Writing Through Your Imposter Syndrome: Three Steps to Share and Publish What You Write

I hate the term Imposter Syndrome. It’s like you’re afflicted with this disease… shunned by society and destined to live out your days in the dark forest. I meet so many writers who struggle with it… stopping them from sharing or publishing what they’ve written. Here’s the truth: Every writer is an imposter (or at least has these feelings). We all are. Don’t try to stop feeling like an imposter. Instead, surround yourself with a community of other imposters who are putting their work out too. The advice in this post is pretty simple… Stop Writing Alone. But how?

Why Does Every Writer Feel Like an Imposter?

Most people believe writing is a solitary activity. We have this vision of a solitary writer, alone in a cabin with just a typewriter, silently working on her manuscript for a year before emerging with a perfect, complete book. In 2022, I was fortunate to have author Victoria Schwab speak to my class of writers. The past several years for her have been, to put it bluntly, unbelievable. Her work has garnered awards, praise, movie adaptations, and recurring spots on bestseller lists. She’s one of the top fiction writers today. As she joined our Zoom chat, I casually asked her how she was doing. “Better,” she said. “I spent the last two hours sobbing on my floor. But I’m better now.” The look on my face was quite telling. You were sobbing about your manuscript? You have doubts about your books? Victoria explained that she’d submitted the final manuscript to her publisher for a new book and she was convinced it was terrible, but she had a deadline and a contract. So, she submitted the revised manuscript and sobbed for two hours. This is from the woman who has had her books nominated for at least ten Goodreads Reader’s Choice Awards. When I asked her about advice for other writers she said, “If you're struggling with a story or struggling with creativity, it's not a reflection of your ability, it's a reflection of the fact that this is hard.” Victoria shared how she pushed through these feelings: She wasn’t writing this alone. She had others help her. Her parents had read it. Her editor had read it. Her peer authors had read it. And all of them encouraged and helped her to continue. Victoria doesn’t write alone.

The Science of Overcoming Imposter Writing

Two leading thinkers on distraction – Cal Newport and Nir Eyal – offer the same advice and guidance about beating imposter syndrome and distraction: Accountability. We are our own worst enemies. We believe what we’ve written is terrible. We believe we’ll be judged. We believe no one will care. And it turns out we are terrible judges of these things. Now, this isn’t to say that your fears aren’t rational. They are. Your brain is wired to mitigate risks. We’ve survived this way as a species because our brain is looking for that lion who could eat us or that cliff we could fall down or that berry we could eat that poisons us. Humans are wired to use fear to survive. But that same fear that helps us survive often prevents us from thriving. And that’s why writers need community. You need a system to help. Here are the three steps to build your community, create accountability, and share more of what you write with others.

STEP 1: Identify Your Who

You’re not sharing what you write with everyone. Start there. Building confidence in your writing starts by selective sharing. Picking the right people to start with is key. Be strategic and thoughtful, and you don’t need to post a draft of your unfinished book idea online or email a first draft of a blog post to your entire contact list. You just need to get the right people involved in your writing. This is the power of pacts. Nir Eyal, the author of Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life, highlights the power of pacts in combating imposter syndrome and distraction. Pacts are loose or informal agreements we make with others to hold us accountable. They aren’t usually formal, firm contracts (“You commit to writing 1,000 words a day”). Pacts operate more subtly, often playing on our personal feelings of guilt (“I’m going to get you a new chapter to read this week” or “I’ll get you a draft of my introduction by the end of the month”). And the secret of leveraging pacts to create accountability to move beyond imposter syndrome often comes from choosing the right people to help us. Pacts are the secret to accountability. As humans, we’ve been wired for them – these informal agreements between us. But not all accountability is created equal. Research finds that simply posting our goals online doesn’t create real feelings of accountability for most people. Two main types of accountabilities help writers improve and publish:
  • Professional accountability.
  • Peer accountability.
Professional accountability are people who have expertise in what we are looking to do or accomplish. In most cases, professional accountability is something you pay for such as a professional editor, a writing coach, or someone from a publisher. These are people who understand the craft. Peer accountability is people who know us as humans. They may or may not be experts in the profession, but they are people that we know – or at least believe – have our interests at heart. Often a brother, sister, family member, close friend, or peer also goes through a similar process. These are people who understand the person. My advice for aspiring writers is to have at least one professional accountability partner and at least two peer accountability partners. For me, I work with a developmental editor for my fiction writing, and I have two writer-friends who serve as my peer accountability.

