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.)