Why Aren’t I Writing?

Impostor phenomenon’s origin story

by Suw on September 20, 2023

Let’s go back to the beginning, back to where it all started.

This is the third in a series of newsletters looking at impostor syndrome, the first of which asked whether impostor syndrome really exists or whether it’s just a healthy reaction to societal prejudices and toxic workplaces and was inspired by  Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome by Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey in the Harvard Business Review.

The second looked at the findings of Dena Bravata et al’s 2019 review of studies of impostor syndrome, which seems to show that impostor syndrome isn’t consistently defined or identified, that causation hasn’t been unpicked from correlation, and that there are several co-occurring conditions that could exacerbate or even be mistaken for impostor syndrome.

Now I’d like to go back to the origins of the scientific and public discourse on impostor syndrome, the 1978 paper The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention by Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes. But before I do, let’s just have a little reminder of what life was like for women when the paper was written.

The passage of time is a strange thing because, as a year, 1978 doesn’t feel all that long ago, but it’s been 45 years. Indeed, 1978 is far closer to the end of World War 2, which happened 33 years earlier, than it is to today.

In America, women had only had the right to open their own bank or credit accounts, or take out their own mortgages, for four years, after the passage of The Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974. The UK had passed the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975, which enshrined in law women’s right to “open bank accounts and apply for credit and loans in their own name, without their husband’s permission”. Of course, having the right to do something and actually being able to do it are two different things, and women still struggled to actually access financial services.

British women didn’t get the right to be served in pubs until 1982, and statutory maternity pay for eligible women didn’t start until 1987. American women couldn’t apply for a business loan without a male relative to sign the papers until 1988. British wives’ taxes weren’t disentangled from their husband’s until 1990 (and still aren’t disentangled in the USA). Statutory maternity pay wasn’t extended to all women in the UK until 1990.

That might all feel like quite a lot of scene setting, but it’s easy to forget how crappy things were for women in 1978. We still have a way to go, of course, but 1978 was a much more oppressive time for women than perhaps our rose-tinted nostalgic spectacles might have us believe.

So it’s in this environment, when the ability to have a bank account is still a new and exciting thing for women, that Clance and Imes write the paper that kicks off nearly half a century of conversation around impostor syndrome.

The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women 

The first thing to notice when reading this paper is that it’s essentially an opinion piece based on Clance’s and Imes’s experiences working with “high achieving women”, so there’s no data, no methodology, no analysis and no conclusion. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad paper or that it has no value. In fact, a lot of the paper spoke to me, much more than I had expected.

Firstly, Clance and Imes call it impostor phenomenon, not impostor syndrome. ‘Phenomenon’ is a much more neutral and transient word than ‘syndrome’, which implies that it’s a potentially permanent illness. The pathologisation and medicalisation of women’s experiences that Tulshyan and Burey complained of in their HBR piece isn’t present in this original paper.

Impostor phenomenon is viewed through the same lens one might view co-dependency or low self-esteem, as an attitude picked up in childhood that more self-aware adults then have to address through therapy. It happens to be largely gendered because of the gendered beliefs of parents and society, not because women are uniquely susceptible.

Clance and Imes describe impostor phenomenon (and yes, in the light of the above, I’m changing my terminology) thus:

 Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the imposter phenomenon persists in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise. Numerous achievements, which one might expect to provide ample object evidence of superior intellectual functioning, do not appear to affect the impostor belief.

This isn’t far off modern definitions, though in the popular press, there is a tendency to significantly broaden it out into the “doubting your abilities and feeling like a fraud” that Tulshyan and Burey use. It’s this watering down, I think, that creates the environment in which pathologisation can occur.

If merely doubting your abilities and feeling like a fraud is diagnostic of the impostor phenomenon then everyone has it, but when only women’s experiences are interrogated and only women are subjected to advice on what they should do to combat it, then pathologisation follows. Given that’s much what we see in the popular press, Tulshyan and Burey are right to call it out (even as their imprecise definition plays into that debate).

Clance and Imes, however, emphasise that in the impostor phenomenon, these strong feelings of doubt and of fraudulence persist in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It’s the persistence and strength of these counterfactual feelings that are the problem.

The origins of impostor phenomenon

In their paper, Clance and Imes focus mainly on two aspects of impostor phenomenon: Where does it come from? And which psychotherapeutic approaches worked well with their clients? Interestingly, that first aspect is rarely touched upon within modern popular discourse, or even the scientific papers, that I’ve read.

Whilst they acknowledge that the internalisation of “societal sex-role stereotyping appear to contribute significantly to the development of the impostor phenomenon”, they mostly focus on two types of “early family dynamics” when discussing the origins of impostor phenomenon.

In one group are women who have a sibling or close relative who have been designated as the “intelligent” member of the family.  Each of the women, on the other hand, has been told directly or indirectly that she is the “sensitive” or socially adept one in the family.  The implication from immediate and/or extended family members is that she can never prove that she is as bright as her siblings regardless of what she actually accomplishes intellectually.

No matter what she achieves, her family remains unimpressed, her quest for “validation for her intellectual competence” goes unfulfilled and, worse, she starts to believe them.

For the second group:

The family conveys to the girl that she is superior in every way – intellect, personality, appearance, and talents. There is nothing that she cannot do if she wants to, and she can do it with ease. […]

The child, however, begins to have experiences in which she cannot do any and everything she wants to. She does have difficulty in achieving certain things. Yet she feels obligated to fulfill expectations of her family, even though she knows she cannot keep up the act forever. Because she is so indiscriminately praised for everything, she begins to distrust her parents’ perceptions of her. Moreover, she begins to doubt herself.

I’ve read a ton of stuff on impostor syndrome, including a fair amount in the media, and it is striking to me that none of it addresses these deep roots of women’s insecurity. Indeed, most of the research I’ve read is instead focused on quantifying the extent of impostor phenomenon in a particular cohort, often women working in male-dominated environments.

When we talk about the environmental causes of impostor phenomenon – the toxic workplace, societally endorsed prejudice, etc – all that is layered on top of the mixed messages many girls get from their families as they grow up.

I fell into the ‘brightest kid in school’ trap. In primary and middle schools, I was seen as one of the most intelligent children in the school and was enrolled in special ‘stretch’ classes with just one or two other children.

The one careers advice session I had at upper school ended with the advisor saying, “Well, you seem to be very good at everything, so really, you can do anything you want”, which is crippling advice. It provides absolutely no framework within which to evaluate options and make decisions, and it led to a good 10-15  years of uncertainty as to what my “anything” should be.

Worse, I didn’t learn how to learn, because I didn’t have to until it was too late. And that led to my significantly underperforming at A Level and struggling at university. I think this is the first time I’ve had an inkling of where the foundations of my own impostor phenomenon came from.

Environmental factors

Clance and Imes devote just half a page to discussing environmental causes, or perhaps reinforcement, of impostor phenomenon, but their focus is on family rather than society, discussing “the societal sex-role stereotyping in the preschool years that can be transmitted through the parents”.

The closest they come to examining external, environmental factors is when they say:

Feelings of phoniness for both groups are further affirmed by the differential between high achievement and low societal expectations. The women’s own self-image of being a phony is consonant with the societal view that women are not defined as being competent. If a woman does well, it cannot be because of her ability but must be because of some fluke. If she were to acknowledge her intelligence, she would have to go against the views perpetuated by a whole society – an ominous venture indeed!

I’m not surprised that they skim over how women’s experiences as adults can affect their perceptions of their own competence. In 1978, feminism was only halfway through its second wave, with a long way to go before we reach our modern understanding of sexism and misogyny in the workplace and wider world.


