On Writing And The Fear Of Judgment

We all have fears that we need to conquer as authors.


Judgment in the dome of the Baptistry, Florence

Fear of failure, fear of embarrassment, and for some even fear of success.

But for me, it’s fear of judgment – fear of what people will think of my writing and me as a person when they read my books. Do you feel the same way?

On a personal note, my writing is getting darker – or perhaps it was always dark, and now I’m just getting into my stride. After all, Pentecost opens with a nun being burned alive on the ghats at Varanasi, Prophecy features the ritual murder of a child in a bone church and Exodus has a scene with ritual sex in a tomb.

The book I have just finished, Desecration (currently with beta-readers) is definitely towards the horror end of the thriller spectrum. Within the murder mystery at the heart of the story is a tale of body modification, ritual murder, the art of corpses and a consideration of dualism, whether our physical body defines us. (If you like the sound of it, you can sign up to my J.F.Penn fiction mailing list here).

So I’ve written dark things before but this is the first time I haven’t censored myself as I write. I’ve given the dark side of my mind permission to indulge but as I am about to start the rewrites, I find myself on the edge of crossing things out, not because they need editing, but because I don’t want people to read them and judge me for my thoughts.

But then why do we write if not to tackle the fears that others look to us to conquer?

So how do we tackle this fear of judgment?

(1) Use a pseudonym

Many erotica authors use pseudonyms to protect their identities and it’s definitely the way to go if fear is stopping you from writing at all. But I want to put my name to Desecration and my other books because part of me wants to acknowledge that these thoughts are mine.

(2) Be strong and steadfast but also surround ourselves with people who understand us.

mass grave

Mass grave at the Dohany Street Synagogue, Budapest

My husband is fortunately understanding of my desire to visit strange spots when we go on holiday. So in Budapest, we spent our time at the House of Terror where Communists tortured people to death as well as the mass grave in the old Ghetto of the synagogue. In Paris it was the catacombs where the remains of 6 million people lie in macabre underground decorative crypts.

These macabre interests are part of me and so I hope you too can find like-minded people who support your research and career. I can definitely recommend the Alliance of Independent Authors if you want to hang out with people who understand the weirdness of being a writer!

(3) Understand that embracing the shadow side is psychologically healthy

In Jungian psychology the shadow is a critical part of our whole self. Life is not all sweetness and light and there is but a thin veneer of civilization over our ancient animal genetics. Death and fear, violence and sex will always be part of our culture so as writers it’s important to embrace that and reflect it in our writing. I am acknowledging the shadow more in my own work, and also feel that when the things we fear are on the page, they have less power over us.

(4) Understand the book is not you

When people judge your book, remember that they are not judging you as a person. I write of ritual murder, but clearly that’s not what I do in my life, which is mainly spent in libraries and at my computer :) If you hang out on this blog, you’ll know I am unfailingly positive and generally very happy! We are all complex creatures, so our work is merely one aspect of our character at a specific point in time.

The easiest way to deal with this is to write another book, because who we are right now changes and the next book is something else again … we morph as our work does, or vice versa :) I find the fear of judgment lessens with every book I put out there, because I can just move on.

Do you suffer from fear of judgment? How do you deal with it? Please do leave a comment so I don’t think I am the only one!

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  1. says

    Hi Joanna,

    You’re bang-on in this post and you’ve obviously hit a nerve with your followers … the fear of failure.

    When I was writing my novel, I’d bounce between thinking ‘this is really good’ and ‘this really sucks’. I’m a Stephen King fan and some things from his ‘On Writing’ really stuck with me – “you must not come lightly to the blank page” and “just tell the goddam story”.

    So I just told the story without holding back, or caring what others thought… foul language, severe criticism of authorities, graphic description, blood, guts, and tears. The feedback proved that King was right – it’s the story that the readers want – you’ll only fail if you don’t give it to ‘em straight.

