I’m not a real writer.
That’s the thought that goes through my mind probably on a daily basis, and ramps up even more whenever I’m doing anything around publication – events, emails, writing, and whenever I respond to readers. I genuinely feel like I’ve somehow conned people into thinking I can write, and managed to pull the wool over the eyes of not just my agent and editor, but my readers too. I never, ever call myself an author in public and I never list it as a job description on any kind of form. If someone asks me what I do, I tell them I’m an editor (which is true) but I NEVER add that I’m also a writer. Why not? Because I, like many other writers out there, am an impostor.
Impostor, noun: a person who pretends to be someone else in order to deceive others, especially for fraudulent gain.
Impostor syndrome: (also known as impostor phenomenon, impostorism, fraud syndrome or the impostor experience) is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent internalised fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.
I think people experience impostor syndrome in all aspects of their lives and that it of course happens in different industries too, but I do also wonder whether there is something about writing that particularly lends itself to these feelings. Writing can feel so personal, so exposing, and sudden, too – one minute you’re alone with your laptop, the next minute, your book is out in the world for anyone to read, critique, rate and review. People ask you questions about your book, they look to you for writing advice, they want to know how you wrote it and why. Don’t get me wrong – all of this is lovely, and most writers are more than happy to answer questions. It’s just that a lot of us wonder why people want to know the answers, why people care what we as writers think.
I can list hundreds of authors that I admire. A lot of these are now friends, too. Do I ever think they’re not real writers? No. Absolutely not. Of course they are. But do I think I am a real writer? Again, the answer is no. I constantly think of myself as some sort of faker, someone who is pretending to be a writer but in reality doesn’t have any of the qualities that I so admire in others. I get embarrassed if people call me a writer; I brush it off or make a joke of it. Yes, online I promote my work and encourage people to read it, (see what I did there) but that’s through a screen. In person, it’s a different story altogether.
At events, if I’m on a panel, I’m always convinced the audience is there to see someone else – the other writers, the real ones. I’m not saying any of this in a bid to fish for compliments or in a self-pitying way; I am merely being honest. I think it’s fascinating how many other authors feel similar, too – and I spoke to some of my fellow writers (even writing that sentence made me cringe because inside my head a little voice said you can’t call them fellow writers because you’re not a writer!) – anyway, I spoke to some authors about impostor syndrome, and this is what they said…
Kate Leaver, author of The Friendship Cure, said: ‘I think it’s really difficult when you’re writing a book to keep a clear grasp on it being worthy at all, because to do it you have to spend so much time in your own head. I often forget I’m an author because I think somehow surely everyone else’s writing is bigger or mightier or feels more important than me at home in my trackie pants with my laptop and my dog just trying to reach my word count. Even though I am technically a writer, I feel like other people must be grander or more special about it – and deserve it more.’
The part that really resonates with me there is Kate’s comment about feeling less deserving, less grand than other authors – I picture other writers living these serene lives that are very far from mine, too.
Darren O’Sullivan, author of Closer than You Think, added: ‘It’s a daily struggle, creating stuff that I’m convinced no one should care about. It’s harder when I read other people’s work – everything is so good, and I’m just a boy from a council estate! I think the bigger thing though, is that this is my version of a dream come true, and we’re taught in school that fairy tales don’t exist!’
I actually often think about this too – being published was my dream, but it’s hard to accept it once it happens. I think lots of people ask – do I actually deserve this? Should someone else have my book deal instead? Am I some sort of fraud for getting away with this?
Kate Mallinder, author of Summer of No Regrets, told me: ‘Impostor syndrome is SO something I feel. I genuinely don’t feel qualified to be here. Not sure of the fix, other than faking the feeling until it’s genuine. Labelling it helps, but my mind still works around that by saying that that’s what people who deserve to be where they are say.’
Niki Mackay, author of The Lies We Tell, said: ‘I think impostor syndrome can eat you alive if you let it, and if you don’t believe in yourself, who will? Even if I’m lacking in self belief, I try to fake it to make it and hope my brain will follow suit.’
Nicola Gill, author of The Neighbours, shared her thoughts with me: ‘I have massive impostor syndrome when it comes to writing. My rational brain tells me I can’t be completely rubbish or I wouldn’t have got a great agent and publishing deal. I wish it wasn’t like this but would hazard a guess that it’s pretty common, especially among women.’
One thing I find particularly interesting is how many people acknowledge they are authors when asked in social situations. Victoria Selman, author of Snakes and Ladders, said: ‘I’ve written two novels with a third coming out in November. My first book was shortlisted for a big award and topped the Kindle charts. But for some reason I still feel presumptuous calling myself an author. And however much I try to avoid it, I always find myself using the fluffy fallback, ‘I write’ when asked what I do.’
