Imposter Syndrome: Fighting Self-Doubt as a Freelance Writer - Make a Living Writing

Imposter Syndrome: Fighting Self-Doubt as a Freelance Writer

Carol Tice | 51 Comments

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.



51 comments on “Imposter Syndrome: Fighting Self-Doubt as a Freelance Writer

  1. Jamie Cassata on

    You’ve captured this “imposter syndrome” perfectly, Carol. And some helpful suggestions–thanks.

    “Fake it ’til you make it!” is powerful advice for me in this beginning stage of my writing career.

    As for self-confidence: seems to me that self-confidence is largely a choice. I choose to be self-confident. If I admit that other people and circumstances outside my control determine whether I’m self-confident or not, well…then I’m just not self-confident.

    I control whether I believe in myself and my abilities.

  2. Sham on

    Going through articles on writing tips and starting to build up a series of your own articles from scratch, all in a space of few months and yet doubting yourself;- that’s a serious self doubt! But then it makes you happy at heart to know, when you come across the fears of so many out in the dark unknown that we are all facing the same devil, and yet it is so easy to make him our friend – it certainly lightens up the air and makes you sure, today or tomorrow or the day after you will make it! The fight begins! Thanks.

  3. Elke on

    Going sideways can help enormously. I’m a professional writer – have been for a few years now. I don’t have a big local profile as I write for international magazines, visible on subscription only. But recently I made my very first, very short, film, scheduled for broadcast on national TV – adverts have already been airing. As a result, I have been talked about on local radio, including about my writing skills. And suddenly, I am perceived as a significant writer locally and have my choice of gigs here, there, everywhere.

    This is the power of TV!

    • Carol Tice on

      Yes, it’s amazing how one high-profile gig can change things. For me, that was starting to write for Entrepreneur — all of a sudden, I had a steady stream of small-business clients who wanted me to write for them, too.

  4. Amanda Thierry on

    Thanks for such an inspiring and motivational post. This is just what I needed to hear today.

  5. Evan Jensen on

    Really appreciate your candid discussion on this topic in The Den and this post. Self-doubt can really hinder success, if you let it. In the ultramarathon world, there’s a phrase runners like to use: “Relentless, forward motion.” If you’re too beat up to keep running, walking, shuffling, maybe even crawling, will get you closer to the finish line than standing still hosting a personal pity party about your aches and pains.

    I think the phrase “relentless forward motion” applies to building a successful freelance business too. Taking postive action to help grow your business and writing skills will help you reach your goal. I’m on my way thanks to the kick in the butt the Den has given me.

  6. Gail Johnson on

    Amazing how, even though I’ve proven my writing ability (and in fact have been paid for it), I still doubt myself. Still I’m seeking out articles like this one and other motivation to keep me moving forward despite my misgivings. The key is to just keep moving no matter what. Deep down I know I can make a success of this, otherwise I wouldn’t have ventured out in the first place.

    • Carol Tice on

      Great point you raise, Gail — that’s what fascinates me. I rarely meet a writer who’s decided to do this for a living who isn’t talented. Most have been getting positive feedback on their writing since grade school…and yet, we think, “No one will really pay me just for writing words.”

      Bulletin: Writing words is HARD. Lots of people would rather be shot than have to attempt it. That’s why they hire you!

  7. danielle on

    I would say I do need some confidence for my writer’s voice to be heard. I’d say all writer’s need a push. It’s good to know that we are all on the same wavelength. That’s how we can help each other.

  8. donia on

    Hi Carol.
    You are so right on about the insecurities we face as writers. I followed your advice about queries and I make it a point to do at least three a week, more if I have time.
    Most get responses from editors if not outright assignments.
    Yes, I was nervous about it but figured if I didn’t do SOMETHING then I wouldn’t ever reach my goal about being taken seriously as a writer. Thing was, I had to take myself seriously as a writer before anyone else would. I now have at least one article, and often more, published each month in different magazines and find I am getting assignments from the same magazines on a repeat basis. I found a couple of special niches and gear my queries to magazines that need that type of writing. It takes time, research and determination to get where you want to go, but if you keep it up, you’ll get there!

  9. Laurie Stone on

    I also suffer from Imposter Syndrome. I’ve written two novels, have had essays published and keep a blog, but the thought of putting on that power suit terrifies me. You’re giving me more confidence, however. Thank you.

    • Carol Tice on

      That’s really sort of funny, if you think about it — and that’s one of the reasons I tell people to do in-person networking. It really gets you out of your shell, and LIVING this career. I don’t really care if you get any clients — the exercise is really for your HEAD. Saying, “I’m a freelance writer” to people over and over is powerful for your own self-concept and self-esteem.

