Positive Writer

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How You May Be Sabotaging Your Gift to Write Words That Matter

As writers, we are by our very nature, critical thinkers, but for some reason we don’t think too much about the ramifications of our own counterintuitive self-talk.

All too often we allow doubt to rule over us and take command of our gift to write words that matter. We tend to think that the harder we are on ourselves the better we will become. We challenge ourselves and, unfortunately, to do this most of us are drawn to using reverse psychology. Hey, even some of the greats have advised it.

But what if reverse psychology is one of the many tools doubt uses to cause you to stall, and even, give up?


Fellow writers, we may be incessant thinkers, but we are also the most doubt ridden people in existence.

We wouldn’t believe we could hold a pen between our fingers if we didn’t see it for ourselves and even then we might question it (I have).

By thinking such things as, our first draft is crap and our writing initially sucks, we hope to relieve the pressure of doubting ourselves and con ourselves into writing something meaningful.

Here’s the problem, what happens, if (and when), the opposite happens and we buy in to our own words, believing our first draft really is crap and our writing does suck? I know, I know, you’ve been told countless times to stop being so serious, but the advice given in replacement might not be as helpful as you think.

The reason counterintuitive advice is so attractive is that it appeals to our inner doubt, it caresses and sooths it. Unfortunately, it feels so right and so good, that we use it without questioning it.

The first draft of anything is shit.

― Ernest Hemingway

Do you know what doubt wants?

Doubt wants you to believe you suck and it wants you to believe your work is worthless. It will leave you alone if you believe the lies it tells you, or so it seems. So why in the world would you give in to it by saying words that essentially reinforce it?

Answer me this question, if you do not believe that your writing is worth something, then why bother?


In order to muster the motivation to overcome both doubt and well intended reverse psychology, you might need a good strong drink.

Interestingly, few of us consider that some of the great writers who originally gave such advice were also addicted to alcohol or drugs, or both.

I might catch heck for writing that last line, but it’s true:

“Ernest Hemingway. F Scott Fitzgerald. William Faulkner. John Cheever. Patricia Highsmith. Truman Capote. Dylan Thomas. Jack London. Marguerite Duras. Elizabeth Bishop. Jean Rhys. Hart Crane. These are among the greatest writers of our age, and yet, like [Tennessee] Williams, their addiction to alcohol damaged their creativity, ravaged their relationships and drove many of them to death.” – Credit The Guardian

If you have an idea of how an addict thinks and what motivates them, you’ll understand why they use counterintuitive methods to manipulate themselves.

Oh, and they sound so great, those methods, because they have an overall calming effect on our doubt. That’s why we are drawn to them like moths to a flame.

What Doubt Promises

“You’re not any good. If you give into this belief, you’ll be able to let go, write freely and create your best work.”

“You’re first draft is total shit, really. Don’t worry about it so much, let go and type words that don’t matter and they’ll turn themselves into a masterpiece. It will be the next Great American Novel.”

Yes, you’ll be able to let go alright, but it will be of your self-confidence and your overall self-worth. I’m no therapist, but my goodness, it’s no wonder so many writers become alcoholics.

Writer’s doubt is an insidious beast that will steal your gift to write words that matter!

(Tweet this if you agree.)

Here’s a sober quote from Mental Health Therapist and addictions counselor, Jim LaPierre: “To varying degrees, alcoholics live in denial of their destructiveness (self and others) and this further distorts what they are able to make sense of.”

So if using reverse psychology hasn’t worked for you, maybe that’s why. Just because someone is famous, it doesn’t mean all of their advice is helpful, especially if it may be what that person used to counter other demons.

Allow me to be clear, mentioning that some advice has come from some famous people who were addicts isn’t a dig on them (we are all human). Rather, I think it’s important to realize that their ways of coping are not as helpful as it might seem.

The biggest problem with using counterintuitive reasoning is that it typically works the first and second time, because anything new can provide motivation. But when we become stuck and continue to use it without realizing it’s repercussions we can end up worse off than we ever were.

I discovered the hard way that there’s a better way and that’s to practice truth through optimism and stop using reverse psychology.

