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Writing's Four-Letter Word: Fear

Writers need talent. We all know that.  They also need to learn and master the skills that go into fashioning great fiction and nonfiction. Again, no news flash here! But one of the hidden attributes a writer must have, which isn’t apparent going in, is courage. Because one of the biggest bugaboos pretty much all writers face is fear.

Is my work good enough? Do I have talent? Can I make it in this business? Universal questions, all.  Almost every writer I’ve worked with has been plagued by that internal voice that says: What makes you believe you can be a writer? In many cases, this is followed with that snippy little Puleese!  Funnily enough, the folks I’ve worked with who had tons of confidence, and no self-doubt, almost always proved to be not as talented as those who question themselves. Kinda like the old saying that it’s the healthier people who go into therapy.

Especially when searching for their sea legs, new writers become terrified when it’s time to actually let a professional see their work. Oh, Mom and Sis and even Aunt Bessie may have all loved the manuscript (folks tell me this every day), and that bolsters confidence. Some. But when it comes time to let someone in the industry read it, all that praise sort of evaporates into thin air. Knees knock. Palpitations hit the heart. I can literally feel the fear through the phone lines or email. 

Scary stuff, this writing business. Because we’re not selling bread dough here, but rather parts of our very souls. Nothing leaves you more vulnerable, more naked, than having your story “out there” for people to read. No matter who you are or how polished or how often you’ve been published (or not), every story reveals at least some part of your psyche, which heretofore has been kept hidden. Someone is going to deduce that, well, as the Mad Hatter said, “We’re all quite mad; you’ll fit right in!” 

I’ll never forget when my first novel was in production, galleys due to arrive any day. I sat up from a dead sleep and went: “My mother’s friends are going to read this!” 

Of course, I probably should have been afraid of that, but that’s a different story! 

The thing is, one way or another, we all face the pesky demon who questions our worth, our validity, whether we have one iota of business being in this industry. I’ve often thought that the gene for writing and the one for self-doubt are linked. The writer’s conundrum about worth is that universal, and such bone-chilling fear stops a lot of folks.  

I’m always walking my writers through this process, and almost daily talking to others afraid to take the plunge. Because truly, to make it in this business requires a courage unlike any I know. That old adage saying the only way to get through fear is to face it plays out unequivocally here. As just about all the famous philosophers said, if you don’t have courage, none of the other virtues matter. You simply have to stare straight at fear.

The tool I always use, and teach, is when that demon on your shoulder says, “You’re not good enough,” look it in the eye and say, “you’re probably right.  But just this minute, I have a paragraph/scene/chapter to write. I’ll get back to you once I’m done.”

Amazing how that shuts the little bugger up!


Award-winning author and editor Susan Mary Malone has four traditionally published books to her credit (fiction and nonfiction) and many published short stories. A freelance editor, forty-plus Malone-edited books have now sold to traditional publishers. You can see more about her, and what authors say about working with her, at:

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  1. Awesome post and advice. I had that, "She's talking to me," feeling the whole time I was reading it.

    I'm going to try your advice next time I hear that inner voice.

    Thank You

  2. Oh, great ... now I'm feeling insecure because I wasn't feeling insecure enough.

  3. LOL, Christopher. You always manage to make us laugh. Thanks for being such a supporter of what we do here at BRP.

    Kenny, nice to see you here and so glad you found the post helpful.

  4. Yes, Susan! We writers—indeed, all artists—need our fears. Fear of falling short makes us strive to be better. Fear of deadlines makes us prompt. Fear of not being good enough inspires us create a team to lend us strength. Fear that we might rest on our laurels has us reaching ever forward.

    Fear places us where we need to be to write a great story—in the center of the conflict, on the edge of change.

    Thank goodness for it!

  5. Mercy, it's so true. No matter how good we get, there's always at least one type of writing that strikes fear in the heart. I should create a long list of defenses I use to keep from writing.

  6. As you noted, Susan, a large part of our fear likely stems from our naked souls, our vulnerability when we put our stories on the chopping block. (Seems I've watched too much of the Food Network.) But as Kathryn said, fear has a positive side. It makes us try harder to bring the very best that we have to the table.

    Great post!

  7. Rising about insecurity makes authors a special breed!

    Morgan Mandel

  8. Susan is out of town this week, otherwise I know she would have checked in to say hello and thank everyone for their comments.

  9. It's so easy to second-guess yourself and wonder why you're writing, who will really ready it and even if they do, will they like it?

    Sometimes you just have to let go, ignore what people will say or what kind of reviews you'll get and just write from your heart and make it your best ... and really, that's what makes a good writer.

    And then when you reach publication day, that fear creeps back in, sometimes followed by terror ... and it's okay, because you gave it everything. Fear did not control you. :)

  10. As Maryann said, I'm on the road this week, but did get to pop on for a minute.

    Great comments all! And isn't it funny when we actually bring that fear monster out of the closet, how all of us have different insights into it.

    One of the big reasons why I love this forum!


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