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.

>>Click here for resources to help you find a beta reader or critique partner.

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?
  • Why?

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.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you ever been afraid to let anyone read your writing? Tell me in the comments!

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. I recently submitted a WIP to 4 beta readers. It was S.C.A.R.Y.

    Even though I’d already published 3 books, I’d never used betas before. I had finished the 1st draft, was “sort of” happy with it, but wasn’t sure about several things. I gave them specific questions to answer.

    It was a G.O.O.D. experience! All 4 of them liked the story, told me why, and then gave me some specific constructive criticism.

    I’d do it again in a heartbeat!

  2. I was never afraid. I’ve written stories since I was a kid, and I am fortunate I got early encouragement, which gave me courage. And in high school, teachers would critique our essays, and students sometimes paired off to brainstorm ideas and such. Then I had a media career, and editors. So I’m used to critiques, and I learned early to not take them personally.

    But even so, I think #4 is very important. I come from a family very friendly to “creatives”: my parents met in the night club where my father and his band were playing. And in college, I made friends with an aspiring filmmaker and her twin, an aspiring fashion designer.

    I found that sharing my stories with other creative people was — is — an enormous help. We gave each other energy and inspiration. The filmmaker and I would critique movies and TV shows together, discuss story theory, techniques, everything. We’d talk about the type of stories we wanted to tell, and the ways we wanted to tell them. And also, the kind of stories we didn’t like, and why.

    Writing is so solitary, and it’s easy to feel doubt and second guess ourselves. That’s why it’s important to cultivate relationships with people who will help you grow as a writer, and encourage you.

    The nurturing creatives are the pool of people I like to draw critiques from, and the feedback is so important. A good critique can prevent a bad review. I always approach critiques in the spirit of, “help me catch problems that will annoy readers, or shore up elements that will delight readers.” This ties in to #3, and it really does strengthen my courage.

    That, and remembering the likes of da Vinci didn’t paint the Mona Lisa right out of the starting gate. He had to work on his technique, master light and shadow, composition, paint mixing, all of that. To me, a good critique is a “shortening of the way,” a method of getting closer to creating one’s own Mona Lisa.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Don’t you love how “encourage” literally means “to give courage.” 😀

      • Yes! 😀

      • Monique Carran says

        Thank you for your post; it was very helpful and encouraging to me as a beginner. I did publish a short story late last year so that helped gain some confidence.

        What I found in getting started were beta reader volunteers to read but did not reply to my questions. One simple question was to answer what they found good and why and the other question was what they found bad and why. I never received a comment.

        But after all this I signed up to join the Schripbofile.com group and start over. I have to admit that it would be a better start with people who are serious about writing and helping other writers get started.

        Thank you once again. I have read most of your tutorial books – they were very helpful in writing my novel. I finished the novel about two years ago and now I’m trying to edit it and self publish and possibly do an audio with me as the narrator. I also could see a screenplay from the novel which I started early last year. I had to put it aside so I could finish my novel. Plus, I started a Blog early last year. The Blog follows my novel and how I came up with the scenes. I finished it early this year and now I am just being a mentor and encourage people to have courage and faith. The name of my Blog: “HavecourageandFaith.com.” It contains my personal feelings and I like to encourage others to have courage and faith. That is how my parents survived the war and it is helping me now in many ways.

        I am a stubborn Hungarian writer and I want to get it published very soon. I love the process and still love the novel because it deals with my parents’ perilous escape from Hungary during World War II. With God’s help, I can get it done.

        Thank you again.

        Monique Carran

  3. I am so glad to read this. Thank you!

  4. Great post. Feedback is important, no matter how scary it might seem. It’s one way we improve as writers – kind of a forest and trees syndrome. I liked your observation about the risk that suggestions and criticism from others at too early a stage can dilute your story.

    I submit scenes and chapters to a writing critique group, especially ones that are problematic. I would follow your example to complete the entire manuscript first, but I’m honest enough to acknowledge that, while the story itself is good, my prose isn’t where it needs to be yet. Since I’m older, I don’t have issues accepting constructive feedback, as well as harsh reality checks (which greatly improved a few scenes, by the way).

    I’ve noticed an interesting tendency. Fellow writers almost always focus on sections that need work and ignore well written parts. Kinder readers zero in on the areas they like (“I really liked where Johnny did this or that because…”). They can talk a lot about those things, but tend to shy away from parts that don’t work very well.

    Is this a common experience with other authors? Also, how do you feel about the value of searching out both kinds of readers to see what works and what doesn’t?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I think that’s a pretty common experience. And I tend to believe that the wider your range of readers, the better–for many reasons. When I critique, I prefer the “compliment sandwich” approach, which starts with a positive statement (even if it’s vague), then addresses the criticism, then ends with another positive statement.

