August 13, 2021

Finding Your Small Writing Wins

writing tips

Last week we started talking about something I’m really passionate about: building your self-efficacy as a writer.  

Self-efficacy is your belief in your own ability to achieve certain outcomes (like writing a book!). Most people who accomplish amazing things and have high self-efficacy don’t jump straight into it; they practice finding smaller wins and building up from there, they learn from others, they accept encouragement, and they take care of themselves. That’s the winning recipe for building your self-efficacy, and today we’re diving into that first piece: finding your small writing wins.

Small Writing Wins

The most powerful way to start building your confidence in your writing ability is to experience small writing wins—or, as Albert Bandura calls them, mastery experiences. Talk to most published writers, and you’ll hear a similar story:

I started writing when I was a kid. I loved telling stories. I have kept a journal since second grade. I was an English major in college. I joined the newspaper club. I got an internship. I had to write reports for my job...

Really, there are a thousand ways that writers start writing, but the point is: they started by accepting a small challenge and succeeding at it. That small success gave them confidence to accept the next bigger challenge, and the next one, and the next one. 

This learning process is how any skilled professional builds their self-efficacy. A budding baker might start by making cookies with his grandmother when he’s a kid, then make a cake on his own as a teenager, and then master sourdough during the pandemic. This probably makes a lot of sense to you, and you’ve likely experienced it in other areas of your life. And yet, I meet so many authors who don’t have a lot of writing experiences to build on, and they beat themselves up for feeling overwhelmed at the idea of writing a book.

Can you imagine if a brand new swimmer tried to master an Olympic-level dive on her very first try? We’d all coach this swimmer to take a step back and focus on mastering the smaller skills first. That’s what we’re here to do with our writing, as well! Finding success in these smaller pieces will give us the confidence to take the next step toward our goal.

“Personal enablement through mastery experiences is the most powerful way to create a strong, resilient sense of efficacy.” - Albert Bandura

How to Find Your Small Writing Wins

So what are some good places to start building your wins? Here are my favorite recommendations for aspiring authors:

  1. Join a writing group

A writing group helps to hold you accountable, offers constructive feedback, and can give you opportunities to try new writing experiences. Writing groups provide safe, judgment-free environments for building your confidence. 

  1. Take a writing class

Writing groups are incredible, but sometimes you know you need someone who will really challenge you, in an environment where a little more is at stake. Sometimes you need to know that your work will get graded. If this is you, it may be time to take an actual writing class (or pursue a writing degree!) where a teacher will read your work, give you feedback, and assign a grade. This is another relatively safe environment, where a limited number of eyes will see your work, but one that is guaranteed to challenge you.

  1. Start a blog

Ten years ago this very month, I started a little blog called One Little Library, where I reviewed books and wrote about the reading life. When I first started, nothing happened. But as I kept writing, I started attracting attention. Other writers asked me to collaborate. I met people online who I’m still friends with today. Publishers and authors started asking me to review their books. I started a blog for my company and ran it for several years. I finally decided to retire One Little Library when I started my new business, but I can tell you confidently I wouldn’t be where I am today—I wouldn’t be writing this newsletter now—without those ten years of blog posts under my belt. A blog is often the first step in making your work accessible to anyone. All they need is the link! 

  1. Post on social media

Instagram has become a micro-blogging platform, where engagement is attracted by videos and photos but maintained through the captions. Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, has written some breathtakingly beautiful captions on Instagram, like this poem she wrote for her partner Rayya who passed away from cancer. For many of us, social media provides an almost journal-like outlet that brings our private thoughts and feelings to an even more public stage. 

  1. Submit articles for publication

That’s really what we’re aiming to do as we build toward writing a book—take our writing to bigger and bigger public stages. A natural next step after sharing your work with a small group, with a class or an expert, on a blog, or on social media, is submitting your writing to publications. Look for outlets that cater to the same audience as you, or feature articles on your favorite topic. You may experience rejection at first, or you may receive critical feedback. Take it. Use it as a learning experience, revise what you need to revise, and try again. Keep trying and stay open to feedback until your work is accepted.

I’ll share another small benefit to building your writing skills and confidence in this way… all of these things also help build your platform, which is an essential piece you need to have in place before you publish a book.

What If We Fail?

Every writer knows that rejection is part of the deal. Harry Potter was rejected twelve times before it was finally accepted for publication. (You can read JK Rowling’s synopsis here!) Even the best writers are familiar with failing. And failure can feel like the exact opposite of what we’re trying to accomplish here with building your self-efficacy. But the truth is: failure is an essential part of the learning process.

“Successes build a robust belief in one’s personal efficacy,” says Bandura, while “failures undermine it.” That doesn’t mean, however, that we should only take on the tasks we know we can succeed in and avoid failure at all costs (as so many of us do!). On the contrary, Bandura writes: “If people experience only easy successes, they come to expect quick results and are easily discouraged by failure. A resilient sense of efficacy requires experience in overcoming obstacles through perseverant effort.”

Basically: If your wins are too easy, you’re not actually building self-efficacy. You’ll experience a far greater sense of accomplishment and demonstrate a much deeper level of understanding if you have to struggle a bit for that win. 

Experiencing failure teaches us how to persevere and get better. So don’t be discouraged if you receive some negative feedback from a teacher. Don’t be discouraged if someone unsubscribes from your newsletter. Don’t be discouraged if your blog post is published to crickets. Don’t give up. Keep persevering.

Next week I’ll share about the next way to build your writing self-efficacy: through vicarious experiences.