Is It Normal To Think You Suck At Writing?
March 5, 2021
Self-doubt is something most people struggle with at some point, but it seems writers face it more frequently than others. We tend to feel like impostors.
Some writers are naturally confident, but even the most self-assured writers doubt themselves at some point in their careers.
Ask any writer, and they’ll probably tell you that on more than one occasion, they felt like they sucked at writing.
If you feel that way too, it’s normal! You’re not alone. There are common reasons why so many writers feel like they’re bad at writing.
And even better: there are things you can do to combat that self-doubt and defeat your impostor syndrome.
It can be hard to know if your writing is actually bad or if you’re being too critical of your own work. But it’s important to remember that most people are bad at something when they first start out.
If you’re new to writing and worried you might be bad at it, it’s perfectly fine if that’s true. It’s also fine if you’ve been writing for a long time and feel the same way.
The best way to learn your skill level as a writer is through feedback. Many writers (even successful, published authors) use writing groups, beta readers and critique partners for this exact reason.
Usually, the writer is too close to their own story, and needs someone else to point out the good bits and the bad bits.
Check social media for local or online writing groups that are open to new members. Reach out to writer friends or acquaintances to see if they’re interested in partnering up to swap feedback.
It might take a while for you to feel confident enough to share your writing, but any feedback is useful feedback.
If your writing feels boring, it’s likely because you’ve been immersed in the same book for months, or even years.
Imagine if, as a reader, you read and re-read the same book (or even the same chapter of a book) over and over again.
It would get old very quickly and you would start to be bored by it, no matter how much you loved it the first time you read it.
That’s what you’re doing with your own writing. You’re writing, re-writing, reading and re-reading the same story, chapter, book – over and over again.
Of course you might start to get bored with it! That’s only natural. The best way to determine if your story actually is boring? Again, it’s through feedback.
Find someone you can trust to give quality, honest, and constructive feedback, who will be able to help you determine if any parts of your story are slow or unnecessary.
Some writers will also work on several projects at once to avoid feeling bored by any of them. This isn’t a tactic that works for every writer, and for some, constantly switching between projects is counter-productive.
If you’re the type to thrive in that environment, though, and you’re feeling uninspired by your current project, trying something different could be a good idea.
If you have another project in mind that’s more appealing, switch for a little while. Just don’t forget your original project. Switching between projects only works if you come back to each of them.
Otherwise it could just be another form of procrastination to avoid writing the tricky parts of a story.
Yes! Writing is a skill like any other. Anyone can improve their writing ability with practice.
It might take a long time to get your writing skills to the level you want. But remember that you don’t need to compare your writing journey to someone else’s. Every writer is on their own journey.
If you feel like you need more help, then taking a course or two in the craft of writing might be a good idea.
Sometimes advice from the experts, or simply the course activities themselves, can lead to a ‘Eureka!’ moment for your writing.
Sometimes you look at a piece of writing and know instinctively that it’s not living up to its potential. It could be better.
Most pieces of writing are fixable. The first step is to thoroughly edit. Editing is much more simple when you break it down into manageable steps.
Make notes for yourself and fix these problems before considering any nitty-gritty errors like grammar or spelling.
Once you’ve addressed any larger issues, you can start the wordsmithing step. Does the flow of a sentence feel off? What are the grammatical flaws?
Drill down to the core elements of the words on the page and mark them to be fixed when you come back to edit the piece line by line.
Editing can usually save your writing – however, sometimes you just can’t fix a piece that isn’t working. Sometimes you need to totally scrap it and rewrite it entirely.
Rewriting something can be massively disheartening, especially if you spent hours, days, weeks, months on the first draft. But sometimes starting over is the only solution.
The good part is that you’ve already had one go at writing the piece, and you’ll be a lot better prepared this time around.
The thing about being a writer is that there’s no ladder to climb like in a lot of other careers. Where you start is where you’ll end: writing.
The entry-level job as a writer is writing, and the top-of-the-career-level job as a writer is writing.
