How To Deal With Self-Doubt As A Writer

    Categories: Writing

In this video, I’m talking about self-doubt because we all suffer from it. Some days are worse than others, and I’ve been going through a bad patch recently, so I wanted to share from my heart today in the hope that it helps you too.

Watch the video below or here on YouTube.

How does self-doubt feel?

“My writing is terrible. I’m terrible. No one will ever want to read what I put out in the world. I’m going to get bad reviews. No one’s ever going to buy my stuff. I’m wasting my time. What’s the point?”

All these feelings – a sense of worthlessness, worry, even anxiety – it all comes together into fear of putting our words out there. And this self-doubt can sometimes cripple you.

I want to talk about it today because the truth is that we all suffer self-doubt. Here’s a quote from poet Charles Bukowski:

Bad writers tend to have self-confidence, while the good ones tend to have self-doubt.

Even famous writers suffer from self-doubt

Joanna Penn with Lee Child at Thrillerfest

One year, I went to ThrillerFest in New York, which is the conference run by International Thriller Writers. Some of the biggest names in the world speak there.

I went to one panel with authors like Lee Child, he writes the Jack Reacher books, and Sandra Brown, who’s one of the biggest romantic suspense authors, Clive Cussler, who writes action/adventure. Huge names in the thriller industry.

R.L. Stine was there; he’s one of the most famous children’s writers, in fact, the most prolific children’s author in the world. He writes the Goosebumps series. These authors have been writing books for years.

A writer in the audience stood up and said, “My manuscript is terrible. I feel like I just need to give up.”

And all of the writers on that panel went down the line, and they all said, “I still feel that way”.

Self-doubt is just part of the creative process

Now, whether that is encouraging or discouraging depends on your perspective. I was really encouraged because that means that self-doubt is just part of the creative process.

It doesn’t go away. It sits there. It’s part of the process. So we need to learn to live with that and go forward.

Finish your manuscript, publish your book, and get your words out into the world anyway.

Self-doubt is just part of the job of being a writer.

How things have moved on since my first novel

I was thinking back to when my first novel went out into the world in 2011. It was originally titled Pentecost and I later re-edited it and re-published it as Stone of Fire.

I recorded a video on how it felt to put your first book in the world. You can watch the video below or here on YouTube.

Things have definitely moved on in terms of how professional my videos are 🙂 but more importantly, I talk about how I canceled my launch drinks because I was so full of crippling self-doubt.

Putting my words out into the world left me in a crying heap on the floor. I just couldn’t face it. I couldn’t deal with it.

And yet, I did it again and again and again.

Stone of Fire is the first in the 9-book ARKANE series, and I have also written 4 other novels alone, and co-written 5 more, as well as 9 non-fiction books.

Keep writing

I still feel the self-doubt, but it’s not crippling anymore, it’s just something that I acknowledge. I let it sit with me, and put my work out anyway because there’s a part of us inside, as writers, where if we don’t write, we’re going to cripple ourselves in other ways.

We’re going to be unhappy. We’re going to feel blocked.

You need to get your words out into the world.

You need to break through that self-doubt because your words are important.

We need to hear your voice. You don’t know whose life you could change with your story, or your non-fiction book, or the words, the wisdom you have.

As an introvert, the thought of the videos I share going out into the world and people seeing them is difficult enough. But we embrace it anyway as part of the process.

And that’s how we write, and create, put our words in the world, and change peoples’ lives.

For more on this subject, check out The Successful Author Mindset. The first chapter is on self-doubt because it’s such a common problem with authors. The book is available in e-book, print, and audiobook formats.

Joanna Penn :

View Comments (17)

  • Hello Joanna,

    The following quote stopped me in my tracks and made me laugh.

    "Bad writers tend to have self-confidence, while the good ones tend to have self-doubt."

    When I published my first book, I didn't lack for self-confidence, and had no self-doubt. 🤔 Hmm. I wonder how good that book was.

    Two-plus years and eleven books later, my confidence is still high, but the doubt has crept into my brain.

    Based on that quote, does that mean I'm one of the good ones now? 😀 I jest.

    Just like athletes who get butterflies before a game, I think confidence and doubt can coexist. Together, maybe they keep us grounded.



    • Confidence and self-doubt are a see-saw :) As soon as one hits the top, the other starts to rise!

  • Thanks for talking about this. It was rather timely for me because I am at that point in writing the book where it's easy to give up because it feels that it's no good at all.
    I'm also feeling somewhat self-conscious because I'm German writing in English.

    So far I haven't published a book but I hope to do it soon.

