• Let’s Talk About Our Writing Fears

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in ABCs of Writing     Comments 74 comments

    Discussion questions: As a writer, what are your biggest fears? Where do they come from; how do they manifest; how do you combat them? Do you try to hide from them, or do you face them? Can fear be used as a tool? Do you have anyone to share your fears with? Let us know in the comments.


    A couple of weeks ago we had an excellent discussion about the importance of having a writer friend to turn to. Someone who not only listens to our anxieties, frustrations, and fears, but understands them, because he/she has been there (or is there now; or is always there).

    A few days ago, my own writer friend sent me an email. The subject line read “Admit It!” and the email itself was only eight words long, and went like this:

    “I’m actually becoming a worse writer every day!”

    It made me laugh. That’s exactly the kind of thing we can say only to each other. I didn’t even respond, because I know him well enough to realize he didn’t need, or even want, a response. What he did need was simply to throw those words out there at somebody who gets it.

    Somebody who shares his fears.


    As writers we’re offered a wide range of super-fun and colorful fears to choose from. Fear of lacking talent. Fear of success, fear of failure. The fear that nobody will read our work; the fear that everybody will read our work. The fear that we won’t even finish our work.

    Having too much education but not enough life experience; having too much life experience but not enough education.

    Not having anything to say; having too much to say. Not knowing how to say what we want to say.

    Rejection! Rejection by agents, by publishers, by publications.

    And if we’re lucky enough to make it past those gatekeepers…

    Rejection by readers! Rejection by critics!

    And what in the holy f*ck is a semicolon?!


    I want to reproduce here the text exchange I had with my writer friend, the one I used in the post two weeks ago. This time, count the fears:

    Him: I emailed you something to read. Feeling real sweaty about it … Where’s the chapter you were going to send?

    Me: I have a draft of Chapter 2, but I fear it’s garbage.

    Him: Oh, that’s my fear about my thing. Should I hire an editor or a shrink?

    Me: A shrink for sure.

    Him: Would you please read it for me soon? I’ll never ask you to read these opening pages again, I promise. I don’t know how I dare burden you with them again.

    Me: I should be able to read them Friday at the latest, tomorrow [Thursday] if we get lucky.

    Him: Oh please tomorrow, if you value my sanity. Today I felt so good that I had come up with SOMETHING. But now I’m not so sure.

    Me: I think that’s just our lot.

    Him: Your book is going to be finished and winning awards and I won’t have finished mine.

    Me: At this pace my book will be done by 2045.


    There are so many! We even use the actual word twice.

    My writer friend is “feeling real sweaty” about his new pages. The fear of lacking talent.

    I say my second chapter is garbage. Again, the fear of lacking talent. Or not using talent successfully. The fear of being disappointed with my own work. Or the fear that he’ll be disappointed with my work, and so I’m laying the foundation in the hopes that it will cushion the blow when he comes back and says, “Yes, yes, it’s hot garbage.”

    “Should I hire an editor or a shrink?” The fear of being unable to accomplish writing success on his own; the fear of going nuts while trying to write a novel. (Which is kind of a crazy thing to do, isn’t it? To write a novel? Why do we do that?!)

    “I’ll never ask you to read these opening pages again, I promise. I don’t know how I dare burden you with them again.” The fear of asking too many favors; the fear of burning someone out on our work.

    “Today I felt so good that I had come up with SOMETHING. But now I’m not so sure.” Obvious.

    “Your book is going to be finished and winning awards and I won’t have finished mine.” How many fears can one person pack into one line?

    “At this pace my book will be done by 2045.” The fear of never being able to finish.

    And I didn’t even mention the bad feelings I got when he wrote “Your book is going to be finished and winning awards.” Winning awards? What if I win a Pulitzer or some shit!? That means a speech. And interviews. Probably a reading tour. I can’t handle that!

    Et cetera. You get it. My writer friend is riddled with fears, and so am I.


    And so are you, probably!

    So let’s talk about them. Tell me about your biggest writing fear, or, let’s be honest, writing fears. Where do you think they come from? How do they manifest? How do you combat them? Do you try to hide from them, or do you try to face them?

    Can fear actually be useful? Can our fears be used as fuel? Have you found a way to work with your fears instead of against them?

    Tell me all about your fears in the comments below.

    If you’re brave enough!


    WriteByNight 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.

    WriteByNight is a writers’ service dedicated to helping you achieve your creative potential and literary goals. We work with writers of all experience levels working in all genres, nationwide and worldwide. If you have a 2019 writing project that you’d like a little help with, take a look at our book coachingprivate instruction and writer’s block counseling services. Join our mailing list and get a FREE writer’s diagnostic, “Common problems and SOLUTIONS for the struggling writer.”

