W3 Wise Words on Writing

W3 is a monthly newsletter for writers on a variety of topics from technique to the psychology of writing. It appears by the 15th of each month. More information is available from www.wisewordsonwriting.com

Monday, June 06, 2005

No 33. Writer's Doubt Syndrome

Writer’s Doubt Syndrome
W3 Issue 33

This is W3’s 33th issue to be sent to 7899 readers. W3 has been labor of love and as a thank you to all the writers who have helped me develop my craft by passing by on their knowledge mixed with my own. However, it is taking more and more time to send out and maintain the mailing list. First I thought to make W3 bi-monthly, but then I decided that I would keep it monthly, but instead of sending it out, I’ve decided to let readers pick up comments from a blogspot http://wisewordsonwriting.blogspot.com/ All old issues have been posted there.

I commit to having a new issue of W3 on the blogspot by the 15th of each month starting in July. I know some readers will fall off, but if anyone wants to remember to look for it, mark your agendas on the 15th for the next few months. Future topics will include overcoming writers block, freelancing and writers circles/groups.

Old issues are still available at http://www.blogger.com/index.html

Please share W3 with your writing friends. Teachers: use anything from W3. If you quote us please give our website and blogsite.

To everyone all over the world who has written me in the past, I really have enjoyed sharing information with you and to anyone who wishes to contact me I can be reached at donna-lane.nelson@wanadoo.fr


I work with many developing writers (aren’t we all). Many have found agents and publishers, although I only guarantee I’ll push writers to be the best they can be. No matter where the writers are in their development, everyone I’ve worked with has at one time or another expressed major doubts in their ability. The only difference between them is the degree of the doubt. Until recently I chalked up the doubt to being a new writer.

Then one writer I’d worked with whose novel sold well in two countries, expressed the same doubt about the second novel he was working on and his ability in general.

At the same time another new writer I worked with expressed doubt even though her novel had been a finalist in a contest.

At about the same time I reached an impasse on the novel I was working on and wondered about my own ability. It dawned on me that every good writer I have ever known imagines they lack ability.

In the US there probably would be a TV ad showing a person at the computer against a beautiful outdoor background saying “Are you worried about the order of your sentences, your description, your plotting? Do you sit at your computer and switch to computer games rather than face putting words down? Then you probably have Writer’s Doubt Syndrome (WDS) and you need blah blah medicine. Ask your doctor. Not recommended for… and side effects can include brain damage, heart stoppage, etc.”

Although I might deplore everything being made a syndrome in the US requiring the purchase of expensive medicine, it doesn’t mean that people don’t have real problems.

WDS seems to be a requirement for every writer from the person setting down their words for the first time or someone already published. As an example Truman Capote was attacked with WDS and couldn’t write for years.

Similar doubts are not suffered by non artistic professions. Truck drivers don’t wake up in the morning in a sweat thinking they might not be able to turn the wheel exactly the best way possible, and I doubt if plumbers anguish over the installation of a water faucet and install it over and over the same way a writer will rewrite and rewrite a paragraph.

I’m not talking about writer’s block here. People with WDS can continue to write, they just don’t like what they said. Sadly, like other syndromes there is no pill for it.

What can we do about it when WDS strikes? First, remind yourself you are not alone. Then try and figure out what triggered the attack. Here’s some of the common ones.

WDS Trigger 1:

When I talked to several writers in preparing this newsletter they told me that the most common trigger was a rejection. Sadly rejection is part of writing.

Solutions: Buy and keep a copy of THE RESILIENT WRITER: TALES OF REJECTION AND TRIUMPH BY 23 TOP AUTHORS. Read when WDS hits.

Consider anything other than a form rejection as a mark of progress.

One way to keep rejection from turning into WDS is to have several things circulating (or the same thing sent out to many places) then there is always hope that one of your submissions will meet with success.

WDS Trigger 2

You’re confident you can write but those around you think you’re nuts to spend so much time on an activity with no guaranteed result and take every opportunity to tell you. A nay-sayer plants the seeds for WDS better than the most successful farmer in the world.

Solutions: Stay away from them. If the dream-spoiler is your spouse, parent, living-at-home child, it is harder, but try and set limits on what you will accept

Under no circumstances let the person who is sabotaging your writing see your work.

Find someone who can give constructive help. This can be in the form of an editor, book doctor, word coach, writing group or even a loved one has no hidden agenda other than to help you develop as a writer. There is a lot of difference between the person who says you have created a stupid character and the person who asks why you have the character do this or that. One discourages. The other makes you examine and strengthen your work.

