filed under How To Write A Book.

While I was in Melbourne on the weekend, I spent some time with writers at all different stages in their careers and something I kept hearing was that one of the most important things for writers is to believe in themselves: to have self-belief. But I don’t know if it’s really one of the MOST important things. In fact, sometimes I think the opposite is true. I didn’t get my books written solely because of self-belief. I got them written because I kept doing the work, regardless of what I believed about it and about myself. Let me explain.

The Inner Voice That Says Your Writing is Rubbish

I think every writer is all too familiar with this voice. It’s the voice that says, “nobody will ever publish this book, you’re wasting your time; it’s a terrible story and it’s badly written.”

I’ve written about the inner voice before, but here’s the kind of thing my inner voice would say to me, back when I was writing my third book, out of contract and hoping to get not only a new agent, but also a deal at a different publishing house to the one that published my first two books. The voice in my head was constantly telling me that nothing I wanted would ever happen. That I’d published two books and I would never publish any more. That I’d have to find something else I loved to do because I wasn’t going to be able to be a writer any more if this book didn’t get published.

Does that sound like self-belief? No, of course it doesn’t!

But did I stop writing and pitching and planning? Again, no.

Which is why I think one of the most important things for writers to have isn’t self-belief; it’s self-discipline.

What's More Important for Writers: Self-Belief or Self-Discipline?

Self-Discipline is the Only Way to Fight the Negative Inner Voice

So, if most writers experience this voice, then how do we manage to finish a book and put it out there? I can’t speak for other authors but, for me, it’s that I just keep plodding on regardless of whatever the voice in my head is saying. I write on regardless of what I believe about myself and my writing on any given day. I acknowledge that yes, it’s possible I’m writing rubbish but that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop writing.

Sometimes the inner voice tells us good stuff. Sometimes I hear my inner voice say, “wow, that sentence was fabulous,” or “that’s such a great idea for the plot, God I’m a genius,” but I ignore that stuff too (well, mostly!). Again, I just keep writing. I don’t dwell on the supposedly fabulous sentence. I don’t pat myself on the back for having a great plot idea, I sit down and put it into words.

So that’s why I think it isn’t self-belief that gets me to the end of a book, it’s the sheer bloody-mindedness to keep writing anyway, no matter the prospects, the possibility of it being rubbish, no matter the potentially wasted time. So it’s self-discipline that wins out every time over self-belief.

On Self-Belief vs Self-Discipline for Writers

I wanted to write this post for all of those writers out there who keep hearing that they need to have self-belief but who think there must be something wrong with them because they just don’t have any, or not much at any rate. Know that I’m right there with you. And, next time you sit down to write, try telling yourself that it doesn’t matter what you think or believe, you’re just going to write anyway. Bring writing and self-discipline together and forget about everything else.

What do you think? Am I giving self-belief too much of a hard time? Do you agree or disagree that self-discipline is more important? Or, do you think there’s another attribute that’s even more important?

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31 Responses to “What’s More Important for Writers: Self-Belief or Self-Discipline?”

  1. Kali

    I think both are important, because why would you persevere at something that you didn’t believe had any merit or purpose?

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      Yes, you’re absolutely right. Both are important, but what I heard on the weekend just got me wondering about whether we should always put self-belief first in terms of importance. It made me worry that writers whose self-belief is wavering might feel like they are doing something wrong because they don’t have that self-belief. So I wanted to say that it’s okay to feel like that, and to keep writing anyway.

      Reply
  2. Melinda Tognini

    Great post, Natasha. Thanks for writing about this – I appreciate the reminder about the importance of turning up to the page day after day, and to just keep going.

    Reply
  3. Karen

    I’ve been thinking about this, too, Natasha – I’ve received 2 rejections this month. But I’m still writing. Writing is such a big part of who I am that I can’t imagine stopping. And self- belief takes such a bruising after a couple of knock-backs. Maybe habit plays a part as well, so writing is instinctive too.

