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Woman lying on the ground: self sabotage for writers
novel writing process
motivation

How to Overcome Self-Sabotage for Writers

Alice Kuipers. Author and The Novelry Team Member
Alice Kuipers
April 21, 2024
April 21, 2024

Self-doubt, overwhelm, procrastination, perfectionism, technical challenges and comparison—sound familiar? You’re not alone.

In this article, author and writing coach Alice Kuipers offers concrete tools to overcome self-sabotage for writers, including the six most common forms. 

What is self-sabotage for writers?

Fear gets in the way for so many of us writers, stealing like a thief into the story and taking your confidence. To avoid fear, we stop writing, or it becomes a chore. The book is a burden, the challenge of writing it enervating, the story stolen. You know that only you can write your book but you are shaken; perhaps you give up entirely.

This is self-sabotage.

Most writers experience some form of self-sabotage on their writing journey—perhaps you’re holding off on starting a project, or dancing from idea to idea. Perhaps you’re knee-deep in your to-do list, or you’re stymied by the feeling that you just can’t write a book at all.

But we’re here with advice from our incredible team of writing coaches to give you tools for six forms of self-sabotage that writers commonly encounter.

To help you discern if you’re experiencing one form or another, we give some clues as to what your self-sabotage might sound, look, or feel like. Then we offer concrete tools followed by advice from our team so you can get back to the book that only you can write!  

1. Overcome self-doubt

Every writer has a little voice in their head and sometimes it can get very loud and negative. Self-doubt might sound like this inside your mind:

  • I can’t do this
  • I’m not a writer
  • I don’t have the right education
  • I’m never going to finish...

Here are some concrete tools to try:

Confront the negative voice and turn it down

It isn’t easy, but once you learn to listen out for your negative voice, and anticipate it, you are more able to tune it out.

Find your Flow trigger

Flow triggers are a mechanism to initiate your writing session. These are specific to you: perhaps the same playlist, or the same mug, or the same routine gets you ready to write. At The Novelry, we work with you to help you find an hour a day for writing, which helps you find your Flow, helping your self-doubt fade.

Accept that self-doubt is very common for writers

Sometimes we have to accept it and return to the page anyway.

Advice from The Novelry team

“I often ask writers if the internal voice is driving them forward or stopping them writing. If it’s stopping them then they can politely (or not politely, depending on the moment) ask it to step to the side until it thinks of something useful to say.” — Mahsuda Snaith

“I am an Olympic standard self-saboteur. As soon as I find a way to get past myself I ditch it. So Pomodoro worked for a bit...and then I start resisting… In short, I have to keep evolving my hacks and laughing about it. I mean, I’m on Book Seven so it gets done in the end, doesn’t it?” — Kate Riordan

“Feeling self-doubt doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong. It means you’re a writer.” — Libby Page

2. Overcome overwhelm

Life is busy and full for many of us—work, families, pets, responsibilities. Your book becomes something else on your to-do list, often dropping to the bottom and so not getting written at all.

Overwhelm might sound like this inside your mind:

  • I don’t know what to do next and my book is too hard
  • Life is very busy right now and I can’t think clearly
  • I’m confused about what’s next in my story and I don’t know what to write next or how to move forward with edits

Here are some concrete tools to try:

Careful planning

Planning what you’d like to write next—the next chapter, the next scene, the other half of the sentence you left unfinished—can help you cut through the overwhelm and get back to the page. Carve out your writing time with the same dedication you give to all the other things on your to-do list and see if planning helps.

Reduce deadline pressure

Deadlines that are too intense can crush our creativity. Try taking the pressure off. Add a month, or two, or twelve to the timeline you’ve given yourself and see if you find yourself back at the page.  

Take a break

Sometimes life is overwhelming and it’s true that too much is going on. Work on taking out the things you can from your busy, exhausting schedule, and if that needs to be your book for a short break, then promise yourself a date to return, and pause.

