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Imposter Syndrome: Fighting Self-Doubt as a Freelance Writer

Carol Tice

Imposter Syndrome - fighting self-doubt as a freelance writerI was recently asked what the biggest obstacle is for talented writers who want to earn well as freelancers.

Well. First, let’s say what the big problem isn’t.

It’s not living in a small town without a lot of good prospective clients (it’s a global marketplace), and it’s not the ‘bad economy’ (which officially rebounded several years ago).

It’s not that you’re too old, or too young, or that you don’t have a degree in a related field. I have seen many committed freelance writers overcome every one of these issues.

The most massive problem is the one between your ears.

Fears that we don’t “have what it takes” haunt us.

Self-doubt gnaws at our guts.

Take this note from Adeline, for instance, a writer who commented recently in my Freelance Writers Den forums about her reaction to getting her writer website done. I’ve edited this down a bit:


“When I saw that it was my name at the top and my words on the screen, fear gripped me like a pit bull. I suddenly felt like this whole freelancing thing seemed so out of reach for me.  I wanted to shut off my computer and say ‘faget about it!’

“Who would take me seriously?  Who is going to actually pay me good money to write some words?

“If someone actually did need my services, would I be able to come through and get the job done? Or would they say, ‘I could have done this myself.’

“In that moment, I felt like a joke. The idea of actually marketing myself scares the crap out of me. Even though I’ve done copywriting, grant writing, and websites in the past, but mostly for relatives and friends, so I look and feel like such a novice.”

The curse of imposter syndrome

I have heard from so many writers with this problem. They’ve written for clients, they know they have writing talent…and yet the little devil sits on their shoulder and whispers, “You’re not good enough to make it.”

You feel like a joke, and you think no one will take you seriously.

But the problem is not how other people may react to you.

You’re worried that no one is going to take you seriously for one simple reason: because you aren’t taking your own freelance writing aspirations seriously.

Then you project that out into the world, and deduce that others won’t take you seriously, either.

How to not be a joke

Luckily, there is a proven way to fight imposter syndrome. You can start taking yourself seriously.

You can take concrete actions that demonstrate that you are serious about your freelance writing career. As you do them, your confidence will build — and you’ll be able to put yourself out there in a more professional way.

Here are a few specific ways you can change your self-concept as a freelance writer and begin taking yourself seriously:

  • Dress up and go network. That’s right — put on a power suit and go meet people. In person. Say, “I have a freelance writing business,” when they ask what you do. Have business cards. Go home realizing that everyone who met you at that event now perceives that you are a professional freelance writer. Bet it changes the way you view yourself, too.
  • Write a lot. I meet a lot of wannabe freelance writers who hang around my blog, take my classes, and years later finally confess to me that in fact, they have not yet *started* writing. If you’re serious about this, then bulletin: Writers write. Nearly every day. Get going.
  • Make time to learn. If you feel like a fraud because you don’t know how to write better-paying types of assignments, then make it your business to learn. Investing in your career shows you take it seriously.
  • Write the heck out of your writer website. Stop bemoaning that you don’t have much of a portfolio, and create a powerful writing sample with the copy you write on your website. You can audition for gigs with that.
  • Get your clips. Like many writers, Adeline seems to have decided much of her past work doesn’t qualify as legitimate. Oh, but it does. Claim whatever you have, even if you wrote it for the student newspaper. You’ll improve your portfolio from here.
  • Stop acting desperate. Know what professional writers do that wannabe writers who feel like frauds don’t do? They qualify their own prospects and do proactive marketing, instead of sending resumes to Craigslist ads. They negotiate. They say “no” to gigs that are priced too low. If you need a side job to make this fly for now, so be it. But stay out of the cesspit of cruddy jobs that sap your self-esteem.
  • Treat it like a business. When you take this seriously, you are not a creative type following your muse. Have you registered your business name? Got a tax ID for it? Take steps that legitimize your business in the eyes of authorities. Then, run a business. Think about your branding. Do a lot of marketing. Keep track of what’s happening — how much did you earn last month? What’s owed you right now? What are your expenses? Track your trends to grow your business. The figures may be tiny now, but tracking them will motivate you to make them grow.
  • Record a new tape. If you’re just starting out, then you’re exactly where every super-successful freelancer you admire once was. We all started with no experience and no clips. Do you think Bob Bly is a joke? Of course you don’t. But it’s only an accident of time that he is not you, a brand-new writer with no portfolio. So stop running yourself down, and write some positive statements you’re going to tell yourself. Say, “I’m a beginning freelance writer, I know I have talent, and I’m going to make this my career.”

It may seem impossible that changing your attitude could make a big difference, but it will.

If you take your writing seriously, the world really will respond to that. I know because it responded to me, a college dropout songwriter with no legitimate claim to earn a dime writing an article. And look what happened.