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      Yes, habit is definitely very important. One thing I’m really grateful that I did back when the kids were babies was to create a writing habit that I couldn’t kick now that I have more time, even if I wanted to! And I’m so sorry about your rejections – I know how much they hurt and I know that all the platitudes in the world don’t make you feel any better.

      Reply
  4. Heather

    This is great post Natasha. I struggle with self-belief most of the time, but like you, I’ve taught myself to sit down and write regardless. So good to hear (read) I’m not the only one.

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      Yes, it’s great to know we’re not the only ones isn’t it? I started to suspect there were more of us like this on the weekend which is what made me what to blog about it. Glad you enjoyed it.

      Reply
  5. Renee Mihulka

    I agree that discipline is more important most of the time. At the end of the day, no matter how much you love it, writing is a job. For it to ‘become’ it needs to get done. However there is much to be said for pocketing those flashes of self belief, especially those created at the onset of your project. Remembering why you thought writing about aliens dressed as cats invading New York was a brilliant idea that you just HAD to write, helps you overcome those moments when you feel you can’t string a sentence together.
    Great article. Thanks for getting me thinking.

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      What a great way to put it – pocketing those flashes of self-belief. I love that. And it’s so very true. We do need to save them up, as paltry and infrequent as they might be, because they do happen from time to time and they can help so much. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

      Reply
  6. JodiGibson (@JFGibsonWriter)

    What a great post Natasha. I agree, it is the turning up every day, no matter what. My self-belief ebbs and flows, but I’m trying to summons it every day as it keeps me focused on my goal – to be published. Who knows if that will ever happen. I think there are so many factors that being published relies on and self-belief and self-discipline are only part of the recipe. There’s luck, timing, talent and of course, a great story.
    If I’m ever feeling down on myself or my writing, I always tell myself that if I don’t believe in me who else will?

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      You’re absolutely right – luck and timing play a big part in getting published, which is really hard on our self-belief. We can believe in our talent and our story and the quality of our writing but it’s hard to believe in something as nebulous as luck and timing. But, if we do the work, sometimes we can create our own luck, I think. It all starts with getting the work done, doesn’t it!

      Reply
  7. marlish glorie

    Great post, Natasha, and I agree with you. I think the ability to keep on going no matter how you feel about yourself or your work, is critical to future success. However I also think it’s more important to develop the “habit” of writing as opposed to being discipline, or setting unrealistic writing goals, only to fail. Writing for 5-15 minutes every day is doable for most people. I advise my students to develop the habit of writing. And that to quote an old Spanish proverb – “Habits are first cobwebs, then cables.” Try and break those cables.

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      Yes Marlish, habit is a great word and it’s so important. It’s what got me though the days of writing when the kids were babies, knowing I’d formed the habit of writing when they had their afternoon naps and that, every day, I’d sit down at 12.30 and write as much as I could until they woke up. So long as you have some time, most days, anyone can get a book written.

      Reply
  8. Penelope Whitcombe

    Great topic, Natasha.
    Have been struggling with both of late after getting close-but-not-close-enough with some work I submitted in a competition. A lot of ‘why am I…?’ have been clattering around taking up valuable head-space since. It is yet to dissipate.
    Your blog is a healthy tonic. Reading other writers opinions and experiences is grounding and inspirational.
    Writing is about self-discipline and self-belief and commitment and passion and allowing your mind to always stay open to what you are capable of achieving. It is also about accepting the periods of self-doubt and acknowledging these times can be used to strengthen your skills.
    Thanks for putting the ‘healthy stuff’ out there.

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      It’s very normal to have those feelings, especially after getting close but not close enough to something. And it makes it much harder to find the motivation to sit down and write at those times. So glad you enjoyed the post and good luck with getting back into the swing of writing again soon.

