Dealing With Doubt

I wanted to say a word about doubt.

I have said before that I wanted to take a practical, pragmatic approach to writing my first novel. I don’t want to get bogged down in existential arguments about the craft of writing. That doesn’t interest me that much.

But now that I’m deep in the planning stages of my book, I have started noticing these little voices in the back of my mind. And whilst I can tell myself to ignore them and carry on, I’m concerned that they might get louder and louder, and eventually, maybe even stop me from getting on with writing altogether. These voices are doubts. And it’s a real pragmatic concern for a writer to deal with these doubts before they become crippling.

So let’s listen to what my doubting voice says, and see if it is being reasonable, shall we?


Oh my god. I can’t believe the crap you are writing. You want to be a writer? This stuff is terrible. Noone is ever going to want to read this. What kind of delusional idiot are you? Do you really think your book is going to be as good as (here the voice inserts the name of a favourite book, or a good story I have recently read). Give up. Now, before you embarrass yourself. Everything you write is a cliche! All your characters are flat and boring. And did I mention that your basic idea is terrible? Look, there’s a million writers out there better than you. Why pollute the world with your claptrap?

Now, I guess a lot of writers, or would-be writers are familiar with this voice in their heads, with a few variations. It’s actually tough because fundamentally, a lot of what it says is quite. It’s true, for example,  that what I’m writing probably isn’t any good. It’s also true that whatever I write is unlikely to be as good as my favourite books. But just because something is true, doesn’t make it the whole truth. When I sit down to actually listen to and analyse those doubtful voices in my head, I realise that they are actually full of crap. They are purely emotional fear responses without a proper valid justification. So now, if those voices appear, I have a zero-tolerance policy. I don’t let them fester and psyche me out. I drag them out into the light and respond, something like the following:

Voice: Your writing is lousy

You’re absolutely right that what I am writing is bad. But I’m only doing my my first book. You wouldn’t expect the first chair from a trainee carpenter to be the last word in furniture design, so why are you giving me a hard time for my early attempts at something I have never done before?  Get off my back. When I’ve written six books, and I’m still terrible, then we can talk.

Voice: Your story is crap.

Is it really? The time to judge whether I succeeded or failed, would probably be after I have actually finished something, not in the early planning stages. What kind of idiocy is that? There’s no point judging the early stages of a piece of work. Of course it’s terrible. If it wasn’t, it would be in the stage called ‘finished’. So let’s just suspend judgement, shall we, until I’m satisfied with it, then you can go to town and tear it apart.

Voice: It takes too long to become good at something. You could be wasting your time.

You know what? It takes a long time to be good at anything. So if you’re saying I should give up at this, because it will take too long to get good at it, then you are basically saying I should give up at everything, because everything takes practice to get good at it. Everything. From relationships, to baking, from doing wheelies on a BMX to shaving. It’s all just practice. In fact, there’s only one way to get better at something, and that’s to fail at it. A lot. Until I start making a lot of mistakes, I’m not going to have any raw material to work with. Frankly, I’d rather have a bad, finished piece of work that I can criticise, than nothing finished at all. So I intend to make mistakes; a lot of mistakes. I intend to get it wrong. Then I intend to find out why I got it wrong and try and get it less wrong next time.

These arguments generally do the trick.

But as well as these cogent arguments, I also remind myself that I set myself a single goal for this novel. That’s to finish it. Nothing else. Oh sure, I’ll do my best with it. Why wouldn’t I? But I’m not going to go round in ever decreasing circles questioning what I’m doing. I’m just going to produce a finished article and see how it turns out.

So, yeah, self-doubt is a powerful enemy. But ultimately those self-critical voices in your head don’t make much logical sense. It’s a good thing to remind yourself of this now and again, so you can get back to work.



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