If you’re a writer, you’re probably familiar with struggling to convey your ideas through words alone and screaming your creative aspirations into the void of an uncaring universe. Feelings like this are common enough to have colloquial terms within the writing community — and if you name something, you gain power over it.
Let’s take a look at some writer problems and how to handle them.
One of the most common writerly afflictions is imposter syndrome — the fear that you’re not a “real” writer, that all your accomplishments were just luck, and that you’ll eventually be exposed as a fraud and failure.
Imposter syndrome means never feeling good enough.
“I am not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people.” — John Steinbeck
Self-doubt is normal and healthy. It’s what ensures we don’t see ourselves as creative geniuses who produce perfect drafts in need of zero revisions. It’s good to have humility and believe that your writing can always improve. But that feeling shouldn’t be debilitating, and it shouldn’t prevent you from celebrating your successes or from continuing to write.
To combat imposter syndrome, give these three strategies a try.
1. Focus on the positives.
- Create a document of positive feedback or reviews you’ve received and print them out to display at your desk
- Write a list of your writing strengths
- Keep a record of your accomplishments, big and small — perhaps you won a writing contest a few years ago, or today you wrote down an awesome idea for a new story
The key is to reassure yourself that you can do it, so don’t be afraid to start small if you have to. Every bit helps.
2. Realize you’re not alone.
Bond with other writers over your shared struggles, from the anxiety of publishing stories for the world to read and judge, to times when you feel like everything you’ve ever written belongs in a dumpster fire. You can find commiseration on various social media platforms:
- Twitter (#writingcommunity)
- Instagram (#writersofinstagram)
- Facebook writing groups
- Reddit (r/writing and other subreddits)
- NaNoWriMo forums
- Absolute Write Water Cooler
- Critique Circle
- Virtual or real-world meet-ups (especially with local libraries)
3. Create for the sake of creating.
Write something just as a gift for yourself, without caring what other people will think or worrying if the idea will sell.
Maybe you know vampires and zombies are passé, but you still think it sounds fun to write about them. Maybe you know your literary noir comedy mashup isn’t very marketable, but you love writing the characters’ witty banter. Create other things, too — food, gardens, art, music, games, reviews, blog posts, videos.
Cultivate a holistic sense of self, where your worth doesn’t feel tied to only your writing. And please don’t give up or call yourself a failure just because you haven’t gotten published or won awards or written as much as you’d like to. You’re a writer — someone who writes — but you are not your writing. Writing is the product, not the person, and whether or not you or anyone else feels good about your writing doesn’t say anything about your worth as a person.
“Each time I write a book, every time I face that yellow pad, the challenge is so great. I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody and they’re going to find me out.’” — Maya Angelou
The Absent Muse
You might have days when your creative muse is absent and you feel uninspired to create. A muse is any external or internal source that grants you a wellspring of inspiration.
In Greek mythology, the nine Muses of the arts and sciences were the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, the Titan goddess of memory. The story goes that Homer found inspiration in Calliope — the goddess of eloquence and epic poetry — when writing The Iliad and The Odyssey. Your own muse could be an actual person, a creative soulmate like Beatrice was for Dante as his childhood love; he wrote her as one of his guides who leads him through “Paradiso” in The Divine Comedy.
A professor once told me, “Write for one reader,” and from then on, I decided my muse would be my younger self, and I would write stories she would most enjoy.
Your muse could simply be a personified force — a story idea might hit you as a shower thought, or a song could transport you to a magical alternate reality.
But what about the other days, when your well of creativity feels dried up and your muse won’t speak to you? Chatting to someone else about your work-in-progress or establishing a writing routine can coax your muse out of her hiding place. However, as Stephen King says in On Writing:
“Don’t wait for the muse. As I’ve said, he’s a hardheaded guy who’s not susceptible to a lot of creative fluttering. This isn’t the Ouija board or the spirit-world we’re talking about here, but just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks. Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day from nine ’til noon or seven ’til three. If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he’ll start showing up, chomping his cigar and making his magic.”
To summon your personal muse, surround yourself with things that inspire you:
- Read an entertaining book
- Watch a thought-provoking movie
- Travel to beautiful landscapes
- Sit down and write one sentence, then another, and another
“Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too. If she doesn’t show up invited, eventually she just shows up.” — Isabel Allende
Say you have succeeded in putting your butt in the chair, but it might be difficult to stay seated and focused because life is full of distractions. You might engage in productive procrastination, where you tell yourself, “I’m going to write,” but then decide you need to first clean your entire home and answer all your emails before you can do anything else.
So, two hours go by, and only ten minutes of that was spent actually writing. This often results in writer’s guilt, wherein you despise yourself for doing anything other than writing.
Still, productive procrastination is way better than normal procrastination. For instance, I used to have so much on my want-to-do list that I’d get overwhelmed and wander over to Imgur and read memes for hours and then hate myself for all that lost time afterward. I put all this pressure on myself to be productive every second of the day, and somehow that made me even less productive. It felt impossible to concentrate on my writing or editing for more than ten minutes at a time.
