Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, contests and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Why are writers so prone to self-doubt?

We asked authors, editors, instructors, and psychologists to find out.

The perception that writing is (or should be) easy

Many writers say they have family members and/or friends who don’t understand the work they do, are vocal about their own doubts that the work will go anywhere, or have no interest in reading (or hearing about) the results of their labors. Other authors take issue with non-writers who, upon hearing they’ve written a book, comment, “I’d write a book if I just had more time,” seeming not to recognize that writing is a laborious and intensely personal process that involves much more than just time. What’s worse than other people assuming writing a book is simply a matter of finding time and not a matter of honing a craft is when we find ourselves baffled or frustrated by how hard writing is.

“Even though you show up at your desk every day, the work you are committed to doesn’t arrive in any rational or predictable way. Creative writing takes the time it takes.”

Therese Eiben is a private writing teacher and editorial coach who has had her share of writing insecurity and helped others through theirs. Writing isn’t just hard, she says. “It’s really, really hard.”

“Even though you show up at your desk every day, the work you are committed to doesn’t arrive in any rational or predictable way. Creative writing takes the time it takes. Once I allowed myself to appreciate the challenge I had chosen to take on – no one is standing over my shoulder and telling me I must write creatively – I felt much of my self-criticism (I’m lazy; I’m neurotic; I’ve got nothing to say; who wants to hear what I have to say, etc.) disappear.”

Time from writing to publication

Online writing forums are rife with writers agonizing over how long it takes to get a response from agents, editors, and journals on a submission or pitch. It’s not unusual for literary journals to take six months to a year to reply. Magazine editors and book agents might never respond to your pitch. And it can take two years from the time you get an offer of representation from an agent to the time your book is published. As Salm says, “It’s a lot of time to gin up a major fret.”

Writer Linda Cutting says, “The tough part of writing is that it’s done for so many months in private, then the submissions…can take many months, until the writer feels quite separate from the original work.” It’s hard to keep up any kind of submitting/publishing momentum because of this.

Negative feedback

One of my earliest writing experiences was having an editor tell me that because I did not follow the submission guidelines, I was stupid and would never make it as a writer. That was perhaps 25 years ago, and to this day, every time I hit the send key for a submission, I think of him.

Eva Camille Roethler has been an editor for a regional magazine in Northern California and has published in niche and local magazines, but she has yet to pitch national publications. She says she has worked with multiple editors who were The Devil Wears Prada cruel, to the point that it shattered her confidence in her own writing abilities.

“I’ve known other writers with similar experiences, where working in the industry permanently jaded them to the point of losing interest in writing altogether,” she says.

No MFA/lack of schooling

Writers often cite the lack of an MFA as a reason for their self-doubt. The literary community can be perceived as pretentious, unwelcoming, and intimidating. Says one writer, “I often feel too stupid to submit my work.”

So will an MFA make you a better writer? Maybe. Will it open up opportunities you might not otherwise have? Probably. But is it necessary for publishing? Maybe for publishing in some places, such as academia, but certainly not in general. The world is a sea of published and publishing journalists, poets, essayists, and authors who don’t have an MFA or a college degree. Good writing is good writing. You don’t have to check your ID at the door.

Isolation

Many writers talk about the isolation of writing, of how spending months or years working on drafts without feedback can leave a vacuum in which negative rumination can flourish.

Advertisement

“Writing is so solitary,” says fiction writer Kara Quinn Rea. “It’s so vulnerable. The vision is yours. The very words are yours. And if you aren’t getting positive feedback, or any feedback, it can make the isolation that much harsher. Add to that when loved ones can’t see your progress, and they ask things like, “Why are you doing this? What are the odds of actually ‘making it?’”

Add to Favorites