3 Ways How I Stopped Using Reverse Psychology

1 – “My first draft is shit.” I replaced with: “My first draft is the most important draft and I will write it with full consideration of how relevant it is.”

This effectively redirected my focus to writing something that matters. It is impossible to care about something repulsive, but it is possible to care about something that is relevant and meaningful.

2 – “My writing sucks.” I replaced with: “My writing matters.”

It’s hard to care about something when it sucks.

What. YOU. Write. Matters.

Believe it. You need buy-in. You won’t create anything that matters to you unless you have 100% buy in. This simple adjustment had a profound effect on my attitude towards writing and I know it enabled me to become the prolific writer I am today.

3 – “I’m not very good.” I replaced with: “I am getting better every day.”

I used to say I wasn’t very good to save myself from letdown, and it worked. If I wasn’t very good then I didn’t need to expect what I produced would be worthwhile. But if I admit I am getting better every day, then I am getting better every day.

No Overnight Success

These changes didn’t happen overnight and what seems simple can be quite challenging. It took work and commitment, two words doubt absolutely hates.

Doubt wants you to believe everything should be easy. It’s so much easier to give in to the self-degrading subterfuge. Don’t do it.

Whenever we use a strategy to overcome doubt we need to realize it’s probably too good to be true if our doubt quickly becomes calm or even, silent. Like a good shot of whiskey, it will initially settle your nerves, but it only lasts a little while before you need another.

On the other hand, if you use a strategy that makes your writer’s doubt scream and rage in protest, you’re probably on to something legitimate. Doubt has a sinister way of making what’s possible seem too exhausting, and it will do everything in its power to get you to give in to it.

It becomes obvious how sinister and deceptive doubt really is when you finally shine truth on it, don’t you think?

An experiment:

Consider at least one thing you constantly say to yourself that is intended as reverse psychology. It doesn’t matter if it is about writing or not, just something you know in your heart is not true, but you tell yourself it anyway.

Got it? Now, if you’re feeling brave, write it out in the comments and then write an opposite, optimistic version next to it. Then intentionally choose which version you are going to stick with.

There’s something about writing out the reverse psychology we use that helps expose it for what it really is. Go ahead and try, even if you’re not ready to share, consider doing the exercise for yourself.

Your. Words. Matter.

They really do.

About Bryan Hutchinson

I'm a positive writer and when that doesn't work, I eat chocolate. I help fellow writers overcome doubt and thrive! In my free time, I love visiting castles with my wife, Joan. Join me on Twitter and Facebook.

  • ralphwh

    Thank you, Bryan! Great advice. I really like your 3 ways to stop using reverse psychology. Being only 5 years from the age that Hemingway ended it, his way of looking at things were becoming too grim for me to be effective. You continue to provide a breath of fresh air to all of us who struggle every day. Thanks.

  • “No one will want to read this.” Replaced with “Maybe someone needs to hear this. Even if what I say helps just one person it is worth sharing.”
    Great post, Bryan! I really appreciate the encouragement you give to writers. You help us see what we have to say really does matter.

  • Katherine Nell McNeil

    Ok Bryan…I am going to take your challenge. I have two books that are partially done. Every time I sit down to work on them I stop. My severe ADHD and OCD takes over. I become overwhelmed and then start to worry “why in the hell write when I don’t have the money for someone to edit my copy as I go. This is due to my disability in the area of writing. So, I will try because what I have to write does matter.

    • First, great to hear from you Katherine! You know I have a lot of familiarity in that area and you know where the experiences I write about come from, so trust me when I say letting go and writing is about knowing what you write does matter. With your knowledge and experience I know your books will be a valuable addition and people NEED to read them. Put the editing to the side for now and enjoy the process of writing the first draft. Seriously, enjoy it.

  • coolspirit

    “Why continue to write new music when I have a closet full of CDs yet to sell” …

    I have new music within me, the best is yet to come, I will write because that is what I feel passionate about and feel called to … thank you for the reminder Bryan! http://www.mariannkesler.com

    • Absolutely! The best is yet to come. I remind myself of this truth, too.

