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Having majored in writing in my undergraduate studies, I spent lots of time getting critiques from my fellow students, some of whom are now published and many of whom were excellent writers. The group dynamics of some of my classes could get quite harsh. From the perspective of learning, the harshness was a positive. From the perspective of wanting anyone to ever look at my fiction again, the harshness was completely negative. It has hampered my love of writing for many years.

I'd like to get back into writing fiction again, but my confidence is completely shattered. Whenever I get an idea for a story I find myself second guessing it. How can I recover my confidence?

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It sounds as though a lot of the problem was the writing group itself. I don't have experience with one, but it seems to me that a writing group should offer encouragement and constructive criticism. If the criticism dissuades someone from writing, it's probably going to far. –  Johnny Nov 23 '10 at 18:28
    
Remember every talented writers has about 5 novels worth of terribly bad material in their head, covering whatever good lies below. Until you've written that junk away you'll never dredge up the good stuff. So keep writing, keep writing crap, and good stuff will come eventually. –  SF. Feb 28 at 0:26
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11 Answers

up vote 32 down vote accepted

Two tips:

You are not your story. Your story may really, really suck. However, that doesn't mean that you're a bad writer or that you'll never write anything worth reading. It just means that this particular story needs work. If you're ever going to have a measure of success as a writer, you have to learn to disassociate your self-esteem from negative feedback you get about any particular story.

Which leads to:

Allow your writing to suck. Guess what? Pretty much everyone's first drafts suck. Second drafts, too. You may have to go through ten drafts to get to the one that works. You may also have to go through ten terrible short story ideas before you start writing the one that's going to be great. Don't sweat the fact that what you're doing right now isn't as beautiful and perfect as you want it to be--you can come back later and make it better, and if you don't have those skills right now, you can work on something else and come back when you have the perspective and the experience to write your story the way you've always imagined it.

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+1 for "Allow your writing to suck". I think this is the biggest thing new writers need to learn, and it's hard lesson. The whole point of the first draft is to suck, that's what the rewrite is for. –  Fox Cutter Nov 22 '10 at 23:12
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Can't downvote but I would, because your tone is just too negative for my taste (good bit about having to learn to separate your self-esteem (as a writer?) from the negative feedback... though that's easy to say) –  Jürgen A. Erhard Dec 10 '10 at 16:00
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In Writing Fiction for Dummies (page 294), the authors also touch on the proper style of critique and how it varies from writer to writer. They aver that there is a thick-skinned type of writer, who needs forthright criticism, and that there is the sensitive type, who requires very gentle criticism. I’ll take their word on that, but I haven’t met the first kind yet. Whenever I thought I had, it turned out that they were either good at disguising their vulnerability or they showed it ways I didn’t understand.

In your case it’s probably a failing of the other students to adapt their style of critique to your personality. It is fairly easy to convert just about any criticism into a gentle breeze without compromising its honesty. It will require some understanding of your perspective, but people who work with language and especially fiction writers, who also work with characters, should be able to pull it off.

That said, I must admit that my answer may be not so much about retaining or regaining confidence in writing skills but more about removing one’s identity or self-image or self-esteem from the front lines of the battle. Then again the first part of the accepted answer is as well. What I’m missing there is the how.

Don’t view writing as an end in itself. Abandon the idea of art of art’s sake. (If you don’t mind, that is.) Authors like Sandra Cisneros or Toni Morrison write to move. They want to honor the struggles of a past generation, fight prejudice and misinformation, and guide us along many other paths to the betterment of society. That way, fiction becomes their vehicle for a higher purpose, and that way, they can achieve what JSBձոգչ recommends, to let criticism of their work be only that and not criticism of them personally. (Unless the critic actually attacks the theme of the story, but that’s a whole new level.)

As a quick-and-dirty metaphor, I’m still decent at opening locks, and I have a friend who knows the public transportation network of the whole city and surroundings by heart. So assuming I get an email from another friend who locked themselves out of their apartment, and I reply that I’ll be there in a jiffy to help. Then I ask my friend with the near-eidetic memory how I can get there as quickly as possible, and he tells me that I have to change three times, take rail replacement buses, and walk half a mile.

I’ll realize that it’ll take me a whole dozen jiffies at least, but even if he’s very forthright with his revelation, it won’t feel like an attack on my self-identification.

Welp, that’s what helped me at least.

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Besides the general advice on writing (like JSBᾶngs said, "You are not your story" and "Allow your writing to suck"), I think in your case this point is also relevant:

You are not what your former and now very successful peers thought of you/r work: Just because they are very successful now, does not mean that their feedback was right. It surely was not good feedback, because it did not improve your current and future work. Feedback should be specific for the current work and not judge the worth of the person as a writer. They might be successful writers (now), but they did not know how to give good feedback (then), and it should be of no relevance to you. Write for yourself (and your audience), and not for the ghosts of your past, no matter how bright they shine in their current success on a path you haven't taken (yet).

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Yes, a harsh review, critique &etc. can be really hard on your confidence.

But it seems often to be just a confirmation of our worst fears, the story (we) are no good. Something that helped me, a lot, was to write my own version of the worst review ever.

It can be harsh, snarky, sarcastic, but it has to be true. Then write a response, if you want.