  2. says

    I’m thrilled to hear you’re going deeper and darker with your writing. As much as I’ve enjoyed your other books, there was a slight sense that you were holding back, or perhaps edited too stringently. *If* we can ditch all our fears and abandon ourselves to the work, I think that’s when the writer disappears and the work walks and talks on its own. It’s a paradox. The more of ourselves we release into our work, the more disconnected the work becomes from our value and the judgement of others. At least that’s the way it seems to me.

    I have absolutely no fear of judgement or failure or success or any of those pesky little things so common to writers. I simply go about my day’s work then throw up, cry, cruise the net for online schools in auto repair (or something like that), go to sleep on a pillow of doubt to wake up and start the process all over again. I’ve transcended both fear and terror to something just short of paralytic horror :-)

    Thanks for bringing these pesky fears that dog us all our days out of the shadows. It helps knowing others endure the same.

  3. says

    I think I’ve always thought outside the box. I’m not as extreme as the character Richard Castle on the television series ‘Castle’ but I often laugh at how his mind jumps to odd conclusions because mine does the same thing. I think as writers, our strongest gift is embracing the ‘what if’ questions that give us our stories in the first place. Many non-artistic types don’t understand the ‘what-if’ process that goes along with our creation, they only see the end result. But it’s the questions that fuel our concepts, and make them stronger until we have something we both love and are terrified to share because we put our heart and soul into it.

    • says

      I’m always seeing great murder locations wherever I am – and things to go in the book – I think that magpie mind develops as you write more :)
      PS. I love Castle!

  4. Catherine Hamrick says

    A lot of good stuff here.

    I like to encapsulate some long and winding thoughts of Jean-Paul Sartre:
    –Take responsibility for your actions.
    –Don’t regret.
    –Don’t live by the judgment of others. (I would qualify this–consider sensible, useful feedback.)
    –And remember that sometimes “hell is other people.” (“L’enfer–c’est les autres.”)

    About those deep, dark places . . . Remember Fitzgerald? “In a real dark night of the soul, it is always three o’clock in the morning.” Now there’s a place to visit.

    Sense, sensibility, and sensitivity . . . more meaningful, practical, and fun than fear.

    And I remind myself: Fear distracts. Toughen up. Get on with it.

  5. says

    I always go through this. I write dark romance/thriller/suspense. My books, my most recent being, In Death Do We Care, tend to reveal the darker sides of life, cheating, drug use, suicide, S&M, torture, death, revenge; yet in the mist of all this muck people find each other, fall in love, solve mysteries within themselves and about the people surrounding them. I am on the edge as far as sexual content goes, like 50 Shades…, but I don’t consider my works erotica; the intensely sexual content only fills a fraction of my books. I am constantly torn: Did I describe such and such too graphically, put too much detail in? Just because I have actually witnessed many of the things that I write into fiction, will people think it’s who I am? I push by it sometimes and find myself adapting my works, toning down certain parts; other times I say things like, “Remember sex sells.” or “This is real life. I have witnessed these things, even if I changed scenarios to fit my story and I shouldn’t have to change what I have written because I fear being categorized, judged.”
    A recent example: I finished In Death Do We Care and sent it off to a new printer because the price was better than the printer I was using by quite a bit. We went through all the motions to the point of me uploading my PDF’s. I get an email back the next day saying that after reading the book synopsis on the back cover they did a word check and though my book covers certain subject matter tastefully, they will not print my book. One part of me felt so rejected, but another part of me was thinking, “Wow, if my book is so controversial that these people won’t print it, that’s great. It must be shockingly good.”
    I think I, as many others that ride the edge of acceptability, will always question themselves. I believe that is human nature.
    Rob Mallett

  6. says

    Will Shakespeare had it right when he said we’re all actors on this stage. Some people play the part of cops, shoe salesmen, drunks and barbers. I play the part of a writer with all my foibles. If so inclined, I may resort to the split personality of reporter/ novelist/ kid’s author/ audacious politico or what have you. Just as a painter moves from subject to subject and goes from oils to acrylics and then to watercolor, so does the writer who has full license to do as she or he damn well pleases, barring interference from tea party extremists, jihadists or other creeps who have yet to learn to walk upright intellectually. A good writer is there to shake things up, not cow tow to those who are afraid of new thoughts.

