• How Do You Self-Sabotage?

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in ABCs of Writing     Comments 47 comments

    self-sabotage as a writer



    Discussion questions: In what way(s) do you self-sabotage as a writer? How do you avoid self-sabotage? Those times when you can’t manage to avoid it, how do you set yourself right again?




    I did a weird, weird thing Sunday.

    It was deadline day for a flash fiction contest. For weeks I’d had a story prepared, one I really liked. I considered sending only that story, but the guidelines allowed two submissions for one entry fee, and I knew my Depression-baby dad would spin in his grave if he knew I’d passed up on a 2-for-1 deal. His favorite word was BOGO.

    So as the deadline approached, I fiddled with this, tinkered with that. I wrote three more stories, and I despised them all. Equally! And I couldn’t help but wonder if the awfulness of any one of them would take some of the shine off the good one.

    But I had to choose one. BOGO.


    Self-Sabitage Sabatoge

    As I was retyping the chosen story into my submission doc (part of my revision process), I made a typo. It was an interesting typo, a Freudian typo, something befitting the theme of the story.

    So I broke the fourth wall and began writing about the typo. And then typos in general. And then my family.

    Then I started writing about the story I’d been trying to write, exposing my fears about it.

    “The story I was trying to write, before that typo tripped me, is super-dumb,” I wrote. “You’re probably the same person who read the other one I submitted. I like that story. Do you? Please judge that one alone and forget this ever happened. That story shouldn’t be guilty by association with whatever this has turned into.”

    I like that story. Do you?

    Haha, what?!

    At that point, all hell broke loose. By the end I was pasting passages from a book I’d abandoned three years ago. I intentionally went over the maximum word count, and closed with this:

    “The good news is, I’m far over the word count max! Thank you for reading it anyway.”



    In other (briefer) words, I made certain that my story had a 0% chance of winning, and then submitted it.

    It would’ve been just as easy — easier, even! — to just finish and send in the original version of the story, which, while not good, at least would’ve had a not-zero (though a not-far-above-zero) shot at winning.

    So, why did I do this? I’m sure I’ll never know. As soon I hit “submit,” I sat back, stared at the page, and said, “Wait, what just happened?”

    I did get some stuff off my chest in the piece, but there was nothing prohibiting me from getting that stuff off my chest in my own journal and submitting the actual story for the contest.

    It was some form of self-sabotage I’ve never before experienced.


    Your Turn

    I imagine each of us has experience with at least one, if not most (all?!?!), of the more common forms of writer self-sabotage:



    Intentionally breaking a routine

    Abandoning project after project

    Not asking for help, or asking for too much help

    Self-criticizing into paralysis

    Which of these forms of self-sabotage are you most prone to? Do you fall prey to any that I didn’t include?

    How do you avoid self-sabotage? Those times when you can’t manage to avoid it, how do you set yourself right again?

    Let’s talk about it below.


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    WriteByNight writing coach and co-founder David Duhr is fiction editor at the Texas Observer and co-host of the Yak Babies podcast, and has written about books for the Dallas Morning News, Electric Literature, Publishing Perspectives, and others.


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    Far and away my biggest method of self-sabotage is procrastination. And I know I put off working on a writing project because 1. I do not want to work, I want to be entertained; 2. I do not believe I can do a decent job on the project.  For me, it comes down to believing in myself. That is, I tend not to. I’m sure this is a common feeling among writers and probably is at the root of all writing self-sabotage.  When I get past procrastination it is usually through the “tricks” I have developed over the years. These… Read more »

    Sid Kemp

    Raymundo, how about an online writer’s group dedicated to self-actualization – becoming more active, better writers? I’ve been thinking of starting one. And I’ve seen what you post here, and I really appreciate your style and approach.

    Please reply here if you’re interested – and that goes for anyone who sees this.


    I lead an in-person writers group that is all I can handle. Good idea, though, Sid. Perhaps you can interest a few other posters on this forum.

    Sid Kemp

    Thanks, Raymundo. I’m sure you’re writer’s group is a great place to be. And I’m going with the flow and seeing how people respond to my idea of a high-end online writer’s group/course steered towards becoming better writers.

    Vivian Cumins

    Sid, tell me more! I am looking at joining an online writer’s group. I am writing a book and have recently launched a blog. I think I may benefit from this.

    Sid Kemp

    Hi Vivian!

    Sid here. It’s a pleasure to e-meet you. Please email me at sidkemp02@gmail.com and I’ll get you the info about my groups.


