Why is imposter syndrome so common among writers?

This post is an expansion of an article I originally wrote for Charlotte Lit’s Lit Bits series
in their newsletter. For more on Charlotte Lit, including info on an intro to screenwriting course I’ll be teaching for them in February 2023, check out their website.

There are a lot of voices in my head when I write. There are the voices of the characters I’m creating, and the characters I want to create for a future project but who won’t stop bugging me while I’m in the middle of the current one. There are characters I wrote in the past who are like “Hey, remember that thing you wrote about me that’s already in print? Here’s how it could have been better,” and characters who might actually be repressed parts of my psyche but let’s not think about that right now, and the caffeine-addict part of my brain telling me that really, all of this will be so much easier with coffee.

 

There’s also the voice of my internal critic. She likes to pipe in while I’m writing, giving an “Are you sure about that?” or “You know this is never going to be as good as how you first envisioned it” or “Hey, did you know that Mary Shelley was 19 when she wrote Frankenstein?” When I have any sort of failure as a writer, she’s there to say “I told you so.” And when I have any success, she’s ready to ask “Really? You?” That question persists throughout my writing career—winning a contest, signing with an agent, selling a book or script, getting hired to speak or teach—Really? Me?

I am certainly not the first writer to have felt imposter syndrome, the fear that one is unqualified for his or her own work. In fact, I hear other writers voice these doubts all the time. Why? What makes us so prone to questioning our abilities, and what can we do about it?

First, some root causes:

  • The subjectivity of the work we do as writers is major imposter syndrome fuel. There’s no such thing as a true, indisputable standard of merit for any creative work. What’s “good” to one person—funny, touching, smart, relatable, thrilling, beautiful—may fall entirely flat to another. As of this writing, The Great Gatsby (“Hey, did you know that F. Scott Fitzgerald was 28 when he wrote The Great Gatsby?”), one of the most successful, widely revered novels of all time, has over 130,000 one-star reviews on Goodreads. And as tricky as it is to judge the quality of someone else’s artistic work, how much harder is it to judge your own, which you can face with even less objectivity?
  • There’s also a financial factor. Most writers don’t write for the money. If making money is your goal, perhaps a major in non-English—anything other than English—is the choice for you. But many writers want to write full time, and conventionally, career success is tightly linked to income. Which would put most writers at the very bottom of the success ladder. It’s quite difficult to make a living as a writer, let alone to get rich that way. Even professional writers do many, many hours of work for free. If your time isn’t “worth” anything to anyone else, in a clear, measurable way, it’s easy to question whether your work is worth anything at all. How can you assign value to your own writing?
She gets it.

When people have asked me what the best part was of the experience of publishing my first novel, I’ve often mentioned the day when I found out it had sold. It feels crass to frame a personal, artistic effort in monetary terms, but when there’s so little in the way of certainty for a writer, having someone invest money in your writing, for no incentive other than them thinking that your work is good enough to create a profit, is the closest I’ve come to true, objective validation that I might be doing something right. But I write things all the time that don’t sell, or that I’m not even attempting to sell. I’ve also found that there’s a shaky correlation between the likelihood of a piece of my writing selling and how happy I am with it creatively, or how positive the reactions to it from fellow writers are.

  •           Speaking of those reactions… rejections, negative feedback, and poor reviews are mainstays of most writers’ paths. Whisper “rejection” and writers will pop up like gophers and tell you their stories. We all have them. Even The Great Gatsby didn’t sell that well when it first came out. If you happen to be a writer whose internal critic voice is missing, or goes soft, just put your writing out there—there will almost certainly be plenty of people ready to give that critical voice a volume boost.
  •           Since writers also spend a good deal of time promoting their work, anyone in the writing community is frequently exposed to the successes of other writers. Any time you go on social media, you may find authors celebrating their recent wins. If you set foot in a bookstore or library, you’ll see glowing blurbs on the cover of every book. Most of us aren’t out there sharing every rejection letter, or talking about the times when we spent ten minutes staring at the computer screen and just wrote “text here” (Just me?). When you hear disproportionately about the successes of other writers, it can be hard to not feel like a failure.

This constant self-promotion creates a paradox: writers must market their work aggressively, yet many wonder privately if their work is even any good. When I began my career as a screenwriter, I learned that most successful writers in Hollywood are also good salespeople. They know how to pitch their ideas and themselves with confidence and style. Since their projects often kick off at the conceptual stage, without a full script that they can hand off to read, they must sell executives on the magic—and profitability—of their ideas alone. For fiction and nonfiction authors, the marketing comes at the other end of the process, after the writing. At publication, authors become the brand of their books, and most have to market relentlessly to drive sales. But how are you supposed to sell others on the merit of your writing if you’re not so sure of it yourself?

Here are some ways I think writers can beat imposter syndrome—or at least put that critical voice in its place a bit:

 

  • Embrace the good side of imposter syndrome. A reasonable dose of fear and self-doubt may push you to work harder. I, like many people, sometimes perform better when I’m just nervous enough to be a little more switched on. Humility keeps you from getting complacent, and encourages you to strive. After all, if you think you’re already at the top, what incentive do you have to climb higher? You just need to balance a healthy level of fear and doubt with enough confidence to believe that a higher level is possible for you.
  • Focus on what you can control, and let the rest go. This is applicable to so many things in life that I treat it as a personal mantra, but for writers specifically, it’s key, because there is relatively little that is in your hands as a writer. You can’t control how other people are going to respond to your work, or how smart or naturally talented you are, or what the marketplace wants today or what it might want in the future. Even the act of writing itself is dependent on forces outside the writer’s control, in a way that many other tasks aren’t. I can make myself mow the lawn, or do my taxes, or answer emails, or upload this blog post to my website. But I can’t make myself write, in the sense that I can’t make myself have ideas, or figure out how to make a character more interesting, or create a brilliant plot twist, or generate a certain number of words per hour. No one can force inspiration.
I searched for royalty free images of doubt, and this came up, so I'm going with it.

The things I can do: sit at my desk and put in the time to write. Read. Ask other writers for feedback. Listen to others talk about writing and learn from their ideas. Give myself mental space for creative, unorganized thinking. Surround myself with media and environments that encourage inspiration.

 

When that inner voice asks “What if people don’t like this?,” remind it that there’s no point in asking that question because there’s nothing you can do about it anyway.

  • Remember that you are already qualified to write what you’re writing because only you can write your story, in your voice. Star Wars and Spaceballs are similar movies: interplanetary adventures with daring heroes, princesses in peril, and fantastical creatures. But they are radically different in execution because George Lucas and Mel Brooks have different minds. New ideas will always come, and craft can always be honed, but the great inimitable treasure that each writer offers is his or her unique perspective on the world and way of processing that into words. Resist the temptation to compare yourself to other writers, or to let setbacks define your vision of your creativity. You have a story in you that has never been told before—so don’t be afraid to sell it. The best way to not feel like an imposter? Just be yourself.

2 thoughts on “Why is imposter syndrome so common among writers?”

  1. Wow Sarah! This is so helpful to me, as I face yet another book event for my memoir, “The Book of Ruth, Taming Ghosts and Saving History,” day after tomorrow. You and Hannah and Landis gave me a wonderful mention on a recent Charlotte Readers Podcast, which helped my confidence a good bit. I especially liked what you said about how you cannot make yourself write better, but you can make yourself sit down and do the writing and the thinking and the networking to learn new things. Thank you!

    1. Thank you so much for reading, Ruth, and I’m glad this can give you some encouragement as you promote your wonderful book!

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