Weird, right? Becoming a writer and sharing stories with the world seems like it would be the best thing ever. So why do so many aspiring writers suffer from debilitating panic when they try to put pen to page?
Don’t worry—you’re not alone. Whether it’s fear of being a bad writer, of rejection, judgement, or failure, all writers have experienced this from time to time. We’ll explore some of the totally normal fears writers come up against when they begin their journey, and how to overcome them one day at a time.
Where does creative fear come from?
First of all, why is creative writing such a frightening endeavor? It’s so easy for children to be creative—they can build stories out of anything, and do it all day long. But something happens once we reach adulthood that heightens the stakes and makes us suddenly doubt ourselves.
These doubts stem from not being enough: creative enough, eloquent enough, likeable enough. There’s an idea that by embarking on a creative journey, we’re setting ourselves up to fail.
Because writing is such an intimate and personal art form, this failure can feel like more than a rejection of our words—it’s a rejection of our very being.
Harsh, right? Don’t worry. We’re here to guide you past these fears so that you can start writing and get those ideas into the world.
(And! A fun fact: the fear of writing is actually called “Scriptophobia,” which is a Greek word that comes from script, writing, and phobos, fear.)
Common fears all writers face
Every great writer has faced one—or all—of these fears at some point in their lives when confronted with a blank page. Let’s take a closer look at each one and what they mean for you, so you can find the courage to face it head on.
Fear of being a bad writer
Writing is hard, guys. But when you see shiny, published novels on the shelf that look like they were written effortlessly, it can make you feel like a terrible writer in comparison. After all, shouldn’t your novel just spin out of your pen in a riot of light and colour, fully formed and ready to take the world by storm?
We don’t see all the hard work that goes into these finished products. We don’t see that our favorite authors struggle with exactly the same doubts, inhibitions, and crappy first drafts that we do.
Remember—“bad” writing is rich in raw material for you to work with, and you can’t write your short story or novel without it.
Fear of writers’ block
Here’s the tough truth about writers’ block: it’s self propagating. Once you begin to feel that first hint of creative stagnation, your mind jolts into an irrational fear that it won’t go away… which only makes it that much more stubborn.
It’s a bit like trying to fight your way out of a spider’s web; the more you struggle against it, the stickier and more suffocating it becomes. It’s enough to make you want to throw down your pen and give up for good.
Unfortunately, this is a path backwards, not forwards. There’s no shortcut—the only way to defeat writers’ block is to push through it. You can check out our dedicated lesson on overcoming writers’ block here.
Fear of intimate expression
The best stories, the ones we read long past bedtime and that stay with us for a lifetime, reveal a true experience or feeling on behalf of the writer.
Even if this experience is wrapped up in layers of fantasy or science fiction, we inherently recognize it as something real. But when it’s us on the other side of that page, stripping away a layer of social façade for the purpose of entertainment can be blindly terrifying.
Many writers hesitate when they reach something a little too close to the heart. On some level we understand that we’re placing something very delicate and personal on the page for the world to see.
It’s a difficult, uncomfortable place to be in as a writer—but it’s also where the most powerful stories are born.
If you need a gentle push through these intimate moments, consider this awesome quote by Neil Gaiman (who we’ll talk more about a little further on):
The moment that you feel that, just possibly, you’re walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself. That’s the moment you may be starting to get it right.
Fear of rejection
Fear of not being good enough for readers, publishers, or other writers is one of the most debilitating things we face on our writing journey.
No matter how many times we’re told that all writers face rejection, or that it’s a very real part of the writing process, it’s still scary—and it still hurts when it inevitably happens. Wouldn’t it be easier to just not try at all?
Well yes, probably, but then you’d never get to share your beautiful work with the world. Rejection is something professional writers deal with on a day to day basis and, like writers’ block, the only way forward is through.
We’ll look more at how to deal with rejection later on in this article.
Fear of success
Say what? Yes, success is a real fear that many writers face as they inch towards the top of the publishing roller coaster—the apex that separates writing as a hobby from writing as a real job.
Many writers become afraid that writing won’t be fun anymore, that they’ll suddenly owe their words to someone else, that they’ll be inundated with vicious social media attacks, that they’ll be a one-hit wonder like Richard Madoc in Sandman.
This fear often comes from the impending sense that change is in the air. Publishing a book is a little bit like becoming a parent; once you become a published author, you can never go back to not being one again.
This is a super exciting time, but scary, too.
Ways to overcome fear of writing
So how do we deal with these realities of the writing life? To begin writing professionally, you’ll need perseverance, determination, and a hint of chutzpah to succeed.
The good news is that fear doesn’t derail these writer’s traits; it only slows them down a little.
Let’s look at some tips and tricks to manage fear of your own writing and start putting words down on paper.
1. Set manageable goals
As Margaret Atwood famously said, “You become a writer by writing. There is no other way.”
We know it’s easier said than done, but the only way you’re going to overcome your fears is to start writing. With every word, sentence, paragraph, page, it becomes a little easier and you’ll start sitting down at your desk thinking, I can do this.
Exercising your writing skills is just like exercising a muscle: start small and work your way up. Some writers like to set a time limit for how long they spend writing—for example, ten minutes of uninterrupted silence to simply journal, explore a new character, write a detailed setting, or sketch out a plot summary.
Or, you could measure your progress by word or page counts. Even if all you can manage is one hundred words of your story-in-progress at a time, that’s one hundred words closer than you were before.
