Nathan Bransford, Author


Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Separating Confidence From Self-Doubt

 
In the Forums, Akila writes:
Self-doubt feeds the author. Without self-doubt, we don't strive to do our best --- to keep writing despite rejections and humiliations. (See Dean Koontz, for example, who writes: "I have more self-doubt than any writer I’ve ever known. That is one reason I revise every page to the point of absurdity! The positive aspect of self-doubt – if you can channel it into useful activity instead of being paralyzed by it – is that by the time you reach the end of a novel, you know precisely why you made every decision in the narrative, the multiple purposes of every metaphor and image. Having been your own hardest critic you still have dreams but not illusions."). Self-doubt is what propels us to be better, to write better, to fixate on commas and words that most other people ignore.
Writers have a pretty unique challenge.

On the one hand you have to have the confidence to spend and hours at something without really knowing how it's going to turn out, and often without knowing whether you really have the talent or the right idea to execute a story that people are going to love. It takes fortitude, commitment, and a deep confidence that what you're doing is worth it.

On the other hand, you have to have the self-doubt to be critical enough of your own work to make it better. You have to turn a cold eye to your writing to spot flaws and weak spots, to know your own weaknesses, to improve on them, and not get carried away.

These impulses seem contradictory, but I'd actually argue that they're two sides of the same coin: It's all confidence.

To be able to spot your own flaws requires confidence. Staring your own weaknesses and flaws in the face doesn't come from a place of self-doubt, it comes from a place of strength. You have to be a strong person in order to own up to your flaws and to shoulder the responsibility of making your work better.

There are some writers out there who seem so boldly confident and brash, but it's really a mask. When someone suffers from supreme overconfidence and can't see their own flaws, in truth they're not confident at all. They lack the strength to admit their own shortcomings. We all have flaws, but not everyone has the strength to confront them.

And on the flip side, it's important not to overdo the self-doubt and paralyze yourself with indecision either. It's easy to despair that you're not good enough, that you'll never get there, and to magnify the weaknesses in your writing, especially when you're just beginning. That too is what happens when you are approaching writing with insufficient confidence.

The only way to strike the right balance as a writer it is if you build up your confidence in a healthy, clear-headed way.

Confidence will give you the strength to doubt yourself.

Art: Doubts by Henrietta Rae






68 comments:

Munk said...

I doubt my self confidence, though at times I don't.

Feliza said...

Is it self-doubt that makes us strive to do our best? I think it's more about a desire to work hard and make the story shine.

Or maybe that's just how I combat self doubt in the first place--by thinking of the story as something separate to me. Not always easy, by the way.

James Scott Bell said...

Good words, Nathan. And, as Stephen King said, writing is the best answer, to keep ahead of those "waves of doubt." So when in doubt, pound the keys.

I also find that the best authors, as they gain success, have a greater awareness of where the bar is, which is higher. That's a good thing, too. Keep striving to get better even as you have a few butterflies at the new challenge.

liztalley said...

Exactly what I needed today. I hate feeling like I'm not good enough. I love feeling like I'm not good enough. Double-edged sword that every writer needs at his or her side. Thanks.

Peter Dudley said...

Great, thanks. "Confidence will give you strength to doubt yourself." Couldn't you wait until AFTER I've had some coffee to drop this on me?

Now I doubt that I have the confidence to doubt myself.

Anonymous said...

Can you elaborate a little bit on what exactly is a healthy, clear-headed way to build confidence? I think that's the part I'm having trouble with.

thomas said...

We need self-confidence to let someone else look at our work, and we need self-doubt to let him or her critique it.

Barbara Kloss said...

Just what I needed to hear. Nice to know all my self-doubt is really a reflection of confidence :)

...or one can hope.

Lisa Kilian said...

It took me years to finally trust the process. But once I did, writing became a much easier pill to swallow.

I pretty much run on blind faith which is both exhilarating and terrifying all at once.

Laurel said...

Words of wisdom! Self-doubt has saved me from some major mistakes. It also lays the groundwork for accepting critique, which dovetails with confidence.

