November 10th, 2017

When You Think Your Writing Sucks

This is an actual file on my computer:

Image of computer file titled "Read When You Think Your Writing Sucks"

I confess that I’ve accessed it more than once.

Truth is, anyone who’s been writing for a while knows there will be moments when you wonder if you’re really cut out to be a writer.

Pen and crumpled up piece of paperThis feeling strikes writers who struggle to finish their first novel; writers who submit their manuscript only to receive repeated rejections; writers who debut with confetti and fanfare and then worry about whether they can make the magic happen with a second novel; and writers penning their twentieth novel who can’t figure out why writing is still so dadgum hard.

We’re all in this boat together, though sometimes it feels like that boat is leaking and we’re sinking.

That’s the moment I open my file and read such tidbits as these:

“I am usually pretty disappointed with the book when I finally turn in the last draft and hear that I can’t revise it any further. I worry a lot that no one will like it and that I’ve failed and that I haven’t lived up to the story.” – John Green, New York Times bestseller and author of The Fault in Our Stars

“Dear God, I am so discouraged about my work. I have the feeling of discouragement that is. I realize I don’t know what I realize. Please help me dear God to be a good writer and to get something else accepted.” – Flannery O’Connor, award-winning Southern gothic writer

“Continuing to write after that heartache of disappointment doesn’t take only discipline, but also self-forgiveness (which comes from a place of kind and encouraging and motherly love). The other thing to realize is that all writers think they suck. When I was writing Eat, Pray, Love, I had just as a strong a mantra of THIS SUCKS ringing through my head as anyone does when they write anything.” – Elizabeth Gilbert, New York Times bestseller

“I was convinced that there would be a knock on the door, and a man with a clipboard (I don’t know why he carried a clipboard, in my head, but he did) would be there to tell me it was all over, and they had caught up with me, and now I would have to go and get a real job, one that didn’t consist of making things up and writing them down, and reading books I wanted to read. And then I would go away quietly and get the kind of job where you don’t get to make things up anymore.” – Neil Gaiman, New York Times bestselling author of American Gods and The Graveyard Book

I’m afraid of failing at whatever story I’m writing—that it won’t come up for me, or that I won’t be able to finish it.” – Stephen King, New York Times bestseller and “King of Horror”

Reading their words makes me recognize this fear that you might actually suck is what even highly successful writers feel.

Perhaps it’s just part of a good writing process to constantly evaluate yourself and your writing in hopes of turning out the best book you can. And in some of those moments, you’ll feel like you come up short.

Indeed, in 2016 John Green described repeated failures in trying to write a book after The Fault in Our Stars and even said might not publish another book, citing his current writing experience as “this intense pressure, like people were watching over my shoulder while I was writing.” (Well worth watching the video here.) Yet his latest novel, Turtles All the Way Down, was released a month ago on October 10 (and, not surprisingly, hit #1 in the New York Times young adult bestseller list).

Clearly, these writing giants aren’t immune to self-doubt and fear of failure. But they keep going. They keep writing.

For me, it helps to have that file to open now and again to remind myself that 100% confidence isn’t necessary to be a good writer. It’s okay to doubt, as long as we don’t let doubt stop us from writing.

As none other than William Shakespeare said in Measure for Measure:

Our doubts are traitors
And make us lose the good we oft might win
By fearing to attempt.

Don’t let your doubts be traitors. Don’t fear to attempt.

What quotations, encouragement, or reality checks buoy your spirits when you think your writing sucks?

About Julie

Julie Glover writes cozy mysteries and young adult fiction. Her YA contemporary novel, SHARING HUNTER, finaled in the 2015 RWA® Golden Heart®. When not writing, she collects boots, practices rampant sarcasm, and advocates for good grammar and the addition of the interrobang as a much-needed punctuation mark.

Julie is represented by Louise Fury of The Bent Agency. You can visit her website here and also follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

55 comments to When You Think Your Writing Sucks

  • Oh Julie, THIS. I found a meme on Pinterest the other day: “I think it’s fairly common for writers to be afflicted with two simultaneous, yet contradictory delusions – the burning certainty that we’re unique geniuses and the constant fear that we’re witless frauds who are speeding toward epic failure.’ Scott Lynch.

    If the above is true, at least I’m doing something right. Sigh.

    • Oh, that’s a fantastic quote! That’s going in my file.

      Sometimes I wonder if the (very few) writers I’ve met who have zero self-doubt are like those people on singing audition shows who don’t realize they can’t sing because they never doubted themselves enough to make sure they were on pitch. 😉 So yeah, I’d say you’re right on track! (And you’re a fabulous writer, by the way.)

