How to befriend doubt


Reading time: About 3 minutes

Have you ever considered how much influence doubt may have on your writing? It could be one of your secret enemies — although, in truth, it’s relatively easy to turn it into a friend.

I have a new companion. Or, at least, a new recognition of a longtime acquaintance.

Its name is doubt.

As doubt seems to have a particular interest in befriending writers, perhaps you know doubt, too.

That work you’re doing? It’s no good, s/he says. Waste of time. Don’t you have anything better to do?

Oh, and, by the way, doubt continues, if you do have the nerve to write, don’t let a sentence sit on the page for more than 30 seconds before you get to work fixing it. (What could be worse than spelling a name wrong or spewing a cliché? Are you lazy or something?) As for that advice about writing a crappy first draft? Well, that’s ridiculous!

And don’t continue to write until your research is 100% complete and unless you have a plan demonstrating exactly where each sentence is going to go.

I started thinking about doubt recently, because I’m writing a new book. While I’m generally a confident writer and have no difficulty producing a blog five days a week, and writing countless articles, press releases and reports for many clients, somehow the challenge of doing a book has made doubt my new best friend — shamelessly walking in the front door and perching itself in the chair beside my desk.

My friend, Eve, a writer and yoga teacher who’s also working on her own book, blogged about doubt recently in a way that made me pay attention. Here is a quote from  B.K.S. Iyengar  she cited: “If doubt arises in your discipline, let it come. You do your work, and let doubt go about its work. Let’s see which one gives up first.” (You can read Eve’s whole post here.)

The quote made me realize that doubt had infiltrated my writing life in the same way water will seep into any crack. Suddenly, it was as if the weather had turned cold and the water was turning into ice, causing the seams to burst.

For the next week, I decided to regard doubt as a companion and observe what s/he was up to. Funnily enough, the mere act of observing doubt – regarding it as a separate person — was profoundly powerful.

I now feel about doubt the same way I feel about fear.  It’s an emotion. It’s neither good nor bad. It has its own reasons for being there. Deal with it in the same way you deal with fear:

  1. Don’t think you can beat doubt by ignoring it. Instead, surprise it by paying attention to it. That will take it off its guard and allow you to continue to write.
  2. Don’t stop breathing. Many of us suffer from writing apnea and hold our breath when we feel any negative emotion, particularly doubt. This only magnifies any physical symptoms we’re already feeling. Remember to take deep, belly breaths to keep yourself calm.
  3. Know that doubt will pass. Nothing is forever. Not even doubt. Awful as the feeling may seem, know that it will eventually go away.
  4. Do your work, regardless. It will take willpower to keep on writing, regardless of doubt, but don’t give doubt the privilege of being your excuse. Time runs out for all of us. If you’re not writing now, when will you ever?
  5. Record your achievements and celebrate them. I keep a chart showing how many words I write each day and how many I have left to write. After writing for just over a month, I now have more than 15,000 words. I expect to have a completed (crappy) rough draft of my new book in 28 weeks.

I did some research on doubt and was intrigued to discover that the two areas on the Internet where doubt is much discussed centre on religion (in the English-speaking world, primarily Christianity) and business.

In religion doubt arises because of the need for faith — faith that God exists even in the face of all that is crazy and wrong and unfair with the world. In business, a different kind of faith is required — faith in the wisdom of taking financial risks.

But here’s the weird thing: writing requires faith, too. Don’t be so scared of doubt that you allow it to control your life. Instead, treat it as you would a very casual acquaintance — with civility, politeness and a discernable lack of interest.

After all, doubt has its job to do: doubting. Just as you have yours: writing.

How do you deal with your own writing doubt? We can all learn from each other so please share your thoughts with my readers and me by commenting below. (If you don’t see the comments box, click here and then scroll to the end.)

Posted December 10th, 2013 in Power Writing

  • Carol

    Daphne,You have really hit the nail on the head again this week. I’m promised my children and myself to start oil painting again and write more family history for them and their children to enjoy when I am no longer here to recount it orally but I have let doubt block me. Thank you for this valuable advice.

    • So glad this has inspired you, Carol. Don’t let doubt take control. My own mother doubted her artistic ability yet she started painting when she was 65 — and the paintings of hers that I have are my most treasured possessions. Start creating!

  • Charli Mills

    Thanks for covering this topic! Now I’ll get back to work!

  • Kelly Carter

    When I have doubt, I use a cognitive therapy technique that works for other problems (e.g., procrastination) as well: Before I start out on a task that I am doubtful about, I rate the task from 1 to 10 how (a) difficult and (b) unpleasant I think it will be. After I’m done, I review my grades, and re-rate the task as it really was. So far (for many years), in every case, my earlier grades showed that I have an exaggerated sense of how difficult and unpleasant a task will be. It’s always easier and more pleasant in the end. After using this approach for some time, and seeing the results, it builds up my confidence that I can take on a task even when I have doubts beforehand that I can’t succeed at it. Another approach I use for a task that I really dread doing is to commit to only doing the first 10% of the work. Inevitably, if I just START the task, I end up doing way more than 10%.

    • Kelly, Thank you so much for these clever and intensely practical suggestions for dealing with doubt. Readers: I suggest you try them! I know I will be.

      • Charity Armstrong

        Responding to Kelly’s comment about committing to do just 10%. Elizabeth Elliot once counseled (in a different context) “Just do the next thing.” How often I have used this counsel! I’ve found, just as Kelly remarked: Once i get started there seems to be an inborn drive to move forward that kicks in. And sometimes I just do bits and pieces of a project, no matter where they might appear in the piece at the end. That seems to “turn doubt off” and stir me to move forward.

        • Indeed. This is often the advice trainers give their clients. If you don’t feel like running, just put on your shoes and go out for five minutes. Most people find that the five minutes quickly turn into a regular-length run!

  • Maureen Dunphy

    Thank you, Daphne. You’ve provided a very helpful framework, one which may help me further recognize “negative” emotions, such as doubt and fear, as having their own business to attend to, without me allowing them to derail my work, which is what they’ve been up to lately. I’ve been afraid to start a new phase of a book project because of overwhelming doubts, an embarrassing admission from someone who also coaches other writers. Thank you for sharing your own experience with doubt as well as your strategies for dealing with it. I particularly appreciate the word count log, something I used in another book project with great success!

    • You’re very welcome, Maureen. I’m always glad to help banish a little doubt!

  • David Carlson

    One of our neighbors dresses in costume as an 18th Century fur trader, Jacques, the Voyageur. In character, he says, to avoid arguments with his wife, his attitude is, “Often wrong, never in doubt.” I practice the same attitude when providing weather forecasts, privately for my friends.

    • Love the phrase: “Often wrong, never in doubt.” Applies to many people I know! (And to myself!!)

  • Louise Julig

    The practice of meditation can help recognize the fleeting nature of all emotions, including doubt. It has been very helpful to me in more parts of my life than I would have imagined.

    • Thanks for mentioning meditation, Louise. It’s a really useful practice for writers.