| Don’t Write Alone
Columns Self-Doubt and Self-Editing
In the second installment of this three-part column, Eva Recinos addresses how self-doubt can lead to self-editing, which can hold us back from writing altogether
I’ve spoken many times with writer friends who have shared some variation of the thought “It’s hard to write because I’m editing as I go.” It’s a familiar situation. I know the feeling of staring at the blank page and wanting to fill it up with incredible flowing prose that everyone will love. Then you start typing and you think, “What even is that?” You delete furiously and, sometimes, decide to just close the Word document altogether.
It’s tough not to self-edit before you even get to a solid draft. And that’s what it is, after all. A draft . I often think about the process of creating in other mediums: Artists who draw might have sketchbooks filled with finished pieces, yes, but also doodles and random ideas. They might revisit some and leave others behind. But it’s a sketchbook, not a canvas. There’s room to explore.
If you’re like me and struggle with self-doubt and self-editing, you might find that you need to create a practice when approaching the blank page. I think back to school assignments and the true meaning of a draft. My teacher or professor expected to see a progression from the first version to the last. They didn’t expect draft number one to look like the final product.
And yet, I’m still hard on myself when my sentences don’t quite match the original idea I had in mind.
Usually, this means I need to take space from a project for some time. I leave it alone for weeks or months and then come back to it with fresh eyes. Then I can start to tweak and edit without too much judgment.
Other times, I try to write stream-of-consciousness style and give the document a casual title (“little drafts” is a recent favorite). Or I take pen to paper—an activity that feels less intense, less final. There’s no word count and there’s no delete button. I just write and write.
I recently found inspiration in this thread from author, poet, and educator Janel Pineda about the process of writing poetry. She tweeted, “we always say, the poems are smarter than we are. and they are! we just have to give ourselves time to catch up to them.” Sometimes we have to let the work lead us.
That’s not to say it’s always easy. In a conversation with me, Pineda referred to “ rough drafts that [she] cringed at while writing,” and talked about wanting to give up. Often, her poems started as “a line, an image, a feeling, that needed to sit for a long time before [she] could relay the poem to page.”
Rereading her tweets after our conversation, I understood that patience is a big part of her practice.
“The first poem in Lineage of Rain , ‘In Another Life,’ began as one line I jotted down into my phone,” Pineda told me. “I twiddled with that line — ‘Mozote does not mean massacre’ — for months, until I realized that line was actually a prompt. What did it take for me to imagine a world where that statement could be true? How could I create a world where the site of an atrocious massacre did not have to be synonymous with its history of violence? What would have to happen (or un-happen) for that world to exist, and what would it look like?”
It can be scary to try something new, or to open a new doc with the expectation that you only have so little time to write. You want it to be good. But is there a way to find fulfillment in the process too? No matter the outcome?
In an article for The Cut , Brit Bennett shares, “I wrote a few drafts of novels before The Mothers that will never see the light of day, thank God. . . . Sometimes, I’ve done projects that haven’t really paid out in research or materials or in a professional way. But, for me, I think what’s always useful is just the practice of doing it—the practice of trying something. You’re always learning something from it even if it totally fails.”
A lot of us are afraid of failure, but as Bennett says, no one needs to see our drafts if we don’t want them to. And by the time the final piece comes to fruition, we might wonder how we even wrote that first draft to begin with. Many of us have sat down with a book that felt magical, as if the writing flowed perfectly from the author’s fingertips—but there’s so much more that goes into getting a project to its final stages.
Again, think about other mediums. Artists destroy some of their work. A ceramicist’s piece breaks in the kiln. A glassblower might shatter a vase before it breaks off the punty. A painter gives up on a canvas. A singer tweaks a demo over and over. We love the final product, but only the artist knows how many iterations it’s gone through.
Pineda suggests creating some structure if nothing else seems to work.
“I find I respond best to prompt-oriented writing (whether in response to a question or to another poem or poet’s work) and tight deadlines, which help ease the pressure that I need to ‘get it right’ the first time,” she says.
Get a group together and work on the same writing prompt. Buy yourself a new notebook to keep all the new writing in one place. Or find inspiration in other fields. Draw a tarot card and use that as a prompt. Take a walk and write about what you see. And then tell yourself that if these don’t end up being earth-shattering, award-winning pieces, that’s okay too.
When I’m working on a piece, I sometimes find it useful to write notes in bold, like “expand this section” or “make this fancier,” when I am in a groove of just getting rough ideas down on the page. I don’t want to interrupt my flow, but in the back of my head there are those doubts that tempt me to self-edit—the self-doubt is telling me, “You’re definitely not writing this the best way possible.” But marking my notes and moving on assures me that I can come back to it and do it better later.
I don’t have to get it down perfectly the first time. And neither do you.