Clance and Imes discuss several approaches to therapy, and recommend using “several therapeutic approaches […] concurrently” along with group therapy so that “one woman can see the dynamics in another woman and recognize the lack of reality involved”.

The approaches they recommend include:

  1. Help the woman “become aware of the superstitious, magical aspects of her impostor belief” and help her “consciously experiment with changing her ritualistic behaviors”.
  2. Ask her to “recall all the people she thinks she has fooled, to tell them in fantasy how she conned or tricked them, and to have her imagine out loud how each person would respond to her”.
  3. “Keep a record of positive feedback she receives about her competence and how she keeps herself from accepting this feedback. After she becomes aware of how she denies compliments, she is instructed to experiment with doing the opposite to listen, to take in the positive response, and to get as much nourishment as possible out of it.”
  4. “Role-play the opposite of ‘I’m not bright,’  i.e., to have her act out being bright, feeling it and expressing it in the presence of the group or therapist.”
  5. Women who engage in approval-seeking behaviour are “encouraged to risk ‘being herself’ and seeing what happens. Usually the catastrophic expectations do not occur. Also, by eliminating approval-getting behaviors, the woman can begin to accept compliments from others regarding her intelligence as being ‘real’ and can internalize the external reinforcement she does receive.”

These are all things that one can do for oneself, if one is capable of the self-reflection and brutal honestly necessary! Whilst I’ve not done it myself, a nightly journal that focused on working through these exercises in depth could be very helpful indeed. In fact, I might try it.

Have I changed my mind?

At the end of my last newsletter about impostor phenomenon, I had pretty much concluded that “the majority of what we consider to be ‘impostor syndrome’ is more likely a combination of low self-confidence, perfectionism, anxiety and depression on the one hand, and a normal reaction to bias and prejudice in the workplace and, indeed, wider world on the other”.

I still think that, but largely because the definitions of impostor phenomenon have become too wide and too vague, and other causes aren’t sufficiently ruled out. We have to move past prevalence studies based on overly broad impostor phenomenon scales, and look in more detail at the experiences of women who experience it, particularly:

  1. Mixed messaging about intelligence and talent during childhood.
  2. Societal reinforcement, such as the widely-held idea that women aren’t capable of succeeding in certain fields due to a gender stereotypes.
  3. Specific workplace and societal actions that cause impostor feelings, such as being undermined in meetings or or not given deserved promotions, and being bombarded with messaging that women don’t belong in certain jobs.

Where I have found the Clance and Imes paper interesting is their look at childhood experiences and how those can shape a girl’s feelings about herself as she grows into an adult, and how those experiences can really stay with you until you learn to confront them.

I am going to have to delve a bit more into the literature to see if there’s further research that looks as the root causes of impostor phenomenon. However, I fear that, as with so many other issues that predominantly affect women, researchers have been forced to spend so much time simply proving that the problem exists that they never get to devote time to understanding causation or cure.


How to stick the landing

by Suw on August 23, 2023

“Finishing” doesn’t have to be a dirty word.

I was chatting to an early career writer last week who mentioned that she really struggled to finish anything, and oh my, did I empathise. In the first half of my writing life, I finished barely anything. One early attempt at a novel saw me painting myself into a plot-based corner that I simply couldn’t see a way out of. I’d made my antagonists so powerful and the protagonist so vulnerable that there was just no plausible way that she could ever triumph.

Other stories just fizzled out within a few thousand or a few tens of thousands of words, perhaps because I got bored, or because when I read them back I hated my writing, or because I got distracted by things that weren’t writing and lost momentum.

But one key problem I had was that I often didn’t know where the story was going. I didn’t know anything about structure or how to plot a novel and, back then, if you wanted to learn to write you either did a course, which I couldn’t afford, or bought books, which I also couldn’t afford. This was either pre-web, or at the very beginning of the web, so going there for writing advice wasn’t a goer. (I’m sure there were writing communities online at the point I joined in the mid-90s, but I didn’t know about them.) And I didn’t know any writers, or know how to find any writers, to talk to about writing.

Part of that latter point is that I was painfully, horribly shy and introverted, and even if you’d walked me into a room full of experienced, friendly and helpful writers, I still would have found a floor-to-ceiling curtain to hide behind.

Finishing a story is hard. Finishing a novel is harder.  Finishing anything should be celebrated. And now that I am better at finishing, here are a few thoughts on things you can do to make it easier:

Getting lost along the way

Like, I suspect, many people, I started my writing career as a pantster – someone who comes up with an idea and starts writing to see where it goes. No plotting, no planning, just the raw joy of letting a story unfold in front of you.

Or not.

Writing by the seat of your pants can be very risky, particularly for new writers, because it means that you’re putting a lot of time into something that may or may not come good in the end and you don’t necessarily have the experience to steer you through 100,000 words. If that is genuinely the only way you can work, then you’re going to have to learn how to recognise the duds as early as possible, make peace with tossing work out, and develop the ability to immediately move on to a new idea.


Action: Learn to plot

Plotting can be a bit tedious, but even if you just do high-level bullets for key plot points, it can help you work out what comes next and give you something to refer back to when you get stuck. There are so many books about structure and plot available, but my current favourite is Actions and Goals by Marshall Dotson which takes a character-oriented view of story structure and comes with a handy worksheet.

Action: Start only when you have a destination

One way to ensure that you get lost is to start writing before you know what the ending is – if you don’t know where you are going, how will you know when you’ve got there?

I have started winnowing story ideas by whether or not they offer up a clear end-point or not. Those where the ending is fuzzy are left to ferment a little longer, and those that have a clear ending go into my “start this next” pile. Some story ideas are just too vague to be actionable, so those get noted down in case they are useful for something else and then largely forgotten. But I now no longer start writing until I know that what the ending is.

I thought I had an ending but the character(s) can’t get there

Sometimes our characters just seem to fade before our eyes, becoming thinner and more translucent the more we write. Their dialogue sounds generic, their actions predictable, they lack humanity and three dimensionality.

When we’re working with underdeveloped characters, our subconscious knows and it, frankly, I think it just stops bothering.

Action: Do some character development work

There are so many techniques for character development, from sketching out their Big Five personality traits to doing Holly Lisle’s very cheap but very good Create A Character Clinic. I’ve heard of people doing astrological profiles, Myers-Briggs tests for characters, or working with tarot. You don’t have to believe, you just have to find the outcome useful for understanding how your character thinks, what they believe and how they would act.

I can’t seem to sit down and write

I’ve had long periods in my life where I’ve not been able to write because I let other things get in the way. This could be, and indeed has been, an entire post on its own:

Action: Make writing a habit

If the issue is about getting into the swing of writing, then habits are your friend. Writing for five minutes a day every day will get you into the habit, and once you’ve settled into a nice routine you can expand the time you spend writing. Don’t worry if you break the habit – you can just start it up again as many times as you need to.

I have a mountain to climb and I just can’t

Sometimes, external pressures make it very, very hard to feel creative. I have found that money stress and depression absolutely kill my creativity stone cold dead, and it’s not something that it’s easy to get through.

Action: Get professional help

It’s much easier to find professional help in the form of therapy, debt counselling, etc now than it used to be when I was at my lowest, though it’s difficult when the debt is causing the depression and you can’t afford counselling. But even if you can only get a little bit of external help, it will be worth it.

Action: Get career help

Few people get to write for a living now and my biggest mistake was to think that I could have been one of them. I spent two years as a horribly underpaid freelance journalist, then I started working as a freelance web designer and slowly became what I can only describe as ‘deinstitutionalised’, unable to imagine that anyone would want to hire me as an employee.

