10 Ways to Sabotage Your Writing

This writing life has enough gremlins—rejection, bad reviews, economic uncertainty, short actors playing your 6’5” hero in a movie version—that a writer shouldn’t be adding his own. Here are the top ten to watch out for. Maybe you have some to add to the list: 

1. Thinking about your career more than about your writing
Guess what? No matter where you are in your writing career you can always find a reason to be unhappy about it. You’re unagented and you want to get an agent. You’re unpublished and you want to be published. You’re published and you want to be read. You’re read but not read in the numbers you hoped. You’ve gone indie and your books aren’t selling enough to buy you a monthly mocha.
You can always find something to be unhappy about. What you ought to do is write more. When you’re into your story and you’re pounding the keys and you’re imagining the scene and you’re feeling the characters, you’re not camping out in the untamed country of unfulfilled expectations.
It’s fine to plan. In fact, I’ve written a paper to help you do that. But once the planning is done, get to work.
2. The comparison trap
I’ve written a whole post on this one. What good is it going to do you to look at somebody else’s success and hit the table and cry out for justice? Writing is not just. It just is. You do your work the best you can and you let the results happen, because you can’t manipulate them. You can’t touch them, you can’t change them, you can’t fix them. You can only give it your best shot each time out.
“There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.” – Epictetus
3. Ranking Obsession
Another thing you can’t control is your ranking on Amazon or the various and sundry bestseller lists. Or sure, there are things writers do to try and “game the system.” The paid reviews scandal was one of the more egregious examples of this.  But in the end, the game playing is not worth the knot in the stomach.
Don’t worry about rankings and lists. Worry about your word count, plot and characters. If you do the latter well, the former will take care of itself.
4. Envy
Another useless emotion. But it seems to be a part of most writers’ lives. Ann Lamott and Elizabeth Berg both lost friendships over it. Envy has even driven authors to set up sock puppet identities not merely to hand themselves good reviews, but to leave negative reviews for their rivals’ books.
“A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones.” (Proverbs 14:30). Try to have a heart at peace by getting back to your story while, at the same time, developing the next one. 
5. Trying to be the next James Patterson. . .
. . . or J. K. Rowling, or Michael Connelly. Wait a second. We already have those. And they are the best at being who they are.
Become the leading brand of you, not the generic brand of someone else sitting on the shelf at the 99¢ store.
This is not to say don’t write in the same genre or try to do some of the good things other writers do. We can certainly learn from those we admire.
But when we write, we have a picture in our heads, a sort of writer self-image. And if we imagine our books being treated like Connelly’s books, or we see ourselves in LA Magazine interviewed like Connelly, we’ll just end up writing like a second-rate Connelly.
Do that and you stifle the thing that has the chance to set you apart—your own voice. 
6. “I’m not good enough to make it.”
That’s not the issue. The issue is: do you want to write? Do you really?  Do you want it so much that if you don’t write you’re going to feel diminished in some way, and for the rest of your life?
You should feel like you don’t really have a choice in the matter. Writing is what you must do, even if you hold a full time job. Even if you chase a passel of kids around the house. You find your time and you keep writing. Keep looking to improve. You can improve. I’ve got hundreds of letters from people who have validated this point.
7. Fear
Fear of failing. Fear of looking foolish. Fear of what your writing might say about you. We are actually wired for fear. It’s a survival mechanism.
So it has a good side so long as it is not allowed to go on. In fact, when you fear something in your writing it may be a sign that this is the place you need to go. This is where the fresh material may be. You need to go there, and assess it later.
8. Hanging on to discouragement
When my son was first pitching Little League baseball, he’d get upset when someone got a key hit or homer off him. This would affect the rest of his performance. So I gave him a rule. I told him he could say “Dang it!” once, and hit his glove with his fist. This became the “one Dang It rule.” It helped settle him down and he went to a great season and a victory in the championship game.
When discouragement comes to you, writer friend (and it will), go ahead and feel it. Say “Dang it!” (or, if you’re alone, exercise your freedom of speech as you see fit). But time yourself. Give yourself permission to feel bad for thirty minutes. After that, go to the keyboard and start writing again.
9. Loving the feeling of being a writer more than writing
The most important thing a writers does, said the late Robert B. Parker, is produce. Don’t fall into the trap of writing a few words in a journal, lingering over the wonderful vibrations of being alive with the tulips of creativity budding within your brain, and leaving it at that.
You’ve got to get some sweat equity going in this game. I don’t mean you have to crank it out like some pulp writer behind in his rent (though I like this model myself). But you do have to have some sort of quota, even if it is a small one. Writing only when you feel like it is not the mark of a professional.
10. Letting negative people get to you
Illegitimi non carborundum.
Next time that know-it-all says you haven’t got the stuff to be a writer, smile and repeat this Latin phrase. And as he looks at you puzzled, turn your back, get to your computer, and proceed to prove him wrong.
And plan to make 2013 the most productive year of your writing life. 

