In the process of writing How to Write Non-Fiction: Turn your Knowledge into Words, I did a survey of my audience on this site and through my podcast about what was holding people back from writing.
Over 50% of respondents said that they didn't feel qualified, that they weren't enough of an expert, that even with years of experience in a field, they still felt self-doubt.
So if you feel this way, don't worry! You're not alone. In this article, Julie Schooler talks about how to shake off that imposter syndrome and get your book out into the world.
You have a strong desire to write a non-fiction book but are not sure if you should because, really, who are you to write a book about that topic?
After all, you are not an expert in that field, you simply have an interest or some experience in it.
Do you actually know enough to write a whole book? There seem to be tons of books on that subject so does the world need your book as well?
These unhelpful thoughts are the result of ‘imposter syndrome’, which the Cambridge Dictionary defines as ‘the feeling that your achievements are not real or that you do not deserve praise or success’. This is not a diagnosable mental disorder (phew!) but simply a very common phenomenon, especially amongst writers.
Imposter syndrome, if left unchecked, will STOP you from writing that non-fiction book. It will tell you that what you actually know would fill a grocery list, not an entire book.
Or it may keep you in the research phase by convincing you that you must read yet another book on the topic. At its extreme, it can make you believe that readers will only find you a credible author on the topic if you have letters after your name.
The best way to shake off imposter syndrome is to expose the things it tells us as complete fabrication.
Here are three main imposter syndrome lies, plus the flipside truths, that will help you to write your non-fiction book.
Lie No.1: You Need to be an Expert
Letting yourself believe you need to be an ‘expert’ is a good way of NEVER writing that book. It is almost impossible to overcome as what defines an ‘expert’ in a field is hard to pin down. Read ten books? Have business expertise in that area? Received a doctorate in the subject?
Here is the truth – many readers do NOT want to be told what to do by an expert. They actually prefer to read a book by someone who either has a passionate interest in a topic or has been there, done that. Or both.
They want to know the best and latest advice from someone in the trenches. And a lot of the time they actually prefer instruction from someone just a couple of rungs on the ladder ahead of them than some expert who is up in the stratosphere and who may not remember what it was like at day one.
When I wrote a book on potty training, I had potty trained exactly one child. That did not make me an expert by any stretch of the imagination, but boy did I know a substantial amount on a subject that a few months previously I had known nothing about.
Pro tip: if you are worried that your knowledge on a subject is not enough then survey a few people who have experience in that area. I surveyed a number of parents and their potty training tips and stories added a breadth to the book that it would not have had just with my experience. A lot of the time, the knowledge from a few people trumps the depth of wisdom from just one expert.
Lie No.2: More Research is Required
Imposter syndrome allows you to legitimately flail around in the research phase for a non-fiction book for weeks, months or even years.
When do you know ‘enough’ to write your book?
Like being an expert, needing to do ‘more research’ is too vague a requirement and may mean you never actually write the darn book.
Here is the truth – you know WAY more than you think you do on the topic. A good way to test this is a timed mind map exercise.
- Grab a timer, a large sheet of paper and some pens.
- Give yourself 20 minutes to mind map everything you can think of for the book you want to write.
- Do not do anything else for the full 20 minutes.
You will be amazed how much pours out of you. Most writers, when they do this exercise, actually find they have so much knowledge to share it could cover a whole series of books, not just one.
It is said that if you read three books on a topic, you are already an ‘expert’. What this means is if you read three books in one subject, you are likely to know more about the matter than 90% of the population.
This helps me to decide when my research phase is over. Have I read at least three books? Yes? Then let’s get writing.
Due to imposter syndrome, I stopped writing the potty training book after a very rough first draft and got eight more potty training books out of the library and read them all. NO one should EVER read eight books on potty training, and especially not in the middle of writing a book.
Do your research beforehand and trust you know your topic.
Pro tip: give yourself no longer than a month for research. What you do not find out in a month invested in one topic is probably not worth putting into a book.
Lie No. 3: There are Already Enough Books on That Topic
No matter how many books there are on a subject, your book will add something new to the mix. Your advice will be written in a different way, your voice will be different and your way of looking at the subject will produce patterns and insights not directly encountered before.
Here is the truth – a particular reader will pick up something from your book that he does not garner from any other books on the topic. You will speak to a reader that compels her to take action in a way another book does not.
If you don’t write your book, the perfect book for that particular reader may never be available.
After reading a number of books on potty training, I knew I HAD to publish my book, even though there were over 400 books on potty training on Amazon alone. I did this in the hope that a reader would choose my book over some of the other books out there that gave incorrect and even possibly harmful advice.
Pro tip: Never look at how many books there are on a subject before you write your book. Write the book you want to write and add it to the mix of similar books. Know that your book will be the most valuable one for your ideal reader.
