How low self-confidence can reduce the quality of your writing

Both inexperienced and experienced writers attend my writing workshops to learn how to improve their writing skills. Some of these students display a distinct lack of confidence in their writing and describe themselves as poor writers with statements such as, “I am not a very good writer” or “Writing is something I have never been very good at”. Being aware that your writing needs improvement is necessary in order to improve, but lacking in confidence also means that you have negative thoughts about your writing ability. Not only does this lack of confidence stem from a lack of experience, but is exacerbated by professional pressure to write well.

Writing for an audience is a type of performance, similar to getting onstage to sing or act or to give a talk at a conference. Performance anxiety is common for artists and performers and is based on the fear of appearing incompetent. Similarly, many writers that lack confidence may suffer from a form of performance anxiety and fear to appear incompetent or inexperienced. Writers who regularly suffer from low-self confidence could also suffer from “imposters syndrome” which is defined as, “…a false and sometimes crippling belief that one's successes are the product of luck or fraud rather than skill”.

Not only can low self-confidence make it difficult to improve your writing, it can hamper efforts to improve your professional development and advance your career.


Examples of how low-confidence can adversely affect writers

- Not applying for the ideal job. Having well-developed written communication skills is a key selection criteria for most science-based professions.

- Spending too much time editing and rewriting in an effort to be absolutely sure that each and every sentence is perfect. This habit of inefficient writing leaves less time for other tasks.

- Overusing the passive voice when presenting your conclusions or the implications of the findings of your study. While the overuse of active voice is also problematic (for other reasons), passive voice can obscure the identity of who is making certain conclusions and it may mask any unique contribution you have made to your research. For example, saying “It was thought that X+K = B” leaves the reader unsure whether, (a) it was the author that thought this, (b) it was another uncited author that thought this, or (c) this fact was simply common knowledge.

- Not submitting a paper to a high-impact journal for fear of rejection or not re-submitting a paper to another journal if first rejected by the initial journal.

- Reducing the integrity of your research by using overly cautious language when presenting your findings, even when you have strong supporting data.  For example, writing “This study’s findings may prove to be important when considering the impact of diet on gut microflora”, instead of “Our findings are important when considering the impact of diet on gut microflora”. Writers often overuse cautious language when they fear criticism.

- Reducing the integrity of your research by using overly cautious or apologetic language when describing the limitations of your study. While it is wise to always mention any factors that limit how widely your findings can be interpreted, it is important not to use apologetic language. While it is important to mention factors that might reduce the robustness of your data, it is important to be confident when discussing the design and execution of your study. If you are not confident in the design and execution of your study, then get extra feedback from your supervisor or colleagues about whether to rewrite your limitations.

Avoid labelling yourself as a poor writer

Categorising your skill level is problematic if you aim to improve that skill. If you label yourself as a poor writer it may be difficult for you or your peers to change how your ability is perceived. Instead,  

  • Acknowledge the parts of your writing that are good and gain confidence from this and
  • Identify the parts that need improving and work at improving these skills.

Generally-speaking, self-confidence in your writing ability will build as your writing improves but allowing yourself to feel self-conscious about the quality of your writing may make it hard for your writing to improve. Rather than worrying about your current skill level, commit to continual self-improvement and aim to feel satisfied with what you have achieved so far.

In the next blogpost I discuss how to build and maintain your confidence as a writer. I also have two short video lectures on the topic of confidence in our new free facebook group Q&A Sessions. Click here to join the group.

© Dr Marina Hurley 2018 www.writingclearscience.com.au