How to deal with crippling self-doubt: advice for authors

Image: Leonid Pasternak via Wikimedia Commons

Every nonfiction author feels it. That moment when you think “I can’t do this. I am not an author. I am helpless. I can’t move forward.”

That’s crippling self-doubt. It’s so common, it deserves an acronym. CSD.

Do you suffer from CSD?

Please have hope. I’m here to help.

First, here’s what doesn’t help

This is not a cheery post.

I’m not going to pay you on the shoulder and say “You got this. You can do it.”

Your friends may do that. It doesn’t help. Because the thing about CSD is: it is crippling, and it’s justified.

You feel CSD because you are not making progress. You feel it because you don’t know what to do. You feel it because the tasks ahead of you fill you with dread.

(Sorry, I know that’s depressing, but what the heck, you’re already depressed.)

Your well-meaning friends don’t understand. You don’t need cheering up. You need help.

If you want, go out drinking with them. You might enjoy that. Sure, your writing problems will still be there in the morning, but your mood might be lighter. (If you follow this strategy repeatedly, you might have a different problem.)

Here’s the thing about CSD. You might be right.

You might not have the stamina to be a writer.

You might not want it enough.

You might not really have anything to say.

If you read those words and agree, then I’ve solved your problem. Give up on writing. Do something else.

But if you read those words and object — “I really want this! And I certainly have something to say!” — then you are a writer. You’re just stuck right now.

Let’s take on one more objection. Do you have the talent?

Each of us writers, at some point, asks “Do I have the talent to do this?”

That’s a dumb question, mate. Because talent isn’t a prerequisite.

You write by typing words. If you you can do that, you can be a writer.

If the words are the wrong words, in the wrong order, in the wrong structure, then you need an editor. The editor will help you sort out what’s wrong. You’ll address their suggestions. And then it will be better.

Talent doesn’t enter into it. Talent just means you know how to take your experience and apply it to make writing that sounds better.

How do you get experience? By writing. So stop worrying about talent. It’s not something you can address (except by writing more).

So what should you do?

The biggest challenge in writing is that people start with writing. The biggest challenge is that people start with writing.

There are 20 different tasks you need to do before you start to write. If you skip some, then your writing will suck. You’ll feel CSD. And it won’t help.

Your CSD makes you feel you can’t write. So what should you do?

Don’t write.

Do one of these tasks (all of which you can do easily, even with CSD):

  • Talk about your book or chapter with some friends. Get some perspective.
  • Write a speech and build a set of slides about your book or chapter.
  • Draw a diagram on a whiteboard. Get some friends to help.
  • Do research. Do lots of research. Find articles about what you’re writing about. Clip useful bits out of those articles and put them in a bin — a big word or Google Docs file, or into Scrivener of Evernote if you use those.
  • Find people to interview. Email them or send a Linked In message or contact their PR staff. Get them on the phone and learn their stories.
  • Take a walk. Think about your chapter without sitting in front of a keyboard.
  • Rearrange the stuff in your bin of research into an order that roughly seems like a story.
  • Write two pages based on the stuff in bin. Write two more. You can do two pages, can’t you?
  • Write a terrible draft, filled with repetition and poor turns of phrase and fragments and passive voice. Experience CSD. Don’t show the shitty draft to anyone. But eat a cookie or however you reward yourself for completing something.
  • A few days later, read the terrible draft in the cold light of day and figure out what might make it better. Then revise it. Turning something into something better is possible, even with CSD.

Every one of those tasks are work that writers do. They don’t worry about whether they’re suffering CSD. They just do them.

Carpenters don’t have CSD, they just identify the tools and supplies they need, acquire them, and get to work.

Chefs don’t have CSD, they just assemble the ingredients, prepare them, and only then start cooking.

Writers have CSD, but they don’t need to. Do those other tasks for a while, assemble your content, write a shitty draft, and then make it better. Rinse and repeat.

Eventually, the crippling self doubt will recede and you’ll be working. And next time you’ll be able to do more without so much worrying.

If this works, let me know. I’d love to hear about it.

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