Advice from The Novelry team

“I think self-sabotage is often fear based, so writing out those fears can help—it’s often things that are about the future rather than now: i.e. who will even want to READ THIS??? So, then it comes to tiny steps—writing a paragraph, that leads to another—with that as a goal, rather than worrying about the overall outcome. As always, I’m good at giving the advice and completely forgetting it when I’m in bogs of writing despair!” — Mahsuda Snaith

“I keep a running list of things I know I’ll need to fix in revisions while continuing on as though I’ve made those fixes, which allows me to park that urge to revise off to the side. And as an added bonus I have a preliminary edit list at the end.” — Andrea Stewart

“I call it sneaking up on myself. I trick myself that I’ll just read over, maybe edit a bit, then I get going. Also, I always leave a sentence mid-thought, which is easier to pick up next day rather than facing down a blank page.” — Amanda Reynolds

“Accept that this is not a writing time. But my story isn’t going anywhere. When life really takes over, I find that sometimes the only way is to very proactively put the writing to one side. It’s easier said than done but there are days in our lives when life should take centre stage. By accepting that and actively choosing to take a step away from the page for a while it can help with those feelings of guilt. Today is not a writing day so you do not need to feel guilty for not writing. And often, taking a proper break like that can mean you come back to the story refreshed and actually with brand new ideas…” — Libby Page

3. Overcome procrastination

Closely related to overwhelm, this form of self-sabotage is common for writers. Many of us know it well, and it can look like:

  • Infinite scrolling
  • Taking on more at work or as a volunteer or with your other responsibilities
  • Doing extra laundry
  • Late bedtimes so it’s impossible to get up early (one more episode of your favourite show…)

Here are some concrete tools to try:

Use tools to defeat tech/your foible

Our coaches suggest some below.

Remember the Struggle phase is REAL

In order to get into Flow, there is a short Struggle phase. This means that you will feel uncomfortable for the first seven or eight minutes when you sit down to your writing task, but avoid picking up your phone or distracting yourself and be patient. That phase will pass and you’ll find yourself writing if you persist.

Notice if one of the other self-sabotage issues is keeping you from the page

Procrastination can be a symptom of one of the other self-sabotage issues. Pay attention to what’s really going on with you.

Make your book the place you want to be

Sure, streaming services are fun, but if your novel is more fun, then it becomes more tempting. Which leads to… treats!

Advice from The Novelry team

“For me it’s several things—Freedom on the computer to shut off the internet, Forest on the phone to shut off the internet (with the added benefit of growing a little virtual forest), and accountability to others, even if it’s just telling people online that I’ll have something done at a certain time.” — Andrea Stewart

“These things help me: Freedom app, to block the internet. Letting people know when my writing time is to minimize texting, calling, etc. Printing out revision notes and then spacing them out into bullet points, so it seems more manageable. Making my office a real haven with plants and flowers, a beautiful coffee thermos and water glass, and chocolate in my desk drawer. Bribes. I mean, um, rewards and incentives.” — Gina Sorrell

“I used to eat a chocolate chip every 500 words.” — Andrea Stewart

“I write at the cafe with no internet and leave my phone at home. If I bring my phone it’s game over.” — El Lam

“I am so guilty of picking up my phone ALL THE TIME. I have to put it somewhere else to have a chance of focusing!” — Lizzy Goudsmit Kay

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4. Overcome perfectionism

This sticky form of self-sabotage makes it very difficult for any writer to move forward. It can look like:

  • Rewriting the first chapter over (and over)
  • Watching every lesson (again)
  • Fixating on one sentence
  • Not starting the next draft/section
  • Not beginning at all...

Here are some concrete tools to try:

Let go!

Embrace messiness and trust the writing process. A first draft is not the last draft, nor should it be. Promise yourself you’ll fix it later.

Release the judgement

Remember, all novels take editorial insight, and our team will help you get your book where you want it to be at every step. Write your draft with us.

