Self Confidence and Writing

I’ve covered this subject in previous articles, but lots of you have been in touch asking about it, so it’s time for another visit to a common subject that clearly affects a lot of writers.
Self-confidence is a bit of an enigma. Outside of writing, most people are confident about many things in their daily lives, but the psychology behind what goes on when that confidence does an about-turn goes much deeper for writers, because often they go from confident and assured about their work, to doubtful and uncertain in the space of days.

But why?  Well, it usually happens the moment they have to submit their work for scrutiny by their peers, i.e. sending a MSS to an agent or publisher. The ‘jitters’ set in and they turn on their heels and run for the hills (metaphorically speaking).
This isn’t uncommon, however. Plenty of writers lose confidence in themselves (and their ability) when the moment comes to send off their masterpiece to the big bad agents and publishers. Suddenly they are confronted with the prospect of criticism and possible rejection (the two things writers dread most). The natural reaction to this is that they delay sending their novel out – sometimes for a long while, in order to avoid the inevitable.

All writers have, at some point, stuttered at the thought of letting go of their work and subjecting it critique (whether that criticism is positive or negative). Even long-established and experienced writers have had a confidence wobble or two in their careers.  And many more writers will approach that point. 
But what really makes otherwise ordinarily, confident writers refrain from sending out their work? What other reasons are there for a confidence meltdown?

Here’s a few you might recognise.
Just a few more changes…

The writer thinks that a few more tweaks to the story can make it absolutely 100% perfect. Because a submission needs to be the best it can possibly be, after all, right? 
Well, to a degree, yes.  It should be the best you can make it. It can’t be perfect, because perfection doesn’t exist, but the only drawback to this is that it creates a self-perpetuating circle of hopelessness. The writer will keep tweaking and changing and editing tinkering. The result? Nothing will ever get sent out.

Underneath this desire for perfection is a writer who actually lacks the confidence in what they’ve created, because fear of anything other than perfection will, in their minds, lead to failure.
Of course, this really isn’t true.  Success or failure cannot be measured by fear. Writers cannot let lack of confidence and fear of failure hold them hostage. 

The novel/story just isn’t good enough
Whether the story is good enough or not, in the writer’s mind, all confidence up to that point flies out the window. The shutters come down and the writer becomes blinkered, totally convinced that the story just isn’t good enough.  And if it isn’t any good, no publisher or agent will think it’s any good either.

This irrational thought process comes from the writer’s confidence in the mechanics of the story. Whether the story is really good or bad is irrelevant. It’s about the ability to have faith in the story and the characters, the themes and the plot etc, to have enough of that confidence to send it out to prospective agents and to learn from whatever might come back.
This sudden fall in confidence might come about for a number of reasons – the writer compares him or herself to famous, successful writers and realises the story just isn’t anywhere as good.  Another reason might be that the writer has read a similar great story by another author.  Again, the comparison is automatically made – in the writer’s mind his or her story isn’t good enough.

I’m not a good enough writer
Similar to not having enough confidence in the story they’ve created, this one centres wholly on the lack of confidence with their ability and skill.

Again, it doesn’t actually matter how good or experienced the writer is, it is really about the level of confidence that can let them down. This type of insecurity usually stems from writers directly comparing themselves to other authors and making the assumption that they will never be as good as they are.
What they don’t realise, however, is that many famous authors had to fight hard to be published in the first place. Not only that, but every writer is different; the way they write is different, their tones and styles might be different. The way some approach writing is quite different. No writer is the same.

Sometimes we lack the confidence to just jump into the deep end and swim for it.  But that’s how to get on with writing and the publishing world. Yes, rejections will happen, but more often than not, writers learn from them and become better. And yes, stories may not be that good, but again, writers will learn to make them better and stronger. And just because you are not Stephen King, Shakespeare or Salman Rushdie, you should not compare yourself with them.  Every writer is individual; therefore every piece of work is, too.
Of course, where there are those who turn into a quivering wreck at the thought of sending of their work, there are also those with an abundance of confidence. So much, in fact, that it becomes detrimental.

Having a quiet, balanced confidence is one thing, but having too much confidence that it borders arrogance will get a writer noticed for all the wrong reasons.  Over the last 25 years I’ve learned to spot these easily while critiquing. When someone tells me how great their story is; how fantastic the characters are, how it was written so easily and with little effort and how everyone who has ever read the story says how good the story is, I know that it will be a car crash. And sadly, I’ve always been proved right. 
Why? Because over-confidence is nature’s way of hiding the reality of truth.  And no one wants to admit their own shortcomings and inadequacies. We would rather lie to ourselves and bolster such failings instead. Overconfidence becomes a by-product of that process.

And sadly, these kinds of writers will never find true success.
Think of confidence as a fluid entity – it can move and change in depth and breadth. It can grow and become stronger.  It can also shrink and become weak and vanish.

Lack of confidence is all about fear.  Confidence can be bolstered or broken in an instant by circumstances, ourselves or our peers.  But it’s how a writer deals with it that makes the difference.
Jump in at the deep end, take a chance. Be quietly confident.

Next week: Creating character dynamics


  1. My problem when writing is that I often compare my writing with other writing that I read. I will often think that my writing is elementary level and I won't want to continue it, when it is actually good. This will happen without me noticing too. So then I end up doing it to everything I write.

    1. I also struggle with this. My trick to dealing with it is by convincing myself that some out there will like what I've written, even if I currently don't. I find that this helps most of the time, but I'm still crippled by self doubt sometimes. I guess it's just one of those things we have to deal with as writers.

    2. I found that my self doubt eventually disappeared the more experienced I became; I eventually realised it was down to my perception of what others would think...and to ignore it!

  2. Hi there.

    What you've described is quite common; all writers do it to a degree. By comparing our work with others, especially big famous authors, we allow self doubt to creep in, simply because these writers are published and established, therefore their work MUST be better right?

    Not necessarily. There is some bad writing out there, even among famous authors. The trick is to step away from the obvious comparisons, to train your mind NOT to compare, that every author is different and unique. It isn't easy, it takes time, but eventually your mind will tune into your own writing, voice, style and uniqueness and allow you to stop those comparisons.

    The more you write, the better you become, and those comparisons vanish.


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