Overcoming Your Writing Fears

While most writers love to write, most writers would also admit, if they are being honest with themselves, that some level of fear trails their efforts like an undesirable relative, showing up on the doorstep at the most inopportune moments. So what are these fears?

Common fears include whether their writing or plot is "good enough," whether readers will enjoy their work or whether their ideas are sufficiently unique or their style approachable. Most certainly for debut writers, the added fear of whether they will ever find an agent and get published is thrown in for good measure. Now, how much these fears stops writers from reaching their goals varies widely. Interestingly, whether one has been published or enjoyed success in terms of sales, recognition or positive reader reviews does not seem to deter this wily tag-along.

If such fears keep you from writing, it's important to know you're not alone. For those who completed the survey after our recent summit, Conquering the Writing Blues, the most common factor writers reported as stopping their progress was fear, though the particular brand of fear varied. 

There is one notable distinction, however, on which most writing fears pivot, which means if you wrestle this particular demon to the ground, your progress forward will be far easier. Well...maybe easier as in walking up a steep hill instead of climbing Mt. Everest. Most of us can, after all, walk up a steep hill but very few of us can climb such a formidable mountain.

Skills vs. Natural Talent/Personhood

In overcoming writing fears, it is crucial to understand the subtle deception that lies at the heart of most fears, particularly as it relates to performance. First, take a moment to think about a specific accomplishment. This would be something you wanted to learn such that you took specific steps to gather the "know how" and then eventually enjoyed the positive result of your efforts. This could have been a work task, finishing an educational goal, training for a marathon, improving your parenting skills or learning how to fly fish, ski or scuba dive. Just about everything we do in life, if we do it well, requires us to become more skillful through learning and practice.

For the sake of discussion, let's consider Jennifer's cooking goal. Jennifer's parents rarely cooked and the family mostly ate fast-food, sandwiches, snacks or ready-made meals from the grocery store. This meant she had no training in food preparation nor a natural environment that supported cooking skills and she reached young adulthood almost completely absent of any finesse in the kitchen. In fact, Jennifer would admit she was a terrible cook and would easily say that she lacked any "natural talent." However, she loved the idea of serving great meals because she so enjoyed the wonderful dinners that her friends served when they gathered. The idea of being an accomplished cook became so important to Jennifer that she was determined, natural talent or not, to learn how to prepare basic meals, then more complicated ones and eventually tackle gourmet cooking.

To reach this goal, Jennifer asked her friends to teach her cooking basics, then took this knowledge and tried making her own dishes, though sometimes with terrible results. However, she didn't let her "failures" deter her; instead, her friends helped her figure out what went wrong and her mistakes decreased over time. After tackling the basics, Jennifer enrolled in cooking classes and became obsessed with watching cooking shows on TV. Even though most of the dishes were beyond her skill level, she picked up new tips with every episode. Each week, Jennifer tried out a new dish and while some were certainly "throw-aways," others were pretty good.

After a couple of years, Jennifer was proud to admit that she had become a darn good cook and learning new recipes and trying out new dishes no longer scared her. In fact, her "failures" were not met with frustration but with curiosity, as the failure became a puzzle to decode what went wrong in the recipe and how to correct it to achieve the results she wanted. Cooking and serving amazing food became a joy to Jennifer and because she loved it so much, she never stopped learning. Her skills improved each year and she even won a few baking contests.

So, what drove Jennifer to improve and to not give up? A number of factors led to her success. First, she had a strong desire and this is important because it kept her moving even in the face of discouragement or temporary setbacks. Second, she had good support with friends and this brought socialization and camaraderie into play, increasing her enjoyment of the task. Third, she made the time to take classes to expand her knowledge. After all, Jennifer couldn't know what she didn't know until she allowed herself to be taught. Fourth, she kept practicing and didn't give up, even when she failed at a particular dish.

While all these factors indeed contributed to her success, there is one particular ingredient that predicted success above all others and it's none of the things we’ve just mentioned. Any ideas? Take a moment to consider it. It's subtle but powerful.

[Cue the music!]

I'm sure you came up with great ideas! But here's the point I'm driving at: while Jennifer certainly lacked skill, early exposure to cooking basics, prior training in the art of cooking and even what she thought was the lack of natural talent...she had one very important skill in her favor. What Jennifer had was confidence that cooking was a skill she could learn.

Turns out, it was okay for Jennifer to lack confidence in her current cooking skills, so long as she retained the confidence that the skills could be learned which meant she could improve. Thus, Jennifer overcame the grave error of equating cooking skill with some inherent "talent" that she either possessed or didn't. In other words, even though she initially believed she had no natural talent, she nonetheless proceeded with the notion that being an excellent cook was something one learned. It was NOT equivalent to who she was as a person.

Who Do You Believe Yourself to Be?

Too many beginning writers come to the table with the belief that they either have talent or they don't; they're either naturally good at writing or they're not; they are either a guaranteed success or a predictable failure…and all this before they even write! Unfortunately, such beliefs are established early by many unwitting parents or writing instructors, by other writers (who are often struggling with their own self-confidence) and by the industry itself.