  10. Mike Johnson on

    New writers may not realize it, but they want the journey more than the results. The journey gives you the experiences, learning and confidence that turns you into the person worthy of gaining the results you want.

    Once you’ve become that worthy person, you can replicate the results forever.

    “You are never given a wish without also being given the power to make it come true. You may have to work for it, however.” – Richard Bach

  11. Marissa Richardson on

    I think a good way to overcome feelings of insecurity is to think about what you can do and how you would give your abilities a title. For instance, maybe you don’t call yourself a freelance writer but a content marketer or content specialist. Those titles imply that you are good at SEO, which is very important for businesses with an online presence.

    Furthermore, if you have experience with boosting the ranking of your own website with your content, that will also give you confidence that you are offering something valuable to clients. Accomplishments, however small, can really help.


    • Gail Gardner on

      Hi Marisa,

      That is what I thought, too – until Kristi Hines mentioned that putting freelance writer in her profiles and bio attracted more inquiries.

      • Marissa Richardson on

        People should do what ever works for them. That’s why we test and experiment with different things. There’s no hard set rule. The idea is to keep making changes based on what’s successful. But these are just my passing thoughts I wrote here.


        • Elke on

          So true. And what works for different people can very much depend on where they live – which nation, which city, etc. I live in Australia in an isolated place with many natural tourist attractions. Therefore, I am forced to seek work outside my immediate realm, but at the same time, using means to access work associated with tourism can also work for me.

          • Marissa Richardson on

            Absolutely. Also, if I had the ability, I’d do extensive research on what works for people in different countries, cities, etc. That would make for an interesting read.


  12. Clyde on

    To put a little more detail into the path from insecure to insecure self-image:
    You don’t have to start immediately saying out loud that you’re a competent writer (although that must be the ultimate goal). Moving from actively denigrating yourself and your writing out loud (“Oh, I’m just dabbling with words. I’m not a real writer.”) to not saying that junk out loud (silence) is a valuable first step. First, don’t self denigrate. A vacuum in the space of self-talk will begin to form. Work (hard) not to revert to the denigration and start filling the vacuum with positive affirmations. Nature abhors a vacuum and I guarantee that if you don’t fill it with garbage you will find some treasure to fill the space. If you’re a well practiced self-denigrator, you have a long way to go before you go too far and get grandiose and self-delusional on the positive end of the scale (You’ve already been self-delusional on the negative end.)

  13. Anton Roder on

    This article really resonates with me. I started in January and did some work and was reasonably confident I was good enough, but the big doubt for me came when I landed my first long-term client:
    Then I started worrying whether what I was doing was good enough. It was only after doing about 10 articles for him that I started to relax a bit and realized that if I wasn’t good enough he wouldn’t be using me.
    It’s like that saying: Whether you say can, or you say you can’t, you’re right. And this applies to being professional or not: Whether you say are or you say you aren’t, you’re right. The first step is simply to decide you’re a professional writer.

  14. Elizabeth Hanes on

    Spot on, Carol! For what it’s worth, a lot of successful writers never shake those feelings that go along with imposter syndrome. I think a key difference between a successful writer and a novice is simply that a veteran has learned how to push down those feelings and persevere in spite of them.

    • Carol Tice on

      You got it, Elizabeth. I write about this sort of topic a lot because I AM one of those people who was really haunted by imposter syndrome. I kept waiting for my staff writing career to implode because I wasn’t ‘qualified’ and was going to commit some terrible mistake.

      And of course, I did make terrible mistakes. But I lived to write another day.

  15. Amy Butcher on

    I have totally been going through this lately! “My clips are old!” “They don’t apply!” I kept getting into this mindset, and it was getting me down. So a couple of days ago, I decided to take the time to put all of my old clips from my university newspaper days and put them all on one of my websites. I even posted the article I wrote for Article Writing Masterclass. (So what if it wasn’t for a publication? Who’s going to complain?) And I keep writing on my blogs. I said to myself, look you have six or seven good clips and samples. You have about 15 blog posts and articles. That’s not nothing. And seeing them all in one place is a very good psychological motivator when writing LOIs and pitches. I’m glad a finally did that. And that I read this post! 🙂

    • Carol Tice on

      Amy, when I started I had a physical portfolio, and it had all these tiny, 300-word articles in it…just little bitty things. And I would compulsively flip through it, over and over, and think, “I wrote these. I can write more things, too.”

      Reviewing past work is a great way to remind yourself that you can do this — because you’ve done it.

    • Gail Gardner on

      Hi Amy,

      When I’m evaluating writers for clients or to recommend it has never occurred to me to look negatively on clips for being “too old”. That says to me “more experience”.

