Stop Hating Your Writing and Overcome Self-Doubt: 5 Effective Tips

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A skeleton with its face on a laptop's keyboard surrounded by crumbled balls of paper.
Photo by Tara Winstead: https://www.pexels.com/photo/a-skeleton-leaning-on-a-laptop-8386709/

‘I’ve begun to question everything, whether I am doing this right, whether I should be doing it at all, whether I should quit writing and move to Iceland and raise goats.’

The author, V. E. Schwab, who goes through this ‘mental trash fire with every book’ has had her recent book The Fragile Threads of Power be nominated for best fantasy of 2023 by Goodreads.

Doubting, and even hating your own work, isn’t limited to authors. Finding fault with your own work haunts actors too. Take Tom Hanks, who feels you ‘Only sort of learn what not to do’ when revisiting past performances. Or Kate Winslet: ‘Every single scene, I’m like “Really, really? You did it like that?”’

This is all to say one thing: if you hate your own writing, you’re in great company.

It’s perfectly, utterly normal.

Even so, it doesn’t always feel great, does it? Saying ‘look at all these big names who share your self-doubt’ may be comforting, but that doesn’t get you out of that rut.

Getting along better with your writing will up your confidence, push you through writing boundaries, and – most importantly – let you enjoy the process.

Do you really hate your writing?

Yes, I know, I know. Why even ask this when you clearly dislike your writing enough to be here? But we’re not always the most rational creatures, especially when it comes to something as dear to us as our stories.

Daily life influences how we feel about your work far more than we realise. Maybe you’re still fixating over a three-day-old argument, fretting over work deadlines, or one of the many other curveballs life throws at us.

We’re jugglers, and keeping those balls airborne can wear our emotions thin. With everything crowding your mental space, infecting your outlook, you’ll be in a poor position to judge your own work, so don’t do it!

You’re far more likely to nitpick at flaws in this state. Flaws that glare out at you won’t be so blinding when you have a level head.

When you aren’t weighed down, ask yourself if you really do dislike your writing. it’s a good sign if you do, according to the Dunning–Kruger effect – people competent at a skill are more likely to be critical of their work and vice versa. So it’s already likely you’re better than you think!

And if you can go a step further and pinpoint what’s wrong? Even better.

It means you know specifically what areas you dislike. And specificity helps: you know what you need to tackle.

But before you decide you need to change those aspects…

Don't benchmark your writing against popular advice

There are plenty of dos and don’ts out there in the whirlpool of writing advice: ‘show don’t tell’, ‘kill adverbs with fire’, ‘don’t use a long word when a short one will do’. When an aspiring writer seeks advice, these pop up like wildfires. I’m sure you’ve come across these, too.

The problem with this advice? It deals in absolutes. ‘Don’t do [insert supposed wiring sin]’ works fine… until that ‘sin’ comes in handy. The well-meaning advice that applies 90% of the time doesn’t include the exceptions; everything has its place in writing, and rarely is something always wrong.

Yet, such advice gets told so often that finding these advised-against habits in your writing can lead you to believe your writing is bad.

That’s not even remotely true.

In fact, I can guarantee if you flick through books from your favourite authors, you’ll find them guilty, too.

Did noticing Robin Hobb’s overuse of adverbs in dialogue tags make me scream ‘amateur!’ and think any less of her work? Fat chance.

Don’t ignore all advice, but don’t let writing ‘must dos’ colour your opinion of your writing.

Everything has its place in writing, and rarely is something always wrong.

Objectivity: you can't get it alone (but you need it)

There’s on huge problem with being the sole judge of our writing: it’s impossible to be objective about it. The lens with which we judge our writing will always be tainted with our knowledge of the piece, our likes, and our dislikes.

We can’t:

  • separate ourselves from our work
  • ever have that ‘first-reader experience’
  • help but judge our work harsher than we do others’

We can’t step outside our work to see it for what it is. That’s what makes us a very poor judge of our work: we recognise skill in other works far easier than our own. And that applies to others who read your work!

So if you dislike your writing, but have it wrapped up in a shell for your eyes only, objective validation works wonders.

Reach out to beta readers, reach out to author friends. If the thought of professional editorial feedback gives you the heebie-jeebies, check out this post where editors explain why you needn’t worry.

And whenever you ask for feedback, don’t just ask about what’s not working, but ask them what they liked, what intrigued them, what made them say ‘Oooh THAT was awesome!’.

Why?

Because being told what’s going well is just as helpful as knowing what’s not.