  • Happens. Every. Time. The Neil Gaiman quote has plagued me. I’m ready to send my next manuscript to my editor and every time, I await her email saying, “What were you THINKING?”

    But then, there are days like this morning when you find something in your message folder that says:

    “Hello there! I just wanted to let you know that I started reading ,”When DangerCalls”, yesterday morning. I couldn’t put it down until I finished it two minutes ago. I absolutely loved the story and the characters. Being a tomboy, mother and hopeless romantic, it suited all my craves in a good read. Thanks for the work you put into the book.”

    And then you think, maybe there’s hope yet.

  • So glad it’s not just me! I love when someone I know reads one of my books, and I’m petrified at the same time. Either they’ll be amazed that this talented writer has secretly been in their midst OR they’ll discover I’m a hack that’s deluded herself. So, thanks. I think I’m going to paste that Shakespeare quote where I can see it.

  • Cate

    Thank you, Julie, for this post! I really needed to read it right now. I’ve been plagued with self-doubt recently, but, after reading this, I’m determined to finish my novella, even if it is full of crap :).

    • Definitely finish it, Cate! And doesn’t every first draft have crap in it? As another writing great, Ernest Hemingway, said: “Don’t get discouraged because there’s a lot of mechanical work to writing. There is, and you can’t get out of it. 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 sh*t.” (Quote Investigator)

  • “The struggle is real!” *overlays said Snapchat filter atop stressed out selfie* These are all awesome. Thanks to everyone who is sharing! Going to grab your ideas and quotes, scrawl them on pieces of actual paper and plop them in an old Ball jar. I have an email folder for this type of thing, but that doesn’t work for kind comments I get from readers off line – or inspiration from others. I really like the jar idea. Thank you!

  • jillhannahanderson

    This is so excellent, and relevant! I’m only on my second novel and already feel that “this writing stinks/nobody will ever read this/people will love this/I’ll never sell a copy” angst. Many authors say that each book gets harder with more pressure, and I kind of get it.
    We are an insecure bunch, I guess!

    • One of the common questions for those who’ve been writing a while is: “Does it get easier?” And it does in some ways, but not in others. Perhaps because as you learn more, you are both more capable of writing well and more aware that you could just as easily suck wind. The good news is that once we all know this, we can persevere better and support one another!

  • I don’t have a book publishe (yet), like the others above, so I am not getting an email from a fan, or note from my agent to encourage me forward. Those do help, I am sure. The other day I got four…count them… four rejection emails. Two for my poetry, one for a short story, and one for my third novel. All in one day! (Do they call each other to coordinate? Ha ha) I finished the day with the exact mantra: I suck! I mean seriously, a writer couldn’t have been more rounded out with a rejection for all types of writing. My next wave of thoughts: I shouldn’t be writing. Why am I wasting my time? It’s obvious I don’t have what it takes. These thoughts are hard to halt. This industry is hard! But, I am even harder!!!! So, thank you for the jolt of reality. It helps! It truly does. I, of course, got over my betterment phases and kept writing. Because that’s what I do. I write. Maybe you’ll put my words in your file someday!

  • Great post, Julie! Ugh, I get this all the time. And the guy with the clipboard quote is spot on for me. During my low moments, I half-expect someone to tap me on the shoulder and say: “Don’t you think you’ve wasted too much time already, trying this writing thing? You should leave it to the professionals.”

    Sometimes the trolls live inside your head. Gotta put them back in their place.

    • Those mental trolls are like bullies on the playground: You just have to smack ’em sometimes to get the point across that you will not surrender! And you, my friend, are a consummate professional. You’re turning out some fabulous mysteries!

  • What a great file to have! I am going to start my own now, using your examples to begin with. By the way, I sort of do the same thing with reviews. I go to the Amazon comment section of bestselling authors and read only the one-star and two-star comments–everybody gets them. Thank you!

    • Oh, that’s a great insight: Even the best authors get creamed for their writing. I also have in that file how many times some really successful books got rejected. Like John Grisham’s A TIME TO KILL (45 rejections), Margaret Mitchell’s GONE WITH THE WIND (38 rejections), and James Patterson’s first novel (31 rejections). It’s about writing what you love and finding the readers who love it too!

  • Holly Robinson

    Ah, what a timely post! I’ve published 6 novels, and am now once again facing the beast as I get emails from my agent on the new book saying things like, “This really isn’t where you need it to be,” and “still working on my revision notes!” some 2 months later. Arghhhhhhhhhhh. What keeps me going are quotes like the ones you have here–I often reread Bird by Bird, too, for Anne Lamott’s description of marching into her editor’s office with her manuscript, only to have the editor tell her, basically, that the book sucks…ALL of us go through this. I know that. It makes it a little easier to bear.