  • M Sarkar

    Good post, Bryan. If only chocolate would have been invented before wine, the world might have been happier 🙂

  • Joanne Hansen

    Thanks for putting words to something that’s been bothering me for quite awhile. One popular author who has a strong presence on social media does this self-flagellation a lot. It seems counter-productive and adds to the perception that one must be tortured to be an artist.

    • Joanne, the reason a LOT of public speakers do this is simple: It’s easy buy-in. It’s sad, but true. And to be honest with you, most people don’t realize the effects and truly believe it’s helpful.

  • Erica Bennett

    Thanks for some words to think about. One thing I usually told myself to get me through NaNoWriMo this year was, “Even if nobody ever reads this, I still need to write it.” Now that I think about it, that statement does seem to put the pressure of obligation onto my work and in some way encourages me not to share it; the only way NO ONE would ever read my work is if I keep it all to myself and not share it with ANYONE. How miserly is that? Maybe a more positive statement would be: “There is someone out there who wants to read this, and I want to share it with them.”

    Thanks again.

    • That’s a great statement, Erica. I’d go one step further and state “There are people out there who want to read this and I want to share it with them.” because I know there are more than one. 🙂 Keep writing.

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  • George McNeese

    I believed the best writing came from emotions; that it was the best way to connect with the character. If I was sad, my character was sad; if I was angry, my character was angry. Problem with that philosophy was that if I was emotional, The last thing I wanted to do was write. Or, it was difficult to connect with my character because I didn’t have a clear head. I had to sit myself down and tell myself I am going to write something, anything. Whether it was a paragraph or a page, a journal entry or a short story. I have to carve out time and dedicate it solely to writing, no matter how I was feeling.

    • “I have to carve out time and dedicate it solely to writing, no matter how I was feeling.” Same here, George! So important.

  • Katina Vaselopulos

    I decided to go ahead and publish my Sailing to Ithaca, despite the fact that I had many doubts and limitations, because deep down I knew that touching even a handful of people would be a great accomplishment and a blessing.

  • Sal Majak

    it’s been a while since the last time i was on this site XD
    i loved the article, you live up to your name as a positive writer Bryan, this was really inspiring

    • It’s always great to hear from you, Sal. I hope you are doing well and that you are continuing to write?

      • Sal Majak

        taking a bit of break actually, math is killing me XD but i’ll get on my horse soon i hope 😀

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  • Ann Marie Thomas

    I only just found this buried in my email inbox, so I’m a bit late to the party, but I wanted to share. People say that first drafts are shitty need to clarify what they mean. Writing is art and craft: the art is in the first draft, when you create a whole world full of people and their adventures out of your own head; the craft is when you take that story and craft the words to tell it in the best way possible. First drafts are beautiful stories that just need a lot of polishing.

  • Gina Butz

    I was skimming this article until I realized that what I was taking away was the thought that you were encouraging us to become alcoholics in order to write better. So I took a more careful look. 🙂 Thanks for the encouragement to examine my self-talk about what I write. We really do become what we think about ourselves.

    • Oh, gosh, no! The opposite, actually. 🙂 Glad you took a closer look.

  • “I don’t look (on the outside) like the best version of myself. I don’t look like the person I was made to be or that I want to be.” –> “[But,] I’m doing something about it, and I’m getting better every day.”

  • Terrie Coleman

    Bryan, you rock! Thanks.

  • Really great post Bryan! Needed this today – I use reverse psychology way too much and I need to stop and remember that my words matter 🙂 thanks.

  • Bryan, wow! Thank you for sharing this. I’ve been trying to figure out why my first draft matters to me so much. This article explained my subconscious to me I guess. But in other areas of my life, I have used reverse psychology way too much. Thanks!

  • Jay Warner

    Bryan, just the message I needed to hear today, even though you may have posted it months ago. The message that runs through my head is “what if I’m not as good as I have been telling/promising people I am?” I have had trouble with self-worth issues since I was a child, and I’m beginning to realize that my writer’s block or procrastination or inability to follow through and finish what I’m working on, is all based on my belief that I am not worth reading. Evidence points to the contrary. I will get off my pity party and finish the book. It’s the only way to prove to myself that I am wrong and wasting more time on that inner negative voice is neither productive nor healthy. Thank you for pointing me in the right direction.