Try this every day for a week, then next week broaden your goals a little bit more. If you start with small, manageable objectives, they’ll seem less intimidating and you’ll feel proud of yourself for getting some actual writing done.
2. Write by hand
If you do most of your composing by computer, try writing something by hand in a notebook instead. You might find the tactile sensations of putting words down on paper more calming and less intimidating than staring at a blinking cursor on a blank screen.
Plus, there are endless possibilities for the types of tools you can use. Whether you choose a fancy leather bound journal or a friendly composition book, an elegant fountain pen or an HB pencil with a nerdy literary quote on it, there’s a writing set out there that will feel just right for you.
3. Create a calming writing ritual
If you find those perfect tools to take on your writing journey, another great way to create a mental safe space for your writing is to get into a special routine. Think about what sort of things might make you feel safe, inspired, and judgement free.
This might be a particular area of your home, a certain tea cup you use only for your writing sessions, a special writer’s sweater (or bulletproof vest!). You could light a candle, burn essential oils, or put on a special playlist of literary tracks.
This writing ritual will look different for everybody, but it should say, “This is my writing space, and nobody can take it away.”
4. Join a writing group
Writing groups are great for two things: support and accountability. Your parents or your spouse mean well, but nobody knows what you’re going through better than other writers. They can be the best people to keep you going when times are tough.
Writing groups can share feedback and writing prompts to get you going, cheer you on when your work is accepted, and pick you up when you get a rejection or negative feedback on your work—as you inevitably will from time to time.
They’re also great for helping you stay on track and fulfill your writing goals, no matter how big or how small. If you need some help keeping on top of your goals, why not try this fun magical writing contract with a friend?
5. Write letters (and don’t send them)
If you’re nervous about starting to write, a great warmup exercise is to write a letter—one that you’ll (probably) never send.
This might be to your best friend, a family member (living or otherwise), your favourite author, or even a fictional character. Tell them about the things that are holding you back, and what you think they might tell you if they were there.
This is a fun form of journaling which takes the focus off your own insecurities, helps you become more self aware of your obstacles, and encourages you to look at them in a fresh way. Most importantly, it gets your words flowing. Before long, you’ll forget you were ever feeling uninspired in the first place!
6. Destigmatize rejection
This is a big one. Any published author will tell you that rejection is a reality of the writing life; as a writer, you’ll need to learn to face them head on and take them in stride. It’s all part of the journey.
To get some practice at dealing with inevitable literary rejection, why not try the 100 Rejections challenge?
The idea is to aim for 100 rejections in a single year by submitting as widely and often as possible. Once you hit this mark, you’ll probably have built up a healthy stack of acceptance letters, too, and found opportunities you wouldn’t have thought of trying otherwise. And each rejection will get a little bit easier, until you start to feel like you can handle anything life can throw at you.
Another way to remind yourself that you’re in good company as a writer is to read up on the rejections other writers have faced, like this list here. From gently encouraging to scathing, these rejections could have stopped aspiring authors in their tracks—but they didn’t, and the literary world is richer for it.
Remember: the greatest writers aren’t the most talented, or the most well-connected, or the luckiest. They’re the ones who kept going.
7. Embrace the compost heap
Not all writing is good writing, and that’s perfectly okay. Some writers refer to the writing they don’t use right away as a “compost heap.”
This means all the writing that didn’t go anywhere, or wasn’t right for the story they were working on at the time, or got scrapped in service to the plot, gets put aside as “fertilizer” for future projects. You might consciously look back through your notes and stumble on an idea for a new story, character, or place; or, you might carry those disused fragments of writing in your subconscious, where they slowly percolate into new inspiration later on.
There is no wasted work. Everything you do as a writer has value, whether it inspires a new idea later on or simply teaches you something new. Which brings us to our final tip for battling your fear of writing:
8. Practice gratitude in your writing life
Every time you put words down on paper, you’re shaping your future as a writer. Whether you’re practicing a new skill, stretching your limitations, exploring an idea, or pushing past the edge of your comfort zone, everything you write has something to teach you.
If you can start looking at your work as an ally and mentor, rather than an enemy, you’ll see there was nothing to be afraid of all along. Honor your writing, and honor yourself.
Fear of writing success story: The Graveyard Book
If you think your favorite authors are immune to the fears of writing, think again. Even the richest, most famous, most successful published authors experience self doubt or fear of being a bad writer from time to time. One great example is Neil Gaiman’s prize-winning novel The Graveyard Book.
As Gaiman has said in numerous interviews, he first planned to write The Graveyard Book when he was in his mid-twenties. But after an uninspiring first attempt, he decided he needed to wait a few years until he was a better writer. He would do this every few years, write a couple pages, and think nah, I’m not good enough yet. I’ll try again when I’m a better writer.
It took him a long time to realize that it wasn’t his limitations of skill that were holding him back—it was his fear of being a bad writer. When he eventually pushed through this fear and wrote the book, he won the British Carnegie Medal and the American Newbery Medal!
The moral? Great literature doesn’t happen by waiting for the fear of writing to go away—it happens when writing becomes more important than the fear.
To start writing is an act of courage
A fear of writing is natural and nothing to be ashamed of—but don’t let it hold you back from sharing your words. Some people spend their whole life waiting to be “ready” to begin writing. The funny thing is that nobody’s ever truly “ready”; the trick is simply to begin.