Better would have been to get a career advisor or mentor to help me develop the bit of my life that pays for the writing. Had I learnt how to earn more sooner, something I am still in the process of doing, my creative life would have been more vibrant.

I’ve read it and it’s shit/I’m scared it will be shit

We all hate our own work at some point or another. It’s inevitable. I know experienced published authors who get halfway through the first draft of their book and want to throw it all away and go live in a nunnery/monastery somewhere instead. They never do though.

Action: Just keep going

Don’t read it back until you’ve finished your first draft. You can read a few paragraphs to pick up your train of thought again, but don’t edit, and don’t be tempted to read through from the beginning until you’ve typed those glorious words, The End.

Action: Accept your first draft will indeed be shit

It’s OK for your first draft to be shit. There’s a reason people often call it ‘the vomit draft’ – it exists to be shit. That is its purpose. If it’s not shit, then well done, you are amazing! If it is shit, then the rewrite is when you deshittify it. But no matter how you feel about your first draft, you can’t let its probable shitness stop you from finishing it.

Ultimately, it’s your job to do the best writing you can do; it’s not your job to judge the end result.


There are, of course, other problems with other solutions, but these are some of the ones that I’ve struggled with or seen other struggling with.

When it comes to finishing, the place to start is to diagnose your problem as best as possible, and then just try stuff. Be stubborn. Because if you keep looking, you will find the right solution for you. You have it in you to finish, so finish!

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Cat peering out from behind a cardboard box

Too shy to come out and meet you? Or lying in wait to attack your ankles?

I’m starting to suspect it’s impostor syndrome that’s the impostor.

In 2019, Dena Bravata and her colleagues carried out the first review of studies of impostor syndrome in order to understand prevalence, to see if there were any predictors or co-morbidities (ie health issues that tended to occur alongside impostor syndrome), and assess the efficacy of any treatments being used.

They found 62 studies, with a total of 14,161 participants, that fit their criteria and were included in the review. Half of the studies had been published in the six years prior to the review.

Bravata and her colleagues defined impostor syndrome as “high-achieving individuals who, despite their objective successes, fail to internalize their accomplishments and have persistent self-doubt and fear of being exposed as a fraud or impostor” and say that “People with impostor syndrome struggle with accurately attributing their performance to their actual competence (i.e., they attribute successes to external factors such as luck or receiving help from others and attribute set-backs as evidence of their professional inadequacy).”

Through the lens of last month’s post asking whether impostor syndrome really exists, I can’t help but hear a little voice chatting away in the back of my head that wonders if perhaps attributing successes to external factors such as luck or receiving help from others might be, well, accurate? Perhaps some of the people exhibiting what we consider to be symptoms of impostor syndrome are just being honest about the level of collaboration they engage in or, heaven forfend, perhaps they’re being modest?

We know that women are more modest and less likely to self-promote than men, not because they want to be, but because they have to be – they are judged more harshly than men for any perceived immodesty. Women, and other minoritised groups, learn early on to keep their heads down because there is a cost to taking credit where it’s due.

Looking at both the Young and the Clance impostor syndrome scales that I have to hand, it strikes me that there’s not a question on them that couldn’t also be explained by a lack of self-confidence, and/or excessive modesty, and/or perfectionism.

Bravata notes that impostor syndrome isn’t a recognised clinical psychiatric disorder, despite its presence in both academic literature and in the general media. And it’s not even clear whether it’s widespread or rare:

Prevalence rates of impostor syndrome varied widely from 9 to 82% largely depending on the screening tool and cutoff used to assess symptoms.

To me, this suggests that there’s neither consensus on the symptoms of impostor syndrome nor on what level of ‘severity’ warrants the label. Without some consistency, comparing studies surely becomes challenging, if not impossible, unless you’re going to take the raw data and reanalyse everything the same way.

Another problem that’s highlighted by this paper is that about half of the included studies were of students with a mean age of 20 years. Five studies evaluated elementary and high school students. Just 17 studies had a mean age of 30 years or more.

Now, I’m not saying that young people can’t be high achievers, but I’m really struggling to see how feelings of inadequacy are in any way abnormal for people in that age group. I don’t mean to be glib, but surely a lack of self-confidence is de rigueur for many children going through puberty and adolescence?

Students with impostor syndrome had fears that were significantly related to maintaining their social standing and not wanting to display imperfection to others

Once again, this feels like a pathologising of normal reactions to periods of great change. Going through puberty and just existing as a teen can really suck. That doesn’t mean that they have some sort of syndrome, it means that they are navigating a challenging part of their lives that they will, eventually, grow through.

This is, as it happens, emphasised by the fact that students with strong social support structures and higher self-worth experienced less impostor syndrome, and those who experienced more also experienced pessimism, perfectionism, and low self-esteem. Colour me so unsurprised I need a whole new Pantone number.

Interestingly, those who experienced impostor syndrome were less likely to cheat or plagiarise. Perhaps having too much self-esteem can be a bad thing in young people whose impulse control has yet to finish developing?

Now, what about the professionals that were studied?

Given the tendency of people with impostor syndrome to aggressively pursue achievement while not being able to accept recognition when success is achieved, affected employees may experience increased levels of stress, burnout, and decreased job performance and satisfaction over time. Employees who persistently question their professional legitimacy are at higher risk of experiencing adverse psychological outcomes with implications to career retention, advancement, and job performance. Moreover, impostor feelings among employees is associated with fear of failure, fear of success, and low self-esteem. Employees who report more impostor feelings report less career planning and motivation to lead.

Well, that sounds awful. Impostor syndrome appears to ruin everything. But, as the mantra goes, correlation isn’t causation. There’s no indication here about the direction of causality. Is impostor syndrome actually causing these outcomes, or are high levels of stress, burnout, low job satisfaction causing the impostor feelings?

Viewed through the lens of the hostile workplace, where women and other minoritised groups experience bias and prejudice on a regular basis, it doesn’t make sense that it’s impostor syndrome causing poor outcomes, but that the poor outcomes and the impostor feelings are both caused by hostile workplaces.

I might be missing something, but I can’t see anything in this paper that refutes that idea.

individuals who struggle with impostor syndrome may be limited in their ability to fully develop their professional potential

Or, maybe, let’s just throw this out there, shitty workplaces make it difficult for women and minoritised groups to reach their potential? Maybe?

Bravata et al mention that none of the papers they found discuss specific treatments for impostor symptoms, and for that I’m glad. The more I read, the more I think that interventions should be either environmental, ie fix shitty workplaces, or based on treating the co-morbidities that are genuine diagnoses such as depression or anxiety.

I currently don’t believe that impostor syndrome is an actual syndrome worthy of being listed in diagnostic manuals. What I can see is a need to examine causality in a more robust way: What is actually causing these impostor feelings? And are they independent of other problems such as workplace hostility, depression, anxiety, etc. (noting, of course, that workplace hostility can cause depression and anxiety).

You might, at this point, wonder what this has to be with writer’s block? I’m glad you asked!

One of the points made by this paper is that there’s an absolutely huge number of articles in the non-academic media about impostor syndrome:

During the year (March 28, 2018–March 18, 2019), 2317 Internet articles were published on impostor syndrome (150– 200 articles/month).


the vast majority were tagged as “What is…” articles, which define impostor syndrome followed by “How-To” articles, which offer treatment tips. Many of the articles classified as “What is…” articles also include tips about how to manage impostor syndrome.

Impostor syndrome is mentioned regularly in relationship to writing and writer’s block, but before we start reaching for treatments, we have to ask whether impostor syndrome really exists as a separate thing that can be defined and measured. Because if it doesn’t, then we’re going to get the wrong answers to our questions.