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    Barbara Mealer

    The fear is what keeps you improving. I’m always afraid all my stuff is garbage, yet I’ve gotten some decent reviews. Now that I do have a few other writers to critique it, I know it’ll be better, but…after reading their writing, I’ve returned to being my own worst critic. Yeah, my fear is not being good enough and everyone giving bad reviews (Like the one who said one of my books was full of errors while no one else mentioned any issues including a professional reviewer. The person was wanting the one book I haven’t marked down for free.)… Read more »


    Good advise! Fear is not all bad. It may get a bad rap at times. But if I think about what scares me….it sometimes makes me stronger. Thanks for sharing. Fear is not a bad thing.

    stephen Glick

    Barbera Ihavent yet jumped off the edge and handed over my writing to anyone other than my coach. Igrow weary of my non finished book and scared of my new project. All the best stephen

    Barbara Mealer

    Stephen, there comes a time when you have to push that child out into the world. It will NEVER be perfect. You make it the best you can and move one, learning as you go. My first published book is horrid. I know that but I’ve gotten some good reviews on it. Nothing outstanding, but people enjoyed it. You keep reading, practicing, learning and soon you find that your work is decent. Being my own worst critic is one of my downfalls and I had to learn that my writing actually readable and people enjoy it. I’m not a Hemingway,… Read more »


    You know, you made me realize that I am comparing myself to some great famous writer. I think one of the things that can really constrict my writing and make it less enjoyable is my own self-criticism and perfectionism. Just do it. Keep practicing. Such good advice. Thank you.


    My goal is to write a novel for middle graders but that would have crossover appeal to adults, much like Harry Potter does, so I compare myself to JK Rowling of course and that gets way out of control. I can’t even begin to pick up a pen when I start worrying I’m going to have to meet Sam Elliott (I cast him in one of my roles). Seriously, I wouldn’t actually want to be quite that successful. I think I compare myself to all the authors of some of my favorite classic books from when I was that age… Read more »

    david lemke

    Hi David. I think I must disagree about your Dybek attempt. Without getting too Freudian, my guess is that you’d colored you expectation to much to see it’s good qualities. Also it was a first draft and all first drafts are crap. The real question is; did you enjoy the process of writing it?


    Thank you for the Dybek. I have lots of down time at work lately. Never had heard of him. Chicago! Oh, I spent a lot of time there. Looked up two of his poems–random: Clothespins, and Angelus. He has a new fan!

    David M Inverso

    My fear is that my father’s disapproval of writers is unshakable. I could win my hundredth Pulitzer and be so sought after for interviews that Oprah would come out of retirement just to have me on her show. Still, from the time I put fingers on the keys at 16, my father would sigh, shake his head and remind me that writers are nobodies, that a real person would get a doctorate in veterinary medicine like him and be demonstrably useful to the world. I was given hope by a TV movie about Alex Haley’s disapproving and actively discouraging father… Read more »


    Totally! I was born to be a writer. However, my mom remarried an attorney when my biological dad passed away. And he offered me about two choices in terms of what I should be when I was an adult. Choice A. I can become a nurse Or there was Choice B: I could becomeva teacher. I did not FEEL very motivated to become either one of those, to say the least. And I also heard WRITERS, WELL, THEY do NOT make money. I am so curious what Stephen King’s parents told him when growing up? Did James Patterson’s dad remind… Read more »


    I gave up all hope of a “real” (makes a lot of money) career when a very good and very nice lawyer friend of mine told me that going to law school feels like having your head ground through a pencil sharpener. That I will never forget. Being a writer is so much more fun for the brain! Who cares about the money and the success. I was so glad I did not go to law school, which had been my first career choice! (Stephen King’s parents were probably scared of him.)


    I have a brother like that. I had to distance myself from him but haven’t cut ties completely. I think his constant criticisms have showed up in more than one way in one of my ‘villains’. I no longer talk to him about writing or even that I write. It’s amazing how powerful those negative messages can be. Hopefully we can use them for motivation. I really like that sentence of yours, by the way–the last one. Says it well.

    David M Inverso

    No, thank YOU, David, Brigitte and Susan, for understanding. I do write to prove him wrong. But now I need a posthole digger to throw it back in his face. ;-)

    david lemke

    I feel that pain. I was never an open person. I never even considered telling my parents that I ever wrote anything.
    My dad graduated from the third grade and never read anything more literary then comicbooks.

    Kris Lindbeck

    The vividness of what you write here . . . I feel it in my gut, your father’s lingering disapproval.
    You are so clearly a writer, and a good one.