It makes me feel more confident.

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First, limit the number of people you solicit for feedback. The best writing in the world will still get criticism. When you ask someone to read your work and critique it, you'll get back a critique. Your reader is reading for the primary reason to hunt up something "wrong" with your writing.

Ask that reviewers limit their comments to one facet of your writing each time. You can then focus on that one thing and not be overwhelmed.

And hang in there. You will become a better writer if you keep writing.

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If in doubt: write. If in fear: write. Whatever you are: write. If I didn't keep telling myself this I wouldn't have written anything and now my book is being published and it still feels like a fluke. I'm sure you're absolutely brilliant, just gotta let yourself go.

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Welcome. I've edited out your reference to your blog, because it does not further the answer to the question. In the future, please be aware of our astroturfing policy. Any links to your own blog must be related to the question and you must clearly state that it is your blog. Hope to see more answers from you. –  justkt Aug 11 '11 at 12:47
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As an author you have to be able to tell when your work sucks. It's a crucial skill that also leads to knowing when your work is actually good. Everybody writes crap at some point, usually on the first draft, so you have to know in advance when it needs revision and when it is ready for peer review.

If you want your confidence back, look back over the negative criticism with an objective mind and determine:

  1. Was the criticism valid?
  2. Can I improve in the validly criticized areas?

If you answer yes to #2 then just move on and keep practicing to get better. People who criticize story ideas have no valid place in a peer review group, so the valid criticism was targeted at your technical abilities, not your creativity. When you go to write, don't worry about the technical side. Just let the thoughts flow. Worry about the technical criticisms during the revisions.

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Many great artists have, I think, a bigger problem with seeing their work is any good. How many actors out there never watch their own movies? Quite a few. A good, and even more so a great artist, is his or her own worst critic. –  Jürgen A. Erhard Dec 10 '10 at 16:26
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You may want to take a look at this:
30 authors whose works were repeatedly and sometimes rudely rejected by publishers

The first two names on the list are Stephen King and William Golding, both of whom are incredibly respected and talented authors. George Orwell is also amongst it.

The point is, many talented writers experience rejection and criticism. It probably goes a long way to making them great. The only tragedy in receiving a bad response is if you don't act on it. Look at the harsh comments as sure-fire ways to improve, especially if they come from extremely talented writers. They have doubtlessly been there before.

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JK Rowling's on that list too. I wonder who those publishers are, and how often they kick themselves for not taking her on. ;-) –  Jürgen A. Erhard Dec 10 '10 at 16:04
    
And yes, it's fascinating reading. –  Jürgen A. Erhard Dec 10 '10 at 16:24
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NaNoWriMo

Tens of thousands of lunatics collectively deciding to write an entire novel apiece in 30 days.

My hang-ups came from a different place, but I had the same apprehensions as you. I'm a coder; in the computer world, there is a right way and a wrong way to write something, and I kept over-analyzing my writing looking for an objective measure of elegance or perfection that doesn't exist.

When I participated in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) for the first time, the quantity-not-quality focus did wonders for me. Not only did the volume of my writing increase, but (surprisingly) so did the quality, because I was forced not to over-analyze. After all, as long as you make your word count during NaNoWriMo, you can always edit out the garbage in December. ;)

It's probably a little late to try for 50,000 words this November, but small groups or individuals often do off-season NaNoWriMos in other months, and each summer there is NaNoScripMo (like NaNoWriMo but for plays/screenplays).

You can also use the same mentality outside of NaNoWriMo: take a period of a few weeks and focus solely on ridiculous word count goals, to the exclusion of all else. See how it changes your perspective.

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I've found that NaNoWriMo is a great way to just try to get something done. While you can do it outside of November (which I've done) I've found having the knowledge that 100,000 other people are crazy enough to try it at the same time is a great motivator. –  Fox Cutter Nov 23 '10 at 18:46
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Only thing to do is get back on the horse. You're going to get harsh critiques, and some times they're not going to be justified, and sometimes they are. Learn from the ones that are, ignore the ones that aren't and don't let anyone keep you from doing something you like.

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Meditate over these thoughts:

  1. Rome wasn't built in a day. The first version of your story sucks? So what? Just improve it. Some people can write perfect prose first time, some have to fight for every word. All of them can get rich/famous/happy.

  2. He who complains cares. If they didn't bother, why would they take the time to give you lengthy and useful feedback? If I thought you're a total XXXXXX, I'd just say "Oh, forget it. You'll never make it". But when I say "Don't do this, try that," there is still hope.

  3. Who says you have to publish your work? If you want to have fun writing, write for yourself! Ignore grammar, typos, whatever you want. Have fun. if you ever come across a story that is worth publishing, then you can start worrying about making it as great as it can get. But that doesn't mean you have to live in misery all the rest of the time.

  4. Perfection is a nice goal. It's simple, easy to make out, shiny. And unattainable. You want to start with perfect results? How boring ... no way to improve, try out new things. Feel lucky that you have so many things to improve! Other people don't get published and they don't know what they could do better.

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#3 is a very good point. Have fun first, and then think of business. Compare Douglas Adams to Terry Pratchett. –  Jürgen A. Erhard Dec 10 '10 at 16:02
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