When you sit down to write a book, whether it’s your first or your 20th, you’re likely to wonder whether you can do it. If this is a fleeting thought that you dismiss and get on with writing, it’s not a problem. However, it becomes full-blown impostor syndrome, if you let that moment of doubt take over your thoughts and feelings about your writing.
George Eliot had impostor syndrome
One of my favourite examples of this is from a nineteenth-century novelist, George Eliot (Marian Evans). Her novels were always well received and they sold well – the figures are unreliable (to put it mildly), but she seems to have sold as well as Charles Dickens. Queen Victoria even praised one of her early novels and commissioned paintings based on two of the characters. Despite all this evidence to the contrary, every time she started a novel, Eliot worried she just wasn’t good enough.
This would lead to a pattern of thinking (which we have bits of in her journals and letters) that is similar to what I, and every writer I’ve ever discussed this with, go through with impostor syndrome:
- I don’t know enough – I need to read another book (or 10), go on another course, get another qualification, …
- I know the last thing I wrote was well-received, but this time they’ll find they were mistaken. I don’t really know what I’m doing. I have no business writing a book.
- I’ve done all this research, but when I try to write, everything I write just seems too obvious. Everything’s already been written about it; who am I to try to add to the conversation?
This list could go on, and on.
Challenging your limiting beliefs
The key to overcoming impostor syndrome is challenging these beliefs as they pop up.
- I don’t know enough – you don’t have to (and can’t) know everything about your topic. You just need to know more than your intended reader and/or have a unique take on the topic. You’ll have a unique take because no one else thinks about the world exactly the way you do. Read “Do you know enough to write a book?” for more tips on this issue.
- They’re going to find out I’m a fraud – unless you plagiarise someone else’s work or misrepresent your qualifications, you’re not a fraud. You do know what you’re doing, if you don’t believe that, re-read point 1.
- It’s too obvious – of course everything you write is obvious to you; you’ve done the research. Your readers won’t have done the research, so what you say is new to them. If you’re thinking of countering this with ‘but my readers have done the research’ – they haven’t done it exactly the way you did and they don’t see the world exactly the way you do.
Lou Solomon has an entertaining take on how you can recognise impostor syndrome and challenge the lies you’re telling yourself. She names her negative voice Ms Vader and talks back to her. You can see her take on this issue in a TEDx Talk here.