Afraid to Let Anyone Read Your Writing? 5 Steps to Move Past Fears
One of the best things about writing is being read. Unfortunately, that can also be one of the scariest things. When you’re just starting out, it can feel like a huge jump to let someone else read your story for the first time. It feels like another jump to move past the eyes of kindly family and friends to asking strangers to read and (gulp) comment on your writing. And even if you’ve been writing and publishing for many years, there may still be days when you’re afraid to let anyone read your writing.
I hear from quite a few young and/or new authors who are experiencing anxiety about sharing their writing. Although most of us want to be read at some point, the writing itself often starts as a deeply personal exercise, sometimes not so far off from writing a dream journal. The characters and story scenarios we envision can often feel liked veiled references to our innermost selves.
Add to that the fact that writing and storytelling are complex skills that usually take years to fully develop, and we all fear looking like fools for sharing our burgeoning talents before we’re quite certain they’re up to snuff. Then there are the unfortunate experiences when we do drudge up the courage to share our stories with someone, only to have our vulnerability met with indifference or even soul-withering criticism.
And yet, for most of us the idea of never sharing our writing is almost more scary than facing down the world’s critiques.
5 Steps to Overcome Being Afraid to Let Anyone Read Your Writing
At some point most of us just have to take the jump and surrender our early writings to a reader or two. From there, we hopefully get enough encouragement to keep going through the inevitable barrage of blistering comments (well-meaning or not), which will slowly thicken our skins and help us confront our storytelling weaknesses on the way to writing better and better stories.
If you feel yourself preparing for that jump—or if you know of a young writer who is—here are a few steps you can take to help set yourself up for a successful and heartening debut.
Step 1: Listen to Your Fears, Acknowledge Them, Understand Them
Fear is one of the most potent feelings humans experience. It’s a warning system, designed fundamentally to keep us alive. And part of staying alive is communicating our worth to other humans while simultaneously either signaling that we’re no threat to them or we’re such a big threat that they better stand down for their own safety.
Writing, especially writing a story, can seems relatively harmless, but it is still a communication with our fellow humans. Even though few of us are likely to come to actual harm from our writing these days, we are still in touch with the deep primal self that fears offending others or devaluing ourselves in their eyes.
It’s important to realize this. Your fears are not bad, or even irrational per se. They exist for a reason—to guide you to the safest and most life-protecting choices. But fears are also not prophecies. Just because you’re afraid of something does not mean that thing is actually a threat. Even if it is a threat, your best course of action won’t always (or even often) be avoidance.
Start by acknowledging your fears and the rationale behind them. Try not to identify with your fears. They are not you; they are just an alert system within your body. Whether or not you choose to fully heed them, hold them in a grateful space. Only once you can understand why you are afraid of something will you be able to come up with a successful plan of action to mitigate those fears.
Step 2: Wait Until the Timing Is Right
One reason you may initially be afraid to let anyone read your writing is that it’s simply not time yet. Everyone’s mileage varies a little on this, but in my experience it’s valuable to keep your writing just for yourself throughout an early incubation time.
This is true not only of the very first time you share any of your writing with anyone, but also for every story you write. My own preference is never to share a story with beta readers or critique partners until I’ve finished the first draft and polished it to my own standards. When I’m satisfied I’ve made it the best I can by myself, then it’s time to bring in objective outside opinions.
Personal experience has taught me that when I share before this point, I not only risk potential discouragement during the most formative stages of a story, I also risk having my own vision for the story diluted by other people’s desires and opinions.
Not all writers work this way. Some do their best work sharing a chapter at a time. But it’s important to get in touch with your own instincts and to discern what will best nurture your unique creative experience.
Step 3: Get Clear on Why You’re Sharing Your Writing
Sometimes even when we know a story isn’t ready to be shared with anyone, we’re still tempted because we crave the reassurance we think people might offer us. This doesn’t always go the way we want, however. If the only reason you’re sharing your writing with someone is so they’ll tell you it’s great, you have a 50-50 chance of being disappointed. A good rule of thumb to operate by is to never ask a question unless you’re willing to hold space for “either answer”—the positive one or the negative one.