I’m going to continue my reading of the academic literature on impostor syndrome and I guess we’ll see if I change my mind. But for now, I’d say that the majority of what we consider to be ‘impostor syndrome’ is more likely a combination of low self-confidence, perfectionism, anxiety and depression on the one hand, and a normal reaction to bias and prejudice in the workplace and, indeed, wider world on the other. Thinking of it like that allows us to look at our own impostor feelings a little bit more critically and ask ourselves what’s going on underneath, because that will help us find better solutions.

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Being hyper-independent cuts you off from essential creative support.

I’ve just come back from a couple of weeks off, a break I really needed and which successfully recharged my batteries. Whilst I was away, I got to thinking about hyper-independence and how bad it can be for a writing career. My husband has more than once joked that if there’s an easy way to do something and a hard way to do something, I’ll always pick the hard way. Except it’s really not a joke, it’s just a statement of fact.

I have no doubt that I have at least a little hyper-independence, which can be defined as “unhealthy and excessive need for self-reliance”, having been bullied a lot as a child and teen. And I also have no doubt that it has led me to making my life more difficult than it needed to have been.

Growing up in a household with self-employed parents in a family where half my relatives were self-employed also emphasised the idea that the standard path of graduating and getting a job was undesirable. Independence was everything. Indeed, I lasted just a few years in employment and became self-employed in 1998. In retrospect, that was an error of judgement, but that realisation came about 20 years too late.

There’s a lot I could say about how hyper-independence has affected my professional life, how I tried to tackle it before I really knew what it was, and how I’ve become less hyper-independent as I’ve  grown older, but that will have to wait for another post. This one is about how the book industry unintentionally encourages hyper-independence and why we need to be aware of it and work to ensure that we don’t become creatively hyper-independent.

The obvious source of creative hyper-independence is the myth of the lone genius slaving away over a hot typewriter to write their Great Novel, which is perfect on first draft. (Perfectionism, by the way, can be a result of the same circumstances that produce hyper-independence.)

Most novels are indeed written by one person, which means that one person gets all the attention if it does well. When a book becomes an explosive bestseller, it’s only the author who’s applauded, profiled and photographed, despite the fact that the book will have been a team effort, from agent to editor to cover-designer, typesetter and beyond.

Some novice authors can learn the wrong lesson from this narrative, believing that their writing should be done in isolation, which in turn leads them to put unnecessary pressure on themselves. Excessively self-reliant people already have a problem delegating work or trusting others, which makes it harder to bring in external help during the creative process and starves them of valuable insights into how to improve their work.

This level of self-sufficiency is not just emotionally exhausting, it can also cause burn-out. Talk to any author the day after they’ve handed an early draft over to their agent and they’ll tell you how wiped out they feel. But authors with a healthy support structure around them will bounce back faster than those who have completely drained the well and are having to start again from rock bottom on their own.

Books can be, and frankly should be, a more collaborative endeavour than many people imagine. Even before you have an agent and publisher, whose job it is to help you refine your manuscript, you can find story editors or development editors to provide feedback on improving structure, pacing and character. Beta readers can be great for soliciting useful insights into how your work is being read and a copyeditor can help you pick up typos that have somehow slipped through that eleventy-billionth edit. Hyper-independent writers, however, feel that they ought to be doing all this themselves.

Another way that book-writing culture damages hyper-independent authors is the set of norms we have for soliciting feedback: Editors, beta readers, agents are all brought in after the novel is complete and has at least had a bit of a polish, if not several redrafts. This is poor practice for a couple of reasons: It’s harder to accept feedback, and that feedback can come so late that fixing the problems becomes harder than it needs to be.

I have certainly struggled to accept substantive feedback when I have reach the point of feeling that the work “should” be “finished”. At that point, my feeling emotionally done with the story combines with my hyper-independence to make it almost impossible for me to hear that major changes need to be made. And I know I’m not alone in that. I’ve felt bad giving feedback to friends when I’ve sensed that all they really want to hear about are easily fixed typos.

And, as I’ve written here before, getting feedback towards the end of the writing process for Tag and discovering that I needed to make some pretty major changes was really disheartening. Had I realised 18 months ago that I needed to rethink the structure of the series, it would have been much, much easier to do.

But rarely do authors solicit feedback at the idea generation stage, when everything is still malleable. Perhaps we would benefit from doing so.

Of course, this ties in with another problem that (not just) hyper-independent people have: Trust. How do we trust that our ideas aren’t going to be stolen by the people we share them with? We could ask them to sign an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) but firstly that doesn’t engender trust and secondly it’s impossible to enforce if you don’t have lots of money for lawyers.

But as with anything in life, trust is earnt, either through developing a relationship over time or by social proof, ie seeing that others have trusted a person and not been burnt by them. We develop trust in all sorts of people and institutions in the rest of our lives, yet creative trust seems particularly hard to come by. And if you’re hyper-independent, it’s even harder.

Yet if you look at some of the very best storytelling around, it’s on TV and it has come to us via writers rooms, where a group of people bat idea around until they have honed them down to a sharp point. Why don’t we do this with novels? Why isn’t story development in the very earliest stages of novel writing a more common thing? I know some people like to write to find out where the story goes, but thrashing out the basics before you put fingers to keyboard doesn’t preclude that.

Part of it, perhaps, is that hyper-independence comes with another more insidious trait: The desire to feel that one has conquered the mountain entirely on one’s own. It’s not just that we feel that we can’t depend on or trust other people to help us, it’s that we feel that our achievements are made lesser if we’ve accepted help. And I say ‘we’ because I know that this is something that I’ve been guilty of, and it’s especially true when it comes to creative work. The desire to be able to say “This masterpiece sprang fully formed from my brain, and my brain alone” can overwhelm any feeling that perhaps we might actually need some help, or that we might produce better work if we collaborated.

But no man is an island, and no writer’s work is entirely original. We are all standing on the shoulders of the giants whose work we’ve read before. It’s impossible to write without reading, and everything you read goes into your head where your subconscious mushes it up with everything else that’s ever happened to you and it all comes out in your writing.

The healthy response is to accept this. It’s not just OK that we are influenced by others, it’s good. It’s normal. It’s an essential part of being a writer. Indeed, it makes you a better writer. So trying to control your creativity and keep it entirely separate from your influences is a task that can only end in failure. Know that, accept it and move on.

One piece of advice on dealing with hyper-independence is to “Get comfortable with being uncomfortable” and to practice relying on people. So perhaps the next time you start to feel isolated and lonely as a writer, ask who you can bring into your creative process. Who can you trust? Perhaps it’s only to bat about a single plot point or read a single page, but start nibbling away at your phobia of relying on other people.

Because in order to really flourish, you have to let people in.

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Does impostor syndrome really exist?

by Suw on July 12, 2023

What if the majority of impostor syndrome is just a normal, sensible response to living an uncertain and precarious life in a challenging industry rife with rejection and poor communication?

Thanks to everyone who left comments or voted in the poll in my last newsletter. It was nice to hear that I’m not alone and to receive a little moral support! Writing can be a lonely business, so it’s nice to feel a bit more connection with you all.


As for the poll, most people either wanted me to do what works for me, or to see a roughly equal mix of posts drawn from the research and from my own experience.

So I’m going to this week kick off with a more research-oriented post.

As it happens I have some existing areas of interest that I’ve been reading up on for another project I’m involved with: The International Collaboration on Mycorrhizal Ecological Traits, or i-COMET. If you subscribe to Word Count, you might recognise that name – we’re using the tail end of our grant to fund work on a short film, Fieldwork.