STEP 2: Create Pacts

The bigger the writing goal, the easier it is for your inner critic to rear its ugly head. That’s why the secret of pacts is to think smaller… much smaller. Whether it’s a professional accountability partner (like an editor or writing coach) or a peer accountability partner (like a friend or another aspiring author writing their own work), I like to think about writing by time, not words. Many writers think about writing a thousand words or five hundred words or, heck, ten thousand words. We often think in word count because that’s how we’ve been trained to think about our writing – submit a 10-page essay or a 3-page paper. Research finds that we overestimate what we can accomplish early in learning any new skill:
  • We overestimate how much of a puzzle we’ll complete
  • We overestimate how much editing we’ll complete on our first videos
  • We overestimate how many words we’ll write when we start
This overestimation problem manifests a disappointment problem. If you thought you’d write 1,000 words and only wrote 300, you must not be a good writer or must not be motivated. Create pacts built around time. “I’ve got two hours blocked off to write this week. Can I send you something to read from that?” Here’s what you’ve done with that sentence:
  1. You’ve set aside the time. Here, you’re committing to two hours of writing. We know humans are better when they work for a set period of time. We accomplish more in less time than if we set an output goal.
  2. You’ve scoped your deliverable. You’re not committing to a word count or a form factor. You’re going to send them “something.” And that “something” is being done in a two-hour block of time over a week-long period.
  3. You’ve limited your feedback loop. You’re not spending six months, but you’re spending a week. You can play with these dates – two weeks, five days, or even up to a month. But much more than a couple of weeks can create greater expectations. You’ve told the person you’ll send them something this week. Their expectations should be lower (as should yours).
This is a writing pact that is built for success. You’ve made a loose commitment to your coach, editor, or friend, but you’ve scoped it for success by limiting expectations.

STEP 3: Gather Feedback

The first two steps are the most important in this process – truthfully, a substantial portion comes from building this feedback system. But the third step is important to build this into a compounding process. You’re putting yourself out there – even in this small way to this small group – and there’s a risk that they could accidentally make your imposter syndrome worse, even accidentally. You can ask for this feedback in person or over a video call or written. But often, I’d suggest early on making this a live conversation to get context. Don’t assume people know how to give productive feedback. Ask for feedback in the way you’d like to receive it. Here’s how:
  1. You don’t want them to edit your work. This may be the most important thing: tell them you are not looking for feedback or changes to the text. There are spelling issues, grammar issues, etc.
  2. You’d like them to identify two or three things they liked about the piece. You want to hear what concepts resonated, what stories landed, etc. You’re looking for insights about what worked for them. Not generalities (“I loved it”), but specifics (“I liked how you…”). And if they don’t offer them, push them on this.
  3. You’d like them to identify one or two things you could improve. Limit the scope to one or two things for them, and again make them specific. Sometimes people will hesitate, so you can guide them as “where could I have gone deeper,” or “what was unclear,” or “what would you add?”
Here’s a specific sentence you can use when you send a piece to someone: “This isn’t a polished piece so I’m not looking for editing on grammar or spelling. I’d love to know 2-3 specific things that worked for you and 1-2 specific things that could be improved in the next draft.” Here’s what I’ve found from this process: I’m always excited by their critical feedback because it means I know what to do to improve.
Writing gets stuck when we’re writing alone. Putting yourself out there is hard. It is. And it's the single reason so many ideas, stories, manuscripts, and concepts never see the light of day. The myth of the writer is that it’s a solitary endeavor. While it’s true you do spend a lot of time with just you and the keyboard, everything significant I’ve written is touched by lots and lots of others before it’s published. I sent the unpublished draft of my first book in The Pennymores series to more than 1,000 people. Part of that was to improve the book and the story. But a big part of that is accountability. I need others to help me push through my imposter syndrome. Remember, you don’t need 1,000 people… but you need a couple of people, often someone who is a professional and someone who is a peer. Find the right people, build the right system, and week over week, you’ll gain confidence in yourself and in your writing. It’s not a light switch that you go from imposter to not an imposter. It’s a process where you get the confidence to share or publish what you write despite feeling those imposter thoughts.
Eric Koester is the founder and CEO of Creator Institute, a b-corporation whose mission is to inspire, teach and support tomorrow’s creators — authors, podcasters, speakers, entrepreneurs, corporate innovators and course builders. Through his work he’s coached nearly 1,000 first-time creators. He is also a Professor of Entrepreneurship & Innovation at Georgetown University and the school’s only two-time entrepreneurship professor of the year, faculty at Growth University, and the executive director of the Intrapreneur Institute, which researches, trains and develops future innovation leaders.

A Need for Storytelling

Discuss books and at some point in the conversation someone will say, “I always wanted to write a book” or “I have an idea for a story” or, if talking with a writer, “Hey, maybe you can write one for me.” The defining word hidden in that first of three statements is want. There may be a desire or passion to share a particular story with the world, whether fiction or nonfiction (imaginary or factual), but is there also the need?