      Reply
  9. nickywaywrites

    I have been thinking about this a lot this week. Self-belief is important but it will only take you so far. Having the self-discipline to keep writing and keep coming up with the ideas even when there is no monetary reward yet associated with it, for me, is crucial. If I didn’t have the self-discipline I would have given up so many times over the last few months.
    I am starting back in at freelance writing after a long break during which I have kept up my blog sporadically but not much else. So part of my journey back to my job has been writing and having published some unpaid articles in exchange for current samples of my work on my blog. Some days I have no idea what direction my blog is going. Some days I have no idea why I keep interviewing people and writing pieces with no financial return.
    Sometimes I think why do I bother? Will I ever get something published and paid for?
    BUT the answer to my negative nelly voice is this, you’ve been paid for your writing before, you will be paid for it again. This is self-belief BUT it is using this self-belief together with a very strong dose of self-discipline that keep me showing up to do the writing until the reward turns up. AND it is your piece Natasha that reminded me of that so thank you very much!

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      Yes, we do need both, don’t we? You’re so very right. We can do all the believing in ourself in the world, or all the not believing in ourself in the world, and none of it makes a bit of difference unless we keep plugging away at the writing. That’s what makes the biggest difference in the end, turning up, sitting down and writing no matter what’s going on or how we feel or how much we doubt. Best of luck with it all Nicky, I have no doubt that you will find your way forward and be back in the swing of lots of paid writing very soon. x

      Reply
  10. Kathy Ayers

    I’ve been plagued with self-doubt and lack of confidence since about 1987 when I first moved to LA to study screenwriting. I realize that I never learned to actually voice any opinions, much less have confidence in my “voice.” But nevertheless, I’ve keep trying to break through and reach some kind of understanding that I WANT a voice. I may not have one developed yet, but I want one. So I wrote purely from lack of self-belief. The only belief I had was that if I kept going, something would change — hopefully before I die while any of this still matters! I’m in my 50’s now. This year, I was chosen by Colorado’s major state newspaper to be on the “Colorado Voices” panel — purely public opinion about anything that interests us. My first glimpse that 1) I have a voice, and 2) it might be of some interest to anyone else besides myself. I’m now in a screenwriting class that’s accelerated beyond anything I’ve ever endured. There’s no time whatsoever for self-doubt. I should say, self-doubt is irrelevant. You just make up stuff every day and keep going. The whole point of the class is to not succumb to self-doubt. Just write literally anything that comes to you so you get a first draft in 30 days. It’s incredibly freeing. So I’m with you, Natasha. Self-belief or doubt is what it is, but self-discipline gets words onto the page!!!!! I love your writing, I love your gentle but straight-forward manner — I love everything about how you share with your readers.

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      Thank you so much for your lovely comment, Kathy! Sounds as if you’re having a terrific year and are lucky to be in an incredible class that is doing wonderful things for you as a writer. I wish you all the best with it and can’t wait to see where all of that self-discipline gets you – somewhere amazing, I’m sure.

      Reply
  11. Monique Mulligan

    I feel like the self-belief is there at the moment an idea sparks to life … and then mid-way through, the questions come up that make me doubt myself. I’m learning to keep going.

    Reply
  12. Nicole Melanson

    I really like this post. For me, self-discipline is the only thing that matters. We writers are always going on about being taken seriously and wanting others to respect that what we do is actually work ie. a real job. And the fact of the matter is that most jobs mean showing up and doing the work, and worrying about whether or not your boss / client / coworkers believe in you; self-belief doesn’t come into it so much. So I think it’s important to approach writing the same way — show up, and leave the judging to everyone else.

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      I love the way you are so pragmatic about it! And you’re right – writing is a job, like everything else. We have to sit down and do the work, otherwise we have nothing to believe or not believe in.

      Reply
  13. Gina

    Thanks, Natasha. Yes, sure ‘bloody mindedness’ that’s what keeps me writing also. Thanks for your valuable words and good luck with your third book.

    Reply

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