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III. How Academic Writers Regain Confidence

Apr 02, 2015 by Amy Benson Brown

The number one way to grow your confidence as a writer is to write. In other words, taking action, rather than mulling over every doubt, is critical. With each completed projected, you build a track record that demonstrates your capability. Being able to look back on the conference papers, articles, or books you have finished is the most potent inoculation against the disease of self-doubt. But how do you develop that track record?

First, it helps to realize the limited usefulness of the term “confidence.” For instance, I might feel absolutely confident that if I, like the heroine of the novel Wild, tried to hike the Pacific Trail, I wouldn’t make it back alive. That example shows that confidence refers to the strength of our beliefs, but it doesn’t convey much useful information about the specifics of those beliefs. Cognitive psychologists instead use the term “self-efficacy” to describe the factors that affect our estimation of our own ability.

Self-efficacy is closely linked to the concept of agency—your ability to act to effect change. Psychologist Albert Bandura famously argued that people with a high sense of self-efficacy look at a difficult task as something to be mastered and thus are more willing to tackle it and persist until they’ve completed it. This school of thought says you aren’t born with a high or low sense of self-efficacy. Your experiences, the way you perceive others, and your self-perceptions continue to shape your sense of self-efficacy over time. The complexity that underlies your sense of self-efficacy is actually good news because it means your beliefs about your abilities can change.

Ironically, one of the best ways to change your beliefs about your own abilities, including the ability to write well, is to try to set those beliefs aside and move into action. In other words, rather than acting in accordance with your beliefs, act despite your beliefs. Self-perception theory contends that your behaviors can actually change your attitudes about yourself, including your sense of self-efficacy. For authors, this means shifting your focus from fears about writing to a focus on regularly sitting down to write, no matter what. As the poet Marge Piercy explains:

The real writer is one who really writes. . . .
Work is its own cure.
You have to
like it better than being loved.

(Excerpt from M. Piercy, “For the young who want to” published in Circles on the Water: Selected Poems of Marge Piercy, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982).

I believe that the work of writing is indeed the most effective and lasting “cure” for a lack of confidence in writing. This cure, though, is definitely no quick fix. Strengthening your sense of self-efficacy as a writer requires sustained effort over time. And, as Piercy’s poem suggests, it demands focusing on the work itself more than the admiration or accolades you may hope the work will bring. It also requires a willingness to accept the discomfort, even the pain that can be part of any difficult, creative labor.

Luckily, the majority of your writing process probably will not involve such high drama. Most of the experience is much more mundane. The most effective process for developing finished manuscripts is a highly habitual one. Writing at a set period of time every day or at least four or five days a week is the surest way to develop that writing track record I mentioned at the beginning of this blog.

This next blog in this series further explores why it’s important to be able to separate the feelings the work of writing generates in you from your core beliefs about your capacity to excel in this work.

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