Doubt feels awful, even when it’s just a minor, nagging little thought in the back of your mind. After all, what if you really did leave the stove on and burn down the house while you were at work? Even small doubts can have dire consequences if they are justified. The problem is, many of them aren’t justified, but it’s not always easy to know when you should invite doubt in for tea and when to shut the door on it. However, if you’re going to be a writer, you need to make friends with your doubt.
Mr. Magoos on the Loose
Mr. Magoo was a cartoon character from the mid-twentieth century. He was old and so near-sighted he was virtually blind, but despite all the havoc he caused, he refused to acknowledge the problem. He always got out of trouble unscathed but the people affected by his actions weren’t always so lucky. Sound familiar?
By now you’ve probably heard of the Dunning Kruger effect, the double-whammy of (1) being incompetent and (2) being unable to recognize your incompetence. Everyone has some natural gifts, but we are all so catastrophically inept at something that we don’t even realize we’re failing at it. In other words, if you lack the skills required to do a thing, you also lack the skills to evaluate your ability (or anyone else’s ability) to do that thing. Explains a lot about the world, doesn’t it?
Of course, it’s one thing to shake your head at someone else who blunders around, cluelessly leaving a trail of disaster, but it’s a little frightening to think that person might actually be you.
The Naked Emperor
Recall the story of the emperor’s new clothes. The emperor trusted some devious scoundrels who promised to weave amazing new clothes but convinced the emperor that the clothes were invisible to those who were unfit for their position. Neither the emperor nor his ministers could see the alleged clothes, but no one dared say anything out of fear of revealing their incompetence. In the end, the emperor literally paraded himself around naked while the scoundrels walked away with his money.
The poor, deluded emperor in this story shows symptoms of imposter syndrome, the opposite of the Dunning Kruger effect. People who suffer from imposter syndrome are high achievers who have difficulty accepting their success. They typically believe they’ve just been lucky and constantly fear that they’ll be revealed as a fraud, so they may never talk about their doubts. The result is that these highly skilled, intelligent people believe they are unworthy of their success, resulting in extreme stress and anxiety.
Doubt, Not Anxiety
Doubt is a normal, everyday feeling that encourages us to reconsider our actions. A little healthy doubt can help us avoid making mistakes or correct mistakes we’ve already made. Anxiety, to oversimplify things a bit, is the stress of uncontrolled doubt, and it can be paralyzing.
Anxiety is also normal, at least to an extent. Feelings of anxiety can spur us to take urgent actions, propelling us through stressful situations. If you have an important presentation at work, feeling anxious can help you focus in the short term and the stress hormones can actually help prepare you to act. A little adrenaline goes a long way. But when worry and stress reach a critical level or become constant companions, the result will be physical and emotional burnout and decreased productivity.
Keeping yourself in that sweet spot where these unpleasant feelings spur you on without wearing you down is important. However, managing strong emotions is difficult at the best of times and, unfortunately, many writers are more sensitive than the average person and are prone to crippling self-doubt.
There is no easy way to wrangle with doubt and anxiety, but you still have to do it. One of the first things you have to acknowledge is what’s on the line.
Attachment and Success
Writing tends to be a very personal experience, and everyone who writes stands to gain or lose something. It’s natural to be nervous about writing and publishing.
Fiction writers often have very strong attachments to their word-babies. They have crafted these stories and poems with love and joy, tears and tantrums. The author wants other people to love their art as much as they do, and criticism can sometimes be devastating.
Academics and other experts typically publish to create or maintain their professional reputations. Naturally, this opens up their work to criticism, and competing experts can sometimes be dismissive or downright nasty towards the other’s work. Editing or reviewing an expert’s work, no matter how gently, can occasionally evoke extremely defensive behaviour from the author if they feel their expertise is under attack.
When you’ve put a lot of effort into creating something, it’s almost impossible not to worry about how it will be received. However, shoving your doubts aside without examining them will only make things worse.
Develop Constructive Doubt
Constructive doubt—sounds like an oxymoron doesn’t it? We typically think of doubt as being destructive and try to eliminate it or shove it aside, but this is a losing strategy. What we have to recognize is that self-doubt is not proof of inferiority or failure, but a sign that something important is on the line, typically our success and self-image. When your success affects the safety and well-being of others, the stress only increases.
Fortunately for most writers, no one will die or endure terrible hardships if they mess up, but the conscientious writer is always concerned with the quality of their work. Here are a few ways to rein in your doubts and make them work for you.
Strive for excellence, not perfection
No one is perfect, and no one can do things perfectly, but everyone can be amazing at something. The first step is to shift your focus a little.
Trying to attain perfection is just chasing the dragon—you’ll never catch it. Learn to recognize when you’ve done a good job and when you’ve half-assed the work. Yes, you can always do better, but at a certain point your efforts will see diminishing returns, and you’ll still have another article to write, kids and pets to feed, laundry to do, a life to enjoy, etc. Obsessing over every last detail is probably not going to give you anything besides a headache. Learn to recognize when your work is good enough. Let your doubts guide you for a time, but once you’ve considered your work from every possible angle, put a lid on your doubts and move on.
Seek constructive feedback
Before you send your magnificent creation into the world for everyone to see (and criticize), let a few select people have a look at it. Choose people that you know have the skills to provide solid, objective critiques of the type that you need. If you’re looking for feedback on narrative structure, seek beta readers who won’t sit around nitpicking your grammar and sentence structure. (Believe me, this is a common problem.)