    • Why have I not read BIRD BY BIRD? It’s been on my read list for ages! Thanks for that reminder. I’m moving it up in the queue.

      And I’m sure your novel will be gorgeous when you’re done with it. But the process of getting there can itself be a little messy. Here’s to sticking it out, Holly!

  • carrienichols

    Thank you so much for this! I loved John Green’s quote. The morning after sending the final version of my debut ms to my editor, I sent the editor a panicked email saying maybe I should make more changes.

    • You’re welcome, Carrie! And you know, my husband used to laugh at me when I turned in papers in grad school, because I would be so tense. He’d say, “But you should be relieved, because it’s done.” I’d reply in a panicked tone, “But now I can’t fix it anymore!” So I hear ya. 😉

  • So very true! I always doubt myself.

  • Love it! Our little amygdala wants to protect us. So it discourages us from going into unpredictable places through any means at its disposal. We need ammunition!

  • Julie, I needed this post. I’m cobbling together the second book in the series (Thea’s book) because Michelle wants the first three chapters of each book and I’m worrying that I SUCK. I’ll come back and review that Shakespeare quote, likely several times. 🙂

  • I really needed this today. Thank you. I’m about halfway through my NaNoWriMo project and I’m sure it’s horrible…and everything I write is wooden, and my characters are as dull as yesterday’s dishwasher.

    • If it makes you feel any better, my lead guy is talking like a girl (um, not supposed to) and almost everything I’ve written for NaNo is dialogue. 🙂 Don’t worry, that’s what revision is for!!

  • Fae Rowen

    I’ve usually not worried what other people say—good or bad. I’m my own harshest critic. I so understand not being willing to push that SEND button, though!

    • Ah, the dreaded SEND button. They should instead call it the YOU CAN’T GET THIS FILE BACK ONCE YOU PRESS ME SO MAKE SURE button. Lol. Not that we writers are ever completely sure. (I once asked a friend to press the button for me.)

  • Oh, my gosh, Julie! I’m almost in tears after reading this. I’ve got just three scenes to write and I’m done with this novel (something that hasn’t happened for YEARS). But I’ve been kind of frozen in a — it’s not good enough–$#%& load of self-doubt. I’ve got all kinds of quote files, but none quite like yours. Think I’m gonna make me a READ THIS file. Right after I finish this dad-gum book I’m writing. Thanks!

  • […] when I woke up this morning, I had a notification from Writers in the Storm again with the most appropriate post for the occasion. I’ve honestly read of famous writers having the same doubt I’m having […]

  • KathleenBaldwin

    This is a great post Julie! I love the quotes. This is a keeper, Thank you!

  • jeanneestridgeauthor

    Thanks for the quotes, Julie. I’m currently at peace with my end product, just crazy frustrated that it takes me so long to get there.

  • I’ve heard these stories before but your post gives me hope. I write to express my emotions and I’m sure it’s hard in this industry to become successful. I’ll be writing just because I enjoy it. Maybe one day I’ll have the courage to get rejected. I don’t take rejection so well so I’ll be afraid to even send anything to a publisher.

    • I think the key is to let friends and fellow writers read your stuff first, because they can give feedback that’s both helpful and encouraging. But you’ll also get some experience in taking constructive criticism. (Oh, and if a critique partner IS rude about it, drop them. You don’t need that negativity in your life. Find someone honest AND helpful.)

      But if you want to write just for yourself, I think that’s great! There isn’t one path for writers, and you should choose your own. Best wishes, Yoly!

  • johntshea

    Neil Gaiman’s comment sounds like classic Impostor Syndrome. I know because I get it too.

    The plethora of free advice online from writers and agents and editors does not always help, however good their intentions, particularly when they presume to speak on behalf of all agents, all editors, or even all publishers. Numbered lists of taboos and prohibitions are particularly discouraging, since my Inner Literary Critic so often convinces me that I’ve committed one or more of the Mortal Sins on such lists!

    Thanks to Julie Glover and all commenters, particularly Gretaboris and Jenny Hansen, who have inspired me to name my inner literary critic “Amy G. Dala”!

    • I love that name for your Inner Critic! Great idea. I agree that we need to be discerning about advice we get, making sure it’s something that’s really true for us in our writing and the industry as a whole. I like hearing from various writers, agents, and editors to learn about their process and perspective, but then you can tailor what you learn to your own career.

  • I’ve been in this boat for a while. That inner critic is the worst.

    denise

  • I keep asking people to post reviews of my books where other people can read them, but none have appeared yet. But one lady turned to our church congregation and announced that my book had changed her life and she hadn’t even finished it yet! Another said one of my stories lifted her out of a well of grief after a beloved relative died. I hope someday remarks like these will be spoken by strangers online…

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