You have to have confidence that you can do better to acknowledge the flaws.

Peter Dudley said...

On a serious note, how can you tell the difference between confident self-analysis and overconfidence? This has been bothering me a lot recently.

Everything we read on the interwebs says, "If you think your work is good, you are as naive as the newborn babe. You think you're special? Ha! You're awful, and if you don't revise every word seventeen times before you show it even to your pet goldfish, with the lights off, you're fooling yourself. EVERY word. SEVENTEEN TIMES. And then it'll only be good enough to throw away and rewrite, so don't you dare send it to an agent before it's READY."

Then we read that, "Only you can know when it's READY. When you have worked yourself to death to make sure that every serif is exactly the RIGHT serif."

So, here I'm not talking about magnifying weaknesses. I'm talking about the flip-flip-side, the other-other-other hand: Confidence that it's good, but doubt that your confidence is well enough established to make a rational decision.

Kate Evangelista said...

I'm the type of person that believes in fate and that things happen for a reason. I'm at a point in my writing where I needed this post. So, thank you. Thank you so very much.

Mr. D said...

I call all of that just being a good writer!

Peace, Lena and Happiness said...

Nice post. Self-doubt can be a crippling force for a writer, enough to make the words stop coming. So maybe confidence first...then self doubt?

Lori Benton said...

Thank you for reminding me that this is something common to all (okay, most) writers. I seem to need reminding every few months.

James Scott Bell said in the comments: When in doubt, pound the keys.

Excellent! That's short enough I can remember it.

Red Boot Pearl said...

I've never thought about it that way, it does take confidence to look your mistakes in the eye and not be rattled.

I've seen some writers who haven't reached the "my writing sucks" phase and it's really hard to watch them receive crits on their work...because they are in complete denial and mad about it.

traceybaptiste said...

I'm with Peter D. There is a lot of room for misinterpretation and misunderstanding where confidence is concerned. As a writer, I'm riddled with self-doubt about what to write, where next to go in my career, how to go accomplish goals. I'm very careful. And then I wonder if it's holding me back. But at the same time, I'm pitching forward in this career with no "day job" to fall back on and people view that as confidence (I'm a good faker). So I don't know, ultimately Nathan. I just don't know if I feel they're two sides of the same coin.

robinC said...

Love this spin on it! I'm a bit of a self-doubt ninja, I'm afraid, and tend to wallow in the shadow side when all doesn't seem to be working well but underneath that is a desire for excellence.

Now whether or not I can ever reach that...an another issue I wrestle with...never ends, does it??

L.G.Smith said...

Confidence helps get the work done, but self-doubt keeps it from going out into the world before it's truly ready. Ugh, so many doubts some days.

Laney said...

I needed that clarification today. So I'm not just driving myself crazy. This whole questioning every little detail is actually me being confident enough to question it. Ah Ha! You are a great inspiration Nathan!

Matthew MacNish said...

I completely agree. Being willing to make changes to your own work, in order to make it better, is absolutely confidence. Because you have to believe you CAN make it better.

Barbara Watson said...

As someone who is newly writing at all, self-doubt kicks in everyday. My confidence comes when I remember I have a story in me that no one else does. Thank you for this post.

Kathryn Paterson said...

Great post! I think it's also important to try as much as possible to focus on the work itself rather than fantasizing or awfulizing about the outcome. Fantasies of both doom and success can be another way of avoidance and another way of eroding self confidence.

The tough thing, though, is how to BUILD that confidence when you've had little external success. I feel like I'm finally reaching a place where I have that kind of confidence, but it's taken years to develop it in the face of rejection.

Alex said...

The thing is, doubts or otherwise, as a writer you will inherently know whether your story is crap, your narrative stilted or whether its worth the effort to have gone through everything to put it on paper.

It's all about what you're willing to push yourself through. Do you think it's ready? Have you worked on the manuscript for years? Do you really want it published?

It's all on you, and what seperates us relative unknowns from Koontzs and Kings.

Charlotte said...

Hmm ... I don't think of it so much as self-doubt as humility.

John Wiswell said...

