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Writers Talk About Writing

How Writers Can Befriend Doubt

I have a new companion. Or, at least, I've newly recognized one.

Its name is doubt.

As doubt seems to have a particular interest in befriending writers, perhaps you know doubt, too.

That work you're doing? It's no good, s/he says. Waste of time. Don't you have anything better to do?

“Oh, and, by the way,” doubt continues, “if you have the gall to write, don't let a sentence sit on the page for more than 30 seconds before you start fixing it. (What could be worse than spelling a name wrong or spewing a cliché? Are you lazy or something?) As for that advice about writing a crappy first draft? Well, that's ridiculous!”

And then it goes on: “Don't continue to write until your research is 100% complete and unless you have a plan demonstrating exactly where each sentence is going to go.”

I'd started thinking about doubt, because I'm writing a new book. While I'm generally a confident writer — and have no difficulty producing a blog five days a week, and countless articles, press releases and reports for clients — somehow the challenge of doing a book had made doubt my new best friend. It shamelessly walked in through my front door and perched itself in the chair beside my desk.

My friend, Eve — a writer and yoga teacher who's also working on her own book — blogged about doubt not long ago. She quoted the late B.K.S. Iyengar: "If doubt arises in your discipline, let it come. You do your work, and let doubt go about its work. Let's see which one gives up first." (You can read Eve's whole post here.)

The Iyengar quote made me realize that doubt had infiltrated my writing life in the same way water will seep into any crack. Suddenly, it was as if the weather had turned cold and the water was turning into ice, causing the seams to burst.

For the next week, I decided to regard doubt as a companion and observe what she was up to. Funnily enough, the mere act of observing doubt — seeing it as a separate person — was profoundly powerful. 

I now feel about doubt the same way I feel about fear. It's an emotion. It's neither good nor bad. It has its own reasons for being there. Deal with it in the same way you deal with fear:

  1. Don't think you can beat doubt by ignoring it. Instead, surprise it by paying attention to it. This will take it off its guard and allow you to continue to write. 
  2. Don't stop breathing. Many of us suffer from writing apnea and hold our breath when we feel any negative emotion, particularly doubt. This only magnifies any physical symptoms we're already feeling. Remember to take deep, belly breaths to keep yourself calm.
  3. Know that doubt will pass. Nothing is forever. Not even doubt. Awful as the feeling may seem, know that it will eventually pass.
  4. Do your work, regardless. It takes willpower to keep on writing, regardless of doubt, but don't give doubt the privilege of being your excuse. Time runs out for us all. If you're not writing now, when will you ever?
  5. Record your achievements and celebrate them. I keep a chart showing how many words I write each day and how many I have left to write. After writing for six months, I had a first draft of 66,000 words. I've now started editing.

I researched doubt on the Internet and learned it is greatly discussed in religion (in the English-speaking world, primarily in Christianity) and business.

In religion doubt arises because of the need for faith — faith that God exists even with all that is crazy and wrong and unfair with the world. In business, people need a different kind of belief — a certainty in the wisdom of taking financial risks. 

But here's the interesting thing: writing requires faith, too. Don't be so scared of doubt that you allow it to control your life. Instead, treat it as you would a casual acquaintance — with civility, politeness and a discernable lack of interest.

After all, doubt has its job to do: doubting. Just as you have yours: writing.


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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday September 10th 2014, 9:12 AM
Comment by: Graeme Roberts (Pittsford, NY)
I don't doubt that your new book will be even better than your first, and it was undoubtedly excellent.
Wednesday September 10th 2014, 10:03 AM
Comment by: Marie (GA)
Daphne is right. writing does require faith! A friend and leader that I admire, Dieter Uchtddorf, said, " . . . doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith." his counsel is helpful in every part of my life--including my writing.
Thursday September 11th 2014, 9:11 AM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)
Wonderful! I have found that doubt, fear and pain, when recognized as fellow-travelers and not intrinsically the self, can change from being paralyzing forces to great helpers in our meandering path of life.

Doubt is also a necessary component of my own religion: Buddhism. When recognized for what it is, it keeps one from fanaticism and other great mistakes. (Sorry about the seeming diversion from the topic of writing, but everything is interrelated.)
Thursday September 11th 2014, 1:44 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I agree with you, Roberta. Everything is interrelated. I'm constantly struck between the comparisons I see between writing, exercising and playing piano. Three very different activities but all requiring the same sort of commitment.
Thursday September 11th 2014, 2:24 PM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
That's right. A good characterization for "doubt"--Ms. Daphane along with her friend (Iyenger) presented here. This element follows us all, everywhere, and everyone. Successful people, because of their strong belief and insights tear out out the bindings from doubt easily. But the problem remain with week minded people. It is hard for them to cut the unwanted companionship of "doubt."
I constantly struggle to cut my relationship with "Doubt." But never succeeded. But thanks for reminding me to complete my mission.

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