  7. Shiane Nicole says

    Hi, Joanna. Thanks for this post, for letting me know that I’m not the only one who’s terrified of what people will think about my writing. I’m nineteen and working on my first book, and what scares me about it is that I’m afraid that people will judge me or will think that I’m a terrible writer. What helps me deal with the anxiety is that I always remind myself of what my father used to tell me when I was younger, “You’re your own greatest enemy. No one’s ever going to judge yourself more harshly than you do,” and it reminds me that if I think it’s fine then that’s all right.
    P.S. I just found your sight two days ago when looking for advice on writing and I just want to thank you because everything I’ve read so far has been extremely helpful to me. :)

  8. says

    When I started writing my novel late last year, I did it for fun, not really thinking it was one for publishing. As the words started turning into chapters, I thought, hey, this might really work. So, I asked my best friend to read it even if it had a lot of grammatical errors. She loved it! So, after I got it back from a professional editor, I sent it to a couple more of my friends for reading. I felt some terror because two of them were literature majors and the other one was my sister-in-law who might blush at some of the scenes. But having had a professional look at it and actually say that it was suspenseful and gripping with strong characters built my confidence and now I am very excited to publish my own work. I still can’t help it though what some of my friends (especially my family) will think of the book and the story and if they would look at me and say, “I can’t believe you wrote about that.” ;)

    • says

      Live the life you want to lead, not the life that someone else thinks you should be leading. Most people never even think about going the distance and writing a book. The fact that you have gone ahead and done just that will stop many junior critics in their tracks. As far as trying to please everyone — that just ain’t gonna happen. Get used to it. Writers serve a very important role in our society – they are there to shake things up by writing interesting, provocative stories. Go for it!

  9. Katrin-Kristiina says

    I’m also a fan of Jung. His psychological views are based on a broader spectrum than Freud’s. Yet, I see the fear rather as a restrictive factor. Internal criticism is healthy and is the essence of each of us, author or not. So: get over of fear and let the internal critics get the voice when it’s needed.

  10. says

    I’ve been struggling for awhile with the idea of using a pen name. I write nonfiction – started out with books on personal growth and recently started a series for authors on building a business around their art and the value of developing an entrepreneurial mindset. I decided the latest series is close enough to “personal growth” to not necessitate a change in branding. But I like testing myself and have committed to writing my first novel, so I’ll have to see how it goes. You’ve definitely given me some things to think about!

    • says

      The blogs, which I have been committing on lately, are mostly promoting self-publishing and the need of Social Media to be successful. I wondered how having a pen name would help in the marketing. Would you have to fabricate a “pen character background” to be more marketable? If you have the college degree and life experiences to put on the back cover with your picture, you might be more marketable than with an unknown pen name.

      • says

        Marketing for fiction is definitely different to non-fiction – you focus a lot more on the book sites than the blogging etc world. For my fiction, I don’t do any tweeting in character or much blogging at all for it – my author site is at http://www.JFPenn.com – so it’s not a pen-name, it’s obviously me, but it’s a different brand. Plenty of fiction authors use pen-names so I don’t think it’s an issue either way.

  11. says

    Thank you for writing this article. When I first began to outline my novel, I envisioned it as a great epic quest – a hero’s journey – but as I wrote I realized there was evilness in the land and people, I did not realize at the time. When these dark moments arose I would stop, stare at the screen, then eventually through fear of judgment from family or church, I would erase it. Realizing I was no longer telling the story that was in my head, I switched to a pen name and I felt that the words, no matter how disturbing, could flow from my fingers easier. Thank you again.

  12. says

    I am embracing this dark part of me as we’ll. I’m writing a scifi thriller called Devil’s Cradle which is a book with a serial killer, a psychologically broken cop, and time travel. I find that as the killer goes through his ritual and gets into what’s happening that I am too. It’s freaking weird, but rewarding to take the kid gloves off and write a darker book.