  5. Paul Egbert says

    Hi, Katie

    I’m as yet unpublished, but I have put short fiction on writer’s forums for critique. It IS scary to put oneself out there. I told myself that I was only ‘experimenting.’ If it blew up in my face then it was only a learning experience.

    Also, that fear is not only for the young, but also for us who are only ‘young at heart.’

    Enjoy your writing in books and blog.

    Paul

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Like I say, I tend to think a little fear is a sign we’re headed in the right direction. It means we’re invested in what we’ve written.

  6. This was so helpful and timely! Writing friends are pushing me to get my novel to beta readers by the end of the month. I have an editor scheduled for November, so if I don’t do it soon, I won’t get their comments incorporated before the edit. But the novel isn’t ready! There are sections that are still not right–like, whole plot things that might change. After that, I want to do a pass to tidy some dialog and descriptions. Step 2– Wait until the timing is right. Yep! I just can’t send them a book that I already KNOW has problems. I want them to find issues that I DON’T know about. Beta reading is a lot of work–I don’t want to waste their time and effort. (Step 2 might also describe why I stopped working on a different novel after workshopping it at a prestigious conference. I was only 20K words in, and it was NOT the time to share.) Thanks so much for these posts–I always find them helpful! And I had your Character Arcs book open while plotting this novel–it truly saved the book.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Margaret Atwood has a quote about knowing which story to write, which I think is equally applicable to this discussion. She says (going off memory here), “I don’t know always know when a story is ready. But I always know when it’s *not* ready.”

  7. Personally, I have no problem allowing people to read my writing. I can’t grow as a writer unless people comment on my writing ability. Fortunately, my current story seems to be resonating with readers.

  8. My favorite quote from Hemingway is: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down and bleed.” It’s true in every form of writing and especially in sharing.

  9. pamelareese says

    I’ve always been a little scared… I share anyway because I need feedback to help me learn where I can still grow and improve. But I am so so very much MORE afraid that I will never BE read. More than any other fear, the need to share these characters, their stories, the part of every writer that lives inside each page, NEEDS to be shared.

  10. Like you, I’ve written previous novels that are tucked way, way back in a drawer never to see the light of day again.
    Now, I’m finishing a novel that is very important to me, one that I HAVE TO write for some reason. I have a vision for this project that I’m hoping will be understood by the reader. It’s very different I guess, attempting to create images and ideas in a way that is entertaining and meaningful. Yes, that is my goal–to create a novel that is both entertaining and profoundly meaningful.
    My PLAN is to have a good rough draft completed by my birthday, September first, and to have my husband read it on that day, (and the next day, and the next).
    I’m very nervous about this plan because I don’t know if he will UNDERSTAND it all. And if he doesn’t understand it, who will?
    So it’s not the writing I’m so worried about but the premise and some of the ideas the novel is exploring and dealing with in a rather unique fashion.
    Do you ever worry about the ideas featured in your novel being understood and appreciated?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Oh, yes, all the time. But I also see it as my job as a writer make sure they are. If readers aren’t getting it, I know I’m not communicating how I want to.

  11. We need feedback to grow as writers but we all are hesitant to seek it.
    These five tips help. Yet, it is human nature to fear criticism, particularly when we spent so much time and energy crafting a story.
    The worst is when your beta readers want you to change major plot points you feel strong about or are non-negotiable (I had one who questioned my ending and word-length. I told him is a literary journal and the word count is 500, not a word more).
    Still, if we are serious about improving… We need to share scared as you said.
    Great post, K.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Vision is what drives every great project, but so often we can get myopic about our own subjectivity. Other readers are not necessarily more “right” about our own work than we are, but they can sometimes help us see where the reality is falling short of the vision.

  12. Gary Lee Webb says

    Excellent post. As a long-time Toastmaster (public speaker), I see similar concerns among new members. A very large number need gentle encouragement to present their work verbally, to learn that it is not as frightening as they think, to acquire thicker skins against the occasional criticism that hurts (and many do initially), and to learn with each experience, improving their skills slowly. I tell people that it is a long road, but every step takes them closer to their goal. And the hardest barriers to cross are the ones we erect ourselves, out of fear. As you said: “listen to your fears, acknowledge them, understand them,” and then figure out how to move past them onward on your path.

    As a writer trying to climb that learning cliff between “good enough to be semi-professional” and “excellent enough to be professional,” I give myself the same advice. I *will* get there if I keep climbing that steep path, and to do that, I must share my work, let others criticise it, listen to their advice, and mull over their words to see how their criticism applies anent what I wrote. At times, I wish there were an easier way, but learning is never an easy task. So let me thank you for your words.

    Communication is communication. The same advice largely applies to multiple varieties. And I shall keep heading towards my goals, one step at a time.

