Impostor Syndrome: A NaNoWriMo Pep Talk

We’re almost two weeks into this year’s National Novel Writing Month! Here’s a pep talk for those of you joining in the challenge to write 50,000 words in 30 days.

Impostor Syndrome


I want to start by talking about something I am very familiar with: Impostor Syndrome. Wikipedia defines impostor syndrome as “a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud.’” For writers, this often manifests as “How can I call myself a writer? Everything I write is terrible.” And, during NaNo, “I can’t possibly write a book in 30 days.”

On that note, I refer you to VE Schwab’s excellent pep talk. It may help to reframe NaNo in your mind as writing a 50k story in 30 days. The book will come later, through revisions and critiques. For now, just write the story.

I’m feeling pretty impostor-y this month as I am participating in a team NaNo challenge with the Northern Colorado Writers. Both teams have hugely impressive overall word counts, people on both sides are regularly writing 5k words a day, and at least one person has gotten to 50k words in 11 days. You might be feeling like an impostor for an entirely different reason. But I’ve been around enough writers to know that this syndrome is alive and well in the writing community.

So here are two suggestions to help deal with impostor syndrome.

NaNo is For Learning

The first suggestion is this: If you start to panic, focus on NaNo as a learning experience.

Whether you make it to 50,000 words or not, you have embarked on an incredible journey. As you’ve written words or stared at the blank screen or threatened to chuck your laptop out the nearest window, you’ve learned something about your strengths and weaknesses as a writer.

I happened to look down at the end of a sentence and realized I’d hit 20,000 words exactly! Celebrate the tiny victories.

Personally, I have confirmed that I work best in the mornings. I have also learned this year that I get way more done at write-ins than sitting at home. For the first time in my NaNo career, I have been ahead of the required total word count for over a week. And that is thanks in large part to having to host write-ins at least twice a week. Butt in chair, hands on keyboard, as a web cartoonist I admire likes to say. The peer pressure of people around me writing does a strange and wonderful thing to the competitor inside me.

So if you’re feeling stuck, make a list of the things you’ve learned. Acknowledge that you’ve made progress, even if it looks miniscule to you.

Neil Gaiman on Imposter Syndrome

Then go on to my second suggestion, which is to read this story by Neil Gaiman:

Some years ago, I was lucky enough invited to a gathering of great and good people: artists and scientists, writers and discoverers of things. And I felt that at any moment they would realise that I didn’t qualify to be there, among these people who had really done things.

On my second or third night there, I was standing at the back of the hall, while a musical entertainment happened, and I started talking to a very nice, polite, elderly gentleman about several things, including our shared first name. And then he pointed to the hall of people, and said words to the effect of, “I just look at all these people, and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent.”

And I said, “Yes. But you were the first man on the moon. I think that counts for something.”

And I felt a bit better. Because if Neil Armstrong felt like an impostor, maybe everyone did. Maybe there weren’t any grown-ups, only people who had worked hard and also got lucky and were slightly out of their depth, all of us doing the best job we could, which is all we can really hope for.

Neil Gaiman, Neal Stephenson, and Neil Armstrong
If Neil Gaiman and Neil Armstrong can feel Impostor Syndrome, no one is immune. And maybe none of us are really impostors.

You’re Not Alone

We’re all here in NaNo doing the best we can. Your words matter. You’re not an impostor, because you’re the only one who can write the words in your head. If they don’t come out perfect, don’t worry—first drafts are terrible. You can fix it later. Just get them out so you have something to work with!

You’re not alone. And I promise none of us is going to call you a fraud. You’re writing words, therefore you are a writer. Let’s get through this month together!

One comment

  1. Louie and Fran Walker

    Very interesting, Katie. I like your advice “just write the story first”, and critique later. Also, I had never heard of Neil Gaiman before today but had just seen him on a Big Bang episode without knowing who he was. Then you mentioned him on the same morning. I knew who Neil Armstrong was. Keep up the good work.

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