My original contribution to i-COMET was to provide a year of mentoring for early career ecologists, and collect data on their experiences to compare with a control group who didn’t have any mentoring. As part of that project, I started reading up on four attributes that we felt might affect career engagement and wanted to gather data on:

  1. Mentoring efficacy
  2. Career satisfaction
  3. Self-efficacy (ie self-confidence)
  4. Impostor syndrome

I think all of these have some relevance to writing and writer’s block, but I’m going to start with impostor syndrome because it’s something that many of us are familiar with. But before we can get deep in the weeds, (which I will do in future newsletters), we have to ask:

Does impostor syndrome really exist?

Now, why would I go and ask a question like this? We all know impostor syndrome exists, and that it particularly – but not exclusively – affects women, people of colour and other groups that are subject to prejudice. What value is there in throwing doubt on its existence? That just makes it harder for those of us fighting for equality.

That, or something rather like it, is what I thought the first time I read Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome by Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey in the Harvard Business Review. But the more I read and re-read it, the more I had to admit that Tulshyan and Burey are right.

Much of what we think of as impostor syndrome is actually the impact of systemic barriers put up to keep us out of whatever industry, organisation, or group we’re trying to exist within. And this is as true of writing as it is of being a woman in science or technology. In fact, the publishing industry seems to have been designed to make people feel like impostors.

The first point Tulshyan and Burey make is that when women are subjected to workplace bullying, racism, and other forms of bias on a regular basis, any self-doubt, anxiety, or feeling like a fraud isn’t and shouldn’t be labelled impostor syndrome, but is instead “workplace-induced trauma”.

Writers regularly face rejection and, increasingly, ghosting when they submit their work to agents, small presses, competitions and the like. Many will say that learning to live with rejection and ghosting is just part of the job, but however you spin it, being on the receiving end of so much negativity is very likely to have an impact on our mental well-being. For many people it’s going to increase self-doubt and anxiety. That’s not impostor syndrome, that’s an impact of the wider environment we’re trying to exist in.

Tulshyan and Burey also talk about the medicalisation of impostor syndrome:

Imposter syndrome took a fairly universal feeling of discomfort, second-guessing, and mild anxiety in the workplace and pathologized it, especially for women.


The label of imposter syndrome is a heavy load to bear. “Imposter” brings a tinge of criminal fraudulence to the feeling of simply being unsure or anxious about joining a new team or learning a new skill. Add to that the medical undertone of “syndrome,” which recalls the “female hysteria” diagnoses of the nineteenth century. Although feelings of uncertainty are an expected and normal part of professional life, women who experience them are deemed to suffer from imposter syndrome.

When we take normal emotional reactions to challenging experiences – such as the uncertainty and difficulty of trying to develop or maintain a career as a writer – and pathologise them, we’re taking systemic problems and individualising them. That results in us looking inwards for solutions instead of seeking to change the actual causes of the problem, which are to be found in the way that the industry is set up.

There’s a parallel here with a strain of hypercapitalism which seeks to nationalise risk and debt and privatise profits. The publishing industry individualises risk, debt, and emotional burdens, which are all carried by writers and low-paid entry level employees, whilst profits are disbursed to execs and shareholders.

This doesn’t mean that impostor syndrome, which was conceptualised by Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978, doesn’t exist. What it means is that the way that we use the phrase “impostor syndrome” both in our day-to-day lives and, frankly, in academic research, needs to be re-examined and refined.

If someone has by all measures a stable professional life, if they are well-supported by their colleagues and management, if they are not having to deal with other people’s prejudice, bias or poor communication skills, if they are successful in their work, if they are praised and recognised, and yet still feel as if they are about to be ‘found out as a fraud’… Then we can talk about a syndrome of imposterhood.

For the rest of us, maybe we need to rethink things a little. Maybe we don’t suffer from an impostor syndrome which requires us to chant affirmations into the bathroom mirror every morning. Perhaps anxiety and doubt are just a normal response to the stress of being a writer, and we need to develop better coping strategies the same way we would for any other negative emotions we experience.

And perhaps we need to change the industry to remove some of these stressors.

Just a thought.

PS… As I’m currently absurdly busy with work and unable to give my lovely premium members the exclusive content I was hoping to, I’ve just gone ahead and made everything free. Which means that anyone who has taken out a paid membership is an even more generous and marvellous person now than before. Thank you for your support – it means the world to me.

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When your brain is too full

by Suw on June 28, 2023

Thoughts start dribbling out of your nose and are lost forever, which is why you should always carry a handkerchief.

OK, I’m going to fess up. My brain is too full.

I was chronically underemployed when I started this newsletter at the end of January. Ada Lovelace Day, which had been my full-time job since 2015, was almost certainly over (although I was in very slow talks to save it). I was waiting for my short film project, Fieldwork, to kick off, and was considering what the hell to do next.

Despite the financial insecurity, I rather enjoyed focusing on my writing a bit more. I worked on Tag – my TV series, did lots of reading about comedy, republished old novelettes on my other newsletter, wrote long posts for both my newsletters, set up a third, and generally relished the fact that my hair wasn’t on fire. My bank account was about to be, and not in a good way, but the money I got for Fieldwork was keeping disaster at bay.

Five months later, Ada Lovelace Day has been saved, October’s in-person event needs to be organised in super-quick time, I’m working with a company to produce a short film about ALD, liaising with my main event partners on content, event planning and publicity, and still searching for more sponsors as well as letting everyone know that it’s back and re-upping our social media presence.

Background research for Fieldwork is underway, which is huge amounts of fun but also quite time consuming. Tag is undergoing a major rewrite. I’m desperately trying to get a bit fitter after naffing up both my hips shovelling snow 18 months ago. And I now have four newsletters (what the hell was I thinking?).

Which is all to say that my brain is full. And the era of being able to spend a whole day working out what I want to say here is over, at least until November.

I’m also starting to feel uncomfortable about how this newsletter has become so much more introspective than I had originally intended. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing in that I don’t feel like I’ve said anything I wish I hadn’t, but I’m starting to feel as if I’m trawling for anxiety to share which has hints of dishonesty about it.

We all get stuck with our writing and it’s often valuable to hear from other people that they struggle with the same things that you do. If even one person feels better or less alone because they’ve read something I’ve written, then I’m happy. But I’ve recently begun to worry that my writing here has veered towards the narcissistic and opportunistic, and I don’t think that’s good for either me as a writer or you as a reader.

Substack Notes actually hasn’t helped here either. A lot of people are talking about their writing challenges from first person experience – again, I want to stress that’s not a bad thing and I’m not criticising it – and I feel rather like I’m drowning in a sea of rumination. I don’t think that’s healthy for me.

These feelings are also clogging my brain, which makes writing even more difficult. This is not supposed to be hard work for me, it’s supposed to be fun!

So I’m going to propose that I go back to the original vision for this newsletter, which is to look at the research behind things like impostor syndrome, confidence, and other things that I think feed into writer’s block. That won’t mean that I never write these sort of more self-reflective newsletters once in a while, especially if I’m dealing with something specific myself, but I want to turn my main focus outwards if I can.

But, before I make this decision, I’d like your opinion. I mean, I’m writing this at least in part for you and I would genuinely like to know what you think. So, to that end, here’s a poll:

(See Substack for poll)

Please also leave a comment if you have any particular thoughts on this that you’d like to share.

Ultimately, I want to craft a newsletter that’s creatively sustainable and interesting for both me to write and you to read. That might take a bit of tweaking along the way, but I’d rather do a few course corrections than push on with something that’s not making me completely happy.

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You wouldn’t force her to work out the Mixolydian from first principles, so don’t expect yourself to work out everything about writing from first principles either.