I also think it can work the other way. Doubting yourself and seriously examining those doubts to see what you're actually capable of can lead to confidence in your real abilities. I have an excess of doubts, but charting my progress shows me what doubts are valid. They make up the border of my real assessment.

Scott said...

The balance between technical and emotional support on your blog is admirable. It's why I keep coming back. Um, kind of paralyzed right now. I like what James Scott Bell said (earlier in the comments): "...when in doubt, pound the keys." Maybe you could draft a post on how you were able to develop that 'clear-headed' confidence for scaredy-cats like myself.

JB Toner (euclid) said...

For me, it's like riding a daily, weekly, monthly roller-coaster. I read a passage and rewrite it, read it again and think it's great. Next day (week/month) I read it again and it sucks. Sometimes it works the other way around.

Maybe I'm bipolar.

Nancy Kelley said...

I agree 100% Nathan, though I would phrase the last line differently: Confidence gives us the strength to question ourselves. "Is this the best I can do? What would happen if I tried this instead?" Those questions come from a place of confidence, because we have to trust our own abilities enough to believe we can be better.

Thank you for this thought. I'm in the middle of re-writes, so I might just print it out and tape it to the wall above my desk. It would be a good reminder when self-doubt creeps in.

Flower Patch Farmgirl said...

Are you trying to say that the hours I spend tossing and turning in bed over the new (again) realization that nothing in my MS makes sense is time well-spent?

I really like this.

Roger Floyd said...

I'm like Dean Koontz. I revise every page almost to the point of absurdity. But that's not due to self-doubt, that's knowledge gained from writing and revising for many years and learning the art of writing. I know I can do it; I can write a novel and I think I'm confident enough to do a reasnonably good job. In any event, we'll see when my first novel comes out.

Nancy Kelley said...

I'm still thinking about this, Nathan, and this is what I came up with: Confidence leads to the question, "Can I do any better?" whereas self-doubt gives way to the belief, "I can't do any better." One pushes us to strive for excellence, the other gives an excuse to settle for mediocrity.

D.G. Hudson said...

Confidence is bolstered by approval, but a writer has to have a sense of their own self-worth to write in the first place.

Self-doubt is increased by rejection, but that is part of the writing process--finding the right fit with the story, the agent, the publisher, etc.

What helps immensely is one nice comment on a writer's blog. It makes the writer feel that at least one person has heard their 'voice in the void'.

Writers, like artists and other 'performers', need approval for that little bit of their soul that they are offering for public view. That feeds our self-confidence.

But confidence and self-doubt seem to be a part of what makes the creative people creative. Perhaps they form two halves of a whole. Too much of either one and we become stalemated.

Really appreciating all the writing posts, Nathan!

tamarapaulin said...

Knowing that other writers feel the same way takes away my angst over this internal conflict.

Without the angst, it's just hard work. Oops, I mean fun! I do love it. (It only looks like work when you're not actually working on it.)

Lauren said...

I love this post. It reminds me a bit of something Linda Sue Park said in her keynote address at SCBWI winter conference a few months ago. She said that the trick was not to have faith in yourself, but to have faith in the project. If you make it about you too much then you can become neurotic. I think that Nathan is expressing a similar sentiment when he talks about healthy self-confidence. Perhaps the "healthy" portion is the having faith in the project and having faith in the slow process. Lovely post.

Sierra McConnell said...

I've said it before, and wrote it on many marker boards anon-y-mously.

"A truly wise man knows that he is not truly wise."

Because I don't think it's so much confidence as knowledge that you know you're wrong. You know you're not the best at it. That you suck, but you don't suck. That you're walking the fine line between glory and failure, and that if you are good at keeping yourself in that precarious check and balance, then the manuscript is both perfect and needs work.

It's all perception. You're never going to be happy. You just have to be happy with the moment you have /now/. That one page. That one paragraph. That one sentence.

Even if it could be better. Small confidence. No doubt. Just the knowledge that no matter what you do, someone, someplace is always going to say it could be better than it is.

Marilyn Peake said...