    If I were to discuss my writing fears…I would first have to admit, that I have many fears and so when it comes to writing…it is the one place where I feel the safest. Although, I may be afraid to write something stupid or something people cannot relate to…I often find writing to be very therapeutic. It is not so much that I feel afraid to write, but perhaps the fear lies in the unknown. What is the reader going to think about what I wrote? Is the reader going to judge me by what I am writing? Maybe I… Read more »


    Thanks for reading. I enjoy hearing from others and how they felt after they read my thoughts.
    Thanks so much.
    Grateful for the small things sometimes.


    I think I have all the fears you’ve mentioned. Mostly I fear publishing (or posting) work that is wrong in some way, or that just stinks! And then a fear of criticism arises because I don’t want confirmation that it stinks. Certainly all this comes from insecurity, which writers must suffer more than most. I find, though, that my fear lessens the more I focus on the work and less on myself (though I’m really good at fear and don’t need lessons). Input from others during the drafting phase can also help, so long as it’s input I trust. I… Read more »


    Yes, content mistakes, getting a fact wrong, and such. A fear stemming from perfectionism, I suppose.


    I usually sweat the small stuff. When I self-published a book of short stories, my old writing teacher let me know that referring to it as an “anthology” was incorrect because all the stories were by me and not several authors. So I had to change some blurbs. Then, a few years ago, I posted a review of “World Made by Hand” and said the central mystery in it was ambiguous and unsolved. Well, it wasn’t. Nobody called me on that one, though. And then, in a newsletter, I announced the marriage of a couple of our writers group members,… Read more »


    Hi David, I would have to say “all of the above.” I have them all, and there’s one or two more. One is, like, “Fear of Success” sub-type and that’s fear of having to do appearances and interviews, and I have nothing to wear to those! I will look bad on camera and I will say something weird. Second one I vaguely recall was an answer of mine to another question you once posed. This one is a subtype of “Fear of Never Finishing” and it’s a fear of not being able to stop–forgetting to sleep, missing the alarm, being… Read more »

    david lemke

    Some writing conferences have open mike and the exibitionist in me prevails. One of my fantasies was to appear on Carson or Letterman or Opra, but now I can’t.

    david lemke

    Agreed. also you can add the lack of physical exercise that happens when we write a lot. Plus one more fear; that I don’t spend enough time with family.


    I have that family guilt thing a bit too. One way that I’ve mended some small rifts there, lately, has been to ask a couple of them to be readers and when they share in what I’m doing they become much more approving and when I talk with them about writing, guess what, some of them have started projects of their own and we support each other’s creativity. (Doesn’t work with the supercritic brother, though) One of my sisters even thinks of my little girl heroine as a member of the family.

    david lemke

    I love that. She must be a great character.


    I’ve been following your newsletters but was unable to share. Major life changing event when my husband passed away as February ended. Haven’t been able to at myself to writing other than letters crying for help how to deal with what’s happening. So fear about my writing. Mostly not being able to finish even the project I’ve worked on for about two years . I know that’s not long but age is a reality I have to consider. My health is good but one never knows. Life troubles keep getting in my way of finishing anything. I get disconnected, spend… Read more »


    Hi… I had forgotten about writing here but nothing new . I’ve been forgetting often. Thanks for your kind words. The letters I wrote were to friends or family member that my husband passed away. Those were difficult ?.my Reader, Chris for nearly three years no, told me she wrote letters to her mom after she passed and that helped her. I journaled while Fred was in the hospital. But when I’ve read it I see that I didn’t write much about what was happening with him. His ability to talk diminished during February so limited conversation. And I know… Read more »

    david lemke

    Sorry for your loss.
    Writing takes as long as it takes. I started “Intrusion” in 2006. Ionly finished it a few years ago. The next ones will go faster.


    Thanks, David. I wonder if as you’ve experienced could happen for me. Some of my delays have been caused by finally ‘ getting it’s ‘ about characterisation and expressing emotions. When I thought a piece was finished, comments were ” flat characters” , which meant I had more to learn.

    david lemke

    in my first draft, I don’t care if my characters’ are flat. In the second draft I enrich everything; sharpen dialogue, concern myself with the motivations, bring characters alive, hide the gun in the bottom drawer in chapter 3, think about theme, character arc, tighten plots take stuff out, and more. First draft? Get the story down on paper.


    Just to add to David L’s comment, grieving takes as long as it takes also. Last time I had a major family loss I wrote a lot of letters too. Years later I can read them more objectively. Save them.