We’re all always learning more about our craft and we should celebrate that as growth, not chastise ourselves for failing. 

Some writers seem to instinctively know how to structure their novel or TV script, never paying much attention to acts or turning points as they lay down their first draft and, later, revise their final draft. The rest of us need to work a bit harder, but we shouldn’t beat ourselves up about that. Every writer starts their journey from a different place, has different skills and different strengths, and needs to learn different lessons to reach their full potential.

The lesson I need to learn is, apparently, about structure.

I have been struggling with my writing recently, as those of you who read my post about patience will remember. To recap, I’m working on a set of scripts for a six part urban fantasy TV series called Tag. Thankfully it’s spec work, so there’s no deadline and I can take as long as I like on it, although I would like to finish it all by September 2023, two years after I started. But a couple of months ago I hired a script editor to look over the pilot script and at about that point, the gears in my brain ground to a halt.

It’s not that the report my editor sent was bad. It was, on the contrary, very very good. It said very nice things. I share this lightly edited quote this not for the sake of my ego, (OK, maybe a little bit), but for the context that this is not about me getting bad notes and going off in a huff.

Tag is a very creative and interesting magical realist concept [which is] very intriguing and [has] quite an original conceit. The blending in of Welsh influences and the deep sense of history you provide ties the whole thing together and gives it all depth and credibility plus a little-explored cultural aspect.


The rest of the report is similarly positive, but my editor did identify some issues that need to be fixed, specifically that my protagonist is too passive and several characters’ motivations are unclear. I totally agreed with that diagnosis so we had a call to discuss, which was also very useful and positive. I came away feeling like this was a problem I could solve, and that the scripts will be much improved due to this extra work.

And then my brain shut down. It absolutely refused to come up with any solutions to these problems at all. It was like someone had pulled the creative plug.

I took some time to mull everything over. I annotated my script editor’s notes. I did some webinars and watched some videos. I tried to re-plot my episodes. I did some diagrams to illustrate chains of causality. Worked on character and motivation. And about a month ago, when I wrote that post about patience, I felt things shift a little… but the logjam hasn’t completely freed up.

I always used to say that if you can’t make a decision, it’s because you don’t have enough information to allow that decision to be made. Decision making rarely feels like a logical process to me, but rather something that our subconscious does on its own, with our conscious simply finding palatable justifications after the fact. If I’m not writing, it is because my subconscious doesn’t have enough information to make the plot and character decisions that it needs to make.

So I started looking for information about how to structure a TV series, as opposed to a novel/film. I wasn’t entirely sure that these two things were the same, but then, I wasn’t entirely sure they weren’t, either. I’m writing a serial, a story which evolves over several episodes and comes to a conclusion at the end, as opposed to a ‘monster of the week’ episodic drama. Think Loki (serial) rather than Bones (episodic).

I wanted to know how it should be structured. Do you take the usual three act structure and just stretch it out into six? If so, do you have Act 1 as Episode 1, then extend Act 2 into four episodes, and the finale is Act 3? Or do you do it more evenly, with each act split over two episodes? Or would that mean that you’d end up with a bit of flabbiness every other episode? Does each episode have its own three act structure? Or five act structure?

I’ve read loads about structure. I can give you chapter and verse about the theory. I’d even managed to give my pilot a nice little five act structure without thinking about it at all. It’s not like I’m a total structure newbie. I’ve internalised enough of what I’ve learnt to be able to write it without thinking too hard about it.

But for some reason, these thoughts about structure became the biggest spanner I could possibly have stuck into my creative gears. I might be overthinking things, but if I am, I can’t stop. I can’t circumvent this block. I have to grind away at it until I work out how to fix it.

In my search for more information, I stumbled across the Six Act Structure, which is a new one on me:

Six act structure is an innovative structural technique that takes the focus off of ambiguous narrator oriented concepts and places it where it belongs: on the actions and goals of the character.

Most successful modern stories are structured on a universal pattern of six actions undertaken by their characters. This sequence of six actions, or acts, is the hidden foundation of modern story structure. By focusing on these actions, you can easily and accurately identify act divisions within your stories, eliminate sagging middles and create narratives that unfold with logic and momentum.

I bought the book, which is by someone called Marshall Dotson who appears to exist online only in relationship to this and one other book which might be a spoof (I haven’t read it). He doesn’t appear to have any writing credits to his name and I couldn’t find out anything else about him. But if he’s not a writer, he’s clearly a reader and a watcher – that’s evident in the analyses he includes in his book, The Story Structure Secret: Actions and Goals.

Still, mysterious author aside, I’m about halfway through and I can feel little lightbulbs going off in my brain. Useful little lightbulbs. Dotson is answering questions that other books on screenwriting don’t even ask. And he’s answering questions that pertain specifically to the weaknesses in my script.

Awesome! I might have the tools I need to crack this nut!

And that’s when the self-flagellation set in. If I rely on the structure set out by this person who appears to have no writing credits at all, what does that say about my skills as a writer? How could I have gotten my structure so badly wrong that fixing it has stumped me for months? Am I really just a talentless hack with delusions of grandeur?

Then I remembered what I used to say to people who said that guitar lessons were pointless and stripped all the creativity out of making music: Sure, you can spend years working out your scales from first principles, the diatonic, chromatic, major, minor, and the rest. You can work out the seven modes, Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian and Locrian. You can make lists of different chords and which works well with what… but… why would you? All that’s been done. Learn it. Use it. Build on it. Stand on the shoulders of giants instead of building your own scaffolding.

As with music so with writing. Why expect yourself to work everything out from first principles when other people have done the heavy lifting? Learn it all. Internalise it all. Use what works for you, discard what doesn’t. Working to a pre-defined structure doesn’t make your work formulaic; only bad writing can do that. And don’t judge the source of knowledge, judge the knowledge itself. It doesn’t matter who Dotson is, it matters that what he says makes sense and is useful.

It does and it is. And, more importantly, I will emerge from this a much better writer with a wider array of tools at my disposal. I will have learnt something useful and that is to be celebrated.

Alex North webinar; Ada Lovelace Day saved!

Thanks to those of you who joined us for the Alex North webinar last week. The recording worked (I always worry!) and I’ll get it up as soon as I have a moment.

Moments are slightly scarce for a bit, though, because yesterday I could finally announce that I have managed to save Ada Lovelace Day, the global celebration of women’s achievements in science, technology, engineering and maths that has been my full time job for the last eight years. I’m still short of sponsors for it, so lots of work to do to on the financial stability front, but I at least have some clarity on the rest of the year.

Hopefully as things settle down I’ll be able to go back to a weekly schedule here, but please bear with me over the summer as I work out the shape of my new working life.

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As I thought it might, my current period of underemployment is drawing to a close and I am soon about to be very, very busy indeed. So this newsletter is going to move to a fortnightly schedule, alternating every other week with Word Count.

Meanwhile, don’t forget that bestselling crime writer Alex North is joining me at 19:00 BST on Thursday 8 June to talk about the craft of writing, his rollercoaster career, and what happens when he gets the wobbles halfway through writing a book. The webinar’s open to all subscribers, with the recording and transcript available afterwards to paid members.

Creativity is the eternal quest to close the gap between imagination and execution.

Back in 2010, radio host Ira Glass did an interview with Current TV, a short-lived American TV channel, about the process of putting together human-interest stories for the radio program he hosts, This American Life, along with some advice for early career radio producers. The interview is still available on YouTube in four parts – one, two, three, four.

At some point, years after the interview was broadcast, Part Three caught light online. Suddenly, folks were taking the audio from the interview and illustrating it. It was all over social media. I have watched it many times in the intervening years, because Glass speaks to something absolutely fundamental about the creative process. It’s worth watching the full video, but here’s a cut down version:

We all have a vision for how we want our creative endeavours to turn out. We work towards that vision, often for years. And yet our output falls far short of what we intended.