Focus on the now, not your dream vision of the book

There is a gap when it comes to writing. Two, actually: the gap between where your current WIP is at and its final form, and the gap between your current skill level and how you envision yourself. The good thing about gaps?

They can be filled.

If your story is only at draft stage and you’re lamenting it, that’s completely normal! (I’d question the ego of those who brag that a great first or second draft pours from their fingertips like magic.)

It’s okay for it to be bad at this point, or at least a messy hodgepodge with hidden potential.

And the worst thing you could do to self-worth is compare your draft to a fully fleshed novel. You don’t see the author’s pain and tears, their trial and error, and the complete overhaul their finished novel has been through.

It’s as Allison Williams says in her book Seven Drafts: ‘First drafts are barre exercises before ballet, scales before singing, charcoal on newsprint before oils on canvas.’

This applies to any stage before completion, not just early drafts. So don’t get hung up on how it is right now – there’s always room for improvement!

The second gap takes far longer to fill, and it may never close completely.

You set out with your vision of wondrous worlds, complex storylines and multiple interconnected POVs spanning years – things an author of any skill struggle to pull off.

Heck, even painting a semi-realistic character for half a dozen pages is tough.

Your skills may simply not be up to par with your ambitions for your story. And there’s no shame in that. Developing these skills takes practice and a whole lot of dedication. Keep at it, and you’ll get there.

But where is ‘there’ exactly?

Until you’re a wizard with worldbuilding?

Until you’re adept at a certain literary technique or writing a certain type of story?

Of course not. Even seasoned authors with 10, 20, 50 books under their belt seek to improve their craft – that ceiling of ambition isn’t a fixed point.

Forget expectations (for now) and prioritise yourself

You’ve likely been told to keep your audience in the forefront of your mind when writing. You should stick to genre expectations. You should serve your reader. All very sound advice… sort of.

Yes, doing all that helps the marketability of your book, letting you carve your niche so publishers and sellers know how to categorise your book.

But writing solely for others isn’t the way to go.

You’ve got to love your ideas, your story, your words. If you don’t, how can you expect others to?

Write what you’re passionate about, what excites you. Write what you want to read. Only then will all that passion bleed through the pages and infuse your work, and readers will notice.

Now I’m not saying ignore the conventional wisdom above – it has its place. But don’t let it keep you in a literary chokehold.

Spend some time, completely away from your work in progress, and write with freedom and wild abandon.

Your idea isn’t what’s ‘trending’? Write anyway. Let’s take vampire stories. As Tiffani Angus and Val Nolan point out in Spec Fic for Newbies, ‘Vampire fiction goes through cycles: it’s in fashion and nobody can get enough of it, then it’s out and no one wants it. But then, like an actual vampire, it rises from the dead.’

Trends ebb and flow, and what may not be hot right now may resurface by the time your book gets published.

Your idea is outlandish? Write anyway.

Write. Anyway.

Don’t try to slog through something that isn’t you.

Write what you're passionate about, what excites you. Write what you want to read. Only then will all that passion bleed through the pages and infuse your work, and readers will notice.

5 more ideas to get you out of your writing funk

  • there’s an author I follow on Facebook who posts her favourite line she wrote that day. Now you don’t have to share, but keep a log of your best lines (in an app or a notebook, somewhere) and repeat after me: I wrote this. Do this whenever you doubt your ability
  • become a collector… of comments – specifically those that spike your confidence. Keep another notebook of all the great things people say about your writing. Even better, put them on post-its and plaster your writing space with them
  • give yourself some time away from your writing, a few days at least, and come back with fresh eyes
  • try your hand at writing another genre. This would mean broadening your reading horizons to become familiar with those genres. Each one has its own style and nuance that you may find you can write well in and even incorporate into your usual genre
  • get comfortable with the idea that there’s no right way to write a story. We get used to ‘hearing and reading a lot of stories of a particular sort, and coming to think that that’s the only natural way for a story to be, and feeling uncomfortable unless [we’re] with something familiar’ (Philip Pullman, Daemon Voices)

Final thoughts...

It stings our pride when we dislike our own writing (or anything we create). It hurts. But it may help to recognise this dislike often comes from very common human tendencies.

It’s cliché, but it doesn’t make it less true: we are our own worst critics. Our perceived flaws seem to jump out at us with frantically waving hands, stealing the spotlight from our prouder moments (selfish buggers).

But being critical also means you care about the quality of your writing. Remember: the more critical you are the more competent you’re likely to be. And being aware of your weaker areas means you’re on your way to improvement.

I do hope this post helps improve your relationship with your writing. If you have any other techniques or mindset tips, please share them in the comments to help other authors.

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