Other career paths may see you grow and change in faster, more obvious ways. The path of the writer isn’t as straightforward as that.
However, this means that from the beginning, we’re often expecting ourselves to be top-level writers – because they do the exact same thing as entry-level writers, right?
The first book you ever write probably won’t be the best book you ever write. And comparing yourself to peers who have been doing the job for longer and have more experience (though technically the same job title) can be disheartening.
You might also compare yourself now to the future version of yourself, which is just as unfair a comparison.
Writing isn’t a normal job. There are no fancy job titles or promotions that tell us how far along we are in our career and how much we can expect of ourselves.
All a writer has is their experience, their dedication to the craft, and their unique voice.
There aren’t many careers where half the job is looking at the work you’ve done and judging it.
Being a writer, you’ll spend a lot of your time looking over what you’ve written, critiquing it and working out if you can edit it or make it better in any way.
It’s easy for the editing eye to get a little too critical. Every writer wants to write their perfect story and every writer is their own worst critic. We always push ourselves to be the best we can be.
The problem is that all this criticism, however necessary, can make us doubt ourselves and our skills.
Whatever you write, it’s a reflection on you in some way. We all put a little bit of ourselves into our stories.
There may not be any character that’s directly representative of the writer, but in analysing a story, you can often get an understanding of the writer as a person.
We know that Jane Austen was an early feminist who believed in equality. We can see that in the stories she wrote.
The same goes for any writer; who they are and what they believe in will be reflected in their work.
That can make criticism of our writing hit a little harder. Because a writer puts so much of themselves into their work, criticism of the words on the page can feel like criticism of the writer themselves.
It can be a slippery slope to the writer thinking that they are bad at writing.
Writing is a translation of sorts, but not from one language to another. Writing is translating that perfect idea you have in your brain into imperfect words on the page.
Yep: imperfect words. The words will never be perfect.
You’ll often hear about how, in certain languages, there’s a word that means a specific concept, for which we have no corresponding word in English.
Writing is like that sometimes.
You have this pure concept, held together with this one thought. And when you try to write it down, it comes out as a bunch of words that don’t fully grasp the depth of the original idea.
The process of writing is inherently flawed. What comes out on the page will never be as good as the idea in the writer’s head.
That’s because what’s in the writer’s head isn’t real or concrete. But that doesn’t stop the writer from feeling disappointed. So what’s the solution?
Let’s take a look at some ways to deal with these feelings…
Being forgiving might sound basic, but it’s really the best way to deal with feeling imperfect. Because no one is perfect.
You might feel like your work isn’t as good as someone else’s. But has that other person been writing for a lot longer? Comparing yourself to more accomplished or experienced peers is a great way to feel bad.
Does going back over your work remind you that it is imperfect? Congratulations: you’re being a good editor!
One of the most important skills any writer has is their ability to edit. The fact that you can see that your work isn’t what it could be is proof of your skills.
Not everyone can tell when a piece of writing isn’t working and how to go about fixing it. If you can, that means you’re a talented writer.
What if your idea didn’t translate perfectly from your brain to the page? That’s normal. Every writer deals with that, and no writer is the perfect idea-to-text translator.
When someone – especially a critique partner or a friend – offers constructive criticism on your work, it’s not the same thing as saying that your writing is bad. Critique of the writing is not critique of the writer.
That sentiment might seem obvious when it’s laid out so clearly, but it’s hard to keep in mind sometimes. Every writer is guilty of taking critique to heart when their critic didn’t mean it personally.
Criticism of a piece of writing doesn’t mean that the writer is bad. If anything, it’s an indication of faith in your writing abilities.
It often means your critique partner or beta reader sees the potential of a piece and trusts you as a writer to be able to do better.
It’s also worth noting that sometimes critique isn’t useful. Writing is subjective; a change in mood can change someone’s perspective on a piece, and sometimes people’s visions or preferences don’t align.
Always try to seek feedback from more than one source so you’re not basing your revisions entirely on one person’s opinion.