      What we want to see is quality writing from a writer who has something to say and says it in an interesting manner. That is as important as accurate grammar and spelling.

      I would rather edit and publish content with substance from even a non-native English speaker than recommend a writer whose English is perfect, but whose content is a whole lot of words that mean nothing.

      It is a simple matter to get new clips. Many sites accept contributors; blogs like mine accept guest posts especially if the writer learns from Carol.

      • Carol Tice on

        I have never had an editor in 20 years respond to a clip of mine by commenting that it was ‘too old.’ There’s no such thing! If you wrote it, it means you can write it.

  16. harish desai on

    Reading all this about putting up a positive outlook in front of our naysayers or writing regularly is all very good.

    However, how many of us can actually implement both of the above rules?

    Personally speaking, I started having cold feet while I was freelancing as a writer and therefore, I took up a day job so that I can get a regular income from there.

    This was because, I was not getting a regular income from my writing assignments.

    • Mary Clark on

      I think you have it a little backwards. I wouldn’t go full time as a freelancer unless you’ve got a strong client base and/or a good savings. I’m not there yet so I’m still at my day job and spend the afternoons/evenings working on my writing. Carol’s tips are fantastic and can be put into practice. Negotiation is the hardest for me.

    • Carol Tice on

      I think the steps I outlined in this post can be done by anyone who’s motivated.

      Getting a day job may be needed if you’re not projecting a confident attitude, or need more time to learn more about either writing or marketing to find better prospects. It does take time to ramp your business to full-time — I had been a staff writer for 12 years when I started freelancing in 2005, and it still took about six months to get to a meaningful income.

  17. Timothy Gagnon: Freelance Writer on

    I just made my new freelance writer website (check my url) and I felt a similar feeling. I listed a bunch of different ways that small business owners can benefit from my writing on my website but sometimes I feel like I won’t actually be able to deliver those benefits. Like there’s a bunch of pressure to make absolutely perfect articles. It actually de-motivated me for awhile, and I haven’t made much progress with finding new clients. Actually, I made an account on oDesk.

    For me, my biggest challenge at the moment is finding clients. I had some success with cold pitching website owners through their websites, but I ran out of people to email in the niche that was working for me. So I’m back to the beginning. Oh well, round two.

    • Carol Tice on

      Timothy, I find it hard to beleive you ‘ran out of prospects.’ It’s a big world out there! You might want to check out my ‘How to Get Great Freelance Clients’ ebook to learn some more techniques for locating and qualifying prospects.

      I don’t know what an ‘absolutely perfect’ article would be…I feel confident I haven’t written many.

      Making an account on oDesk is unlikely to move things forward for you much…keep prospecting!

      • Timothy Gagnon: Freelance Writer on

        I actually did grab a copy of that book already, in fact, it’s what made me a fan of this website. It was also responsible for my realization that I have been wasting tons of time writing for junk when I should have been charging a million times more (okay, maybe not a million, but whatever).

  18. John Soares on

    Excellent list Carol. I would also add that it is very important to master the basic writing skills of grammar and punctuation. It’s very difficult to get a potential client to take you seriously if your LOI or article query contains a lot of errors.

  19. Philippa Willitts on

    Also, I’d add don’t let your insecurities show. If you don’t take yourself seriously, nobody else will take you seriously. That will then reinforce everything you fear the most!

    Instead, put your confident face on and go for it. Not so you’re out of your depth, but so you present a proposition that will actually get you started.

      • Charlotte Hyatt on

        Carol I have to ask; is Escaping the Content Mills for me since I don’t write for anyone? I have nothing to say, “I am a writer,” but me and my belief in myself.

        Will this help me?

        • Carol Tice on

          Great question, Charlotte! Definitely, yes.

          In many ways, having written for the mills is a lot LIKE having written nothing yet, because so often mill clips aren’t usable in your portfolio — you don’t know who the end client is, don’t have testimonials, can’t get referrals. In our study, only about 40% of mill writers said they had anything usable.

          This course is for anyone who needs a basic grounding in how to do freelance marketing, and learn how to find your own clients and start earning.

          You might also take a look at my Step by Step Guide ebook —

          It has a whole section on how to pitch to get pro bono sample work to quickly create a portfolio (without seeming desperate).

          Hope to see you in Escape the Content Mills! Registration on this beta-test initial session ends May 27.

          • Karen Briggs on

            I am taking Escape From the Content Mills before I get caught in that trap! I intend to use what I learn to avoid it!

          • Carol Tice on

            Great to hear, Karen!

            Honestly, the first article I ever got published, in 1989, paid $200. I’ll never understand why writers think $10 could be appropriate for a piece of writing…but luckily, there are plenty of better markets, if you know where to find them.

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