Speaking to other writers, I wondered (not to sound too Carrie B about it!) whether lack of knowledge or perceived lack of knowledge also gives writers these impostor feelings. Elle Croft, author of The Other Sister, said: ‘I suffered from impostor syndrome (still do, but not to the same extent) at the start of my publishing journey. To the point where I was far too scared to ask questions, or even thank authors who had said nice things about my debut because I was convinced they’d be offended that I’d bothered them. I’m working on it, but having a great community of fellow writers has helped, because we talk through things like this and I’m learning that my fears are not founded in truth.’
I think that’s a great turn of phrase, and something to remember: ‘your fears are not founded in truth.’
Rachel Burton, author of The Pieces of You and Me, said: ‘As I hand in book 4, I still feel as though I have no idea what I’m doing, and am surprised that I’ve written another book in an industry where I feel everyone knows more and is doing better than me.’
A romance writer, who wanted to stay anonymous, told me a little about how she’s currently feeling: ‘I have a new book deal and it’s for quite a challenging book. I feel I’m constantly yo-yoing between telling myself this is the book I’m meant to write, how I’ve worked for it, and fearing that people may realise I’m not good enough. It’s a really sad and stressful feeling. I wish I felt more confident but I don’t know how to get there.’
I find the idea of so many of us struggling with these thoughts really sad, and part of the aim of writing this post was just to show other writers that you really are not alone – so many people feel the same, and as Elle says above, sometimes finding writing communities can really help build confidence. When I was canvassing opinions for this post, I asked Instagram, and author Helen Whitaker (The School Run) replied to me: ‘I have such impostor syndrome that I even feel like by replying to this post you will reply to me going ‘I mean real writers, Helen, not you!” (NB I did NOT reply in that fashion!)
Jonny Grant, a screenwriter with movie The Dare out soon, cut to the chase of his feelings: ‘I suffer from impostor syndrome. Mainly because I am one! I live in the armpit of the country, hardly know any readers, and the only writers I know are online. I always feel like I’m trying to blag my way into being a writer.’
This raises the question of whether your location and industry connections contribute to impostor syndrome, too. I know full well how lucky I am to have extra publishing knowledge as a result of my job, and to be in London, with easy access to lots of authors and groups, but I still feel as though everyone around me is more of a writer than I am. But then others who live outside of London perhaps feel this even more keenly, and I’d be very interested if that’s your experience if you’re reading this post.
The other issue around impostor syndrome in writing is, I think, social media and the dreaded comparisonitis. I try hard not to compare myself to other authors – I can’t really, with my day job, or I’d go insane – but this is of course easier said than done. I love social media and use it a lot, but there’s no denying how easy it is to go down the rabbit hole and prove to that voice in your brain that everyone else really is better than you after all. You’re an impostor! Stop pretending!
Many writers who are a long way into their careers still struggle with these feelings, as I learned from Claire Allan (author of Forget Me Not): ‘This is a constant for me. Despite having published 11 books, I rarely feel like I deserve to be in the room with ‘proper’ authors. I felt it most acutely when I changed genre to write thrillers. I felt (and still do to a certain extent) that I was seen as an interloper. I certainly struggle with pitching myself on a level with crime writers. It’s something I’ve been told off for by other writers who have my back – I spend too much time recommending other people’s books and not my own. I’m trying to change, even if it feels a bit cringey. There’s an added dimension tied up in having an Irish Catholic upbringing, too – when it was drummed into us from no age that pride in oneself or one’s achievements was a sin!’
Emily Kitchin, an editor at HarperCollins, had some advice: ‘The absolute only thing that has ever calmed me down is reading an article once that said that people with impostor syndrome are often extra driven to work hard and try to succeed. And that sort of made me feel better.’
So, the next time you’re in a scary room (or online!) with other authors, try to remember that most of them are probably feeling exactly the same as you are. We’re all here imagining these grandiose lives that every other writer is enjoying, yet on the inside, we’re beating ourselves up for not feeling good enough / deserving enough / accomplished enough. I don’t have the answers here for getting past this, but for me it helps just to know that my feelings are far from unique. And I hope this helps you, too. Thank you for reading! Impostors unite. (Maybe we could get badges).
Are you an author suffering from impostor syndrome? What are your feelings on it, and your tips for combating it? Leave a comment to join the conversation, and thank you for reading. Remember – you’re not alone, and your fears are not always founded.