Killing self-doubt: How to quiet that voice in your head and keep writing

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Writing is a rollercoaster. To an outside observer, it looks like you're sitting quietly in your chair tapping or scribbling away. But on the inside, you're riding highs and lows of inspiration and despair, taking on loop-the-loops of panic and frustration, holding on for dear life while wondering when on earth you can get off the ride.

You are not alone. Every writer experiences a range of emotions while writing. In your darkest moments, you will hate every word you've ever written. This is normal. Self-doubt is a natural part of writing. The key is to not let it crush you.

In fact, many writers and artists believe that self-doubt is a positive thing; it's what keeps you striving to make your work even better.

Embrace your self-doubt

To deal with your self-doubt, the first thing you need to do is to acknowledge it. It's a normal part of the writing process.

“At some point when you are writing a story, you will have a moment when you think, oh my goodness, this is terrible,” says Amie Kaufman, internationally bestselling YA author. “And in fact, I am terrible. And in fact, everything is terrible. It's all terrible and I have to start again. If I even can, because who knows if I even have any talent.”

Gus Gordon, who has written and illustrated more than 70 books for children, feels the same way. “There are times when you're writing and you think, God, how have I got away with this for so long? I am such a fraud. This is just absolute shite.”

So if you are feeling despair at any point in your writing process, you are not alone. Even bestselling authors and people who have been successfully publishing books for decades feel the same way.

Understand that your doubt will make your story better

So why is it normal to feel this terribly? It seems like a cruel fate for creative people. The saying is that you need to suffer for your art – but why should you feel so rubbish about your own work?

Many writers and artists believe that the feelings of doubt are actually a good thing. If you thought that everything you wrote was brilliant and practically perfect in every way, you wouldn't strive to get any better.

“The thing is, I think if you never have those moments, that's probably a bad sign,” says Amie. “Because the doubt and the worry are what keep you sharp and make you keep striving to do better. And if you're not striving to do better, then you're not improving.”

Gus agrees. “I think we need to be constantly critiquing and analysing our work and doubting our work in order for that work to be something of worth,” he says. “You've got to be your own worst critic. And you really have to be hard on yourself.”

Being tough on yourself forces you to work better. If you don't doubt yourself sometimes, you'll never improve. And everyone can always improve.

Push through and keep going

So knowing that doubt is a normal feeling, and knowing that it is good for your creativity, you need to feel the fear and do it anyway.

Yep. That's the best advice we have. Recognise these feelings and get on with the job.

“My process was incredibly messy, full of self-doubt, ill-feeling, avoidance,” says ARIA award-winning musician Clare Bowditch , who released her memoir our Own Kind of Girl in 2020. “My only saving grace is that I kept showing up.”

One of the things that separates successful authors from writers who haven't been published yet is that tenacity to keep going, to understand that you need to work hard to make dreams come true.

“I had two little Post-It notes on my computer, one of which said ‘play big' to remind myself to take it seriously and to actually try and make it happen,” says Kayte Nunn, internationally bestselling author. “And then the other one was just the word ‘believe'. And if ever I doubted myself, I would just look at that and repeat it, almost like a mantra to myself to keep going.”

When doubt hits you can be like Eeyore and give in. Or you can be like Dory and “just keep swimming.”

“Expect to have a very, very, very loud voice of self-doubt. That’s completely normal. That is your survival brain saying just stick to the norm and keep it simple,” says Clare. “Expect to have the voice of self-doubt there and write anyway.”

If you push yourself, you'll often be amazed at how quickly your feelings will change.

“Honestly, sometimes it could be the next day, and you think, ‘This is gonna win awards!'” says Gus. “It hurts when you do beat yourself up. But in the end, when you look back at the work, by and large there's a satisfaction that you got through and you made something nice, something worthwhile.”

Surround yourself with supportive people

Yes, creative doubt can be a battle. But you don't have to do it alone. Find other creative people who know what you're going through. Build a creativity army. Surround yourself with supportive people who can help you when you're down. And by helping them, you'll get a better understanding of how to cope with your own low moments.

“Something that Valerie and I talk about a lot is the importance and value of having writer friends,” says bestselling children's author and AWC presenter Allison Tait. “People around you who understand where you are and what you're going through and can help talk you down from the ceiling when you require talking down from the ceiling.”

One great place to start is the So you want to be a writer podcast community on Facebook. It's full of writers at every stage of their career, including beginners and published authors. Also, look out for writers groups in your local community or library. Or you can try one of our workshopping classes at the Australian Writers' Centre, such as Novel Writing Essentials, where students often make lifelong writer friends with their classmates.

Just remember, whenever you're feeling despondent about your writing, reach out for help and advice. Find a friend or fellow writer who can prop you up when you hit a low.

“I kept asking for support and help along the way. I really did,” says Clare. “From people I trusted, from other friends who had survived this process. I was able to text them and say, ‘Is this normal? I feel like giving up.' And they would say, ‘yes, that’s normal. Just keep going.'”

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