    Hans De Léo

    My biggest fear in writing is likely common among writers, and that is that I will publish something before going through enough review cycles and getting bad reviews. My first novel went through 3 review cycles and I wish I had more time to send it though again a few times before pulling the trigger. At some point I had to make the decision that whatever revisions I put in after the last review were good enough. Book 2 is currently in its third review with a different set of readers than the first 2 times. The key for me… Read more »

    david lemke

    Somewhere I’ve read that that many poets revise there poetry even years after publishing, often totally changing its meaning and feel. That novelist don’t do that is sad, because it’s only based on the difference in size and cost which no publisher is willing to take on. What with epublishing, could novelist revise their work even more often than nonfiction writers and never declare a novel ever actually done?

    david lemke

    I didn’t write anything earlier because I wanted to think on it a bit. This may be weird, but if you don’t expect weird from me by now… I don’t fear death for several reasons: I’m a Buddhist and I helped people with past-life regressions, so I came up with the epiphany that, if I’ve lived before, I will probably live again. Though I don’t fear it, I would find it very annoying, if I died before some of the stuff I’ve been working on is finished and out there. What I think about, with trepidation, is that my judgement… Read more »


    Okay, so I’m setting aside my fear of sounding stupid and asking: what’s a pantser?

    david lemke

    Not stupid at all! I think I heard it first about a year ago.
    If you want to put writers in boxes; there are two kinds; those who outline and those who write by the seat of their pants, pantsers. This has created wide dissention with angry heavily armed troops on both sides of the trenches blasting away. It’s not pretty.


    That’s funny and could probably be a story or a comic strip.


    A writer who composes without any written plan. Just plunks themselves into whatever their seat or comfortable place to write and just writes . I don’t do much handwriting cause of ostioarthritis but also compose readily typing. As wordy I am commenting here, I am on the computer keyboard. Currently on cell phone.


    So I went back and read your discussions and enjoyed them very much. Vonnegut was a huge deal when I was young (oh, wait, I still am); me, my friends, family read all of his books and then Kilgore Trout’s as well. You make we want to go back and revisit them.


    “When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.” Kurt Vonnegut


    I’m a pantser too. Like your description of your reaction to suggestions to do an online ?.

    david william lemke

    5:00 this morning I woke up with a key missing part of “2084,” the novel I’ve been working on. I was afraid if I went back to sleep, I’d forget it so I got up and wrote it down. I’m 82 pages into it. I add the missing thoughts of the main character to page one that will “make” the book, “thoughts of vengeance” This affects the character, his arc, colors his thoughts, dialogue and actions. If I had outlined the novel, since I hadn’t had that key epiphany, well, I never would have done anything with it. I never… Read more »

    david lemke

    We are all deluded; not just writers, everybody. Also, though we think we are logical, every judgement choice and decision we have ever made is colored by emotions, circumstances, external impingement within and beyond our notice. If you’ve written the greatest work since Plato and your agent is reading on the subway with an unwashed whatever lurking next to her, even though she didn’t consciously notice the smell she may hate your submission, but if her day is good, and the coffee is good she might think, “This is genius!” So while we’ve “learned” in work and school and life… Read more »

    Marcia Drut-Davis

    I’ve faced rejection over and over. It’s part of the human experience! Yet, that rejection has been a catalyst that sent me on better paths to fulfillment. After being interviewed on “60 Minutes” to discuss my choice to remain childfree, I faced rejection from friends and family. I even lost a beloved teaching job through the ignorance of pronatalism. Seeing a picket line when I spoke with people waving signs that shouted, “Godless Bitch” sent a tsunami of emotions. How could they label me without knowing me? Seriously? From a personal choice? If that wasn’t enough, the death threats to… Read more »


    One thing I actually find quite ‘Godless’ is invoking God’s name to label someone else’s lifestyle or politics or values! Besides, aren’t a lot of spiritual leaders unmarried and/or without children? As for that other word on the sign…we have to grow up now and rise above that sort of name calling.


    I wrote a manuscript in the form of an outline in 1993. I didn’t finish writing the book until 2019. The fear that I had was a little different. I was afraid that I would be killed for writing the true story. I still am, but not near as much these days. I was very passionate and driven about writing the story so I finely finished. Right now, the book is in the hands of Atmosphere press and Write-by-night will be doing the proof read of the book in the next month or so. The book is called ‘Heat in… Read more »


    Well, I was involved with and had a major roll in a sophisticated blackjack cheating scam in Las Vegas for ten years. Some of the mafia owned casinos didn’t like us much. We were very difficult to stop and that upped the ante a bit. We were truly scared of these places and writing the story may of had life threatening consequences during that time. The story takes place from 1980 to 1990 and the mob still had had a strong presents in Las Vegas. I knew that some time had to pass before I could write and publish this… Read more »

    Anonymous Guest

    I have no writing fear

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