Shake It Off
Please don't let imposter syndrome stop you from writing that non-fiction book. Be honest about who you are, do your research and write a darn good book. Your perfect reader will appreciate you for your efforts.
Do you struggle with imposter syndrome? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Julie Schooler had aspirations of being a writer since she was very young but somehow got sidetracked into the corporate world. After the birth of her first child, she rediscovered her creative side with a blog at JulieSchooler.com.
She writes parenting and personal development books so that busy people can avoid time taken up searching for often confusing and conflicting advice. They can then spend time with the beautiful tiny humans in their life and do what makes their hearts sing.
Her latest book, Super Sexy Goal Setting, is out now!
Julie lives with her family in a small, magnificent country at the bottom of the world where you may find her trying to bake the world’s best chocolate brownie.
Susan K. Stewart says
Sadly many agents and publishers perpetuate the imposter syndrome by telling authors they need an “expert” or “professional” to add as an author for credibility.
I pitched a book for several years and heard that comment repeatedly. The interesting thing, my book didn’t talk about the details of the subject …. it was about my experience.
Yes! Imposter syndrome is definitely tied in with what authority figures tell us is acceptable. I guess smashing through imposter syndrome is easier as an indie author.
Elizabeth Monnet says
“Have I done enough research into the topic?” is a question that can also haunt fiction authors. As a lawyer author, I write novels about the law. No one – not even a lawyer – can ever completely finish researching their legal topic because the law is always evolving and changing. At some point, all authors have to conclude that they’ve done enough research for their book.
I can’t imagine how hard it is stop to research on a work of fiction, especially say an historical novel or one involving a deep dive into a particular topic. And a lot of time the research is probably very enjoyable too. As they say – ‘writers do not finish books, only abandon them’.
No surprise, authors aren’t the only ones suffering from imposter syndrome. I work with leaders, executives, entrepreneurs and we all suffer from this to some extent. The first two lies you’ve mentioned are especially lethal. And these lies are perpetuated by our organizational cultures. We need to continue to share these tips for overcoming these obstacles. So glad you shared your perspective and experience here.
Thank you so much for your kind comments Linda. Yes, imposter syndrome is VERY pervasive!
Jeanne Doyon says
Oh, is this a timely word!! I have been struggling with imposterisms (did I invent a word?) for too long. Add hints of perfectionism to your list and that stops us cold. Thanks for the encouragement to just do it and trust God with the outcome. If nothing else, I will learn a ton in the process.
Love the newly invented word Jeanne! Imposter syndrome and perfectionism are like evil twins. Both need to be banished.
Biil Thomas says
Thanks for the encouragement. I have asked myself all those questions–repeatedly. I’m in a group helping me to press on.
Tucker Lieberman says
Another common form of “impostor syndrome” has less to do with library research and more to do with personal identity and lived experience. Often people write about belonging to marginalized or misunderstood groups. When a writer begins to “privilege-check” him/herself, sometimes they decide they are “too privileged” to write about their personal difficulties. (Example: “I’m queer/disabled/immigrant/traumatized BUT I’m thin/rich/white/male SO I should be quiet to make space for the world to hear from others whose opinions are more interesting/important/justified/political than mine BECAUSE…”) There is indeed a time to listen to others whose experiences are different; “most of the time” is a good time for that. There’s also a time to give ourselves permission to speak about our own experiences and to invite an audience to listen to us. If we’ve been through an event that’s even a little bit unusual or we belong to a group that’s in any way marginalized and we’ve put effort into drawing insight from it, others are curious and they want and need to hear from us. There’s a balance to strike between claiming some authority and expertise while still maintaining humility and open-mindedness that our own word is not the last word on the topic.
While I agree with your thesis in principle, one must take into account the implications of Imposter Syndrome not being an actual mental disorder entails. For one, it means writers who feel unqualified to author a book are not delusional. Therefore, there must be a real-world cause. Where might that cause be?
We all own lots of nonfiction books. I would bet the chances are high that if you choose one at random from your personal library and give it a cursory glance (just the front and back covers, and the first few pages) you will find as many reasons as can fit on the page to certify the author is replete with qualifications and credentials (some rather dubious and suspect to be sure; but there they are nonetheless).
Topics the nonfiction writer will likely feel the greatest resistance to are those in the realm of academia. If one does not possess a Ph.D in Philosophy, say, he or she will probably not be allowed to publish a serious book on the existence of free will for instance. Outside the of the walls of ivy, one’s chances are much better.
Not to leave this comment on a negative note, I might add that one possible way to subvert the need for letters after your name if you were planning to pen a polemic against Derrida and postmodernist philosophy, go about it in a scholarly way. That is, take on the work as a dissertation: complete with copious footnotes and citations.