have forgotten so many ideas that I had when just going to sleep, too tired to write anything down anymore. The next morning they have left me. The genius has traded in a good night’s sleep with that idea. Well done. Maybe it wasn’t that good anyway.

Option 3:

I awake, remember that great idea I had and instantly start doubting myself. This is a part of the actual talk I had with myself recently about a novel idea:

“Alright, you just came up with the genius idea that connects everything you ever wanted to write about.”

“Well, but what if this is just a bad idea I had because I needed to at least write something?”

“No, you had that idea because you were ready for it and because you deserve to have that idea. It’s yours! And it’s not written yet, so go sit at your laptop.”

“The exam phase is soon, how am I going to find the time to write this? It’s a shitty concept. I just don’t buy it. Who am I to think I could write? Nobody has ever said that I’m good at what I’m doing.”

“You know as well as me that this is not true. Your friends, your dad… all the lovely people on your blog…”

“Maybe they just wanted to be nice! It’s so pretentious that I’m trying to write! I don’t have any experiences, what am I going to write about? I don’t know anything!”

“Then do research.”

“On what? You need to have lived for a while to write a novel, to be able to include your own story…”

“Think of that twelve year old who wrote several novels and made that Ted Talk. She hasn’t got that much to write about either, but she did! You are just lazy and anxious and boring. Those self-doubts do not lead you anywhere.”

“But my whole family will hate me if they read what I wrote! My friends, too! Everyone is going to hate me! I’m a shame to my family.”

“Listen, it’s not even written yet. You are the first person to put that story on the paper and to read it. You can edit it before you give it to others. Don’t be so hard on yourself.”

“That doesn’t change that this all was a horrible idea.”

“Oh come on, get over yourself! So many people have written books already. You can do that, too! You have done Nanowrimo! Twice!”

“That’s something different.”

“No it isn’t! You have written every freaking day, made a habit out of that. That’s exactly what you are going to do now. You are going to write every single day until you get better at what you are doing. Those self-doubts will never go away but at least you will not be bad at writing anymore if you do it often enough. Now give yourself some rest and read a book.”

This is also a strategy to get some writing done, I just noticed. Type out the dialogues you have with yourself. If there is no one else to talk to. What a sad existence I’m leading here. Writers are lonely people. No wonder they are always dealing with self-doubt. What distinguishes published authors from those who just have their first novels in their desk drawers? They beat through their own self-doubt. They wrote every single day until they got better. They still experience the crippling anxiety of creation but they trust their senses, they trust their instinct, they trust themselves. That’s the difference. Now go and write down your freaking idea.

Here are some methods I have used to beat this anxiety:

Allow yourself to write shit. Shit is great! Include swearwords in your writing. It frees your creative energy that is often centred against yourself. Shout at the paper you are writing on, get those negative feelings out.

Write anyway. Not feeling well? Start a collection of weird words and write about why you think they are weird. Write down a conversation you had today – doesn’t matter if it was with yourself or another person. Analyse the speech. Write different versions of that dialogue. Try to convey as much emotions as possible. Use different words and see how they sound.

Stream of consciousness. I love that technique. It’s brilliant. You set a timer and then write everything down that comes to your mind in that amount of time. Try to not stop while typing. Try to get everything out. It’s like a cleaning mechanism. Scrub your brain, my friend! Get all the bad stuff out and then you can properly start writing. Create a document for these kinds of texts. Write in it every day before your writing session. I called mine: “Some Weird Stuff”.

Let other people read what you write. Even if it is just small essays. Put it out there. Get some feedback. In the end, the critical comments will be the most helpful to you. For example, I learned through a friend of mine that I use far to many adjectives and too much descriptive language. I have to shorten my sentences. Make them more precise. Create music. Give my writing a rhythm. Oh, and I have to work on my dialogues. I noticed that myself: They are horrible.

Get your friends to read your texts and ask them for honest, constructive criticism. If they are true and great friends, they will give it to you. They will help you to become a better writer.
Step back from the idea. Ideas are great when you initially have them. Then life happens. They only get worse with time. Try to only think about them when you are writing. The shiny new effect wears off even more quickly if you constantly daydream about the idea. Give it some time and some thought. Don’t beat yourself up.

Identify the source of your doubts. Is it yourself? Society? Your friends? Where does this anxiety come from? Once you have found the source you have to options: a) work through it anyway and ignore the doubts b) give in and let go. It’s an active choice you have to make. Write your decision down, right after the idea you had.

I choose to pursue this idea no matter what because it is important to me.

I choose to let this idea go and look for something else instead.

Now comes the most essential part:

Let it go. If you have beat yourself up over an idea too much. If you have suffered too much. If you can’t sleep because of your anxiety: Stop. If it turns you into a self-hating, crying existence, it wasn’t that good of an idea. Now forget about it. Don’t try to mend it, adapt it, glue it together. That won’t work. Write the idea down on a piece of paper and then burn the paper.

Or bury it in the garden.

Or climb the highest hill in your neighbourhood, cry out in agony, stick the paper on a branch and run down with it shaking it against the sky and then collapse on the ground sobbing. Smell the earth beneath your face and rip the paper into small pieces you then let fly with the wind.

Or just throw it in the bin if you are not as dramatic as I am.

Let go. And then be happy again. Meditate or just let your mind wander. There will be other ideas. Humans are made to have ideas, to always find solutions. Maybe your next idea is just around the corner but you were too absorbed in your self-doubt that you didn’t notice it. You ignored its polite knocks on the door.

Now let it in, you are ready.

Never forget to write.

Never forget to love yourself.


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