  13. says

    Oh Joanna…you hit the nail on the head with this post. This is so totally me…wowzers;( THis is one hangup I really need to get over…the fear of failure and the fear of judgment. No.4 especially is one I have a hard time with. For some reason I do think whatever I’m writing is me…and that other people who are reading will see it that way. Like you, I’m quite a happy person…but I do like dabbling in the darker thoughts of the mind. So my book has some of that as well as people shooting each other, etc. I guess I just need to realize that my writing is not me…and get on with it! Tweeted this post…awesome:-)

  14. Vanitha says

    Hi Joanna,
    You are so right in saying, “our work is merely one aspect of our character at a specific point in time”. We evolve with each experience. There is some level of courage required to write, shelving our doubts and fears into a box and to sit on the top of the box. It took me years of craving to write, that I finally started to look out for anything related to writing. Thanks for all the encouragement and energy that you are spreading to the writer’s community.

  15. Jessica Vaccairno says

    You’ve hit my problem on the head.

    I’ve always been an avid writer. There was a time when I wouldn’t be caught dead without a pen and paper. I was always writing something. Then one day, things changed. I still have no idea what happened. I still have constant ideas swirling but all of a sudden I have an intense crippling fear of people reading what I write down, right down to notes scribbled in a planner. (Having a minor panic attack about posting this!) This fear has prevented me from writing so many things. I’ve had ideas that ive been trying to get onto paper for years but the moment I start to write it down I find I can no longer continue because I’m crippled by the fear.

    My writing has always had a dark edge to it, I think that may also be part of the problem is the judgement factor. When I have written something dark in the past and found the courage to show it to someone I always get the same response. Usually something about how ”sadistic” I am.

    Any tips on getting over this?

  16. p.j. carter says

    I just fell in love with you and Roz on youtube. My fear is that everyone will see how dumb I really am when they read my work – they’ll see that I cannot write. If they never see my story, they’ll assume I know what I’m doing. I just don’t let anyone close see anything I’ve done.

    • says

      Hi PJ,
      Thanks for sharing this very common fear – and actually, in my opinion, many of those close to us are the very worst people to help us with our writing. You need objective help from people you don’t care about – they’re called editors! They can help you make the book better – whatever stage you’re at. http://www.thecreativepenn.com/editors/
      You can also join critique groups online to work through your book, but personally, working with paid editors has been the best way to improve.
      All the best, Joanna

  17. Briana says

    I have a fear of judgment too and I think that’s what is keeping from getting deep into my writing and making excuses on why I can’t write this day or the next.

  18. says

    I do fear the judgement of those around me. Like I get embarrassed when a love interest develop in my stories. (Not erotic. I am not interested in that a dime bit)
    But, now I have developed some boundaries between work and family. So now I work with more ease. But my productivity is a mess, I had thought of getting serious in my profession in this January, and until now, I am just battling with outlines. I guess, in that part, I will have to follow your advice of getting this thing out on the page. Then learning how to make it better. :)


  1. […] Joanna Penn mentioned in a recent blog post, we need to ‘Understand that embracing the shadow side is psychologically healthy.’ Life is not all sweetness and light and there is but a thin veneer of civilization over our ancient animal genetics. Death and fear, violence and sex will always be part of our culture so as writers it’s important to embrace that and reflect it in our writing. You can read the whole post, On Writing And The Fear Of Judgment here. […]

  2. […] On Writing and the Fear of Judgment: I struggled for a long time with a fear of judgment, in writing and several other places in my life. It took me a long time to work through this one, and I agree wholeheartedly with Joanna’s advice here, especially the reminder that we are not our books! […]

  3. […] On Writing and the Fear of Judgment: I struggled for a long time with a fear of judgment, in writing and several other places in my life. It took me a long time to work through this one, and I agree wholeheartedly with Joanna’s advice here, especially the reminder that we are not our books! […]

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