How To Stop Self-Doubt From Holding You Back From Writing

Self-doubt can be a crippling weight, especially for writers. Today we have writing mentor Leigh Shulman with us, and she has some terrific, actionable ways to use prompts to turn self-doubt on its head (and get you writing again!)

I’ve never met a writer who didn’t doubt. You worry you’re not good enough. You wonder if anyone even wants to read your writing. You even begin to suspect that unless your writing fills some very specific criteria, you couldn’t possibly be a real writer at all.

Problem is, worrying about all these things holds you back from writing. Instead of sharing writing for feedback or sending work out for publication, doubt gets you mired in the mud and stuck. 

But what if doubt could propel you forward instead of holding you back?

I created these four journaling prompts to help you dance with fear and follow your instinct as you become a stronger and more confident writer.

Prompt One: Let Go of Doubt with an Unstructured Free Write

This is the most powerful writing exercise I know because it helps you move past self-consciousness and get your ideas on paper. In twenty years of writing and teaching, it has never failed me. 

When to use this prompt: 

When you’re feeling stuck, overwhelmed or you’re simply not sure where to begin. This is a perfect prompt to move through resistance.

How to use this prompt:

You’ll need a timer plus your desired method of writing. Use a pen and paper or type directly on a computer. Whichever works best for you.

Set the timer for ten minutes and write for ten minutes without stopping. No editing, erasing or crossing anything out. If you don’t like what you’re writing, simply move to the next line and continue with your next thought. If you have nothing to say at first or you think this is the most ridiculous exercise ever, write that down.

What to do next:

Read through your freewriting, circling any ideas that jump out at you as interesting. Let your instinct guide you. Those circled ideas become the seeds for finished essays, stories, scenes, and books.

Prompt Two: Dive Deep into Your Doubt

When to use this prompt:

Any time self-doubt hits. Instead of pretending you don’t feel the way you do, embrace it and write.

How to use this prompt:

As with unstructured free writing, you’ll set a timer for ten minutes. This time, dive into what you’re feeling. Explore the edges of your emotion by writing down what you experience.

Where do you feel doubt in your body? Does your stomach tighten or do your hands go cold? What sparks the doubt? 

Use the Emotion Thesaurus to answer these questions, too. What verbs connect to the sensations you experience? What happens with your doubt once it begins? Does it escalate into full worry and disbelief? Or can you ease your doubt and turn it into curiosity?

What to do next:

Apply your personal experience of doubt — or any emotion for that matter — to your characters or in a personal essay. You can lift passages directly from your journaling and edit them to fit a story or scene.

Prompt Three: Talk to Your Haters

When to use this prompt:

When you find yourself stuck because you believe no one wants to read your writing or when you imagine you’re writing to a specific audience.

How to use this prompt:

Write about the audience you imagine not wanting to read your work. What do they look like? Where do they live? Why do you believe they won’t like what you have to say?

Or perhaps there’s a misunderstanding? What is it your reader really wants? And what about your writing will resonate with them?

What to do next:

This process of diving into the thinking of another person is the basis of character building. You can incorporate this person into something you write.

This prompt also helps you develop your author branding and platform building. When you have a clear idea of who wants to read your writing and why you know where to reach out and how to find your readers.

Prompt Four: Problem Solve with a Targeted Free Write

When to use this prompt:

You know basically what you want to write, but you’re not sure how to write it. Or you have so many ideas, you’re not sure which to choose. Whether perfecting your storytelling, fleshing out characters or understanding why a scene isn’t working, targeted free writing allows you to explore your options and experiment.

How to use this prompt:

Instead of writing whatever comes to mind as you would in an unstructured free write, begin with a question you have related to your writing. Some examples of what you can ask yourself:

  • What will happen next in the story?
  • What does my character want?
  • Which of the subplots need development?
  • Any other quandary you currently face with your work-in-progress. 

Then write for ten (or more) minutes to answer your question.

What to do next:

Use the solutions you uncover and apply them to your works in progress. Try something, see how it works. If it doesn’t fit your needs, try something else.

People often avoid journaling, because they wonder what worth free writing can be if no one ever reads it. What if you develop an idea and it ends up being the wrong one?

This is simply part of what it means to be a writer. Yes, you will likely write pages you’ll never use. But the more you practice, the more you move past the resistance and doubt that holds you back.

For more ways to get past self-doubt, download this Build Your Writing Confidence worksheet.

What helps you get back to writing when self-doubt hits? Let me know in the comments!

