How to embrace idea doubt

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Do you understand the difference between self-doubt and idea doubt? It’s a really important distinction for most writers…

I first heard about what’s called “the progression of creativity,” from my son, Duncan.

It goes like this:

  1. This is awesome
  2. This is tricky
  3. This is crap
  4. I am crap
  5. This might be okay
  6. This is awesome

Have you ever encountered such a cycle in your writing? I know I have. In fact, even though I’ve been a professional writer for almost 40 years, I face it just about daily. But over the years I’ve become better about skipping step 4.

Imagine your writing process as crossing a river on foot. Visualize one side of the river bank as the “not having written” side and the other as the “at last, I have a draft in my hand” side. Then, imagine each of the six steps listed above as a large separate stone protruding from the water. You can skip from stone to stone, without getting your feet wet. But don’t you think it’d be better if you could jump from step 3 to step 5, skipping the fourth step — the “I am crap” one — entirely?

You can do that, you know. Writer and speaker Adam Grant, the author of the book Originals and a professor at the Wharton School, gives some interesting insights how in a TED talk.

He argues that we need to turn self-doubt — the “I am crap” part — into idea doubt  —  “this draft is crap.” Here is a list of five steps I suggest you take to do that. (The first step comes from Grant.)

1-Be quick to start but slow to finish: Many procrastinators leave all their work until the very last minute. But if you can persuade yourself to start early (and, then, not criticize yourself for failing to finish early), you’ll be giving yourself plenty of opportunity for the rambling, mind-wandering that our brains require for truly creative work. I’m a big believer in meeting deadlines — my newspaper training turned me into that kind of person. But if I start my writing projects early enough, I seldom feel the crushing sense of urgency that might curtail my creativity. As writer Aaron Sorkin puts it: “You call it procrastinating. I call it thinking.” 

2-Give yourself plenty of incubation time: Understand that you are never the right person for evaluating the quality of your work. You’re way too close to it. But you can do one thing that will help make you a better self-editor: Don’t look at your draft for at least a day (longer, if your deadline will permit.) This incubation time gives you some essential distance to help you understand how readers are likely to respond to your work. And this realization will allow you to make it better for them.

3-Understand that you are not your work: I think we all know that our job is not the same as our lives. But, when it comes to creative work, that line often becomes a little blurry. It’s all too easy to see that article or report we sweated over as part of ourselves. (If not a body part, at least it’s a child.) And, if we get praise for the writing, we may be tempted to think we are more worthy human beings. But our work is separate from ourselves. You would still be a worthwhile person even if you never wrote a useful word again. Your work is an output. It is not you.

4-Question the work rather than yourself: If you can accept that you are not your work, it should be self-evident that what you need to question is the work. You may produce crappy ideas or write crappy words and sentences, (in fact, that’s the entire point of the crappy first draft) but that doesn’t make you a crappy person. Trust that you have the skill to edit what you’ve written and, in doing so, you will make it better.

5-Give yourself plenty of time for editing: Many people who fear they are crappy writers (and, therefore, crappy people) just don’t spend nearly enough time self-editing. If you can manage your own time so that you schedule thinking, planning, writing and incubating, surely you can also plan some time for editing. It’s not as hard as you think if you follow a checklist. Know that few people are born with much writing talent. The people who become effective writers are the ones who work at it.

Don’t make the ‘easy’ jump from “this is crap” to “I am crap.” Instead, steel yourself to make the bigger jump from “this is crap” to “this might be okay.” If you can do that, you’ll make writing infinitely more pleasant for yourself. And this, in turn, will inspire you to do more of it.


My video podcast last week described how to deal with beta readers. Go here to see the video or read the transcript, and you can also subscribe to my YouTube channel.


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Do you fall victim to self-doubt or are you able to parlay it into idea doubt? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below.  Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Aug. 31/22 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. To enter, please scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.

An earlier version of this post first appeared on my blog on June 6/17.

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