Excellent post, Nathan. Awesome insight. I agree with everything you’re saying here. Writers need to have enough self confidence to trust they have the basic talent to become successful, but they also need to realize how to accept critiques about their work, especially when their work contains flaws that need improvement. There are many levels of writing skill, and writers can always improve their work. A good critiquer is worth their weight in solid gold.

Heather said...

It's the Dunning-Kruger effect. Basically, the better you get at a particular craft or activity (like writing), the more you're able to see your flaws realistically. ....At least, that's what I tell myself as I revise, whenever I feel like the ms is really really bad....!

Bryce Daniels said...

Great post, Nathan.
I love King's words on perseverance! For me, though, it's the words of another man, a man far removed from the writing life, that keep me "pounding those keys." I guess you could say it's my "fuel."

"Whether you think you can or think you can't, you are right."
Henry Ford

Jeffrey Beesler said...

I never really thought of confidence and self-doubt having a hand in boosting one another up. This has definitely given me much to ponder over.

DG said...

And this is why I read your blog every day Nathan. Your topics seem to speak to me in just the right way and at just the right time.

Today I got cut from Amazon's Breakthrough Novel Award Contest. I'd made it to the semi-finals (250 down from 5000), but that's as far as I'll go this time around.

Thanks for your daily effort Nathan!

Daniel Guiteras
Launch On Need -The Quest To Save Columbia's Crew

Michael said...

Too much perspective -- just leaving a comment fills me with self-doubtitis. Even finishing a ms only staves it away momentarily. It floods right back in with the next project just around the corner. Can someone tell me how you celebrate when you finally put your revisions to bed and really finish your book?

The Pen and Ink Blog said...

All artists feel that self doubt. Even big stars get the "well that's it. I'll never work again" syndrome.
Here's a link to a few quotes about this: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/self-doubt.html

Robert Michael said...

I don't know why, but when I was reading your post, I kept having a soundtrack in my head of the old "Wide World of Sports" opening theme. "...the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat."

I suppose it is this rollercoaster ride between doubt and confidence that makes writing so cathartic. We excise our demons, we look to bring hope and love to our audience (as well as a measure of hope to ourselves) and we lean on our characters, our plots and our worlds to provide us entertainment and sanity.

Erik said...

And THAT is why I have a tattoo of a yin-yang on my back. Or was it because of my short-lived Eastern Philosophy phase in college combined with a night of jagermeister?

Lynne said...

Well-said. Nice balance.
Thanks Nathan!

Natasha said...

I love your blog.

February Grace said...

So continuing on the Dickinson route (putting everything I ever write into a trunk for my descendants to wade through and/or torch at will) isn't the best plan?

Why, Master Jedi? Why isn't it the best plan? Why? WHY!?! I want it to be the best plan...

*eats another peanut butter cookie*

I know. Try not. Do or do not. Yadda Yadda (or 'Yoda, Yoda' if you prefer.) I'm working on it.

~bru

danielle Spears said...

This inspired my post, "I Want To Be Like Michelangelo." Thanks for the inspiration!

Danielle Spears
danielledspears.blogspot.com

Jeff S Fischer said...

The only weakness I see in your argument, Nathan, and I totally respect you, is the phrase, a clear-headed healthy way. What? Tell me more. I have never read one of your books, March, I know, and I just hope it lives up to how smart you are. But! What? Clear and healthy? What the hell does that mean? And what world do you live in, Master Bransford? I want to live there too. Your fan, without a doubt. I think the terms used in this post haven't been thought out enough. My opinion, sorry.

Jeff S Fischer said...

PS. Yikes! I think I meant May, not March. Man, self-doubt at work in five minutes. I take it all back. The argument was just a little clunky—not sure. Maybe. Ignore me, please. Do yourself a favor.

J. T. Shea said...

No wonder that poor girl has doubts, with Austin Powers peering down her front!

S. F. Roney said...

You're right--it is only the strong who can examine themselves for weakness and work toward improvement. This is true for writing as well as anything in life. You've definitely inspired this writer to be stronger in self examination and improvement.

Writeous said...

I am glad to know that I am in the good company of other self-doubters.

Andrea said...