  13. This is a helpful post. I’ve ran a critique group of mostly romance writers for the last five years and have seen and learned a great deal about critiquing others work as well as having mine critiqued. I wish I had read your post before hand. The one thing that frustrates me the most is a reader that doesn’t know or appreciate the genre they are reading. One of the things I instigated in our group was making sure we told the reader what we wanted critiqued. That saved time and feelings.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Getting feedback from a wide range of readers is valuable, but not all readers are “created equal” so to speak. Family and friends who aren’t avid readers or people who simply aren’t familiar with a particular genre’s conventions can sometimes offer well-meaning advice that isn’t in the story’s best interest.

  14. E J Fisher says

    I have tears in my eyes from reading this – you hit the truth button so beautifully. Every time I share I want to hear wonderful things, but I take on board every criticism with a little bit of my soul crushed . This article makes me realise how much I need to listen to my own heart when I read them. Is it changing what I wanted to say? Do I even have the tools to do it – that’s a big fear. I want to stay open to learning but I need to stay true to my vision as well I guess.

    Your support for other writers is amazing and thank you so much.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      So glad the post was helpful! I am often bemused by how I can skim by ten good reviews and immediately discount everything they say in light of the one bad review. One thing I sometimes do to gain context is read the one-star reviews on my favorite books by other authors. Puts it all in perspective!

  15. Whenever I hear my beta readers say something about my novel, it gives me the weirdest of feelings! These characters, the themes, my imaginary setting, it’s all been in my head for so long that it feels like it’s apart of me. And when someone says, oh I wish I could live in their world, or, I wish I was his sidekick, it makes me exhilarated!

    Once I share my workings with others, I’m encouraged! I would totally recommend having beta readers.

    Here’s a list of questions that I asked my beta readers as they read my draft:

    1. When did you get excited? (What parts of it made you want to read faster or read on?)
    2. When did you lose interest? (In which parts did your mind begin to wander off or where did you decide to stop reading for the day?)
    3. What got you attached to reading it? (Ex. a certain character, a certain scene, the constant action, the relatable traits… etc.)
    4. What confused you? (Ex. sentences that were too long and wordy, meaningless description, fluctuating attitudes of characters… etc.)

    These aren’t all of the questions I ask them, but those are some of the most important. What’s helpful is to give them examples, because after reading so many chapters, it’s hard to remember what stood out and what went wrong. (And hopefully there’ll be more of the former than the latter.)

    😉 Staci

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Great questions. It’s so helpful to have a list of questions to ask, especially since some beta readers won’t be skilled at distilling their reactions to specifics.

  16. “… young and/or new authors who are experiencing anxiety about sharing their writing.” That’s me all the way. I’m a young writer and I’ve written several short stories that I think are good, but still haven’t found the courage to submit them.

    Great article, it’s making me reconsider submitting them! Thanks!

  17. with dyslexia I am more aware that people may just critique me over grammar errors or in-proper use of tenths, even after spell check and proof read I am not perfect. Also finding it difficult to read, I haven’t read hundreds of books, so I am aware I will not have as much experience.
    I am more scared of this and feeling like a fraud, than I am about people experiencing my stories. I Just feel that I will never have the skill level to properly articulate my stories. without being disregarded from my lack of literary.

    Still pushing myself to read and write as much as I can, but at a disadvantage, It might never be enough

    • Mary Natwick says

      Audio books are a great way to read! Don’t give up on the book world just because reading is slow. Hear OR read lots and lots of stories to learn how to tell them yourself.

      • Thanks Mary
        Since taking my writing seriously I have tried my best to absorb as much as I can with, short stories, audio books, Youtube videos of short stories being narrated (Like creepypasta), and even giving myself a massive pat on the back for reading a 555 page book in under 10 days.
        It still feels like I have decades of reading to catch up on. I am not going to give up on the literary world. Just feels like I am dipping my toe in the shallow end, finding it daunting looking at the deep end not being able to swim.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      There are quite a few noted authors–F. Scott Fitzgerald, Fannie Flagg, and John Irving among them–who had dyslexia. Don’t give up!

      • Thanks K M Weiland
        Again.I find your very helpful blog, and am incredibly grateful for everything you do.
        I guess that I am more likely to take criticism to heart If it is about my noticeable lack of skill or experience, than I would over critique on my story and themes or whatever.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          I hear you. The criticism that bites the hardest is that which speaks to your own doubts. But the good news is that you already know what you need to work on.

        • I hear you Tom. Help me fix my symbolism not my spelling.
          My most useful critiques have come from fellow dyslexic writers. I was once told I had voice and I floated on air for a week 🙂 and I was told I had pacing problems and this genuinely helped.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.