I’ve been writing seriously for over ten years now. And by “seriously” I mean writing novels and short stories with an eye toward publication. I’ve published one nonfiction book, and one work of autobiographical fiction. I also coach writers, so I’ve edited countless manuscripts.
Last month I finished the first draft of my next nonfiction book. I’ve spent the last year reading and researching, and the past six months painstakingly writing out each chapter. “I’ve got this,” I thought to myself all summer long. “I finally know what I’m doing.”
Then, a week ago, I read through the entire first draft.
And immediately went into the black pit of despair.
It was a gigantic steaming pile of crap. In fact, I even emailed a couple of close writer friends to tell them that I had just wasted the last year of my life on researching and writing a book that was a gigantic steaming pile of crap. Luckily, I have awesome writer friends. They’ve seen me go through this before and they patiently offered words of encouragement. This made me feel a little better.
But only a little.
I’ve now written five novels and two nonfiction books. Every time I finish one I go through the same thing. I read through the first draft and cringe. I’m embarrassed and horrified. How could my writing possibly still be this bad? How is it that I’m still making the same mistakes? My language still sounds so clunky and awkward? My ideas are still so convoluted?
Fortunately, because I’ve now gone through the process so many times, I don’t panic anymore. Yes, I spend a day or two in the clutches of despair and self doubt, but I don’t let it take me down. Because now I know:
Experiencing debilitating self doubt comes with the territory of being a writer.
What that means for me is that I will always need to take a week or two after reading through any one of my first drafts to process how I feel about it. I need that space and that time away to get a little distance. A little perspective. As an artist, I wrote the first draft in an attempt to make it match up to an ideal vision in my mind. Now, confronted with the raw reality of my actual first draft, I need a little time to deal with having my illusions shattered. The work is what it is. And what it is…is what I have to work with.
This is exactly what happened with my latest book. After I emailed my writer friends in despair about my “gigantic steaming pile of crap” I took the time I needed to get perspective so that I could come back to the manuscript with clarity. And when I did come back, I saw what I had missed before. I wasn’t dealing with a pile of crap after all. I just had a manuscript that needed a lot of work. I needed to restructure the order of the chapters and streamline a few of my explanations. I needed to clarify my core concept and add in more testimony from real writers.
Everything that I needed to do was, in fact, doable. But when I was consumed with self doubt and focused on how crappy my work looked in its first draft form, I wasn’t capable of seeing that. I was too wrapped up in how the roughness of the manuscript might reflect badly on me and my writing talents.
It was only when I took some time away to detach that I could shift back into neutral about the project and see it as just that: a project I was working on that I could make better. Not a definitive judgment on my worth as a writer.
A lot of writers who are just starting out assume that this whole cycle of self doubt and despair lessens, if not disappears entirely, the more experience a writer gains with the craft, and the more a writer publishes. From what I’ve seen, this just isn’t true. I feel just as much self doubt about my latest work as I did about my very first novel.
The only difference is that now I know that the rock bottom self doubt feelings are normal. And knowing that changes the game entirely. Once you know that something is a typical part of a cycle you’ve been through before, you also know there’s an end in sight. It won’t last forever. You can get through it.
So, if you’re a writer in the clutches of self doubt and despair because you think your work is shit, your book is a pile of crap, you’ll never get any better—hold on. Just hold on and keep writing.
Because if there‘s only one rule in writing you can count on, it’s this: You can always make a crappy first draft better.
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