In general, avoid choosing those nitpicky people who comment on every last grammatical error. As a general rule, these people have difficulty seeing the big picture, and while they may make good proofreaders, they aren’t necessarily good editors. Even a proper copy edit requires the editor to read for clarity and flow. Zapping typos just doesn’t cut it.
Be cautious accepting readers’ “I” statements at face value. Too often, when a reader says “I didn’t like X” or “I would have done Y”, they’re imposing their own styles on your work. This can make you feel like your work isn’t good enough, even if that wasn’t the critic’s intention. You need to read between the lines to see if reasonably objective advice is being given in subjective terms. If you can mentally rephrase the advice to read something like “I am concerned about X because of features Y and Z in your book” or “I am concerned about X because I don’t understand why you used it” then the critique is worth considering. There may still be some merit to subjective criticism, but don’t take it to heart. Just because someone else would do things differently doesn’t mean that the way you did it was wrong.
Also keep in mind that some people can spot genuine problems without being able to fully articulate what it is that they find troublesome. This is a common difficulty in the arts. If a criticism sounds like it might be reasonable but you’re not entirely sure what the reader is trying to say, ask them to elaborate a little more. It can help you look at your own work in a whole new way.
Perhaps most importantly, use criticism to help you learn to see where your work has problems. The better you become at reading your own work through someone else’s eyes, the more useful your inner critic will be.
Commit to doing proper research
I’ve covered the topic of research in detail, but I’ll just add a few points here.
If you’re writing fiction, you don’t need to be a subject matter expert to use aspects of that subject, such as science or history, to make your fiction realistic. Exactly how much you need to understand depends on how much your story relies on these subjects, but be aware that your audience may bring more expertise to the reading than you do to your writing. Don’t be sloppy about your research or assume that readers won’t notice your mistakes.
In general, try to gain a broad overall knowledge of the subject and then dig deeper into the particular areas you need for your writing. Having general knowledge will help you see how all the parts of the subject fit together and recognize where there are holes in your understanding.
If you’re writing nonfiction, you should get in as deep as you can. You need to avoid confusing speculations and opinions with facts or writing in such a way as to confuse the reader about when you’re presenting opinions rather than facts.
The stronger your grasp of the topic, the more confident you will be in your decisions about how to use the information.
Read your own work as a hostile critic might
I studied both science and philosophy in university, and in both disciplines you need to be able to consider all possible criticisms of your work before you present it. This can be a difficult and depressing exercise, but the goal is to address your critics’ potential concerns before they can even open their mouths. They’ll find problems anyway, but you really want to make it hard for them. That means no straw men. Do not focus on the weakest possible criticisms that someone might throw at you. In the moment, it might make you feel better to wave away petty criticisms, but if someone finds a real clunker in your published work because you were too busy congratulating yourself for being a super-genius, you won’t be so pleased.
This holds for fiction as well as nonfiction. When you have the creative license to do whatever you want, it’s easy to just brush off your critics by accusing them of not understanding. Granted, some readers won’t get what you’re trying to do, but it’s your job to express yourself clearly. You must telegraph your big moves without info-dumping or else you risk being grossly misunderstood and potentially attracting the wrong kind of attention.
For example, I once provided a manuscript evaluation on a highly political science fiction novel set in a world ravaged by war and civil unrest. The author had developed a highly complex political structure and history for his world, and his protagonist endured great personal hardships that nearly destroyed her. However, at the end of the story, she overcomes her obstacles and—here’s the kicker—is presented alongside a swastika in a manner that could only be described as triumphant.
Granted, the Nietzschean overtones of the story had seemed odd, but Nietzsche would never have been a nazi. It was his anti-Semitic sister who appropriated his work and controlled his philosophical legacy, so I had tried not to read too much into the whole ubermensch theme. Additionally, the rest of the story had seemed to move in a direction that would condemn nazism, fascism, and tyranny in general, so where the hell did this come from? I dug through the story again, looking to see if I had missed anything, but the author had done nothing to prepare me for that final move.
When I sent the author his review, I went over this problem in great detail. He said his beta readers had expressed the same concerns, but claimed he had intended to use the scene to show how symbols can change meaning. Considering the full context of the book I mostly believed him; however, because he never established what the symbol represented throughout his story, he left the final interpretation entirely up to the reader, and it was all too clear what a Western audience would take from it. For the first time ever, I asked not to be included in the acknowledgements if he decided to publish simply because I was concerned about the political ramifications.
Would the author have been able to get away with the controversial imagery if he had better demonstrated his intended meaning? Maybe. Maybe not. But at least he would have given his readers a textual basis for the reinterpretation of a symbol that has dangerous connotations in the West.
Always ask yourself if you have provided the readers enough information. Do not assume the reader will just get what you’re doing—you’re the writer, so the onus is on you. You can’t control how people will react to your work, but you can make sure you’ve given them enough to understand what you’re trying to do. If they grossly misinterpret your work, you want it to be their mistake, not yours.
Make yourself proud
You can’t make your work perfect, and no matter how good it is, you can’t please everyone. The best you can do is create something that you will be proud of, flaws and all. Make all decisions about your work deliberate, even the tiniest details, and make sure all the story arcs, character development, themes, etc. all fit together and are presented in a way that clearly expresses them to the reader. Once you know you’ve done everything you can, it’s much easier to put your doubts to rest. They’ll wake up from time to time, but they’ll be easier to soothe.