In our writing, don't we fear we're not good enough? Don't we fear we lack any "natural talent?" Aren't we forever afraid that we won't say it right, do it right or whatever-it-right and will be rejected? All of this means we think our style of writing or our ability to become a successful writer is equivalent to some inherent personal attribute which we either possess in some measure or we don't, regardless of our writing efforts. It's as if we believe in some fairy-tale notion that having talent means writers magically sit down and pen the greatest story ever without any prior experience or struggle!

Such a notion is not only hogwash, but far worse because it means that the act of writing serves to threaten the very essence of who we are as a person and perhaps even more dreadful, who we think others will think we are.

The truth is that writing is a skill to be learned, just as the art of cooking. The basics of story, plot, character arcs, point of view, scene, dialogue, etc. are all learnable skills. Until we've invested the time to educate ourselves on various writing skills and techniques, tried out multiple "recipes" for our plot lines and characters and learned from the success of others...the idea of talent has no real place.

Jennifer's idea of talent certainly changed as she developed her skills. Her skill evolved into what others would call talent over time as she invested effort and practice. How differently the same critic would have rated her talent in the beginning of her journey versus much later when she eventually won contests! Please remember we’re talking about the same person who would have been rejected by critics at one point and lauded by them at another. Nothing changed regarding who Jennifer was as a person. The only thing that changed was her skill level.

Now, to be sure, do different writers flavor and season their work in unique ways? Yes, most certainly. But so do different cooks. How is one outstanding version of chili "better" than another very different but outstanding version of chili or bar-b-que or apple pie? Some folks will favor one version over another but this doesn't lessen the value of either. Some folks will favor one writing style and author over another, but this also doesn't lessen the value of either. Are there some truly exceptional writers among us? Of course, but how many Shakespeare’s are there in history? This has nothing to say about the value of all the other playwrights over time or whether their audiences were equally transfixed. And to this day, not everyone loves Shakespeare!

If you have confidence that you can learn other important skills in life – and realize in fact, you've already learned many of them – then you can also have the confidence that you can learn writing skills. It will take time. It will take effort. It will take trial and error and will involve failures along the way to reach success. The trick is to view your failed efforts with curiosity and without judgment. Why didn't the story "work?" What ingredient might need to be added to enhance its flavor? What ingredient might need to be left out to make it more palatable to your intended audience? 

Recipe for Disaster

So long as you separate your personhood from your writing, it is far easier to consider your lack of success as a lack of skill rather than an inherent lack of natural talent (i.e., as an aspect of your person). To do the former is to be wide open emotionally to tackle writing projects, to learn new skills and to joyfully receive constructive feedback, even if in the form of criticism. Why? Because this isn't about your actual personhood. It's about a set of skills. In this view, the more feedback/criticism received the better because it tells you what you are doing right and upon what you could improve. The fish is the last one to know he’s in water, so an outside perspective is invaluable!

The only sure recipe for disaster is this: hiding in your room behind your computer, expecting to produce this grand masterpiece the first trip out, pursuing no further education on various writing skills and refusing to show your work to others for constructive feedback. In this scenario, your work has become synonymous with your personhood and any criticism will be felt deeply and absorbed as a personal rejection equated to low worth. Not only is this unproductive in the task of producing good writing...it is potentially dangerous for your wellbeing. There is a reason why some great writers struggle with dark, depressive thoughts.

Making Space and Making Time

If you want to write and you want to write well, then start with the idea that any skill you now lack can certainly be learned. Writing is hard work. Ask any writer. While the spark of creativity is a joy and ideas may seemingly float in on the wind, the execution of your idea is another matter entirely. There is no replacement here for the diligence and hard work required to bring a story to life and polish it for publication. This is where the investment of blood, sweat and tears is the necessary sacrifice to reach a finished product.

While there are no shortcuts, this doesn’t mean the journey has to be so treacherous as to be unattainable. Let’s look back to what helped Jennifer approach her task.