This is what you might call ‘The Taste Gap’.

Glass’s talk hits home so hard not because he’s saying anything we don’t already know, (we pretty much all know that we aren’t as good as we want to be), but because he normalises it – we all have this problem; he suffered particularly badly – and gives us an answer – plough through, keep going and keep learning.

What Glass is talking about, really, is the Four Stages of Competence and getting stuck between Stages Two/Three and Four. From Wikipedia, the Four Stages of Competence can be described as:

Stage 1: Unconscious incompetence

The individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not necessarily recognize the deficit. They may deny the usefulness of the skill. The individual must recognize their own incompetence, and the value of the new skill, before moving on to the next stage. The length of time an individual spends in this stage depends on the strength of the stimulus to learn.

Stage 2: Conscious incompetence

Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, they recognize the deficit, as well as the value of a new skill in addressing the deficit. The making of mistakes can be integral to the learning process at this stage.

Stage 3: Conscious competence

The individual understands or knows how to do something. It may be broken down into steps, and there is heavy conscious involvement in executing the new skill. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration, and if it is broken, they lapse into incompetence.

Stage 4: Unconscious competence

The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it has become “second nature” and can be performed easily. As a result, the skill can be performed while executing another task. The individual may be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned.

Going through Stage 1, Unconscious Incompetence, is relatively painless, because you aren’t aware of your incompetence and therefore can’t judge yourself for it (see also Dunning-Kruger). But as soon as you start to become aware of how much you still have to learn and how far short of ideal your actual output falls, you enter the excruciating pain of Stage 2. Even as your skills improve, as you begin to enter Stage 3, you’re still not as good as you want to be and every new thing you learn just emphasises your shortcomings.

Congratulations, you have entered The Taste Gap.

You are aware that your imagination is better than your execution, and you probably beat yourself up every time you finish something because all you can focus on is how it isn’t as good as you hoped it would be. You’re eager to make it to the final stage of Unconscious Competence, where everything comes easily because your skills are just that sharp, but you also know that you have to battle your way through Conscious Competence first, where it’s all hard work and sweat.

For radio journalists, or for short story writers or others who create at the smaller scale, Glass’s advice to finish a piece every week or every month and hone your craft through repetition and incremental improvement is good. But a single novel might take three or five or seven or over a dozen years to write. You can’t win on volume.

Instead, you have to learn everything you can about the craft of writing from others who’ve written more. Whether that’s taking creative writing courses, or reading books about writing, or joining a critique group, or hiring in a professional story editor, the most efficient way to develop your skills is to seek expert help. And you have to hope that next time round, which might be years away, you will still remember the stuff you learnt this time round.

You also have to be kind to yourself. If we had the stats to see such things, I think we’d find that people in Stage 3 have produced many, many great works.

At a gig in Caerdydd in 1993, musician Neil Finn said, “Perseverance will win through where talent falls short”. He was making a self-deprecating joke, but he was also (knowingly or not) talking about ploughing through Stages 2 and 3, when you might feel like a talentless hack, but what you’re actually doing is the hard work of learning. There is gold in them there hills, it’s just difficult to extract.

Indeed, I would suggest that few authors even get near to stage four, not because they aren’t capable, but because they don’t have the time to devote to internalising all of the skills needed. Storytelling is complex. There’s a huge amount to learn about plot, pacing, character, relationships, structure, dialogue, description, action, prose, and everything else that goes into a great novel, but most authors are earning on average £7,000 per year and have to have another job to make ends meet.

Where does the time come from to study all those skills and write? Given a choice, most early-career authors write and try to pick the rest up as they go along.

Key to the whole endeavour, I think, is self-awareness, determination, and self-compassion. Be aware of where you can improve, constantly strive for mastery, keep at it, but don’t self-flagellate. And remember:

In the eyes of those who anxiously seek perfection, a work is never truly completed—a word that for them has no sense—but abandoned; and this abandonment, of the book to the fire or to the public, whether due to weariness or to a need to deliver it for publication, is a sort of accident, comparable to the letting-go of an idea that has become so tiring or annoying that one has lost all interest in it. – Paul Valéry, 1933 (translated by Rosalie Maggio)

And to paraphrase Alan Schneider, the only perfect book is the one you haven’t written.

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A statue of a winged herald blowing a trumpetWe all hate doing it. We all worry that others will hate us for doing it. But no one else is going to blow our trumpets for us.

If there’s one type of writing that everyone I know hates, often with a white-hot intensity that could melt iron, it’s anything that even remotely whiffs of self-promotion.

In an ideal world, none of us would have to do self-promotion. We’d go off to our offices or our sheds or our studios, we’d be creative in whatever way we see fit, we’d put our work out into the world, and those people who like it would find it and reward us for the sweat on our brow and the callouses on our hands. We’d never have to tell a soul about our work, because a friend would find out about it by accident and they’d tell their friends, who’d tell their friends, and before we knew it, we’d have a legion of super-fans just waiting for us to release our newest creation for their enjoyment.

Of course, it doesn’t work like that. It’s never worked like that. It’s not even possible for it to work like that.

The reality is that someone, somewhere, has to promote your work. In one model of the world, that work is done by your publisher, record label, gallery or whatever. They pay you for doing the work and then they become responsible for making sure that the public finds out about it, because that is how they make their money. They hire experts in marketing, advertising, and PR so that they can get your work in front of an audience, some of whom will go on to buy your book, record or painting, etc.

In another model of the world, where you are essentially working as a small business, you as the creator are responsible for getting word out about everything that you do. You have to do all the marketing, advertising and PR. And often, in this model of the world, you are not an expert marketer, you do not have the money to buy ads or the contacts to persuade newspapers to feature your work. You just do your best with what you’ve got.

That first model has been slowly breaking down over at least the last decade, so even if you do have a publisher with a marketing department, you as the author are still expected to do quite a bit of your own marketing. The small-business creator and the traditionally-supported creator are now both having to reach out to their communities to say, “Hey, I’ve done a thing. Would you like to look at it?”.

Add to that the fact that previous drivers of traffic – social media sites like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter – have been throttling the ability to reach large audiences, and you have a large community of people who are all finding it hard to reach new fans:

[There has been] a massive drop for small publishers. Is it any wonder that smaller local news outlets have seen traffic crater? Imagine getting 1,000 daily page views from Facebook and seeing that drop to 20 over the years. That would be gutting.

Whether you’re the New York Times or an independent author, the impact of this loss of traffic from the major social media sites is not just frustrating, it has a huge impact on the effectiveness of your promotional campaigns. So you need to do more promotion to reach the same number of people. And in the middle of a low wage* crisis, when fewer people have money to spend, you need to reach yet more people to get the same level of business. Which means even more promotion.

In turn, that means posting more often on social media and, yes, perhaps some people will see more of those posts than they like. Whilst that is just how it is now, there will sadly always be a vocal minority getting antsy about it.

They shame us for talking about our work, denigrate us for working hard to build an audience, throw shade on us for posting a link to our book or newsletter or event. And all of that leads to just one outcome: Writer’s self-promotional block.

We feel inferior, we feel ashamed, we feel mortified, we feel scared. We tie ourselves up in knots trying to self-promote without self-promoting. We drop hints, we mention in passing. We hope someone else will tell the world we’re fab, but we feel disappointed when they don’t (when the truth is, they either don’t know what we’re doing or they think we don’t need the help).