    As for feeling self-conscious about video, I am just about to change my knitting podcast from audio only to audio plus video. I still have a long way to go before feeling comfortable seeing myself on screen for sure. But then I remember how I felt about hearing my voice when I started recording vocals decades ago. I guess I'll be fine in the end.

    • Knitting is a great medium for video - you could always just focus on your hands :)
      And as for your voice, I went through that too. But the truth is that people will like it or not, and there's nothing you can do about it anyway!

      • I can totally relate to this. I was just interviewed for a NOLA podcast, and I was sick for days thinking about it. I listened to five seconds, cut it off, and shamed myself mercilessly for my hillbilly accent and hippie sensibilities. Then, I asked a friend to listen to it and report back. She was so encouraging, I forced myself to listen. I got used to the sound of my voice and realized that it was actually a pretty enjoyable interview. I guess it'll always be a little uncomfortable when you're out of your comfort zone. ;)

        • Getting used to the sound of your voice is a difficult thing - I remember going through that stage :) But we hear our voice differently in our own heads, so it makes sense that we don't recognize it so much when it's recorded. Keep doing interviews and you'll get over it!

  • I believe that this message (and your honesty) will resonate with many professional writers here, Joanna. I know it did with me when I read, "The Successful Author's Mindset," which was a great book btw.

    It's definitely true what you said in this post though, about the crippling effect of self-doubt. If we don't move through it and continue to put our work out in the world, we'll likely experience it in other ways. I tried to "run away" from writing for about two years and felt so dull and numb inside. I realized during that time that I can't just be a "normal" person and work a full-time job and zone out to Netflix at night. I have to create or I am not fully myself.

    Thanks again for this message. Kudos to you for continuing to put your work out there (in a very prolific manner I might add) despite (or to spite?) the inner critic. :)

  • I just listened to a podcast with Canadian author, Guy Gavriel Kay, talking about this subject. Kay has become an internationally best-selling fantasy author that has made his name in the historical fantasy subgenre and he revealed his self-doubt after finishing each novel. He has written 13 in his career to date. Self doubt does afflict more writers and it is a natural part of the creative process. Good blogpost and topic that needs to be discussed more often.

  • I've come to terms that self doubt is part of the process. Almost like a key ingredient. When it isn't around I'll pause and wonder why. Almost like an old friend who stops by at the same time every day. I keep asking for its number but it won't give it out. We've become old friends and I feel we're at the point where it pushes me instead of holding me back.

  • I love what you said about there being part of us inside, as writers, where we need to write.
    Last month I wrote a story for my granddaughter that was read to her by her favourite uncle. After that it was buried (as were the books sent home from school for home reading) in favour of JK Rowling. What's the point, I asked myself, in writing stories because I can't compete with JKR?
    But then I met a middle-aged man who had got hold of my first book "The Kicking Tree" read it and then went out of his way to get the sequels. He said how much my books had affected him. Bearing in mind the books I have published are YA, I thought this was interesting and affirming.
    The point is that if my writing has made a difference to at least one person it will have been worth it. One person is enough because that one person is of great value to himself and those around him. So I'm glad I dared to go for it!
    By the way, Joanna, it was at a writer's day you hosted in Waterloo in 2014 that gave me the courage to finally go for it! Thank you.

    • Thanks Trevor, I'm so glad you are putting your stories out there :) Even JKR struggled with competing with herself, hence publishing crime under Robert Galbraith :) We all need to put our words into the world. It keeps us sane!

  • Hi Joanna,

    Thank you for your blog and your articles.

    I sent part of my novel out for a sample edit and it was returned with a sea of red changes. I am dismayed, as I have won an award for my writing (non-fiction), placed third in a story contest (fiction), sold a poem to a national magazine and have had other small successes with my work.

    How can I tell if this is just a difference in style or if this editor is correct? I am having some doubts on where to go from here.

    Thank you for any advice you might share.

    • I'd first assess whether or not the editor loves your genre. Then what type of edit you were expecting and what you asked for. I would add that a novel is very different to non-fiction and short stories and poetry, so you are looking at the first edit on a different form. I'm just getting edits on my first screenplay and it is a similar experience :) If it's just a sample, and you don't feel you have 'gelled' with the editor, then try a sample with someone else.

  • I loved this post, and I can relate. It's funny how much writers have in common, even if they write in entirely different genres. I used to tell my students that all writing is personal because it comes from your personal brain (as opposed to fill-in-the-blank worksheets). I've definitely struggled with the terror of sharing my writing, so I've taken tiny little steps to move myself forward at a pace that feels good to me.