    Visualizing. Role-playing. Just something that works for me. I don’t know why. Like that movie, “Trumbo.” It was about communist witch-hunting in Hollywood in the 1950s, but the scenes that impressed me where those where Dalton Trumbo was pounding out scripts on his typewriter and sending the manuscripts out to producers.


    Yes, I can appreciate that image as an inspiration and as fodder for a scene. And you lived it! It’s like the related image of the songwriter plinking at a piano, making notes on a sheet of music, with a bottle of whiskey at hand (I think Bon Jovi portrayed this trope in a video). I can’t imagine the music produced was that good, but it is conceivable an artistic egg was laid to be hatched later. There’s something to “write drunk, edit sober.”


    True story.

    david lemke

    Before I get to any level of sabotage, my production dropped like a microphone since Trump when Fascist and Covid took over the world, and has refused to bud out this spring. I don’t think I’m a saboteur to my writing per se, but what I do do is even though I know in my heart promotion is critical, I can’t make me do any. My sales figures show off that I can’t afford a happy meal. Maybe if I had to live on my writing, I be not only more productive, but I might do something to call attention… Read more »

    david lemke

    Back when I was in school I wanted to go to college at UWM Madison with an art major. (I joined the navy to get my tuition paid for and to avoid the army. I’d taken the entrance exam and was accepted. The navy and I had disagreements so I didn’t get my planned for education.) My thoughts at the time was to become a fine artist as opposed to being a commercial artist. I’ve always had that type of thinking; that art had to remain pure, (instead of selling cigarettes) and that I didn’t need to advertise. Beyond that,… Read more »

    Vivian Cumins

    David, I am going through this right now!! I recently launched a blog. I did so for a few reasons: 1) I felt ‘called’ to provide a place where people could go to write, share, and preserve their memories (goodness knows we need some positive things these days!) 2) I wanted to get my writing out to the public, and 3) I thought perhaps this could be a platform for when my book is published (in another year or sooner??). At any rate – I suck at self-promotion! I am struggling with bringing people to my blog. I don’t know… Read more »

    Sid Kemp

    First of all, David, thank you for your honesty. I’ll come to the question of my methods of procrastination shortly, but first I want to break the rules and tell a story of a time I self-sabotaged I share this story, David, because it is very similar to your own, but I came to see the reason that my Creative Soul had to do what it did. Sometimes a writer grabs a dragon by the tail. In such times, letting go and delivering within the word count is not an option. I took a course on Magical Realist fiction in… Read more »

    Sid Kemp

    Oh, and one more thing I do that has been great for me. I self-publish fan fiction (about Tolkien and, soon Narnia too) here: https://archiveofourown.org/users/SidKemp

    Comments and accolades on these really bring me a light of inspiration deeper than fear.

    Sid Kemp

    Thanks, David. I appreciate the simple affirmation that we are here to share stories. Also, it’s good to look at these details together. It’s a way of continuing to discover the stories in us – stories that become fiction and the ones that become our writing lives, as well. I agree with your first two paragraphs if I add a note I feel is necessary: It is not always possible to deliver the item with a deadline within the time available. For my college final story, I recall clearly that, not only did I need to add the extended rant,… Read more »

    Sid Kemp

    That’s been my experience, David. I’ve found the organizing useful in five ways: Deciding to do it and doing it were commitments to finishing works in progress. That was key to bringing an end to writer’s block. Deciding to leave certain works behind gave a definitive focus on working on the ones I keep in front of me. Having the list in front of me, I can review it in a variety of ways. I can see what my own themes, genres, and character qualities are, and understand myself better as a writer and a person. I can look at… Read more »

    Sid Kemp

    My wife, Kris, makes a regular habit of the print-out-and-proof approach. I live online. My equivalent is to open the doc and (with careful saves) either leave it open or have it on my recent list pretty much all the time, as well as having the doc folders up with listings much of the time.

    I sometimes start my evening reading by rereading one of my own fanfiction stories on https://archiveofourown.org/users/SidKemp or by opening a doc of a story on my computer. I’m trying to do this more.

    It is good to keep our work in front of us.