  • Tip #1-Start with a strong desire: Jennifer had a strong desire to learn how to cook!
    • Do you possess the strong desire to write? Yes? Then let that desire propel you to routinely approach the task of writing.
    • Don’t let discouragement or lack of knowledge stop you. Remember, skills can be learned!
  • Tip #2-Seek out social support: Jennifer asked for and received help!
    • Support may come in the form of encouragement from loved ones, relationships with other writers, joining writing groups, attending conferences, obtaining peer feedback/critiques, etc.
    • Make this a social affair! Avoid working in total isolation in terms of writing as a career. You may be most productive writing in a room alone while other writers get together to write (each doing their own work). Writing alone is one thing. Being alone is another. Be sure to include some form of social engagement with other writers or in writing venues so that you can get feedback and learn from others.
    • Give and receive support from other writers to increase your enjoyment of the craft.
  • Tip #3-Avoid unfair and unproductive comparisons: Jennifer studied the work of others but only to replicate the skill!
    • Do NOT compare yourself to others, just notice what works in their stories and consider how to apply this skill to your own work.
    • If you find yourself feeling jealous of the success of others, make it productive.
      • While most people consider jealously a negative trait, it is only negative depending on what you do with it.
      • Jealousy merely means you see something in someone else you’d like to have for yourself.
      • If this drives you to achieve the same success by improving your skills, then it can be a positive force.
      • If you allow yourself to merely become a hater without doing the work to earn what you desire for yourself, then it is a negative force.
    • No two writers are alike, so the only valid form of comparison is your work now to your work previously.
      • Judge success on your own improvement, not in comparison to someone else’s work.
      • Is an apple better than an orange? What a silly question!
  • Tip #4-Increase your knowledge and skill level: Jennifer took specific steps to increase her knowledge and improve her skills!
    • You won’t “naturally” know how to be an excellent writer any more than Jennifer “naturally” knew how to cook in the absence of any training.
    • It is wonderful and affirming to have teachers, parents and friends compliment your work and proclaim you have “talent” but this is NO SUBSTITUTE for learning the necessary skills to create an engaging, enjoyable story for your readers.
    • To improve your skills, take creative writing classes, attend conferences, submit your work for critique in as many ways as you can, read high quality work to develop your “ear” for a good story and most important of all…write!
    • All the education in the world means nothing if you don’t write. 
  • Tip #5-Keep practicing and don’t give up: Jennifer dedicated herself to learning and practicing new skills to achieve the results she wanted!
    • Good writing comes from doing lots of writing as you develop skills!
    • You can’t merely “know” the skills in your head. You have to actually put pen to page and practice the techniques you learn if you hope to improve.
    • Expect to have some “throw-aways,” just like Jennifer. Remember that writing a story and throwing it away is part of the process of learning, which means it is not a failure at all!
    • Several speakers on our recent summit pointedly stated that your first novel is almost always a throw-away.
      • Why? Because attempting a novel is how you learn!
      • You make tons of mistakes and in the process of trying to fix them, you learn what does and does not work.
  • Tip #6-Quit taking it personally (QTIP): Jennifer didn’t equate a lack of skills with who she was as a person!
    • Jennifer learned that developing cooking skills just took education, time and practice. It had nothing to do with her personally.
    • While you certainly can be proud of a job well done, see it as a reflection of your skill level not of your personhood.
    • This means any rejection of your work is a statement only of your current skill level, which can always be improved.
    • Keep your work separate from your sense of self, self-worth or value as a person. We are all multifaceted beings with many, many skills and characteristics that make up who we are…writing is just one of them.
  • Tip #7-Be curious, not judgmental: Jennifer became curious about her “failures” and was open to seeing a failed dish as a puzzle to be solved rather than proof that she was incapable.
    • If you feel you’ve failed at a particular attempt at writing, be open to feedback as to what worked and what didn’t. See this version of your work as a puzzle to be solved. Why didn’t it work? What would you need to change to make it work?
    • Feedback is crucial because we often don’t know what we don’t know. Thus, the same thinking that gets us into the problem won’t get us out. We need an outside perspective.
    • If you have excessive fear about exposing your work and getting feedback, it's a strong indication that you are equating your work with who you are as a person.
      • Such thinking is a grave error and will prevent you from making progress by limiting your access to other viewpoints. Most of your readers will not be like you, so any feedback you receive is invaluable (whether you agree with it or not) because that person represents a potential reader.
      • Trying to write without constructive feedback is a bit like trying to fly an airplane without your instrument panel, orientation to the earth or assistance from the control tower! The only likely result is to crash and burn! 
  • Tip #8-Avoid the merry-go-wrong of repeatedly abandoning projects: Jennifer stayed at a particular dish until she got it right!
    • What often happens with beginning writers is that they start a project with excitement and enthusiasm, then hit a snag and quit.
    • The difficulties encountered cause them to set their project aside, mistakenly thinking it was just not a good enough idea after all.
    • When another “great idea” comes to them, they begin the process again, only to discard this project in discouragement as well.
    • Why is this happening?
      • Good ideas are exciting and often prompt us to enthusiastically start a project.
      • However, when we hit a roadblock to our writing without any idea as to how to overcome it, then the project flags and is often eventually abandoned altogether.
      • The misinterpretation of our difficulties is that our story idea was somehow erroneous, deficient, unoriginal or unworkable.
        • In truth, we’ve most likely hit a snag in our plot or character development.
        • The solution is to learn the required skills to overcome the immediate problem, not abandon the project altogether. For example, if we’ve come to dislike our protagonist, then re-engineering our protagonist is the task, not re-engineering the entire story.
      • This is where feedback from others is invaluable to help us identify the hurdles facing us and get past these by learning new skills.
    • If we abandon the project instead of learning the missing skills, we are destined to simply repeat the error over and over again without hope of forward movement.

I hope this blog gives you an extra ounce of courage to not only face your writing fears, but to embrace them. When you hear the voice of fear in your head, remember the point is usually not to “turn back, give up, never write again!” but to alert us to “something is wrong here, this doesn't feel right, consider another path!” Embrace your nagging doubts by solving what is wrong rather than abandoning your story altogether. Only by learning skills, practicing and being open to feedback can we quiet the voice of fear long enough to reach the finish line! And yes, learning new skills may be a walk up a steep hill, but at least it is not Mt. Everest! 

Happy writing, my friends! You've got this!

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