44 thoughts on “10 Ways to Sabotage Your Writing

  1. Thought provoking post, Jim. I think somewhere between numbers 6 & 7 resides a region of paralysis, for me anyway. Book three in my series comes out next month. I’m thrilled that I’ve written three of the best books that I was capable of writing. But now I’ve found I’ve entered this limbo region where I’m scared. What comes next? and I’m caught in “what if land?”

    What if? is filled with all kind of ridiculous horrors of my writing demise that may be somewhat related to number one on your list, Jim. But it’s different. It’s not unhappiness, it kind of feels like Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade where he has to get through the obstacle course to get to the Holy Grail and save his father. One wrong step and that’s all she wrote so to speak. 🙂

    Any one ever feel like that? I think it’s because I don’t know what I want to write next and afraid of somehow choosing the wrong path. Don’t know if any of this makes sense, but that’s my current struggle which could easily turn into self-sabotage and I’ve got to snap out of it, which probably means I need to write. Maybe for awhile it doesn’t matter what it is.

    • Jill, it is not uncommon at all what you’re feeling, esp. at this stage of your career. As I indicate in the post, it can be something to embrace, these uncharted waters. Your standards have gone up, too, and you feel that.

      Any “path” you take is not going to be “wasted,” if you’re writing to the utmost of your ability. Think of yourself on that mythic writer’s journey, you’re at the threshold, there’s a guardian there called Fear and once you’re past him, out into the dark forest, you can start writing heroic things.

    • Hey Jim, I love the reply buttons and this post. Perfect timing. “Once your past him,” ah there’s the rub. Getting past the fear. Maybe it’s simply a leap of faith. Sometimes, as a writer, I think I just think too much. Full speed ahead.

    • Jill: Been there, felt that. I think it was, like you, around book 4. Troughs and waves. Just know that you will ride the low points out and enjoy the highs while they last.

  2. Writing fake reviews for yourself is pretty lame, but man, the authors who have been busted leaving fake BAD reviews for fellow authors are a bigger evil. In some ways I pity them for feeling like they have to tear others down to feel good about themselves.

  3. stopbullyingquotes A really useful book is On Writer’s Block In it, he says that your unconscious is filled with wonderful techniques to thwart your demands. It doesn’t like to be bossed around, and dictates like “sit on your butt and write!” only will make it dig in harder. Instead, you should try to recall why you began writing in the first place – because it’s fun.

    • I don’t know of a writer anywhere who hasn’t stumbled on at least one or two, and probably more, of these items. It’s a good checklist for a writing group, or discussion among like minded scribes, so thanks for passing it around. Happy writing.

  4. Thanks, Jim. Great post and spot on. Focusing on my writing, and doing that to be the best I can be, sustains my spirit. The only thing I can truly control is my writing. Have a great Sunday.

  5. Jillian: Yes. This all the time. It’s not just related to my writing either. For some reason, if I have to make a decision with no clear outcome it feels paralyzing. As though the world is going to end if I make the “wrong” choice. I’m a perfectionist and think that’s where it comes from.

    The absolute best way to combat it is to make a decision. Use whatever criteria you have to determine what you want to do (darts, flip a coin, pros and cons list, whatever) and just…choose.

    Once you’ve made a choice you can step back and reflect on whether or not it’s working, but you can’t move forward until you choose something.

    I’m still struggling with a form of fear. I seem to get ideas that either feel super duper cliche, or they are so out there I have no idea how to execute them. I try to allow myself some time for market research, or reading up on technique if the idea is really out there, and then it’s back at the keyboards.

    Thanks for a great post, Jim!

    • Elizabeth, thanks for the thoughts on perfectionism. I’ve convinced myself over the years that I’m not a perfectionist. I know how dangerous that can be and yet maybe that’s what it really is. I think perfectionism leads to procrastination and those are double demons for our writing and our daily lives. Perhaps it’s a matter of letting go and enjoying the process rather than fearing it. This is what I like about these kinds of posts. It gives us opportunity to work through the hard stuff that we might otherwise ignore.

    • Yes, perfectionism is a very dangerous thing, especially when it leads to procrastination. Holly Lisle has a saying, “Perfect never finishes.” and boy is it true, at least for me.

      To let go of fear and perfect, I write. I make a decision, and stick with it.

      And yes, I love this post. I’ve printed it out and hung it on my wall as a daily reminder to not sabotage myself. I just need to focus on becoming a better writer and let everything else take care of itself. 😀

  6. Just had my first brutal critique and have spent the last several weeks trying to recover and refocus. In the meantime, I’m reading craft books to improve my skills and will begin again. This article was just the emotional kick-in-the-butt I needed. Thank you.