    Sid Kemp

    This reminds me of something I used to do for my nonfiction books. I never thought about doing it for fiction, but I think I’ll give it a try. When I was under contract and I got the cover art for my book, I would print it out and tape it on the front of any old book and feel it in my hands. I would think, “This is what I really want.” That would make the book feel real to me and keep me going for the long haul. I’ll try this for my novels and stories with my… Read more »

    Elissa Malcohn

    First, hugs. That self-sabotage story made me go, “Oh, no!” Second, your choice of photo dovetails wonderfully into my current read (Madhouse at the End of the Earth by Julian Sancton). I don’t know that I self-sabotage, exactly. I don’t think I’ve ever missed a deadline for something I either wanted to go after or something I was contracted to produce. I have submitted some awful pieces that I didn’t think were that bad at the time and that years later made me go LOLwut before LOLwut was invented. I’ve abandoned numerous works, but I view them as failed experiments rather than as self-sabotage.… Read more »

    Elissa Malcohn

    Quite the opposite. Right now I’m where I want to be, and unlike in the past that means writing, but not necessarily for submission. Decades ago I put myself under pressure to write and submit, which made the droughts downright awful. It also got me published, but sometimes that served only to ramp up the self-pressure (and occasionally pressure from outside, when I was invited to submit pieces, especially when I felt I had nothing in me). I’ve got two WIPs right now. Framed (written on the same template as 366, but with additional restrictions) is not meant for submission. It’s purely experimental and… Read more »


    My biggest self-sabotage is wondering if anything I write is even worth it.

    Barbara Mealer

    I am a procrastinator, dragging my feet at completing things that I know I need to do. I can write a book in a month then drag my feet at editing, publishing and marketing. Even though I know how to do it all, I will find something else to do, like the dishes, cleaning the house, etc. You want to learn how not to do something, I’m an expert in the subtle ways of not getting it done–like check the email and answer them all, do research, update my facebook page, Type up a newsletter but not send it because… Read more »

    Mary J.

    I had a “less than” person hiding in my closet for years. She regularly sabotaged me, my writing, my – everything! But that was before I discovered her crouching inside my head, and drug her out into the daylight. She put up quite a fight but has well begun to dissipate. At one time, I actually excelled at, and suffered from, self-sabotage, until I accepted that nobody’s perfect, and most could/would overlook the slip of a tongue or of a wayward finger on a keyboard. In fact, I now mostly find it amusing. Mostly! Today, if my saboteur displays an appearance, I remind myself that… Read more »

    Nancy Timmins

    love it!

    Elissa Malcohn

    Just saw this and thought it a propos. Julia Wick (metro reporter for the LA Times) tweeted, “Nothing will ever beat the telegram that Dorothy Parker (a patron saint of blown deadlines) sent to her editor at Viking in 1945.” 

    Mary Jeffredo

    Look you in the voice? Love that!

    David Duhr

    She had a way with words.

    Pia Manning

    I’m in the marketing/pr swamp. Had a book release in April. It’s done fairly well, considering my marketing plan relies on the social media blast my publisher puts out, and begging. Many kind folk had me as a guest author on their blogs. I had (sorta still do I guess) a blog. I hated blogging-either promote your book or try to come up with some random topic or other and hope someone actually reads it. Then someone told me I needed to promote and market my blog.(No. Just no.) I’m exploring a website site in the hope that it might… Read more »

    David Duhr

    Swamp is right. I hope you have some strong, absorbent towels. Why can’t the rest of the process be as enjoyable and fulfilling as the writing itself?

    Nancy Timmins

    Back in college, we read The Fall of the House of Usher. Our professor then gave us a list of questions to comtemplate and discuss. I had not been in an English class in over 25 years. I was sort of lost.The professor asked, “What was Roderick Usher’s problem.” I had no idea what the theme was, what the messages were, or what his problems. I was over my head in Comp & Lit 2. I was a nursing student, so I wrote a clinical sketch, complete with a provisional diagnosis, the format a psychiatrist would use to summarize a… Read more »

    Mary Jeffredo

    So agree with the above words! I’m in a writing class (a different one). It’s still “Fiction Foundry” but a different group. So far I’m really enjoying it. With my, up till now, inadequate computer skills, I’m capturing two birds with one cage! (I wouldn’t throw stones at birds!) Should know if I’m accepted into the class by end of month. Let’s see if I pass the critique/editing test. Wish me well?

    Vivian Cumins

    My absolute biggest method of self-sabotage is perfectionism. I even wrote about it in my own blog. I have had perfectionism ‘issues’ since I was little. I share a story there that talks about my first memory of having to be perfect. It is quite frustrating as a writer. I am working on a book and now a blog, so coming up with copy on a regular basis is about putting me over the edge. Feedback I get from others say my work is good; so that is a positive. If they only knew the stress I go through to… Read more »

    Vivian Cumins

    Here is the link if anyone wants to read about it…

    Would love your thoughts, please comment.x