What I started doing instead was give myself easy outs that still felt somewhat useful for my personal growth. Between writing sessions, I’d tell myself, “Well, if you’re not going to write, you should read a book or take a walk. At least that’s better than scrolling through cat photos.” Other strategies might include…
- Posting on social media to build your author brand
- Watching a video about a topic you want to research for a story
- Organizing your notes or files
- Looking for writing contests and publications
Just make sure you set a timer to prevent yourself from procrastinating for too long. I feel a lot better about myself when I can look back on the day and see I’ve made progress toward my goals, even if it’s just baby steps.
Lack of Flow
The problem of procrastination is really about struggling to enter a flow state, that feeling of being immersed in your story world, when a waterfall of words spills from your brain onto the page.
Positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi defines the term:
“Flow is being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
To enter a flow state, try having a specific goal or plan of action — like an outline or a clear mental image of the scene you want to write.
Usually, getting in the zone happens when there’s a slight level of challenge and the task requires stretching your current skill level a little. Aim for that middle ground between challenging and simple, rather than writing something that’s too easy or too hard. For me, this sometimes means brainstorming answers to important narrative questions like “How can I cover this plot hole?” or “How can I make things worse for the protagonist in this next scene?”
Even in a flow state, you could still hit a snag, stumble, and splat headlong into writer’s block, the dreaded paralysis of not being able to write a single word. Or maybe every sentence is utter agony to produce, like yanking out toenails. Whether or not you believe writer’s block exists, it’s a good catch-all term for the times when your writing just isn’t flowing.
“Writer’s block is my unconscious mind telling me that something I’ve just written is either unbelievable or unimportant to me, and I solve it by going back and reinventing some part of what I’ve already written so that when I write it again, it is believable and interesting to me.” — Orson Scott Card
I have a whole article with 17 tips for conquering writer’s block, but my favorite strategies are to have someone critique the story I’m struggling with, write summaries of what happens next, and ingest some writing advice.
Shiny New Idea Syndrome
Absent muses, productive procrastination, and writer’s block prove that writers have problems with focus, but that’s just — ooh, look, it’s Shiny New Idea Syndrome. Forget that space opera trilogy I started last week — now I’m going to write a Gothic romance set in the 19th century, so I’d better check out a bunch of books at the library for research, or maybe I’ll write a quirky comedy screenplay and I can watch a bunch of Wes Anderson movies as research, or —
Well, now I’ve got a lot of decomposing story corpses in my closet and not a single one left alive and whole.
Novel-length projects are often abandoned around the 10,000-word mark, when the adrenaline rush and novelty of new love has worn off, and you’re itching to feel that high again with a new partner. This one for sure feels like it’s The One, the story that will make you a household name. But, once you get to know each other a little better, you start seeing the flaws, the cracks, and it would take so much effort to work through those problems. Better to dump it for this younger, more attractive story.
Instead of chasing each shiny new idea, brain dump the idea into a different document, slap on a working title, and shove it into a special folder you won’t lose because you’ve got it all organized. Then crawl back to your unfinished lover. Why are you abandoning her during her time of need?! Show some self-control, soldier, and get back to work.
New ideas are beautiful to have, and if you really love them as much as you think you do, you’ll be able to wait until you’re ready to pursue them without distraction.
World Builder’s Disease
I’ve drawn a map of the major cities and waterways of Spjtlvut, and I’ve pinned down the etymology for all the terms in the magic system. There’s paragraph after paragraph describing the wares sold at the market, the intricate class system, the religious and political structures of every species — wait, shit, I’ve contracted World Builder’s Disease! All this painstaking effort is put into delivering information rather than making readers care about the characters or, you know, the plot.
This can happen with realistic fiction as well, if you fall knee-deep into researching what New Orleans was like in the 1920s or you travel twenty branches back in your main character’s family tree.
The cure for World Builder’s Disease is to ignore the minutiae and focus on storytelling. Who are your characters, and what makes them interesting? How are their actions driving the plot? What larger world-building elements create conflict relevant to your characters?
Sometimes dedicating a lot of time to world-building pays off — J.R.R. Tolkien spent decades planning out Middle Earth, and Frank Herbert spent at least five years researching and writing Dune. Ultimately, though, they framed all that knowledge around captivating characters with clear goals.
- The Lord of the Rings: a hobbit named Frodo sets out on a journey to destroy the One Ring and save his home from Sauron, the Dark Lord
- Dune: Paul Atreides, the son of a Duke, takes control of the desert planet Arrakis
In both of these stories, the world is integral to the central conflict. Without the One Ring, there is no plot. Without the desert planet, there is no plot.
The same goes for novels set in a particular place or historical period — like The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, which a reviewer described as a thousand-page book about the building of a cathedral a thousand years ago in England. Naturally, the novel involves architectural knowledge, but the praise focuses on Follett’s cast of compelling characters.
To avoid including too much information about your world, write characters that people care about and build the universe around them. Connect those unique world-building components to the characters’ goals, and you will have a more memorable story.
Which writer problem do you struggle with most?
Self-doubt, distraction, and fatigue are natural side effects of trying to create something from nothing. Oftentimes, we’re our own worst enemies, and that’s how these common problems arise. But if you know yourself well enough, you can harness the power of your own creativity.
Take a hard look in the mirror and be kind to the person looking back at you.
Whatever you do, keep writing.
This post was adapted from a video on my YouTube channel Quotidian Writer. You can watch the full video below!