Alisa Bowman, a colleague, friend, and client, is a writer who sometimes feels like an imposter. Imposter syndrome is when you feel like a failure, or a fake, even when you’ve enjoyed lots of success. People suffering from imposter syndrome are tortured by self-doubt and live in fear that others will discover that they are intellectual frauds.
But how can a successful best-selling writer like Alisa Bowman have imposter syndrome?! Alisa Bowman has written three books in the time it has taken me to barely finish drafting one. Her book, Project Happily Ever After, about how to save your marriage when you wish your husband would drop dead, inspired me with its wisdom, humor, and insight. Her co-authored, Dangerous Instincts: How Gut Feeling Betray Us, is a must-read for any employer, parent, or person in a leadership role. Now Alisa has a new co-authored book that just hit the shelves, Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days. Her publisher graciously sent me a review copy. The book examines how to face your fears, get unstuck, follow your dreams, rewrite your inner narrative, and move forward to where you want to go in your life instead of staying put where your fear is keeping you.
In this guest post, Alisa explores how writers can apply her book’s lessons.
What to Do When You’re a Writer Who Feels Like a Fake
By Alisa Bowman
I was sitting in the audience at a writer’s conference when a speaker, an editor at a national magazine, was asked, “What are your pet peeves about freelancers?”
There was a pause as she, understandably, took a moment to decide whether she ought to answer such a question. Then she started talking.
“I’m always amazed when professional writers turn in assignments that seem anything but professional,” she said. “I don’t know. Maybe I have high expectations.”
I sunk down in my seat.
A hard knot formed in my stomach.
I’d turned an assignment into this editor just days before.
Was she thinking of me as she spoke?
I walked around with my fear for days, courting it like a long-lost dysfunctional lover.
“She was talking about me wasn’t she? She hates the piece, doesn’t she? She’s never going to assign anything to me ever again, is she?” My fearful mind raced.
Finally, a week later, I couldn’t take it anymore.
I wrote to tell her how much I enjoyed her presentation, ending the email with, “I will admit that I cowered in the audience when you were talking about professional writers. I’d just turned in my piece so I was worried that you were thinking of me as you spoke.”
I stared at the words on the screen, fighting the urge to delete the email.
“Send it. Just send it,” I told myself. I took a deep breath, released it, and clicked send.
Within the hour, she emailed back, assuring me that I was definitely not one of the writers she was thinking of.
Then I wondered, “What made me assume she was talking about me anyway?”
I knew it stemmed from the same issue that, just weeks earlier, had baffled me when an editor from The Atlantic emailed to accept an essay I’d pitched him.
I remember reading his email a few times, all the while wondering, “Did he really mean to send this? To me?”
I even waited a few days before telling people about it, just in case the editor changed his mind!
Feeling like an imposter is also what causes me to downplay my accomplishments when people ask me what I do for a living (I write things, but nothing you’ve heard of or read) or what projects I am working on during any given week (nothing exciting).
Sure, some of my reluctance to brag about myself is healthy humility. But most of it isn’t.
Inside I feel like an inexperienced writer, the very one who used to be in her 20s and just out of school.
Yet now I am in my 40s.
I have worked as a newspaper reporter, magazine editor, and book editor.
During my freelance career, I have worked on 7 New York Times bestsellers, written for most of the glossies, grown a blog from nothing to more than 70,000 unique monthly visitors, and have a voice that several editors have told me they “loved.”
Still, I find myself fearful of pitching, of rejection, of criticism, and of failure. Though my case may be extreme, I think all writers feel fearful.
I’ve been trying me best to conquer those fears. You can too!
What follows are 7 lessons I learned from Jennifer Margulis (the creator of this site), my Buddhism practice, and Jonathan Alpert, a therapist and my co-author of Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days, about what to do when you’re a writer who feels like a fake.
These lessons have helped me to become more fearless in my freelance life as a writer suffering from imposter syndrome. I hope they help you, too.
1. Expect rejection. Rather than see rejection as a sign of failure, Jonathan told me to see rejection as a necessary part of success. “Expect it,” he said. “For every one assignment you get, you might have to get rejected 100 times.”
2. Seek out rejection. Jennifer took Jonathan’s advice one step farther, when she challenged, “I want you to have 20 rejections by the next time I talk to you,” during a coaching call. As a result, I started pitching like wild. By the next time we spoke, I only had one rejection, but two assignments and one essay placement (The Atlantic)! Seeking out rejection is an effective way to face your fear of being rejected.
