Balance Believing with Doubting

Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do

John Wooden, Inspirational Speaker

Just about everyone has moments of despair and doubt about their writing. After countless hours and the feeling that your work has been futile, that you have not clearly expressed an important concept or relationship, you may feel the urge to give up, to abandon the project.

But you can’t give up. To be a successful writer (or really, to be a successful person) you need to emphasize believing. Especially in the beginning of a writing project, you need to set aside doubt, self-criticism, and despair. You need to emphasize the positive. After all, down the line, when your work is graded or critiqued by readers, you’ll have plenty of time for self-criticism and doubt.


Why Belief is Important

One difference between successful writers and those who fail is that successful writers have faith in the creative process. In other words, even when they come close to despairing, they believe their rough drafts will become crystal clear—with effort. They believe they will develop an argument that synthesizes all of their reading. They believe that they will identify some innovative, creative interpretation. Buried deep in their rough drafts, they hope to find the seed of an elegant idea.

When Charles Darwin spent his early twenties and thirties writing obscure essays on barnacle taxonomies, he didn’t give up. He kept writing, thinking, working, and eventually he created an elegant theory that transformed society: Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.

Whenever you become discouraged about your writing or about your potential as a writer, remember that successful authors did not become competent overnight. In fact, for most people, learning to write well is a lifelong process, an apprenticeship.

Why Doubt is Important

Writing can be discouraging. After hours of effort, you can end up with a product that absolutely fails to express what you intended. Plus, the feedback and criticism of your classmates and teachers can be depressing. When there is a large gap between what you said and what you meant to say, you can easily get down on yourself, telling yourself that you are not a good writer and that you will never be good at writing.

Sometimes, however, you need to shut off the negative voice within you and trust the generative nature of language to help you find exactly what you want to say. You must have confidence that your writing will be concise, coherent, and persuasive, given enough time and effort.

Of course it’s true that writers must balance the negative with the positive. To be a successful writer you must be a realist: You must understand others will interpret your words in ways you cannot anticipate. Critics will identify unexpected weaknesses in your presentations. Being able to take the audience’s view and accept criticism are helpful components of the writing process.

Successful writers try to anticipate the reactions of readers and critics. Indeed, writers must be critical of their ideas. There are some writers who tend to be especially reluctant to be critical of their work, who look on their writing as a reflection of their being. Writers who look at their work to affirm their insightfulness will not see glaring logical flaws. Those who look only to reaffirm their creativity may ignore the importance of others’ views, research, and scholarship.

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