Most writers are hungry for praise and affirmation. Sometimes it’s hard for us to truly believe in the worth of our own stories until enough people have confirmed it for us (and that’s a discussion all it’s own…). But it’s worth realizing that whatever particular motive we have for sharing our stories, that is probably what will be affirmed. If we share out of insecurity, it is probably our insecurity that will be affirmed; but if we share out of our courage, that is what will be strengthened in the long run.
When you’ve reached a point on a story where you’re confident it in it and truly want someone’s honest feedback, not just for strengthening your insecurities but for strengthening your writing, then it’s time to share.
Step 4: Find the Right Readers
There are many different types of readers.
There are people who love us and want to affirm us and our writing.
There are fellow writers and editors who know the craft and want to point out our writing weaknesses so we might improve.
There are people who have lots of opinions but no true understanding of storycraft.
There are paying readers who want only to be entertained and don’t care too much about our feelings if we let them down.
There are inherently kind readers, and there are inherently cruel readers.
There are people who know how to be constructive in their criticism, and people who don’t.
With a few obvious exceptions, there’s a time and a purpose in seeking feedback from each of these groups. For instance, if you’re particularly afraid to let anyone read your writing when you’re just starting out, it’s often wise to seek the kindest readers you can find. That may be your mom (or not), your best friend, or a helpful teacher. Regardless, if you can find someone who will cheer you on, this will help you discover the courage to seek out the more objective advice that will then help you face your weaknesses and improve.
It should be noted that if you are actively seeking feedback from a variety of sources (as you should be), you will inevitably run into a few readers from the undesirable groups. Developing a thick skin is just part of being a writer. The more experience you gain with criticism, the more skilled you become at eating the meat and spitting out the bones.
Step 5: Learn How to Respond to Feedback—Both Good and Bad
Perhaps one of the reasons writers struggle with the inner conflict between wanting and fearing to share our writing is because knowing how to respond to feedback is a tightrope act of its own. We must be open to feedback that points out our inevitable need to improve, while also realizing that someone else’s negative opinion of our work doesn’t invalidate it and, in fact, may not even be an objective reflection of its worth.
In the beginning, we may be inclined to take one of two extreme positions. Either we dismiss any criticism and insist our story is exactly how we want it to be, or we absorb every criticism in the belief that our readers know better than we do.
The truth is somewhere in between. Indeed, gaining the experience to recognize your own particular balance between the two is a huge part of the learning curve for writers. What’s important in the beginning is that you try to maintain a logical neutrality to any and all responses. When someone tells you the story is “the best thing I’ve ever read!”—don’t believe them. If someone else makes you feel you have no talent whatsoever—don’t believe them either.
Process through the emotions and then learn to criticize your criticisms.
- Why are these suggestions being made?
- Are they valid?
- Would making the suggested changes improve your story—or not?
The more you learn about the craft and theory of writing, the more context you will have for analyzing your readers’ responses. As this happens, you will find yourself having to rely less and less on the affirmation of others to understand the relative merit of your storytelling skills.
When I first started writing novels, I was terrified to share them. I burned the first one. The next four were read only by my sister. When I eventually published the fifth, sixth, and seventh, every negative critique or review felt like an invalidation of not just my writing skills, but my personhood. Time, experience, and a majority of positive responses have slowly mitigated my fear of sharing my writing. But even now, a particularly stinging review can sometimes momentarily make me feel like I want to hide all my writing in a big box under the bed.
Learning to overcome our insecurities as writers is a process that cycles through our lives over and over again. Indeed, I rather think that the continuing presence of this fear means we are doing something right. It means we are writing on the jagged edge of ourselves, sharing our deepest human vulnerabilities, and pushing our skills to the limit. Write scared, I always tell myself, but what I really mean is share scared.
Share the stuff you’re scared to share. But do it with consciousness, presence, and a plan of action so you can optimize your experiences and use them to push forward into getting your unique writings out to more and more people.