August 7, 2021

Building Your Writing Self-Efficacy


A few months ago, Albert Bandura, a renowned psychologist and giant in the field of education, passed away in his 90s. Bandura is best known for his pioneering work around the idea of self-efficacy—a concept that impacts you everyday and has powerful potential for your writing life as well!

Whether you realize it or not, your self-efficacy guides nearly everything you do. It’s why you feel completely confident as you stroll to the washing machine to do a load of laundry: because you’ve done it before, you know how it works, and you have total faith in your own ability to get the job done well. It’s what causes you to shy away from attempting some of the Olympic gymnasts’ routines in your backyard: because you (most likely!) don’t have the years of experience, the skills, and the proof from past success that you can accomplish them.

So what is self-efficacy?

Self-efficacy is the degree to which you believe you can execute actions to control certain outcomes. In my laundry example above, you likely feel high self-efficacy because someone taught you and you’ve done it successfully many times. You believe in your own ability to successfully perform the actions needed to attain the desired result: a clean load of laundry. And on the other hand, as with the gymnastics, having low self-efficacy stops us from trying something we’re uncomfortable with, or even might expect negative results from (like a broken neck!). Bandura writes, “If people believe they have no power to produce results, they will not attempt to make things happen.” 

Self-efficacy has a tremendous impact on our motivation to try something new. Even if you’ve never written a book, you might still have high self-efficacy around doing it if you have the right preparation, and you won’t encounter as much resistance to making it happen. It’s the essence of the perhaps cliché idea: “If you think you can, you can!” 

Perhaps you’ve felt overwhelmed when asked to do something new at work, and you dithered a bit trying to figure out where to get started. Maybe you’ve felt stymied by your lack of knowledge about how to write a book proposal, and it’s stopped you from even trying. Contrast that to how you feel when asked to do something similar to what you’ve done successfully before. Trying a new bread recipe, when you’ve been baking sourdough for the last 18 months. Writing a limerick when you’ve been writing haiku. You’re likely not too deterred by the fact you’ve never done it before; you know you’ve got the basic skills and can figure it out.

Does self-efficacy really work?

The short answer is yes—increasing your self-efficacy can really help you learn and successfully accomplish more. In a summary of 8 meta-analyses on self-efficacy, education researcher Dr. John Hattie found that self-efficacy has a .71 effect size of students’ learning. If .4 is the average effect you would get just from living, then .71 means your learning is increased quite a bit when you add self-efficacy to the mix.

But does that mean we should go around believing we can do absolutely anything? No! I’m not recommending that you try out those gymnastic routines with the addition of a positive attitude. Self-efficacy isn’t blind belief; like I hinted above, it’s a belief born out of evidence, training, observation, and disposition.

How to increase your writing self-efficacy

Bandura’s work is so powerful because he showed that self-efficacy can be taught and developed. He wrote that there are four primary ways to increase your self-efficacy around a skill:

Finding small wins (mastery experiences)

The most powerful way to start building your confidence is to experience small writing wins—or mastery experiences. These small wins might look like meeting your word count goal, posting a blog, getting positive feedback on a writing sample, finishing a chapter or article, or perhaps even writing your manuscript.

Each small win builds on the last, so that as you gain confidence and momentum, your wins get bigger and bigger.

Seeing others like you succeed (vicarious experiences)

If you’ve never written a book before, it doesn’t make sense to compare yourself to John Green or J.K. Rowling or Glennon Doyle. Instead, you should look for models who are in a similar situation as you—they have a similar platform (even if it’s none!), similar writing experience, and a similar drive to write, and they’re having some success. 

Seeing these people who are just like us succeed sends the message that if they can do it, we can do it, too.

Receiving authentic encouragement from people you trust (social persuasion)

Bandura’s research shows how powerful honest encouragement (what he called verbal persuasion) from someone credible and trustworthy could be in building up our self-efficacy. But it can’t just be blind praise. This encouragement must be:

  • From someone credible whom you respect
  • Tailored and specific to you
  • Realistic (they can’t promise you the moon!)
  • Genuine
  • Consistent

Staying calm and reducing stress around the task (affective states)

Bandura writes that both our physical state and our mental/emotional state (he calls it our “affective states”) affect our efficacy beliefs. If we’re sore, winded, exhausted, or in pain, we probably won’t have as much confidence in our ability to run 10 miles as we would if we were feeling great and had high energy levels. Likewise, if we’re frightened, angry, grieving, or depressed, we may not “feel like” writing, because we judge our own abilities as less than optimal in that emotional state. 

Research shows some ways we can take care of ourselves physically and emotionally to increase our self-efficacy:

  • Sleeping
  • Walking
  • Hiking
  • Working out
  • Drinking lots of water
  • Regulating our sugar
  • Journaling
  • Meditating
  • Setting boundaries

I believe that we can use all of these powerful methods for improving our writing lives and accomplishing our writing goals. Self-efficacy is one of the greatest keys to unlocking our writing power.