Determining Want vs. Need Is Crucial

Want vs. need is crucial to determine. Want is an aspiration, whereas need is an essential requirement. Many want to write and become a published author, but who really needs that status, and what is the difference between writer and author? I recently worked with a musician from Nigeria who wanted to write a book about music’s ability to change the world. He showed signs of impostor syndrome early on, despite displaying incredible prose with his nonfiction work-in-progress. The storytelling seemed to come naturally, and although his opening chapters needed structure, his words held power. The emerging story, his story, was absolutely captivating. He said at one point, “I want to write this book, and tell my story, but what if no one reads it?” I then asked the all important question: “Do you want to write, or do you need to write?” After a look of confusion on his part, I clarified: “What if you finish and publish this book, and sell only a single copy? You reach only one person in the world but they are inspired by your story; your words move them, perhaps even change them as a person. Would it be worth it?” “Absolutely,” he said without hesitation, and I could see the passion in his eyes. “Then you don’t want to write, you need to write.” We worked together on his manuscript for sixteen weeks, building chapter by chapter, and every week his impostor syndrome faded while his confidence strengthened. Soon he had a completed first draft manuscript and quickly raised funds (and beyond) to publish and promote his book. Prior to that manuscript going through the revisions stage, I said to him, “You know what this means, don’t you?” and I received that same look of confusion but also wonderment. “You are a writer. This is something you need to do. And you’re going to write and publish future books.” His smile revealed this would be true, and Nifemi Aluko’s first published book, Press Play: Music as a Catalyst for Change was well received and won an award in independent publishing. But would this book be his last, or would he go on to further explore and develop his creative abilities and tell future stories? A one-time author, or forever a writer?

A One-Time Author, or Forever a Writer?

Storytellers should always have a need more than a want to create, and the difference between writer and author is a matter of tense. An author is in the past, and a writer in the present and always looking toward the future. A writer cannot be an author until after having first written, but a writer possesses the continuous need to write whether their work is ever published. “Author” is a wonderful word, such as in the phrase “I am a published author!” Author is also a wonderful title to have on your resume, but consider its meaning. With modern technology, anyone can write and self-publish words strung together, whether digitally or in physical form, and no matter the quality. If a person writes on a website, on a blog, on social media, or elsewhere, they are from that point onward the author of that work and hold copyright (unless relinquishing those rights). So, how much weight does “Author” hold? “Writer” is a stronger delineation for a storyteller. “I am a writer” is not only a great thing to say about oneself, but “Writer” holds more meaning. It says, “I write, and I publish my words, and I will continue doing so.”

Managing Through the Book Writing Process

To compose an entire book, however, requires a lot from a person, including many sacrifices, and so a writer who manages to publish a book, even if only ever writing and publishing a single book, should be proud of that accomplishment because they are in a minority when it comes to creativity, despite the level of readership. Fast-forward a few years, and Nifemi Aluko, now a published and award-winning author, returns with a concept for second book. “I want to write a novel,” he says. “Writing is music, and I need to keep making music.” So we begin working together for another sixteen weeks on a first draft manuscript for a science fiction novel. The developing manuscript shows a lot of promise, the power of storytelling akin to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and George Orwell’s 1984. The words flow out of him. As a writer, he is passionate to tell this new story, and as his editor I am passionate to help him breathe life into this second book. The manuscript is stronger from the start, both easier for him to write and easier for me to edit, and together we strengthen his words. And not long after another book finds its way into print, Toffy’s Divide, a novel, which does well and wins him another book award. Will this writer (and now author of multiple books) go on to write a third? It’s likely more music will pour out of him. He possesses the desire to create. Not only does he have the aspiration to write, but storytelling is an essential requirement of his very being, and he is willing to put in the hard work it takes to make books.

The Need for Storytelling Always Prevails

Writing, editing, and eventually publishing takes a need for being a storyteller, not just a want, as well as time, dedication, routine, and continuous self-development and improvement. Most who have the desire to write a book either never begin, or begin and never finish. Their manuscript, if ever started, is never fully completed and improved upon and thus never turned into a book as originally planned. The work is at some point abandoned, and so the story they wanted to share is lost to the world and stuck in the past. A very small percentage of writers who start the journey of writing ever finish a first draft manuscript. An even smaller percentage of writers who finish a first draft manuscript ever put their work through additional drafts. And an even smaller percentage of writers who put the manuscript through additional drafts ever see their work published. So, ask yourself: Do I want to write to write, or do I need to write? Once you realize the answer is the latter, find any means necessary to make that happen. Write the story not because you want to, but because you have to, and then do whatever it takes to share your story with the world. Don’t be the one in the conversation about books saying, “Hey, maybe you can write one for me.” Instead, set out to write, revise, and ultimately publish a book. Plan to not only become an author of the past, but a writer in the present looking toward the future. If you have always wanted to write a book, or have an idea for a story, write it! But remember: you don’t have to go through that journey alone. If passionate about writing, look for mentors, and editors (there are many types willing to help), as well as fellow writers who might share those same impostor syndrome nerves. Do not write alone. What is it going to take to tell your story and share it with the world?
Michael Bailey is a Senior Editor at Manuscripts, LLC. He is a recipient and eight-time nominee of the Bram Stoker Award, a four-time Shirley Jackson Award nominee, and a multiple recipient of the Benjamin Franklin Award, along with over thirty independent publishing accolades. He has written, edited, and published many books. His latest is Righting Writing, a nonfiction narrative about dedication to the craft. He is also the screenwriter for Madness and Writers: The Untold Truth, a creative documentary series about writers. Find him online at nettirw.com, or on social media @nettirw.