If your inner editor is constantly popping up to give criticism while you’re writing, that isn’t a sign that your writing is bad. It is a sign that you may need to better refine your process as a writer.
You might need to separate your writing and editing selves. Putting up these barriers can really help your writing self stay in a creative mindset and write better.
Without your editing self butting in to tell you that, actually, that sentence isn’t very good, you’re free to just write.
You can let go and get the words out onto the page without worrying about perfection. You can start turning the abstract idea in your head into something concrete.
It might not be something good, yet. But your editing self will deal with that later.
To separate your writing and editing mindsets, create different habits around the two actions.
This could mean writing in the morning and editing in the evening. Or writing in one room and editing in another. It could even mean literally wearing a different hat or outfit to match the different role.
These little changes might seem silly or too basic to work, but giving yourself the signs to recognise when it’s time to write and when it’s time to edit can help you build better habits.
You may need to experiment to discover what tools and techniques work for you. Try a few and see which writerly habits help you get into the right frame of mind.
If you feel like you need to improve your writing, there are two main ways to go about it.
The first is simple: writing, writing, and more writing. Practice is vitally important and will help you develop and refine your skills.
The second thing you can do to improve your writing is reading. Read works from authors you admire. Read in the genre you write in. Read outside your genre. Read bestsellers. Read widely and often.
Read for pleasure, but read as a writer too. As you’re reading a great book, consider what makes it so good. What did the author do on the page to make you feel engaged?
If you can use your editing skills to see what’s wrong with your own work, you can use those same skills to see what’s right with someone else’s.
Then, when you switch to writing mode, you can apply the lessons you’ve learned from reading.
It’s impossible to be sure if every single writer feels this way. But we do know that a lot of writers feel some kind of self-doubt, or at least reckon with the flaws they perceive in their own writing.
Fantasy author Maggie Stiefvater spoke on this. She expanded on the idea that writing is merely a transcription of the idea in the head, and therefore, it’s a compromise.
Author Victoria/V. E. Schwab said a similar thing in her pep talk for participants of 2019’s NaNoWriMo. She described drafting as taking a perfect ball of potential and throwing it somewhere.
You have to accept that as it lands, it might get a bit squished:
“Once you have something, you can make it better. The only thing you can’t fix is a blank page.”
Stephen King famously threw out his first draft of Carrie. It was only saved when his wife found the crumpled papers and smoothed them out, telling him to keep working on it.
Mental Floss reports on the event, quoting King as saying:
“I couldn’t see wasting two weeks, maybe even a month, creating a novella I didn’t like and wouldn’t be able to sell.”
Eventually, Carrie became a massive hit and launched King’s stellar career.
Ira Glass, host of popular podcast This American Life, spoke on feeling like you’re a bad writer as well. Here are some key parts of his speech (but watching the whole five-minute video is worth it):
“All of us who do creative work… we get into it because we have good taste… [but] for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good… [But] your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you.
Everybody goes through that… It’s totally normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. It takes a while. It’s gonna take you a while. It’s normal to take a while. You just have to fight your way through that.”
Even Ernest Hemingway reportedly felt like his writing sucked, or at least the first draft of it:
“Don’t get discouraged because there’s a lot of mechanical work to writing… I rewrote the first part of A Farewell to Arms at least fifty times. You’ve got to work it over. The first draft of anything is shit.
When you first start to write you get all the kick and the reader gets none, but after you learn to work it’s your object to convey everything to the reader so that he remembers it not as a story he had read but something that happened to himself.”
Writing is a process of perpetual growth, and the writer’s journey is never complete.
Each story you write could be better than the last. You’re likely to become a better writer as you get some more experience under your belt.
No one is perfect at anything when they first start out. And even people who have been doing something for a long time have room for improvement. The only thing you can do is keep at it.
Above all: practice, practice, practice. You can never practice enough. The more you write, the better you’ll become – and the less you’ll feel like your writing sucks!