How do you know if your self doubt is justified? I mean what if I really do suck as a writer and will never get published. Is there a point at which you cut and run?

Of course the problem is I can't seem to do that even after I get the harshest criticism.

Writeous said...

I am confident enough to doubt. I am glad there are great resources out there (including one another) to help us hone our skills.

I think writing critique groups are an excellent way for iron to sharpen iron. My writing improves when other writers are there to help me see flaws and areas needing improvement.

Kristi Helvig said...

This is such a great post. Whenever I get critiques back from my CP's, I tend to skim over the good stuff (though it's important to know what you do well too), and go straight to what's not working. I allow myself a few minutes of "I suck. How am I going to fix this?" Then, like James Scott Bell says, I start pounding the keys.

tiggy said...

This was an amazing post! I feel everything you are saying from the first word all the way down to the last. It is good to know that everyone goes through this roller coaster of emotions while writing. I will keep this in mind as I tirelessly edit my word and tell myself I'm not good enough...but the point is that I keep on going no matter that outcome. I'll get there at, I know it. Thanks Nathan

nataliefaybooks said...

Another great post :) I tend to doubt myself after reading a good book. It always makes me think that I won't be that good — so, what is the point?

The point is that we all have the same insecurities, and that best selling author you love is no exception. You just got to keep striving.

Good words Nathan!

Mira said...

I read this a few times to really absorb it. Seems to me there are layers to this.

I really appreciate this post, very much, and from it, connected with an intuitive sense of balance.

Rebecca Kiel said...

I like this post. I would just like to add more emphasis on commitment. At the times when self-doubt isn't the useful editing offspring of confidence, but of the paralyzing I-should- just -give -up variety, we have this option:

When I find myself thinking, "I am such a fraud Then I say to myself, "perhaps I am a fraud but I'm doing this anyway." Then I get back in there. Commitment...can't write books without it.

Sylvie Morgan Flatow said...

Really nice post that, if needed, doesn't even have to apply to writing. Hope you're well, Nathan!

Akila said...

Nathan, Thank you so much for posting this excerpt from my post on the Forums! It's funny how self-doubt works. I was in a really bad way on the day that I wrote that post in your forums: strung up, dejected, and downright hard on myself. Basically, I received a critique that my language is too high brow and I shouldn't use so many "dictionary" words. The critiquer didn't have any problems with my plot, story, or interest level but wanted me to dumb down my writing to make it more "mainstream."

So, I took a long hard look at my writing. And, this is what I discovered: I need to have the confidence not to write like everyone else. It's okay for me to write a fantasy novel that uses good language and high-calibre descriptions. It is okay to appeal to the intelligent rather than the masses.

I will continue doubting my work --- resulting in agonies over the proper word in the particular paragraph --- but I also need to stand up for it. As you said, it's all about confidence. Thank you for this post. I'm going to bookmark it and refer back when I'm feeling down about my writing.

John Rose Putnam said...

Some days very much like this one, I wonder what in the world I'm doing all of this writing for anyway. And then, as if guided by an unseen hand from a far, I stumble upon a message like yours. Thank you so much, Nathan.

Dewdrop said...

Dean Koontz is wrong, definitely! The crown belongs to me, and no others. I am the King of self-doubt; I never managed to finish a story - my greatest achievement in the past twelve months or so.

Writeous said...

I think it takes an extra push to finish what you start. The extra push is like that of a woman birthing a baby.

If you invest the energy to conceive a story (baby) and carry it for a season, it makes sense to go ahead and give birth to it; although that happens through travail (labor).

www.christpen.com
Writeouswriter.blogspot.com

Anna Meredith said...

Curled up with my insecurities last night after writing a blog, I recognized that it is our quirks and eccentricities that we hide from the world which are exactly what makes us unique. Mandela says, "as we let our own light shine we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same." Thanks, Nelson and Nathan.

ליאור said...

I agree with you there are many writers with overconfidence certainly not willing to show their shortcomings or the fact that they sometimes lack confidence, thanks for a wonderful article.
in Self Confidence Deal with the difficulties

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