How writers can change self-doubt into idea doubt

Reading time: Less than 3 minutes

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 recent 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 aimed to teach you how to give a better interview. See it (or the transcript) here and consider subscribing. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email,  twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.

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.  And congratulations to Kevin Pawley, the winner of this month’s book prize, Metaphorically Selling by Anne Miller for a May 12/17 comment on my blog. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by June 30/17 will be put into a draw for a copy of Writing to Learn by William Zinsser. To leave your own comment, please, scroll down to the section, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.

Posted June 6th, 2017 in Power Writing

  • Guy Maesaka

    Hi Daphne,
    This post is spot on…at least where I am concerned, or so I thought. i thought I was the only person in the world with self doubt. Evidently, writers are an isolated bunch who get stuck in their own heads when self doubt comes along.
    We all need reminders of the various sticking points we get into and how to overcome them.
    Despite the 3 minute reading time of your post, this is very powerful in helping me achieve my writing goals!

    • Oh my goodness, Guy. You are certainly NOT the only person in the world with self-doubt. And especially NOT the only writer. Just try to transform the self-doubt into IDEA doubt and you will feel a whole lot better.

  • Julie

    Change “I am crap” to “I can do this”.

    • Interesting suggestion, Julie, but I’m not sure I agree. I think going through a phase of “this is crap” (as opposed to *I* am crap) is actually very useful to writers. It helps us become more vehement and more deeply committed self-editors…

      • Julie

        Agree. I don’t have a problem with the “this is crap” as well, and find myself their quite often when it comes to writing. Then I edit and jump to “this might be ok” (well, maybe several edits before I get there). I just can’t say “I’m crap” to myself. I said it to myself way too often growing up.

        • That’s very healthy that you’ve come to that conclusion. No one should say “I’m crap” to themselves!!!

          • Julie

            Having the flu is showing in my writing. Talk about needing to edit! I should probably reread the contract I wrote earlier today.

          • 🙂 🙂 I had food poisoning last week, so I can relate!

  • Amina Noureen

    This is very helpful. I usually follow the above strategy to start writing earlier so that I would get enough time to think and edit. Thank you for sharing.

    • Yes, start early. Starting early will pay off in all sorts of ways, particularly in giving you more time to edit (which, truth be told, is the ONLY way to improve anyone’s writing.)

  • Blanca

    Hi Daphne, thank you for this post. I found you by chance in a video at the Learning how to learn course from Dr Oakley and I just loved your approach to mind mapping. I am a PhD graduate in Economics, and I am struggling with the extension of a chapter of my PhD thesis to submit to a paper in Energy Economics journal. In my case is not just the writing, is the coding, the programming, the urge to prove my results are amazing and you have never seen anything like this. I think I am forever stranded on step 4, to be honest. On top of that, I am in the job market, and Economics is so competitive that my only fighting chance to get a job is to publish something pronto. Do you have any suggestions for me, a penniless graduate that just wants to publish ASAP? Thank you! Blanca

    • Hi Bianca, I suggest you stop worrying about being “ground-breaking” or outstanding in any way and just determine the bare MINIMUM steps you will need to take to be published. You are quite right that publishing is important so concentrate on that. You do not have to be amazing (or in any way “perfect”) to be published. Put those thoughts out of your head and just focus on the work. The “I am crap” feeling is so common among academics (grad students in particular) but here’s the deal: IT HOLDS YOU BACK. Don’t let yourself get stuck down this rabbit hole. Do the work. Concentrate on the work. Stop thinking about yourself. It’s not about you. It’s about the work.

      • Blanca Guizar Moran

        Thank you so much, sometimes it feels like you are the only one out there with such thoughts. Thank you 🙂

        • Thanks for your kind words, Blanca. I am not the only person with such thoughts, but they do seem to be rare in a university setting!

  • mom2luke

    Yes! I printed this out when I first discovered it and taped it to the top of my laptop:
    The Writing Process:
    This is awesome
    This is tricky
    This is crap
    I am crap
    This might be okay
    This is awesome –
    Good tips and, sure, I’d love to win a book , or a chance for one, just by commenting…. it’s persisting to awesome that is the hard part. deadlines help!

    • Yikes! Please delete the “I am crap” line. No one needs to go there, even temporarily!

      • mom2luke

        But it is how I feel when I struggle w/ a piece… I was so relieved to know I’m not the only one who feels that way! And it DOES get better

        • Yes, many people feel this way and I know that is somewhat comforting. But think about how much BETTER you will feel if you can skip step #4 (I am crap) all together. There is no need for you to feel that you are crap. Retrain yourself to see the DRAFT (not yourself) as crap. And know that the draft is something you can fix!