  7. A terrific post, as usual, Brother Bell. Regarding #1 (Thinking about your career . . .) and #3 (Ranking obsession), how do these jibe with the many posts here and elsewhere about the importance of treating writing as a profession, and the selling of writing as a job? Discounting for the word, obsession, which is never a good trait in anything, shouldn’t every business person in any business keep an eye on sales figures and customer input?

    John Gilstrap

    • Good questions as always, Brother Gilstrap. As the start of an answer (and anyone can jump in here at this point), I think it is absolutely critical to divide up data into those things we CAN affect, and those things we cannot.

      Long term, I cannot directly affect my rankings (except by the nefarious means mentioned). I can only write to best of my ability, which is what we should be doing anyway, right?

      Short term, I could use the ranking system to assess, say, the effectiveness of a marketing campaign. That sort of data would be valuable. But I’d put that in a separate box and move on.

    • That’s true, Boyd, because we’re wired like…..human beings. World religions and philosophies are, to a great extent, attempts to re-wire us. And since that enterprise has been going on for 5,000 years or so, we know we must be tough nuts to crack. But I think the Stoics were onto something: most of our ills are caused by thinking the wrong way about things.

  8. I will be sharing these with my writing brethren. Lately, most of my writing has been non-fic content and there is a brutal truth: no words, no pay.

    So, more than once, I’ve found myself faced with the dilemma of needing 153 more words to fulfill my obligation to the client. And they need to be relevant words (how many different ways can you describe a cathedral for a travel site?) or the client will drop the steaming mess back in my lap for a rewrite and rewrites cut my pay in half because they double my time. Oh yeah, and deadline is in less than an hour.

    My muse doesn’t get the luxury of saying she is out getting her nails done. Must. Make. Words.

  9. Jim, this is a great post. I’m one of the poor unfortunate Dorchester Authors who finds herself in a “new” brand dilemma. I decided to use the crash and burn of my publisher to re-invent myself. I’ve been struggling with the desire to write like someone else, someone who is successful, when I really need to set my own brand more clearly. So, #5 on your list is spot on. It’s been tough because agents and editors always say they need to place your work in a certain genre. We’re supposed to be “fresh” yet we can’t write something that “no one” is buying. I finally decided to write a book that has been nagging at me for 5 years and I’m not telling my agent until it’s finished. So there! If no one wants it, I’ll publish it myself. Pfft.

    • Lisa, your comment resonates, and well beyond this comment section! You are so right about that “Give me something fresh! But give me what’s been done before!” routine. You are doing exactly the right thing, in my view. Let us know down the road how things turn out…and happy writing (I think you will be).

    • I’m keeping an open mind. I’ve always been a fan of Cruise on-screen and he does have style (again, on screen). He did a great job in Mission Impossible. This was a tough role to cast. It is one thing to be 6-5 in a book, but to cast some Dolph Lungren dude could make it look like a parody.

  10. Jim, none to add, since you hit every one of the major problems I’ve had (and brought on myself) since starting down this road to writing. Good advice for writers at all stages.
    By the way, congratulations on using the plural “illegitimi” instead of the more commonly quoted “illegitimus.” Must be your legal training.

    • True. The “10 things” aren’t trifles–but whether you implore writers to ignore getting ground down by one or a multitude of…er, persons of questionable background is. As always, thanks for the post and for the brain-teasing response.

  11. Very timely post for me. Thank you. I’ve been struck with a bad case of self doubt. Now I know to go ahead and wallow in the feelings and thirty minutes later get back to writing.

  12. “You can always find something to be unhappy about. What you ought to do is write more. When you’re into your story and you’re pounding the keys and you’re imagining the scene and you’re feeling the characters, you’re not camping out in the untamed country of unfulfilled expectations.”


    Thanks James. I needed that today.

    * sound of 2×4 hitting me upside the head.

  13. My biggest obstacle / pitfall is trying to do to many things at once. I’m a serial multi-tasker and end up getting in up to my chin often. Which is to say, my next book often ends up being put on a back burner while I work on other creative endeavors. One of these days I hope to make enough from one of those endeavors (either writing or narrating) to spend all of my time in those two arenas without having the nastiness of a full time day job on top. God Willing.

  14. It’s so nice to hear from readers of this blog that something written was what they “needed to hear” that particular day. We at TKZ write for those moments. Thank you, all.

  15. Thank you for this wonderful article. I caught it through a friend and took the liberty to translate it in French, with reference, for my fellow young writers on our writing forum.
    Hope you don’t mind 🙂
    Thank you again.

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