The Elusive Art of Writing Confidence (And How to Build Yours)
I knew that I couldn’t write.
I’d sent manuscripts to publishers twice in my teens, and they’d both been rejected, which proved that I had no talent.
I still scribbled down my poems and stories, but I accepted that they’d never give pleasure to anyone but me, and that I was being self-indulgent and probably pretentious in writing them.
Eight years since last feeling like that, I’ve had over 200 poems and stories published, won 14 writing competitions and awards, and had two poetry collections published by small presses.
My first novel, Pride and Regicide, was published by prestigious publisher Crooked Cat in 2015. I still get rejections all the time, smile ruefully, and carry on.
So what made the difference, and how did I get from the first place to the second?
I started writing long before the internet existed.
I didn’t know any other writers and I didn’t know that even famous writers get rejections—sometimes loads of them.
When I sent off my first manuscript, I invested it with my entire sense of self-worth, and so was crushed when the inevitable rejection came (I was twelve).
Now that we can all share our stories via the internet, any unconfident writer can find out that rejections are normal—lots of rejections.
I’d stopped getting rejection letters, though, because I’d stopped submitting after those initial two (just two!) rejections.
We now fast forward twenty years.
I have the internet, and a fabulous best friend called Neil. One January 1st I ask him what his New Year’s Resolutions were:
‘For you to get your poems and stories published, and if you don’t even try to make that happen then my year will be a failure and it’ll be your fault.’
I laughed, but he was dead serious.
Then I got angry. I knew that no one would want my work. So to prove it to him, I googled ‘submission guidelines’ and sent six of my least-bad pieces off to different magazines.
I got two acceptances: one of them paying. A magazine in New Zealand was willing to give me real cash for my story, and print it in their beautiful magazine, and even put my name on the cover! Thank you, The Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine!
It began a process of confidence growth that took an awfully long time (and yes, I bought Neil a drink or two). I started to send out more and more work, though I still kept saying that I ‘wasn’t really a writer’ and ‘wasn’t really a poet’.
I had somehow plucked up the courage to join a local writers’ group—Animal Writes, led by Dominic Berry—and tried many different forms of both poetry and prose. But I still said that I ‘wasn’t a poet’. I was asked to perform one of my poems at a poetry event, and I was still denying that I was a poet. Eventually I wrote a poem about that denial!
At that first performance, I stammered and trembled as I read my poem from a much-thumbed piece of paper. I also hit myself in the face with the microphone because I was shivering so much with fear. Then the audience laughed at the right places, and applauded, and smiled…once again, I had to rethink my ‘I’m useless’ approach.
I carried on writing, submitting, and performing—even daring to enter competitions, some of which I won.
My confidence was now growing and I was starting to get used to rejections, though I still had/have that inner voice telling me that I’m no good.
What is interesting is that even the most successful writers turn out to have it too.
Rosie Garland, who won the Mslexia Novel Contest and got a six-figure, two-book publishing contract from Harper Collins, is successful by any standards as well as being a lovely person. She has also won poetry awards and has a huge following of loyal fans. Yet she has an internal critic who tells her that she is talentless and shouldn’t be writing. Rosie calls her Mavis, and has some excellent tips for dealing with her.
So here I am, confident and successful and very happy. I still have that internal critic—recently I caught myself describing me as ‘a third-rate hack’. Charming!
We think of ourselves in ways that our harshest critics would hesitate to imagine. I kept my crate of clippings and contributor copies and certificates in a box called my ‘vanity box’. Yes, why not be negative about it?! I’ve made myself call it my ‘success box’ now.We think of ourselves in ways that our harshest critics would hesitate to imagine. Click To Tweet
How to build your writing confidence
1. Recognise your internal critic and separate it from yourself
Know that it isn’t telling the truth, and keep going anyway.
You know that book, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway? It’s a good mantra for a writer.
Name your critic, as Rosie has done, if it helps. Listen to what it says, and then ignore it and carry on writing.Name your critic, if it helps. Listen to what it says, and then ignore it and carry on writing. Click To Tweet
2. Befriend and talk to other writers, whether in person or on social media
Most of us have been there and understand, so are willing to offer support and help whenever we can.
If there’s a writer you like, see if they’re on Facebook; send a message explaining that you’re a fan, along with your friend request. Sometimes they say yes, and are very friendly and charming.
I’ve been friends with people I idolised for decades.
It helps to see successful writers as humans like us, rather than special beings dwelling in some celestial sphere. We’re all writers.It helps to see successful writers as humans like us, rather than special beings dwelling in some celestial sphere. Click To Tweet
3. Attend your local writing group and spoken word events
You don’t have to perform at the latter if you can’t face it, but maybe you’ll want to when you’ve attended a few times and got comfortable with the venue and people.
Positive feedback, applause, and friendly people will make a huge difference to the way you perceive yourself.
At writing groups and workshops you’ll try different writing techniques and get out of your comfort zone in a safe environment. This will strengthen both your writing and confidence muscles.
4. Keep telling yourself—because it’s true!—that rejections and negative feedback (constructive or otherwise) are not rejections of you as a person or even as a writer
They’re simply part of the process. Learn from anything useful, and flush away the rest from your mind.
5. Keep a box of happy writer things
If someone says that they loved a line of your poem, or enjoyed your story, write that on a piece of paper and add it. If you have any acceptances then add those too.
If your writing made you feel terrific one day, or inspired new thoughts and ideas, then that’s an achievement too. Don’t apologise or denigrate yourself.
6. You are allowed to write. You are allowed to perform. You are allowed to attempt publication
You can do it yourself if you like. You are allowed to take time for all these things.
I know that some parents feel guilty about spending time just for themselves. It is, however, very important—don’t you want to give your children the message that they’re allowed to follow their creative dreams even as adults? Even if it’s just one hour every week, you’re allowed to take the time.
7. Don’t be intimidated by thoughts of marketing and publicity, or dealing with editors, agents, and publishers
All of that is optional.
You can submit your pieces to anthologies and magazines without doing much else apart from sending a polite ‘thank you’ email when you get an acceptance.
If you decide to publish a book later, you may already know an editor via your anthology publications, or you can put together a publicity plan that involves less outgoing, spotlight-orientated features.
Hope Clark has a book called The Shy Writer Reborn which tells you how to turn shyness and lack of confidence into practical skills to help sell your book! A publicity plan based on these should impress any publisher.
8. If you’re too shy or unconfident to socialise with other writers, then subscribe to a few of the better newsletters and visit the better websites
The Review Review will tell you about litmags, Hope Clark’s Funds for Writers will provide articles on improving writing, markets and various thoughts, and my Cathy’s Comps and Calls will deliver over 100 places to send work, free of charge, every month. This wonderful blog will tell you everything you need to know.Stare your lack of confidence firmly in the face and let it know that you're going to try anyway. Click To Tweet
The basic message is to take small steps, and work so that bit by bit you get to where you’d like to be as a writer. Stare your lack of confidence firmly in the face and let it know that you’re going to try anyway. Don’t waste the many years that I did because of a few rejections. Beatrix Potter got so many that she self-published The Tale of Peter Rabbit, which has now sold over 45 million copies. That might be you or me one day, and no, I’m not going to qualify that with any ‘Not likely!’ or ‘Not me!’.
If writing has taught me anything, it’s that absolutely anything is possible.
Originally published in 2015.