When you think about how to improve as a writer, you focus on things you need to do. It’s all about discipline and productivity. Write every day, write faster, write more. Right? Wrong. So, so wrong.
The most important thing you can do to be the best writer you can be is to stop doing all the things that hold you back, block you, and undermine your success. You may not even know you’re doing them. It’s time to change that.
There’s no-one herebut you. Even I’m not here anymore by the time you’re reading this! So, you can be honest with yourself in a safe, risk-free environment while you answer these questions:
Do you ever blame others for your writing failures?
You know, that star writer with thousands of followers who can’t even write a grammatical sentence; or that lousy agent who rejected your book without even so much as a comment; or your job, which leaves you so exhausted you can’t even think, let alone make coherent sentences; or your family who just don’t understand how to leave you in peace to write?
Do you spend more time worrying about how little you write than you do writing?
Do you avoid writing because you’re anxious that you won’t write well, that you’re not good enough yet? Do you put off writing because it will be easier later, or tomorrow, or the next day?
Instead of writing and enjoying it, do you ruminate on all the times your writing plans didn’t work out?
All the rejections you’ve had; and when you spent ages writing your best story only to discover someone else had already published a better version?
When you find time to write, do you set yourself up to fail?
Like when you pin up your new writing schedule, which says you’re going to write 10,000 words before breakfast; or you decide you should go write in the coffee shop, but you know you’ll meet your friends and won’t be able to concentrate; or you drop crumbs into your keyboard and by the time you’ve cleaned it up you’ve run out of time?
Do you recognize any of those things in yourself? You may not be human if you don’t! But these are all attitudes and behaviors which hold you back from being creative and enjoying a productive and successful writing life. You can sum them up like this:
- Negative criticism
- Anxiety about outcomes
- Self-negating thoughts
Acknowledging these bad habits is the first — and most painful — step toward freeing your best creative self. The next steps are easier than you might think. Once you acknowledge these bad habits, and understand how they work, you can change them and free yourself to write without resentment, doubt, or fear.
Comparative analysis and critical thinking are useful tools for any writer. They help you understand where you are on your writing journey, learn from the successes and failures of others, and inform your progress.
But if you enjoy a frisson of pleasure in pointing out the faults in others’ writing, something’s wrong. Such criticism is a defense mechanism against your own insecurity. Amplifying other’s mistakes and failures allows you to avoid the harder task of overcoming your own.
All writers gain from positive critiques of their work. It helps them level up their skills and improve their prose. But nobody benefits from negative criticism, which only serves to make you feel better at someone else’s expense.
You might get temporary relief from self-doubt by finding fault in another writer’s work or blaming an agent or publisher for not recognizing your genius. By belittling another writer, you big yourself up. But in reality, all you’re doing is alienating other writers and industry professionals— who should be your colleagues, not your competitors — and wasting time and energy better spent on critiquing and improving your own work.
Anxiety about outcomes
It’s reasonable to have a plan. Defining desired outcomes in advance can help you streamline your activity and direct your energies productively. But the world is full of uncertainty and no-one — neither Gypsy Rose with her crystal ball nor a skilled data analyst with cutting-edge technology — can 100% predict or guarantee future outcomes.
Worrying about whether your book will find an agent or a publisher can stop you writing it. Your story may stay in drafts forever if you’re too anxious about your favorite online platform choosing it for further distribution. But all the time you spend worrying about the future, the present slips through your fingers.
The best way to improve your chances of achieving your desired future outcomes is to put them aside and concentrate on the present. Which is more productive, worrying that you may not write a thousand words by lunch, or writing one more? Worrying about the future doesn’t help you reach tomorrow it just saps all the energy out of today.
Define your vision. Set up your goals. Point yourself in the right direction. But lower your sights from the mountain peak and be satisfied with taking the next step forward. You can only write one word at a time, right?
You can learn from past mistakes and failures. But it doesn’t take long, and you can only do it once. When you make a mistake, accept it, chalk it up to experience, and move forward.
Dwelling on the pain and disappointment of yesterday, re-running the movie on your mental screen, will never alter what happened. You can’t change the past. All you achieve by trying is to demoralize yourself and to waste energy agonizing over events that no longer exist.
Worrying about the future sucks energy from the present. So does clinging on to the past. Learn to let go. Books that still haven’t found a publisher, stories you love that no-one wants to read, the pitch for a guest post that never even got a reply are all arrows that didn’t hit the target. But what can you gain by looking at them in sorrow? Re-string your bow, notch another arrow, and try again.
Don’t believe the self-negating inner monologue. Like a ghost in chains, it’s stuck in the past, unable to move on. It denies the truth that today is a new day; you have another chance; you’ve learned from your failures; you’re a better writer now than you were then.
Release the phantoms of past failure. Put them to rest. Come back to the land of the living, and keep writing.
Self-sabotage means setting yourself up for failure by design. You may wonder why anyone would want to do that. Most writers who self-sabotage, do it unconsciously. But it’s common and easy to understand.
Rather than risking not being good enough, you choose to show that the world is against you. Failure is easier to engineer than success. So, you set yourself up to fail through no obvious fault of your own. Self-sabotage allows you to keep a sense of control while blaming circumstances for your failures rather than yourself.
You might set impossible expectations like writing a novel in a week or twenty articles a day. When you fail, you can say, “Well, no-one could do that. It’s not my fault!” Or you might ‘mislay’ your notes. You could ‘accidentally’ spill coffee into your keyboard. Maybe you’ll drink too much the night before, so you’re too hungover to write. Better to engineer false failures than risk the real thing.
But the only person you’re fooling is you. The only winners in self-sabotage are pride and cowardice. You’re too good to fail, but you’re too afraid to succeed.
The solution is to lower your expectations. Work toward realistic goals. Allow yourself a few small successes. As you do, you’ll retrain your brain to expect less and achieve more. You’ll build your confidence, strengthen your resolve, learn humility, and let go your fear.
While writing every day, writing faster, and writing more may be wonderful goals, you’re unlikely to achieve them while you cling to self-negating bad habits. The most important step you can take as a writer isn’t to do more, it’s stopping doing the things which hold you back. In a nutshell: Stop criticizing others and improve yourself; stop being anxious about the future and focus on the present; stop dwelling on yesterday’s failures and do your best today; stop setting yourself up for failure and allow yourself to risk success.
If you suffer from crippling writing anxiety, this story will help you overcome your condition with easy-to-understand, actionable advice: