Colleen M. Story
I attended a week-long writing workshop once that nearly destroyed my confidence as a writer. Though workshops can be very helpful, it depends on the teacher, and this particular one didn’t know how to guide and motivate writers.
There are many times in a writer’s career when something happens to zap our confidence, and that’s not good, because self-confidence may be the one thing that separates successful writers from those who never reach their goals.
The question then becomes: How do you get that confidence back, or find it in the first place?
First, it’s important to know what kind of confidence we’re talking about here. This isn’t about inflating your ego, bragging, or believing you’re special. In fact, these types of beliefs—often associated with the high “self-esteem”—can actually be detrimental to success.
In a 2013 study, psychologist Jean Twenge and colleagues examined the results of the “American Freshman Survey,” which asks students to rate how they measure up to their peers. Results showed that over the past few decades, there’s been a dramatic rise in the number of students who think they’re “above average.”
These students are also more likely to label themselves as gifted in writing ability, interestingly enough, even though objective test scores show that actual writing ability has decreased since the 1960s.
A related study showed there has been a 30 percent increase in narcissistic attitudes over the past few decades. Unfortunately, despite popular belief, the “self-esteem” movement that encouraged parents and teachers to tell children to believe they were great no matter what, has not been found to lead to success.
Students who were struggling with their grades, for example, who received encouragement aimed at boosting their self-esteem, were actually found to perform worse. Scientists believe these types of interventions removed the motivation to work hard, which is always necessary for true success in anything.
Instead, the way to bolster achievement is to nurture a form of self-confidence called “self-efficacy.” This is the belief that you can succeed in a specific situation or accomplish a particular task if you set your mind to it—you can finish that novel, self-publish your book, recover from that scathing critique, or create a successful launch.
"You need to believe that you can go out and do something but that's not the same as thinking that you're great," Twenge says. She suggests you picture a swimmer attempting to learn a new skill, like turning quickly. Self-efficacy means the person believes she can obtain that skill if she works hard enough. Self-esteem is the belief that she’s a great swimmer, regardless of whether she learns the skill or not.
Self-efficacy is the type of confidence we need as writers.
Self-efficacy (or self-confidence) effects a number of things that determine whether or not we reach our goals, including one super important thing—how well we learn.
Learning is a huge part of a writing career. Not only are we continually learning how to improve our skills as writers, but we’re also learning about publishing, self-publishing, marketing, building a platform, and more. With each change in the industry or new technological wonder, we have to go back to being students, just to keep up.
Self-efficacy also determines how well we respond to the inevitable difficulties that crop up. In their findings, Tuckman and Sexton (1992) suggested that participants with higher self-efficacy were better at searching for solutions to problems and were more persistent when working on difficult tasks—qualities that writers definitely need. People with low self-efficacy, on the other hand, were more likely to give up more easily.
Albert Bandura, psychologist at Stanford University, wrote in a paper on self-efficacy: "Perceived self-efficacy is defined as people's beliefs about their capabilities to produce designated levels of performance. Self-efficacy beliefs determine how people feel, think, motivate themselves and behave."
Note the huge implications there - self-efficacy effects how we:
And isn’t that everything that’s involved in writing? If any of these things are off, don’t we falter in reaching our goals?
Says bestselling author and speaker Margie Warrell, “It’s been long established that the beliefs we hold—true or otherwise—direct our actions and shape our lives. The good news is that new research into neural plasticity reveals that we can literally rewire our brains in ways that affect our thoughts and behavior at any age.”
That means if you don’t feel this type of self-confidence when facing the page, or considering any other move in your career, you can change that.
There are several practical, realistic ways you can boost your writer’s confidence. (Find more in the free report, below.) Here are five ways to get started.
As noted above, those with low self-efficacy give up quickly, while those with high self-efficacy—or self-confidence—continue to work to find solutions. We often put limits on ourselves in terms of how much we can learn—when things don’t go well the first time, we tend to think it’s hopeless.
“[The learning curve] is really steep initially,” says professor and study author Darron Billeter. “There’s some pain associated with it, but we’re actually improving. You’re going to be better than you think you are and are going to learn it quicker than you think you are.”
Here’s where you need to be your own best cheerleader. Tell yourself you can do it, and keep trying.
Here’s another tip: talk to yourself in the third person. Research has shown that you can motivate yourself better that way!
For example: “Eileen, you can finish this novel. Just keep going.” Or, “Adam, just because your first self-publishing attempt didn’t turn out as you hoped, that doesn’t mean you can’t do it better this time.”
Too often we think we’re just supposed to “believe in ourselves,” but in truth, it’s when we take clear, concrete action that we boost self-confidence.
Typically when you start anything new—whether that be writing, publishing, or some other related activity—you’re likely to feel unsure about it. Your confidence may be low, and your fear may be high. The important thing is to act anyway. The moment you do, your energy and motivation will increase, which will help you keep going.
Then, with every action you take, your skills will increase. You’ll learn something, and that learning will boost your confidence. So don’t let fear stand in your way—just do it!
True self-confidence stems from knowing exactly what your skills are, so you can take steps to improve them.
“Exceptional achievers always experience low levels of confidence and self-confidence,” says Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, professor of business psychology at University College London and at Columbia University, “but they train hard and practice continually until they reach an acceptable level of competence.”
For a writer, that means getting those critiques, working with an editor, and being open to improvement. Just be sure to guard your creative self when you’re going about these activities.
Your best approach: always get more than one critique. Submit to contests that supply more than one, or ask two editors to give you a sample edit. That way you can compare and contrast the feedback, ignore the subjective comments, and work on those all the critiques have in common.
This is a type of meditation in which you imagine yourself going through all the steps you need to go through to succeed, and eventually succeeding.
Keep in mind—this isn’t simply imagining yourself with your published book in your hands, or your sales numbers rising. It’s imagining the process you’re going to go through and the hoped-for outcome. Imagining each step puts your unconscious mind to work at making sure you follow through on those steps.
If you want to increase those sales numbers, for instance, imagine each task you’re going to complete to reach more readers.
“If you can't imagine yourself being successful,” says Hendrie Weisinger Ph.D., “confidence will be hard to come by. Confident people have a history of having playful positive visualizations of themselves in all sorts of moments.”
So your agent wasn’t able to sell your first book. You can look at that as a failure, or you can reframe your view of the event—thus, boosting your self-confidence.
According to the authors of the book, Learning, Remembering, Believing: “If one has repeatedly viewed these experiences as successes, self-confidence will increase; if these experiences were viewed as failures, self-confidence will decrease.”
How can you view what seems to be a failure as a success? Write down everything you learned, including the skills you gained, and realize that even if it didn’t turn out as you hoped, you still pocketed the experience. That means you are, essentially, “more experienced” than you were before, and your next attempt will likely benefit from that experience.
By the way, the more difficult the experience was—writing a novel, publishing a book, launching a book, etc.—the more it may boost your confidence. “The influence that performance experiences have on perceived self-confidence also depends on the perceived difficulty of the task,” the authors wrote, as well as on “the effort expended.”
In closing, remember this: you can always learn more and improve your skills, no matter what. Have confidence in that.
"There will always be people smarter, there will always be people richer, there will always be people more competent,” says psychologist Audrey Brodt. “The issue is self-improvement, and that will come if you apply yourself and persevere."
For more information on how to boost your writer’s confidence, get your free report here: “7 Easy & Effective Ways to Increase Your Writer’s Confidence.”
What have you done to shore up your confidence as a writer? What tips can you share? Is there one tip from above that resonates with you?
* * * * * *
Colleen M. Story is the author of Overwhelmed Writer Rescue—a motivational read to help writers escape the tyranny of the to-do list and nurture the genius within. The book was named Solo Medalist in the New Apple Book Awards, Book by Book Publicity’s Best Writing/Publishing Book, and first place in the Reader Views Literary Awards.
Colleen is also a novelist and has worked in the creative writing industry for over twenty years. She is the founder of Writing and Wellness. For more information, please see her author website, or follow her on Twitter (@colleen_m_story).
Briggs, S. (2014, July 5). Self-Efficacy: How Self-Confidence Improves Learning.
Carroll, P. J. (2014). Upward Self-Revision: Constructing Possible Selves. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 36(5), 377-385. doi:10.1080/01973533.2014.934451
Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (2012, July 6). Less-Confident People Are More Successful.
College Foundation of North Carolina. (n.d.). CFNC.org - Article.
Kremer, W. (2013, January 4). Does confidence really breed success?
Self-Confidence and Performance. (1994). In D. Druckman & R. A. Bjork (Eds.), Learning, remembering, believing: Enhancing human performance (pp. 173-206).
Warrell, M. (2015, August 26). Use It Or Lose It: The Science Behind Self-Confidence.
Weisinger, H. (2015, September 1). The Essence of Confidence.
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I believe in surrounding yourself with people who will help you, and you in turn help them. This is what helped me finally reach my goal of becoming a published author, even when the odds were stacked against me, such as a super-super-niche book, super-super niche brand. f it wasn't for my former mentor who is now my crit partner, I'm not sure what would have happened to me. I, too, took a workshop where I left feeling deflated, so I contacted a lady who taught two workshops I had participated in and loved. This was how she became my mentor. She never did the work for me. She prodded me to find my own answers and ideas. She prodded me to tighten sentences, plots, character arc, etc., through questions.
Although I believed I had it in me to become an author, her gentle prodding and coaching helped me achieve what I have today.
I learned and believed I, too, had something to pass on, so I spent a year coaching a new writer. I don't regret slowing my own writing to help this author. She is now doing very well and has a full series self-published and is working on and publishing another series.
Like your post says, you gotta be ready to do the work, and work hard. And having writing friends rooting for you is a big plus, too.
Sounds like you hung in there and found a good mentor, Maggie. I'm glad you didn't let the deflating workshop stop you. And now you're passing it on. Love that. :O)
Thanks Colleen for the practical tips we can use to take action. I love the step of writing down acquired skills learned from "failures." To help my confidence, I keep a box on my desk with print outs of special reviews or attagirls on those struggle days. It helps me keep perspective.
Great idea, Debbie! Thanks for the tip. :O)
I have a folder full of atta-girls! Mostly my unrecognized achievements someone else has noticed.
That I've been collecting for years.
I should do that, Sue. Mine are scattered in different files. On the rare times I find one, I think, "I should put these all together." Thanks for the reminder!
Your opening sentence grabbed my attention and I could relate to your confidence shattering workshop experience. I write category romance for 2 publishers with 2 books out this year and 4 next year, but my confidence was dealt a blow when I took an online workshop from someone who doesn't read category romance. She had me questioning everything I'd written, including things my editors said they loved. Luckily, I have CPs who helped restore my confidence, but I think that experience demonstrates the fine line we writers walk. We have to believe we have something to say that readers will want to hear but it doesn't take much to shake that belief.
Thanks for the great post!
Since sharing my experience, Carrie, I've heard this from many writers. As you say, it doesn't take much to shake that belief. I'm glad you were able to get past it and go on. Unfortunately, from stories I've been told, that doesn't always happen. We have to be selective in the workshops we attend (who the leader is matters so much) and then be very careful what conclusions we make based on the comments. Thanks for sharing. :O)
I would also consider the source when given feedback--is the person in your genre, does the person know your style of writing, it the person giving a critique or criticism, and does the person have a tendency to use criticism as an underhanded method of motivation. Coming back from that type of slap is hard for one's confidence.
If a person isn't truly helpful, it's time to surround oneself with other people who do--not those who always agree and say yes to everything. Those whom can deliver the right kind of critique. Meaningful feedback.
Exactly, Denise. Great tips. Though sometimes it can be tough. If a bestselling author is the one leading the group and creating the confusion, it can be more difficult to determine what to do. (An example of some people can do but can't teach.) Another tip—submit the manuscript for publication before the workshop. That saved me!
