October 1, 2013

Being a Writer: Commitment vs. Self-Doubt

Close up of a chain with text: Is Self-Doubt Holding You Back?

I thought about titling this post “How Committed Are You?” But with writers, that phrase could be taken many ways. Some of us wonder if we should be committed. *smile*

We writers balance on many thin lines. We have to be willing to listen to criticism if we want to improve, but we also have to be confident enough in our work to send it out and not just revise endlessly. We have to share our ideas clearly, but we can’t be too tell-y. We have to make our characters likable but flawed.

It’s enough to make us certain we should be committed. How many opposites can we embody and still keep our head straight?

Another area we often struggle with is commitment and self-doubt. We need to be committed to our writing and yet self-doubt makes us question that commitment.

What It Means to Be Committed to Writing

Being committed to our writing career requires time. We spend thousands of hours learning the craft, understanding how the publishing industry works, and drafting and revising our words.

Many times, we have to be committed enough to spend money—that we might not have—for our career. We might buy a new laptop, a domain for our website, or go to a writing workshop. We might even attend a writing conference like RWA or WANACon.

Dedicating time or money shows a level of commitment that most who say they’re going to write a book never demonstrate. In other words, that commitment means we’re special.

What It Means to Battle Self-Doubt

I missed this year’s RWA National, so I didn’t see this live, but luckily the fantastic Keynote speech by Cathy Maxwell is online. Her speech illuminated another important aspect of writing life: self-doubt.

She shares a story about a friend of her ex-son-in-law, who took up art later in life. He was committed to the idea that he had an artist lurking inside him even though he’d never even doodled, and despite the teasing, he decided to go to school to learn art.

To the surprise of everyone, he turned out to be good. Really good. Maybe even a prodigy.

He was good enough that people were willing to pay over a thousand dollars for one of his pieces. He was good enough to be accepted into a prestigious Master of Fine Arts program. He was good enough and committed enough to complete that degree.

But that commitment to his art wasn’t enough. Despite the acclaim he experienced, he never signed any of his pieces. Why? He never felt he was good enough.

He died before he could ever accept his talent and skills and what he had to share with the world. He never felt his work was worthy of the world’s attention. And that doubt destroyed his ability to succeed—in the art world, unsigned pieces sell for less money.

In the writing world, self-doubt can destroy our ability to succeed too. We can be committed enough to write, to learn, to improve, and to finish a book. But if we let self-doubt hold us back, we won’t succeed. Self-doubt will undermine all our other efforts.

“Nothing can get in the way of our success, of our sharing our stories, of us becoming exactly the people we’re supposed to be, except for our self-doubt. … Self-doubt kills creativity.”

— Cathy Maxwell
RWA National 2013 Keynote Speech

What It Means to Believe in Ourselves

We are special. We are unique. Only we can share the stories that live in our heart and in our head.

We have to push ourselves not only to commit to getting those stories into words, but we also have to push ourselves to let others read them. To know our stories are worthy of the world. To believe we’re deserving of the world’s attention.

Unless we’re keeping our stories private for reasons that have nothing to do with self-doubt, we should push ourselves to share them. Our stories are a gift for the world.

“Sharing stories isn’t just a career. Sharing stories is the way we reach out to others.”

— Cathy Maxwell
RWA National 2013 Keynote Speech

It’s great to have commitment. I’ve attended three in-person writing conferences and this weekend with WANACon will mark my second online writing conference. I know many of you are committed to your writing as well. Some have even signed up for WANACon along with me.

But commitment without follow through robs the world of our contributions. Don’t let self-doubt prevent you from sharing your gifts. Don’t be stingy. Share. *smile*

Registration is currently open for my workshop on how to do just enough story development to write faster, while not giving our pantsing muse hives. Interested? Sign up for “Lost Your Pants? The Impatient Writers Guide to Plotting a Story.” (Blog readers: Use Promo Code “savethepants” to save $15 on registration.)

How are you committed to writing? Have you let self-doubt hold you back? How have you shared your writing—a blog, a published book, submitting to a beta reader or agent? Will you be at WANACon with me?

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Comments — What do you think?

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tam francis

Self doubt is something I struggle with daily. I do let critiques get me down, often going home and having a good cry, becoming despondent and ambivalent. I let myself wallow for about 24 hours and then get to work. I take into consideration comments and critiques and research them and try NOT to write by committee. I remember that I am writing things “I” like to read and hopefully someone else will like them too.

I do worry with all these pep talks (not that yours does this), it will encourage writers NOT to listen to critiques and close off the part of themselves that allows them to drop their ego long enough to take in the criticism they need to make their writing stronger. It’s fine line and I’m often off balance ending to fall on the self-deprecating side.

