21 Jun Reluctant to call yourself a “professional writer”? I am too.
By Myles Birch
My fingers dangle an inch above the keyboard like curled spider legs. My hands tremble. They freeze.
I spot a crumb stuck between two keys and pick at it.
“Eeeerrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr” spits across the page.
The corners of my screen blur as my eyes struggle to focus. I reach for the back of my neck, scratching and pulling at my collar. My fingertips find damp skin as a wave of heat rises through my body.
I study my chewed fingernails, examine the fine, white hairs between my knuckles.
I look back up at the page, my chest tight, as if two hands are clasping my ribs from opposite directions.
Doubts race through my mind: I’m not good enough. I’m a fraud.
I can’t do this.
Overcoming fear: 6 tips for embracing life as a professional writer
That’s how I felt the first time I worked on a piece of writing for someone else. Even though I was sitting comfortably in my bedroom – my TV playing softly in the background, gentle light flicking across my face – I was terrified.
Six years later, I write this with thousands of words, hundreds of by-lines, and a wealth of successful copywriting projects under my belt.
And guess what? I still get nervous.
So here are six things that help me fight the fear of fraud and failure – hopefully, they can help you, too.
1. Think positively
When I write – be it a blog, a landing page, or a website – I sit at my desk and stare at the cursor blinking back at me.
I take a deep breath in. And I close my eyes, noticing my eyelids flutter like butterfly wings, before becoming heavy and snapping shut. Leaving me in total darkness.
I feel for what’s around me. The plastic mouse in the palm of my hand.
Then, I let the thoughts wash over me. The good. The bad. And the ugly.
I take another breath, sifting through what comes up. I notice doubt, fear, panic – thoughts that come well before I’ve struck a single key.
Then I soften things.
Instead of: I have two hours to write this. It will never come.
I say: Maybe I can do this. Maybe it will come.
And I start to type. Prodding at the clunky keys. Gently at first, then quicker.
Sometimes my creativity flows – other times it’s stifled. But when I do slow down to notice my internal dialogue, I find my rhythm.
I think about the negative energy I’m putting out into the universe. When I’m sitting there in total darkness, worrying about words that don’t yet exist.
The dread and panic can’t be good for my poor, anxious mind (I tell myself). Surely this will show up on the page? Somewhere?
I listen to the same music on loop. Day in, day out. Tibetan Singing Bowls. Pinned to the top of my browser. Near my green spreadsheets, to-do list and calendar.
To block out my boisterous colleagues? Maybe. To dull the doubt in my head? Yes.
The same spiral of thoughts arrives when it’s time to send my work off: even though it’s been poked, prodded and proofed carefully by friends:
You can’t do this. It’s terrible.
But I’ve learned to counter that with a positive:
You know what? Maybe I can do this…
2. Build your writing fitness
I have little interest in running marathons. But I’m familiar with the concept of training to build your fitness.
The same logic applies to writing. The more consistent effort you put in, the better you become at covering long distances. Whether you’re crossing Ts. Dotting Is.
Or ruling things out.
Try writing for a living, like I do. Eight hours a day. Five days a week.
Day one was tough. Day 29 less so.
Throughout the journey – when I was building my writing fitness – I’d learn from other writers. What techniques they use. How they hone their craft. These were coaching moments.
And there were days when I’d break down or cramp. My body unable to write a single line or word more. Negative feedback from a client. Criticism from my boss. And then there I was, panting and limping. Just like Day 1.
But I kept picking myself up. To build my strength.
It was a slow, crucial journey.
3. Befriend your mistakes
I grew from my mistakes. Even when they hurt.
This called for the right mindset, however. I didn’t make mistakes on purpose, of course – that wouldn’t be fun. But I did what everyone does:
- I misspelled names
- I messed dates up
- I missed the mark on punctuation
I got things wrong. Many times. And that’s only human.
In fact, some of the best writers have dropped the ball – in big ways, too.
“THOU SHALT COMMIT ADULTERY”. That’s how the Seventh Commandment was printed across 2,000 copies of the King James bible in 1631.
Harry’s list had a double-up! “Wand” was mistakenly etched twice on a wizarding shopping list in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (page 53).
See? It’s true.
But the key to making mistakes is being able to learn from them. To take them in your stride.
Which is exactly what I strive to do. And by embracing the stinging first-draft feedback, I’ve become strong.
Like when, in a previous role, a client asked:
“Was this written by a bot from the 1990s?”
Once I’d wiped away the tears, I picked myself up and sat back down at my desk. I vowed never to write like a bot from the 1990s ever again.
4. Hold on to the wins
Ever received positive feedback about your writing? Grab onto it. With both hands.
I use this as motivation all the time, especially when I’m struggling.
For instance, if your boss, colleague or client praises your work, take a screenshot. And put it in a positive bank. Like a Google doc.
Bank this feedback over time. And come back to make a withdrawal whenever you need a boost of confidence.
In the weeks, months and years that pass, you’ll end up with a treasure trove to fall back on when the writing gets tough.
5. Take risks
“Myles, they’re just words. No one has ever died from words.”
This is something my boss shared with me, many years ago.
It was a hot day, and I was sitting at a wooden dining table in his studio apartment, magazines and brochures thrown in a pile, a glass water jug nearby. My sweaty fingers stuck to the mouse pad as I hovered over the file, the fan from my laptop whirling away in the background.
His words didn’t change my life. But they did put things into perspective.
I come back to them every so often. When I remember.
And I guess they do make sense. Because no amount of poor punctuation or sloppy spelling is going to cause physical harm (unless you’re writing a user manual or a safety pamphlet). For the most part, writing is about creativity and ideas.
So while sharing your work with other people can be scary – and the feedback nerve-racking – all you’ve done is put words on a page.
You might even buy yourself some creative licence.
So be a little bold. Take a risk, and feel that surge of adrenaline kick in. And remember, if you’re doing something new, that’s a risk in itself.
6. Procrastinate (yes, procrastinate.)
I procrastinate. Which is why it took me so long to write this.
But from this slow, meandering process comes magic.
Once you’ve built up the courage to open the document, read the resources, and think about what needs to be done, there’s nothing wrong with closing your laptop and walking away.
In fact, I’d encourage it – it’s a great way to break down the fear. You can even sleep on it.
Why? Because this is when the spooky stuff happens. The digestion. The percolation. The gooey, glorious goings-on beneath the surface of the conscious mind. Beyond Word docs, spellchecks and timers.
And, yeah, sometimes it sucks. Squirming in your chair, staring at that blinking cursor, looking up at the clock. Feeling the sweat on your neck, while not a single thing falls neatly into place on the page. But that’s part of the process. Because writing can be tough – and sweating is part of the game.
The good news? One day you’ll sit down, look up at that same screen, and it won’t be quite as hard.
Still doubting yourself as a “professional writer”? We all do sometimes.
At Refresh Marketing, we can help you break the shackles of imposter syndrome: one word at a time.
Want to join us? Learn about a career at RM.