3. Use rejection to your advantage. When you are rejected, don’t just send the pitch out again. Read it over. See if you can make it better. Then send it out again. That’s what I did with the essay that eventually got picked up by The Atlantic. It was rejected by four outlets before. After each rejection, I tinkered with the essay, making it a better each time.
4. Don’t take it personally. Editors take many things into account when looking at a pitch. Will it work for their demographic? Does the voice match up with theirs? Have they just done this story? Did another writer just pitch the same thing? Is it broad enough to have wide appeal? Is it unique enough that readers won’t complain about having read it before? Is there too much stuff waiting in inventory? The wrong answer to any of those questions can net you a rejection, but that rejection has nothing to do with your worth as a writer.
5. Know that editors are trained to edit. If they don’t send your piece back with suggestions, they wouldn’t feel like they are doing their job. Think of your editor in much the same way you think of that very close friend who isn’t afraid to tell you that your shoes don’t go with your dress. Your friend isn’t judging your worth when she makes a comment like that. Her only goal is to help you look fantastic. It’s the same with your editor.
6. Write for the greater good. When I pitch pieces to big outlets, my thought isn’t, “I want to say I’ve written for this outlet.” (Okay, sure, there is some of that). My thought is mostly, “I want to place this story where it will do the most good.” When you are writing from a place of passion—because your material will change the reader’s life for the better—then it’s a lot easier to get over the fear of rejection. You’ll feel more motivated to make sure the story gets told because sitting on it feels dang selfish.
7. Remind yourself of your worth—and that editors need writers like you. As women, I think, we have a hard time with this. Some of us, for instance, were taught in school that we should never “brag.” Get over it. Freelance writing is one of the toughest professions to earn a decent living. If you’ve managed to earn a living in this profession for many years, especially during the recession, then you have chops. Periodically take a moment to remember all you’ve accomplished. Then remind yourself that editors need content and they need great writers like you to find and create that content. Then take a deep breath. Exhale and press send on that pitch. You have nothing to fear.
Do you ever feel like an imposter? Do you suffer from imposter syndrome? What techniques help you overcome your fears?
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Published: May 21, 2012
Updated: December 2, 2019
ruth pennebaker says
Great advice from a topflight writer. As it happens, it was just what I needed to hear today. So, thank you.
Jane Boursaw says
Ditto what Ruth said, and also that it’s what I need to hear on *every single day.
Thank you for writing this, thank you for getting us writers, and thank you for making me feel like it’s ok to have the imposter syndrome, but to move forward anyway.
Steph Auteri says
I am constantly feeling like an imposter! Despite the online and print publication clips. Despite the clients and colleagues who apparently rave about me to each other. Despite the fact that I was able to land a literary agent in only three months. Despite all these things and many others… I can’t help but compare myself to other people who are further along in their careers, or whose definition of success is different than mine.
I do keep a warm fuzzies folder of the nicest emails I’ve received. But for the most part, my reaction to this malaise it to accomplish more more MORE. Perhaps not the healthiest reaction? 😉
Kerry Dexter says
as I write in the areas of songwriting, music, creativity, and such. sometimes it seems the subject matter falls outside the lines of interest — but there are stories there which readers need to hear, and I am good at telling them. it is good to be reminded of writing (and keeping on pitching) because a story needs to be told. thanks, Alisa and Jennifer.
I love this post. It rings very true and is reassuring. Thank you.
Brette Sember says
This is great advice. I generally hate talking to people about what I write because I hate trying to explain it and feel like I am overselling myself. Ugh. It’s hard to rise above the imposter syndrome, but Alisa’s advice is spot on.
So many good ideas! I especially could identify with “I want to place this story where it will do the most good.” That’s what matters most to me at this point in my life, but then I’m an innkeeper, as well as a writer. Making a living as a writer is a difficult choice in life. This is a shame because the world really needs writers.
Great post with great advice!
Living Large says
Excellent reminders for all of us!
I need to read this every single morning…and then again throughout the day. Such sage advice for us impostors. Thank you!!
Jennifer Margulis says
Sheryl! You are not an imposter! (For readers who don’t recognize the name, Sheryl is an amazingly talented health writer.) I think reading Alisa’s new book is a good idea too!
I’m bookmarking this post. It seems like it’s in our nature as freelancers to always be working and so we don’t necessarily take the time to do #7.
sarah henry says
Super advice worth remembering every single day for those of us trying to carve out a living as freelance writers.