Thanks for a great post.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Haha, I laughed at the “don’t be stingy” part. XD I totally agree that we’re all unique, and nobody else can write what we can write. Thus, though we may “say” that X is a “better writer” than Y, this only means that X is a more SKILLED writer than Y, not exactly that their CONTENT is objectively “better”. A certain story’s content may interest and engage more readers than another story’s, but I don’t think the number of interested readers should dictate the value of a story–partly because there will always be SOMEONE in this world who enjoys the less popular story more. Some stories appeal to fewer people simply because they describe a more specific, less universal experience. That doesn’t mean that these stories are inferior. It just means that only the few people who HAVE that experience can relate to and understand it. I wish more people would understand this principle, and know that no one story is inherently “worse” or “better” than any other. There are only more widely appealing and less widely appealing stories, and stories expressed more skillfully or less skillfully. However, even when we talk about skills, it isn’t that easy to judge which story is “expressed MORE skillfully” either, as different readers prefer different styles of expression. Different readers have different experiences and come from different writing backgrounds, so different styles will have different psychological/emotional impacts on them. (Sorry, too many “different”s in one sentence. XD) An obvious example is how some…  — Read More »

Gary Kriss
Gary Kriss

Ah, Jami, another fine, provocative post.

Consider that fear can either be crippling or the impetus to accomplish even more than thought possible.

Consider that writers satisfied with their work should fall on their pens in shame.

Consider that there is a distinction between confidence in what you’re saying and confidence in how you’re saying it and that makes all the difference.

Consider these foolish observations ended.


Everyone has self-contradictions. Everyone.

I see this all the time (and then get treated as if it’s all in my head when I point it out). I suspect writers are just more aware of the dichotomies than a lot of people.

Kerry Gans

Self-doubt can be crippling, but it can also show that you are going in the right direction. A small amount of self-doubt is crucial to continued growth as a writer (or a person). I find in many areas of life that the people who feel they are not “good enough” are often the ones doing the best work, the best jobs, and growing their skills. The ones who feel they’ve got it all figured out are often the ones who fall by the wayside in the end, even if they seem to start out with an advantage. So self-doubt can make us better at what we do–as long as we don’t let it consume us.


I was committed. Finished the book. Published it. Sold several copies, all with positive feedback. Met with a publicist that suggested ways I could improve my books marketability with a few tweaks so I started a re-write. I’ve been stuck editing my book ever since. I don’t know if my tweaks are enough. I’m paralyzed by self-doubt because I thought I had it right the first time.


Then leave it and go write the next one. The book’s out there. People are giving you positive feedback. Go write something else.

There’s no such thing as a perfect book.

My first novel is currently having the audio version produced. That means I have to listen/reread it, and I’m cringing. There are so many little “problems” with it—but those “wrong” things are part of what produce the overall whole, which is exactly what I was going for. (And what the fans of it love, because it's unusual—for a reason, but unusual.) If I go back and fix those "problems", I'll damage what the book is.

No such thing as a perfect book, Lisa. 🙂

Rinelle Grey

Ugh. Self doubt. I think that’s one that every writer struggles with. There’s a tendency to compare ourselves to the greats, those authors who are household names, and find ourselves lacking. I know I do it.

But I think it’s hard for us to see the beauty in our own works if we’re constantly comparing ourselves to others. Every novel I’ve read has offered me something to think about, and taken me to a world I wouldn’t have experienced otherwise. I do agre that every book has something to offer us.

Donna Hole
Donna Hole

Self doubt is difficult to get past.

Lots of inspirational quotes in this Jami. Thanks for sharing.


Teri Anne Stanley

Great post, as usual!

I’m in the throes of editing my first sale, and working on a proposal with my agent for what might be another sale, and have been back and forth and all over the place with the Self Doubt monster.
I’m trying to be like Russel Crowe in a Beautiful Mind. I recognize that Self Doubt is there, but I’m not going to hang out with it.

I get a critique, and I wallow around for a while, thinking I should pack it in and just forget the whole thing, and then remember that I have a contract. I kind of have to finish this book. That’s usually enough to get me past the beast. Until it pops back up out of the sewer.

I think, though, that we writers tend to thrive on the roller coaster of emotions that is writing…we read because we like the way it makes us think and feel about the world…and writing stuff ourselves just intensifies all of that. “Someone loves what I do, I must be wonderful, life is great,” then, “Oh, but they’re going to tell me how much I suck soon, I’m unworthy of life,” then, “Oh, but my critique partner would just stop answering my emails if I was that bad, so I must be okay…” and so on.

At some point, you just have to hold your nose and jump in.


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