Advice from The Novelry team

“Keep an eye out for if you’re writing and rewriting (and rewriting…) the same scene ‘until it’s perfect’. This is particularly common with first chapters. I use a cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) technique—if you’re reworking the same scene constantly, wear an elastic band or hairband on your wrist, then snap it (ping it) and say NO. Time to move on!” — Katie Khan

“An author needs to get out of their own way to write convincingly about humankind. As John Steinbeck put it, ‘And now that you don’t have to be perfect you can be good.’” — Louise Dean

5. Overcome technical challenges

The craft of writing is hard work on many levels. All of us have the potential to learn more as writers, to hone our technical skills. But sometimes, our frustration with a challenge on the page gets in the way of writing. Struggling with technical challenges might sound like this inside your mind:

  • I’m not up to the task in hand
  • I don’t know how to do this
  • I can’t do X/Y/Z, so I quit
  • The way forward is impassable
  • I am a terrible writer and a failure...

Here are some concrete tools to try:

Work intentionally on only one skill

Don’t try to fix every technical issue at once, instead take the time to learn new skills with patience.

Read, read, read

Notice exceptional examples of technique in the work of writers you love. At The Novelry we do this by using our 'hero book' method, which helps you learn and improve as a writer as you read.

Walk away then sneak up on your novel

You might find that it’s better than you thought, or that you can see the way to improve the part that wasn’t working.  

Learn from the greats

Catch Up TV at The Novelry is your friend. We have content on every aspect of writing craft to help you write better as you hone your story.

Read your work aloud

It sounds different when you do this, giving you clues for next steps.

6. Overcome comparison

This insidious form of self-sabotage can be very damaging for your writing life. Comparison might sound like this inside your mind:

  • They are further ahead than me
  • They have more success
  • They are a better writer than I am
  • They finished their draft and found a publishing deal
  • Everyone is better than I am...

Here are some concrete tools to try:

It’s your path and your journey

It’s important that you find yourself in your unique story. It makes your book better, puts the ego to one side, and sets you free.

Use comparison only if it’s helpful

Perhaps comparing to a peer inspires you to work hard, and write better, so use your own ambition to improve your work then let the rest go.

Remember, a writing life is a roller coaster

There are ups and downs for every writer—successes and disappointments. For most writers, being on the page gives you a steady calm to deal with it all.

Take time to look after yourself.

Advice from The Novelry team

“I’ve found the more I employ self-care, the better I do. So, if I have two hours of work to do, I try to spend at least an hour on myself beforehand, showing myself the love and care that I need.” — Melanie Conklin

“I think the biggest thing for me is my emotional connection to the idea. If that’s strong, and the world of my novel is a place I want to be, then more often than not I’ll feel good about being at my desk. I guess crucially I’ll feel like I’m the right person to be telling that story (while also having no delusions about that process of telling necessarily being easy…) so I’ll be less likely to falter. Maybe a good question to keep asking oneself is ‘what do I love about this story?’ Almost like a kind of gratitude journaling for novelists.” — Emylia Hall

Final words on overcoming self-sabotage

We hope this gives you some tools and advice to help you when self-sabotage is interrupting your writing flow. We’re here as coaches to support your writing at any stage. You’re not alone, so remember, we’re cheering you and your book on!

We’ll leave you with a further piece of general advice from our founder, Louise:

On Sunday mornings, I consider the outline for my story. I collect the various ideas and musings I’ve had during the week. I put my philosophical asides aside in a separate folder. I run through why I’m writing this story—what’s important to me about it, my theme (though I don’t call it that yet). Nothing is more important than that. In my case, I go back to the things that pull my heartstrings:

💔 The main character is someone’s child and deserving of love (regardless of age).

🖼️ A vision or image that moves me; something that shows what I would like the world to be like in a glimpse, usually the high point of the story in terms of what I want to say; hope, faith and charity! This will be the big scene of the novel.

🧙 A benevolent guide for goodness in place and

👿 someone strongly opposed to the plan for story drama.

So, first, I pack what I care most about.
— Louise Dean

For one-one-one help writing your novel, join us on a creative writing course at The Novelry today. Sign up for courses, coaching and a community from the world’s top-rated writing school.

Someone writing in a notebook
Alice Kuipers. Author and The Novelry Team Member
Alice Kuipers

Alice Kuipers is the bestselling, award-winning author of five novels, and six books for younger readers. She has been nominated for the Carnegie Medal. She is also a bestselling ghost writer experienced in writing memoir.

Members of The Novelry team