Along our writing journeys it’s not uncommon for writers to struggle with confidence. One of the things we can do to build confidence is to recognize and overcome self-defeating behaviors, like negative self-talk. Negative thinking can be detrimental to our performance, make us doubt ourselves and inhibit our creativity.
We all wonder if we have the stuff it takes. As beginners we wonder if we have an inkling of talent. Once our talent is validated by other writers and readers, we still wonder if it’s good enough, if we have what it takes. It’s good to acknowledge that we don’t know it all and to have a desire to learn and grow, but doubt can hold us back. We shoot ourselves in the foot by creating and feeding feelings of inadequacy.
Being unprepared can leave us feeling inadequate, so reading, attending workshops and staying informed on the craft of writing and the market is another way to help us feel prepared. When positive thinking is paired with common sense, we can stay open to possibilities.
Confidence can be built by setting and achieving goals, so it’s pretty important how we choose to set goals and measure them. Short term and long terms goals should be realistic and achievable. Don’t set yourself up for failure by setting a goal like, “I will be published by this time next year.” Unless you’re independently publishing, a goal like that is out of your control, and the result will leave you feeling helpless or like a failure. Set goals with smaller steps. A long term goal might be to produce a polished product for submission with the next ten months. Then set short term goals to make it happen: Two new pages a day or two hours of writing a day for example. Perhaps take an online class or find a critique partner.
"Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt." – William Shakespeare
Most of us were raised in a competitive and comparative environment, where our achievements were profiled and graphed into percentiles; where we were matched up against our peers as a gauge to see how we were doing. It’s no wonder so many of us have self-esteem issues and doubts about our abilities. Thank goodness teachers, counselors and parents have learned to work in teams to choose learning methods suitable for children of all capabilities. Students are treated as individuals and encouraged to learn at their own speed and in the manner best suited for them.
Sometimes we make mistakes. Sometimes a project crashes and burns. Sometimes we have to do something wrong before we figure out how to do it right. And that’s okay—as long as we’re moving forward.
You have to be willing to make mistakes.
I know writers who never get started because they’re always planning, plotting and talking about the book instead of putting words on pages. Know anyone like that? There are writing students (not actually writers yet) who read every book on the craft and attend all the workshops and conferences and ask questions and take notes and plan, plan, plan.
It’s a good thing to be teachable and eager to learn, but you can’t learn to write until you put words on paper. The people who don’t get that far want everything to be perfect before it gets on the page – or they want it to come out perfect on the first try, so they wait until they’re good enough. Guess what? Ain‘t gonna happen.
You have to be willing to make mistakes. You have to be willing to write badly in order to learn to write well. Ask yourself: What’s the worst that could happen?
“Confidence comes not from always being right but from not fearing to be wrong.”
- Peter T. Mcintyre
I’ve been a worship leader for quite a few years, and I always say to my team of singers, “If you’re going to make a mistake, make it with confidence, and no one will know you didn’t intend it that way.” I have been known to sing the wrong notes or words, but I sing them with such authority that everyone follows along. Confidence grows with practice and with maturity.
I wrote a how-to-write book. It was a pretty big deal. Who was I to write a book that would be marketed beside admired and credible instructors? It was a lofty goal to write an instructional book, but I’d been leading workshops and teaching online classes for years, and I had a lot of encouragement from other writers, which built my confidence in my ability. I always ask myself, "What's the worst thing that could happen?" Writing this type of book was something I’d thought about for a long time. It was as big of a step as writing or submitting my first book. My long term goal was to submit it for publication. My short term goals involved gathering my notes and thoughts, preparing the manuscript and getting feedback.
Imagine my delight when the publisher I had dreamed of made an offer. The process was so different from my other publishing experiences that it was a stretch.
The editor of Writing With Emotion, Tension and Conflict, Rachel Randall, told me I should be proud of this project. And I am. I did something I had only dreamed of doing.
I have high hopes for the future generations of students and young adults receiving recognition for intrinsic value. We should all know that our value lies inside of us, not in our performance.
Some things just can’t be measured. What makes one book better than the next or one writer better than another? Only perspective. Only the reader, when you get right down to it. Because story-telling can be so subjective, I might enjoy a book you can’t finish, and a story I think is drivel could land on your keeper shelf.
No one can tell you whether or not you’re going to sell a book, publish fifty more or be a success. Another writer can read your work and assure you it’s good, but that’s not a guarantee. There are no guarantees when you start writing, and that can get frustrating.
As much as we’d love for there to be, there’s no writer’s crystal ball to foretell the future.
Take a man with a desire to run a hundred meter race. He buys a pair of Nikes, goes out and gives running a shot, but he doesn’t do very well. Why not? He didn’t practice! He didn’t study how other runners achieve endurance through diet and exercise. He doesn’t know how good he really is until he’s trained by learning all he can, eating properly for energy and muscle and all that—and after he’s ready, after he’s prepared, by stretching to limber up and then RUNNING.
Then running again and again and again until he’s fast and he’s confident that he’s fast, and he’s ready to compete.
In many ways submitting a book is a lot like that. Your manuscript will be compared to all the others that cross an editor’s desk. It will be scrutinized for its ability to make the publishing house money in the marketplace—bottom line in this business. The only way you can have the confidence to know you’re submitting something with a chance of making it past that test is to learn your craft and practice, practice, practice. Work at writing and work at it until you get better, until you hit your personal stride. Then share it and get feedback from people you trust.
So how can you grow your confidence?
Confidence is gained by successfully completing a task and recognizing the accomplishment—repeatedly. By acknowledging a success, your brain processes, "I can do this again."
We can’t nurture confidence if we don’t recognize or even appreciate what we’ve done.
Don’t ever demean an accomplishment by saying or thinking, “I was just lucky" or "Anyone could have done it."
Don’t look at a project as too large. Break it down into steps and accomplish them one at a time. If it’s helpful, record your page/time goals and accomplishments in your planner. Check them off as you reach and overtake each one. It’s like that joke, “How do you eat an elephant?”
One bite at a time.
Celebrate each success along the way.
Have a chapter one achievement award party or treat yourself to something special for milestones reached. Give yourself fun stickers or hearts on your calendar—something visual to note progress.
Learn from your mistakes. This might sound simple, but if one method didn’t work, try a different one. You can’t expect a different result from the same behavior.
“Ability is what you're capable of doing. Motivation determines what you do. Attitude determines how well you do it." - Lou Holtz
Confidence is conditioned behavior.
Many years ago a study was done at the University of Wisconsin. A scientist tied a mouse’s front feet together and placed the animal into the cage of another mouse. The mouse whose cage was being trespassed easily beat up the mouse with its feet tied.
After that happened several times, the scientist put mice without tied feet into the cage. The mouse who’d won repeatedly was so confident by then that it took on and defeated mice even larger than itself. Under ordinary circumstances, that mouse would have run when it saw a larger opponent, but it had been conditioned until it believed it couldn't lose. And it didn't.
Celebrate your successes.
“Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.” - Eleanor Roosevelt
Sure, sometimes self-doubt is much deeper, it’s inadequacies we’ve carried with us from childhood and relationships and past hurts and experiences. But there’s help for those things, too, in recognizing it and getting help if need be and working on it. You’re a valuable person. You’re worth it. You deserve to give yourself the gift of improving yourself and reaching for your dream.
"If you want confidence, act as if you already have it.”
- William James