Leigh Shulman is a writer and writing mentor with over 20 years experience. She’s the author of The Writer’s Roadmap: Paving the Way To Your Ideal Writing Life. Her online writing mentorship program The Workshop guides writers as they create a business plan for their writing lives then make their plans happen. For more ways to get past self-doubt, download her Build Your Writing Confidence worksheet.

About ANGELA ACKERMAN

Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
This entry was posted in Experiments, Focus, Goal Setting, Guest Post, Writer's Attitude, Writer's Block, Writing Lessons. Bookmark the permalink.
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[…] Authors Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi created Writers Helping Writers for new writers, seasoned writers, editors, and writing teachers. The blog offers advice on technique and strategy, as well as “Navigating the Changing Face of Book Promotion with Smart, Effective Strategies” and “How To Stop Self-Doubt From Holding You Back From Writing.”  […]

Gary Markham
Gary Markham
1 year ago

Great stuff that I needed to read. I deal with a lot of self-doubt, and I think part of it stems from a 9th grade teacher who did not say anything about my writing or if he thought it was good, because his main focus was that I had to change the names of the Star Wars characters my characters interacted with in the short story I wrote. God has blessed me with an imagination and with creativity and ideas but the self-doubt that I am not good enough, or that people do not want to read my stories always creeps in. Then I get the itch to start writing, I am feeling good, motivated and then bam! Self-doubt rears its ugly head again.

Leigh Shulman
1 year ago
Reply to  Gary Markham

Hey Gary!

What you describe is so common among writers. Myself included. Sometimes it helps to recognize the doubt, note it and then keep going with one of these exercises or something else.

But definitely keep sharing that imagination of yours.

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[…] writers can improve their mindset: stop reading your book reviews; Angela Ackerman takes a look at how to stop self-doubt from holding you back from writing; and Patty Nicholas urges writers to never give […]

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[…] How Writers Can Defeat Self-Doubt | Writers Helping Writers […]

Traci Kenworth
1 year ago

I’ll save this for future reference!

Leigh Shulman
1 year ago
Reply to  Traci Kenworth

Traci!

Please do! And if you have any questions, just ask!

Richard Hebert
1 year ago

My only self-doubt comes from my lack of schooling. When I went to school I was one of a bunch kids they never taught to read. Other kids had parents at home to help, I did not. When you start life down in that well little things like English and spelling become a problem. God gave me a good memory and I learned words one at a time. I would not recommend that for everyone, as I still have problems with verb usage, that said I have not given up on my writing which I started 5 years ago. When I read about well known writer and read they were lawers & doctors and all college graduates, self-doubt can slide under my door.

Leigh Shulman
1 year ago
Reply to  Richard Hebert

Richard!

I can understand how you might feel that way. That said, in my experience, schooling can be overrated when it comes to writing. And Grammarly is a wonderful free tool. 🙂

I’m so glad to hear you haven’t given up on your writing. Keep going! Because your story and experience is important and needs to be told!

Michelle Barker
1 year ago

Thank you. This was the post I needed to read this morning. Great suggestions. I’m going to try a few of them right now!

Leigh Shulman
1 year ago

Fantastic! I’d love to hear how they go for you!

Michelle Barker
1 year ago
Reply to  Leigh Shulman

I set a timer for 10 minutes and did a bit of a combo. I was trying to work out a specific scene, but I also allowed myself to write whatever happened to pop into my head. It loosened up my tight hold on this manuscript and gave me some good ideas for where the scene needed to go. So, all in all: success!

Leigh Shulman
1 year ago

Whoo hooo!! THAT is what it’s all about.

(Which prompt did you use? The targeted free write with regular free write??)

Michelle Barker
1 year ago
Reply to  Leigh Shulman

Targeted free write with unstructured free write. It was perfect!

Leigh Shulman
1 year ago

An excellent point, Angela. Because there will always be things we can’t control. We can navigate them and keep moving forward. It’s really the only option we have if we want to keep writing.

Thanks again for the opportunity to share!

JOHN T. SHEA
1 year ago

“Very specific criteria” indeed! Which seem to get more specific all the time. A plethora of advice, however well-intentioned, can become part of the problem. But thanks for this advice!

“Write about the audience you imagine not wanting to read your work. What do they look like? Where do they live?”
But if I knew where they lived I could blow up their house! Oh wait…I see a story…Kind of like “MISERY” in reverse…MMMWWWAAAHHHAAAHAAA!!!

Leigh Shulman
1 year ago
Reply to  JOHN T. SHEA

Fwiw, John, a large part of the prompts I use are to free you to figure out what you want. I’m a big believer in instinct as the #1 writer’s tool.

Kind of like what you did with creating your reverse Misery story above! 🙂