When I started writing, I thought, "I graduated from college. I read a book a week. I can write a book." Ha! I did write that first book, and a friend (an English teacher whose husband writes mysteries) said it was good. I wrote a second book. I knew it was better, so I pitched it at an RWA conference, and I got a request for a full. I sent the full, thinking that I was hot stuff, then received a letter that I needed to revise it and cut 85 pages. Suggestions for revisions were attached.
Wait! My book wasn't perfect? That's when I got serious about learning the craft of writing. I felt woefully behind the curve and was afraid I'd never learn enough to make the writing of a good book "easier." That was hard for this perfectionist to admit, especially someone who was at the top of her game in her "chosen" career, which had nothing to do with words!
Thanks for this, Colleen. I wish I'd known about self efficacy much earlier!
Ha ha. Thanks, Fae! Does it ever get "easier?" :O)
Wow, Colleen. I intuitively understood self-efficacy, but had never heard of it. Makes SO much sense. I've always said there are SO much better writers out there than I - who have never been published because _______ (fill in the blank). It takes a lot more than thinking you can do it to actually becoming a writer...and most of that is a bucket of caring, sweat, and obstinacy. Oh, and a learning attitude.
“There will always be people smarter, there will always be people richer, there will always be people more competent,” says psychologist Audrey Brodt. “The issue is self-improvement, and that will come if you apply yourself and persevere.”
Dilly dilly! Thanks for this great post!
Love that, Laura---"it takes a lot more than thinking you can do it...." So true! Yes, it's interesting to compare self-efficacy vs. self-esteem. Becomes obvious which one really leads to fulfilling one's potential, but our culture has gotten that confused for awhile. And it does always help to remind ourselves that the point is not to be better than "they" are, but to be better tomorrow than we are today. Thanks!
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Well, yeah! What she said! ?
Never knew the difference.But basically you're saying we need to force ourselves to believe we can make it even when we haven't yet. Harder done than said I thin
Hi, Lisa. Actually, all we have to do is believe we can take the next small step. We don't have to believe we can get a publishing contract—only that we can write a few words today. And tomorrow, all we have to believe is that we can do it again. Self-efficacy is about believing we can improve. That's all that's needed. Baby steps!
Absolutely true. Great advice. I found when I was teaching, many kids were high on self-esteem (not all of them obviously) but low on self-efficacy. I found writing out learning goals and how they would achieve them really helped, because they could see their success. It works just as well for me, and helps me push through when I lose faith.
What a great example! And love how you included "and how they would achieve them" (I'm assuming the steps they would take) in the solution. The kids were lucky to have you as a teacher obviously. :O) Nice idea for writers, too.
Love this post! There's a balance I aim for with self-confidence and humility. I'm not the best, but I'm good enough. And even then, I'm only good enough if I keep working at it. I don't ever want to lose that sense that I could be or do better, so I should always be learning. Thanks for a great look at this important aspect of writing success!
Thanks, Julie. :O) Like that--"I'm only good enough if I keep working at it." Possible life motto! :O)
Colleen, this is always such an area for me, both as a writer and a parent. I became a parent older so I'm much more of the "work hard so you can improve" school of parenting than "everyone is super gifted."
So, yes, THIS paragraph resonated: "A related study showed there has been a 30 percent increase in narcissistic attitudes over the past few decades. Unfortunately, despite popular belief, the “self-esteem” movement that encouraged parents and teachers to tell children to believe they were great no matter what, has not been found to lead to success."
As a writer, I try to live in my happy bubble because it makes for better writing. However, I watch Laura, the Little Engine that Could, and she inspires the hell out of me. And, she's kind enough to nag me to add more drive (and submission) to my happy bubble. 🙂
I'm with you, Jenny. I worry about kids now who believe that if something doesn't come easy, it's not worth pursuing. Not a good outlook for life...or for writing. And the happy bubble sounds nice! (ha)
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