WDS Trigger 3

You aren’t published therefore you’re not a writer. Publication tends to give validation to our own sense of worth as writers, but every writer starts out unpublished.

Solution: The more you need validation in the eyes of others, the harder it is to shake off WDS. Chant to yourself how the poet Emily Dickinson published almost nothing in her lifetime, but today is considered as one of America’s great poets. Although she never heard of WDS, I am sure when she was walking over to visit her sister-in-law in Amherst, she wondered if she should stop scribbling down lines on scraps of paper.

WDS Trigger 4

What you are putting down on paper it isn’t what you want to say. Even you find the words boring and somehow you are convinced you will never be able to make the words do what you want you them to. This is one of the hardest things to overcome. Solution: There is no great universal rule that you must continue writing at that moment or that exact place. Mark the problem in color and go on to another scene and come back to it. Take a walk and think about what you are doing. Or go do something totally different, a horseback ride, television, a hot bath, whatever relaxes you. Or if you want to keep plugging, copy something you wrote earlier that you were satisfied with to prove to yourself you can do it.

WDS Trigger 5
Fear that no one will ever read your work again. Hours spent in isolation will be for nothing. You think of a tree falling in a forest devoid of listeners. People won’t even get a chance to dislike what you write.

Solutions: For those writers who have had something published, I suggest they go back and copy it. Rewriting words that worked enough to win publication, can rebuild conference.

Unpublished writers, find something you wrote that you felt proud of and copy it.

Start a website for your writing or less expensive a blog http://blogspot.com/ I use mine http://theexpatwriter.blogspot.com/ for my freewriting morning exercises. They aren’t polished, but they warm me up. However, if you blog (weB LOG) your writing is now beyond your own computer.


1. A piece of writing is an offering. You bring it to the altar and hope it will be accepted. You pray at least that the rejection will not throw you into a rage and turn you into a Cain. Perhaps naively, you produce your favorite treasures and pile them into an indiscriminate heap. Those who do not recognize their value may do so later. And you do not always feel that you are writing for your contemporaries. It may well be that your true readers are not here as yet and that your books will cause them to materialize. Saul Bellow.

This passage was selected because when I read it, I felt Bellow has captured not just the writing process but what happens after when we let our writing go out into the world.

2. “Every book, every volume you see here, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens.

“As it unfolded, the structure of the story began to remind me of one of those Russian dolls that contain innumerable diminishing replicas of themselves inside. Step by step the narrative split into a thousand stories as if it had entered a gallery of mirrors its identity fragmented into endless reflections.” Carlos Ruiz Zafón THE SHADOW OF THE WIND

Besides a beautiful piece of writing I love the idea of the soul of the person and the reader entering the words giving life to the inanimate pages.

3. I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen:
A chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this chapel were shut,
And ‘Thou shalt not? Write over the door…
And priests in black gowns were
Walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys and desires.
William Blake from THE GARDEN OF LOVE

Please don’t bind your joys, desires and hopes with briars and shall nots.

4. “He seemed so constrained, so neatly trimmed. Someone who had been doing topiary with his soul all his life.” Anne Lamott BLUE SHOES

That has nothing to do with the topic. I just loved the image, but if you read Lamott’s BIRD BY BIRD, you will know that WDS exists.


These aren’t my exercises, but I thought they were perfect to try when WDS strikes.

1. Brainstorm 100 words about a person whom you love. Next, imagine that you're creating a painter's palette by group similar words together like hues of color. Then, with your pen as the brush and the paper as your canvas, create a message that speaks to who this person is in your life. Send this note.

2. Celebrate laughter. When people laugh in conversation with you, ask why what you said was humorous. Celebrate who you're both being in that moment.

3. Listen with unconditional love. Where do you see pain among your family members or friends? Ask what is hard for them to be with. Listen without judgment, a proposed solution or comment. Simply be there and share the space.

4. Practice voice play. For one week, note all the different voices that surround you: birds, the wind, children, people and animals. What are they saying? What's your heart saying back?
Melissa Rosati is a co-active coach whose clients are writers, authors and creative artists. Prior to her coaching career, she was Director, Editorial & Production for McGraw-Hill International (UK). To subscribe to her newsletter, THE ESSENTIAL SOUL WRITER, please visit her website: www.creativity-portal.com/howto/writing/features/write.spring.html


The British newspaper THE GUARDIAN had an editorial about gender and writing. There is a test to determine if we write like men or women. I put in examples from my creative writing (female) and journalistic writing (male). I went to the mirror and still looked pretty feminine to myself, but like the VALS survey in Issue 28, it is just another tool to examine our own writing.

See you next month July 15th with a blog on writer's block.

D-L Nelson