Writer’s self-promotional block is a microcosm of other blocks: It’s caused by a fear of public humiliation. We fear that others will judge us and think we are a bad person because they, wrongly, believe that the cream always rises and that all you have to be is good.

There are plenty of those people out there – people who think that they achieved success because of their greatness, not because of any privilege they were born with, luck they accrued during life, or help that others gave them.

“Ah,” they say, “If you just talk to people in a genuine and authentic way, if you just put the hours in being consistently brilliant, then people will gravitate towards you like bees to blossom. If you have to self-promote, you’re clearly not as brilliant as me.”

It’s no wonder we have such trouble bringing ourselves to self-promote, when we’re told that doing so is evidence of our rank inferiority.

But word-of-mouth is unreliable and overhyped. A tiny number of people get lucky; the rest of us just have to work hard and be persistent. Which means that we have to walk towards the fear. We have to talk about our work and invite people to engage with it. We have to take up space and we have to stare down those who would belittle us for doing so.

There are, of course, elephants in the room, and we all know one. There is a minority of people who we feel maybe overdo it, who we feel are perhaps too self-focused, too self-aggrandising. But you know what? The chances are, the person who’s annoying you by talking to much about their stuff is actually in a scarcity trap. They aren’t earning enough money and the only thing they know to do is ramp up the ask instead of increasing the give.

For them, we should have empathy, not judgement. Because any of us can get stuck in a scarcity trap, and we all need help to get out.

So instead of judging ourselves or others for self-promoting, let’s all take a moment to make peace with the process. Self-promotion is unavoidable, so let’s look for ways to make it less painful for ourselves. Share your creativity with joy and excitement. Think about what you’re giving your community instead of always being on the ask. Look for ways to help others, whether that’s by liking or resharing or commenting – everything helps.

We’re all in the same boat, but there are, at least, plenty of oars to go round.


* We are not in a cost of living crisis, we’re in a too many people aren’t paid enough money crisis.

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Patience is its own reward

by Suw on May 17, 2023

When to trust your subconscious to work through a problem on its own.

The first rule of Writer’s Block Club is you don’t talk about writer’s block… Wait, no, that’s stupid.

The first rule of Writer’s Block Club is that you always need to interrogate your block to find out what kind of block it is, so that you can take the appropriate steps to dismantle it. OK, so that’s not as snappy, but it has the advantage of truth. You can’t start to move past your blocks if you don’t know what they are and why they are there. (I know I keep promising future posts, but honestly, I’ll do a deep dive on this when I’ve enough brain to figure it all out.)

The block I’ve been dealing with over the last few weeks has a very specific origin. I’m working on an urban fantasy six-part TV series script, based on the screenplay for a movie I wrote 20 years ago. I started converting it from a 90 minute script to a 6 x 60 minute format in September 2021 and, by early this year, it felt like the end was in sight.

Then I hired a script editor to give me an assessment of the pilot.

I hired a script editor because I want these scripts to be the very best they can be. Generally in the TV industry it’s suggested you write just a pilot and a treatment, which outlines how the rest of the series would go if it got picked up. You don’t generally write the whole series. But I’m new to TV writing, so I wanted to write everything, soup-to-nuts, for three reasons:

  1. I wanted to know that I could actually do it. Writing 6 x 60 minute scripts is quite a bit of work, it’s something like 84,000 words all told, and I wanted to know that I had it in me to finish it.
  2. I wanted to learn the ropes. I don’t think you learn much from writing a few drafts of a pilot. You have to think about all the set-ups and pay-offs, the character development, the relationships, the plot, etc., for the whole series. If you’re brave, you think about that for several series.
  3. I want to novelise it. If I’m honest, I think this stands more chance as a novel than as a TV series, just because it requires quite a lot of SFX and no one’s going to blow that amount of money on a newbie scriptwriter.

My script editor, Dan McGrath, is great. He gave me a solid report, which was very encouraging, and then spent over two hours on a call with me going through all the major characters and plot points, and where they need to be strengthened. His feedback was invaluable, and he really opened my eyes to my weaknesses as a writer and how to fix them. I cannot stress enough how important this whole exercise has been, and how that single conversation will have positive repercussions through my entire writing life.


There’s always a but.

Knowing where and why you need to fix your script and actually fixing it are two completely different things, and the nature of the changes I need to make really stymied me. I just did not know where to start. So for the last five weeks, I have been feeling quite stuck. But I do at least know the what and the why of it:

  • What: I don’t know how to make the changes I need to make.
  • Why: Because these changes are fundamental and require me to completely rethink everything.

And that’s where the patience comes in. Because rethinking takes time and might not involve actually writing.

I knew that I had to just wait for as long as it takes for my subconscious to sort through the pieces of this new jigsaw, the one I thought I had nearly finished but which, in fact, was just put together wrong. It’s not that I’ve done nothing over the last five weeks. I’ve done a little mulling. I have jotted a few things down. But mostly, yes, I have just held my horses and kicked my heels.

It is tempting to think that I have wasted this time, but that’s not true. This waiting, this patience, is 100 per cent necessary. If I’d just dived in and started tinkering with the script straight away, it’s very likely that I’ve have made it worse, because I would have been writing for the sake of writing, not because I was ready to make the needed changes.

But on Monday night, I started to feel a shift in my mental logjam. It hasn’t cleared. I’m not yet ready to sit down and write, but I am starting to get a feel for the shape of the changes to come. The thoughts I’ve been having about characters, about structure and causality, about character relationships – particularly who trusts who and why, and how that changes over the course of the story – are slowly, very slowly, coalescing into a clearer picture of what I need to do next.

I’m not going to push myself to get writing again soon. Instead, I’m going to continue being patient. I’ll jot some more ideas down on paper. Draw some diagrams. Mull things over when I walk into town. Continue to let it all stew. Because at some point, and I think at some point soon, I’ll have found all the edges to the jigsaw and I’ll be able to start filling in the middle. At that point, I’ll be able to sit down and write.

So if you’re in a similar situation – you have a clear understanding of what your block is and why it’s there – perhaps what you need is a little patience. Let your subconscious shoulder the load, let it mull and stew and cogitate, and when it’s ready to get back to work, you’ll know it.

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When the easiest route becomes the hardest

May 10, 2023

Today’s post is brought to you by the battle of trying to come up with today’s post. If there’s one form of writer’s block that trips me up consistently and frequently, it’s the mistake of trying to find the easiest thing to write instead of working out what the right thing to write is. This […]

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The opportunity cost of not writing

May 3, 2023

What are we sacrificing when we decide to do something else instead of write? When we talk about “opportunity” in relation to writing, it’s often in the context of all the opportunities that exist for writers now. It’s so much easier to find literary agents to submit to these days, and so much easier to […]

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Are you an Arctic tern or a partridge?

April 26, 2023

Developing a career as a writer isn’t a sprint. It isn’t even a marathon. It’s an epic journey and you have to learn to pace yourself. The Arctic tern has the longest migration of any bird, flying from its northern summer breeding grounds to the Antarctic and back again every year. Those that nest in […]

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The Scarcity Trap: (Substack) Writers’ Edition

April 19, 2023

When you don’t have enough of something, it becomes all you can think about. Lots of us have experienced more scarcity than usual over the last eighteen months. But scarcity isn’t just unpleasant, it also causes us to make bad decisions. Our brain becomes hyperfocused on the thing we don’t have enough of and we […]

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You don’t need willpower to write

April 12, 2023

You need to build good habits. Once upon a time, a long, long time ago (OK, 1998), I found myself learning Welsh. For the record, despite the spelling of my name (long-standing typo), I am English rather than Welsh. But I had started freelancing as a music journalist and one idea that I’d successfully pitched […]

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