On self-doubt and people who write better than you

There’s always that moment when you look at a piece you’ve put hard work into, and you realize it’s crap. Not crap per se, maybe, but definitely not as good as you want it to be. The writing’s not as smooth, the lines of thought somehow don’t interweave as nicely as you envisioned.

It’s comforting to know that everyone goes through that – at least according to Ira Glass, host of WBEZ’s This American Life and idol of many a radio journalist.

“Most everybody I know who does interesting creative work, they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste and they could tell what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be,” he says in a video found online, apparently part of a sort of stump speech of encouragement.

Ira Glass on Storytelling from David Shiyang Liu on Vimeo.

His advice is to keep going. The more you produce, the better you get.

“… ultimately, writing stuff you want to improve makes you improve. A 2010 study found that a little self-doubt actually increases performance — quite different from the “be confident!” mantra we’re often fed,” Caitlin Dewey writes in a great blog post that led me to this subject. I like the idea of embracing your self-doubt to channel it into something that helps you improve.

Journalists have a reputation for being “insecure overachievers,” as one of my best Medill professors would gleefully point out. Somehow, our profession attracts people who obsess over getting everything perfectly right (if you’ve ever met a copy editor, you know what I mean), maybe because our work will be public for everyone to see and judge. But most of the time, we only see the finished product of a colleague’s hard work, the words flowing gracefully, the perfect anecdotes sprinkled throughout the text.

As Caitlin writes,

I had listened to the audio version of Steven Levy’s June Wired story about Y Combinator [online here], the “boot camp for startups.” It was clever. Terribly, subtly, brilliantly clever, with great color and funny wordplay and a fluent structure that somehow stretched through all 5,500 words. I think I was somewhere south of Hazleton, Pa., when the podcast finished, and I sat in my dark car shaking my head. Oh God, I thought. When will my writing EVER sound like that?

The funny thing is, I had a similar feeling when I read one of Caitlin‘s pieces recently, a beautiful essay on love in times of technology. How to solve the conundrum?

“It’s not magic,”
Washington Post reporter Emily Heil said at a recent journalism workshop.

Heil advised to take a closer look at the pieces that make up a story, the “notes assembled a certain way.” Where would this anecdote have come from? What parts follow one another? Which quotes are placed where, and how is detail used? Stripping away the awe helps see the bits of craftsmanship in the art of storytelling.