How to Stop Sabotaging Your Writing Efforts
You probably know I work with aspiring writers on a professional basis. I have been doing mentoring, developmental editing, and copy editing for decades. I love to work with writers who want to learn and grow as they create their manuscripts.
But there is a dark side. I see that a large number of aspiring writers seem to be into self-sabotage. They could succeed if they would allow themselves the freedom to do it, but many decide to blow themselves up.
I have seen many different kinds of self-sabotage among writers over the years. Here are the five major ones and a cure for each one.
Dreaming Not Doing
The fact is, writing does involve some dreaming. We conjure up an image in your mind and then we put it in the words, and then put those words on the page.
But too often we sit alone conjuring up the image and never get around to actually putting those thoughts on the page. We confuse ourselves by overthinking. Writing should be a spontaneous activity—idea to page—but we dream too long and the idea is lost in the haze and never hits the page.
There is a related aspect to this form of self-sabotage.
That is, we think we have a good idea for about a week and envision the big picture in our minds. But once we get to writing, we discover that we really don’t have much to say. We did not dream up the details, so we stall. We get lost in dreaming again without really accomplishing anything.
What’s the cure for this kind of self-sabotage? Writers must outline their work. We need to plan the major plot points, understand their characters in minute detail, and then walk them through the plot.
The idea of being a Pantser—writing without a plan is a romantic notion. Very few people are able to pull it off. If we want to stop dreaming and start doing, then we need to follow a plan. No, we need not slavishly follow the roadmap. There is plenty of room for spontaneity, but your map needs to be as detailed as needed to get us where we want to go.
Anything less is self-sabotage.
Setting Unrealistic Goals
The flip side of dreaming away your writing life, is setting unrealistic goals for yourself.
Some writers have a clear picture of what they want to write. That’s good. However, many get the wild idea that they are going to finish their manuscript in a week or month.
When they discover they are unable to do that again discouraged. They come up with excuses like writer’s block or they give up. Setting unrealistic goals is self-sabotage.
The cure for this is to determine how many words you can write per day based on your schedule, then adjust your priorities to meet that goal. They say, “Content is King.” That’s true, but Consistency is Queen.
The classic way for writers to zone out is alcohol or drugs. Some people love the idea that seemed to 20th-century writer Ernest Hemingway sent to, “write drunk and edit sober.” Or was it the other way around? It doesn’t make any difference because he never said that either way.
Hemingway may have been a heavy drinker, but the historical record is very clear that he held the art of writing in high esteem and never mixed drinking with any aspect of the writing process.
Yes, there are many writers who mixed alcohol and drugs with writing. Personally, I think it’s false to suggest that zoning out in this way made them better writers. They were involved in self-sabotage. We can only wonder how much greater they could have been without their addictions.
Writers zone out in different ways today. They seek hits of brain dopamine by constantly consulting their phones or sites like Facebook. Many authors get in the habit of making multiple trips to the fridge for emotional comfort from food.
We all have self-sabotaging behaviors. The cure is to identify these behaviors and refuse to be seduced by them. We need to get pleasure from writings so you don’t need to rely on outside things to calm our minds. Our minds are designed to focus. Lack of focus is self-sabotage.
Failure to Revise Drafts
You know what I’m seeing more of these days? It’s aspiring authors who have developed these treacherous habits, each of which is a deadly form of self-sabotage.
They write a sentence, paragraph, or page, and then immediately edit it. I think it is the result of that horrible disease called, “perfectionism.” All perfectionists are deep into self-sabotage.
The very best thing we can do is write our entire first draft before going back and revising it. You have the entire piece of fabric to work with, and have the power and perspective to reshape it in desirable ways.
Some people want to revise on a chapter level. I get that. But over-thinking every sentence, paragraph and page? No. That’s self-sabotage.
You want a full first draft, as awkward and imprecise as it seems to you. Then you start the revision process. You may complete many drafts to shape it your story as you wish. Untimely, you do what you think is your final and best draft. That’s the one you have polished.
After that, you send your manuscript to a competent copy editor. Revision is one process, and editing is a completely different process.
In my many years working with aspiring writers, I think I have heard every excuse out there for not writing.
One of my all-time favorites is that a writer did not reach their self-identified goal because they were “Waiting for the Muse.”
That’s a writer excuse that goes back to antiquity. News folks! The idea of a Muse is a Greek myth. No one is going to whisper in your ear. You must take responsibility for your own ideas and actions. Anything less is self-sabotage.
Of course, “Writer’s block” is another famous excuse used by authors, even some famous ones. Rather they say the truth—they are lost and confused—they use a fancy term like Writer’s Block to get sympathy.
Let me give you the cure for “Waiting for the Muse,” “Writer’s block,” and all other excuses. Plan your work and work your plan. When you have a plan, you don’t need to wait for anyone. You are always able to write without excuse.
Self-sabotage is ultimately a blame game. You blame people or circumstances rather than being accountable for your own behavior. I say, “Suck it up and be brave if you want to amount to anything as a writer.”
Do you want to be a writer? It’s not as easy as it seems. It takes commitment and persistence. There are many obstacles to overcome. The greatest ones are defeating your own doubt, fear, and bad habits. Yet, you can identify the self-sabotage traits you may have and overcome them.