how the fear of being judged stopped me from writing

How the Fear of Being Judged Stopped Me from Writing

Molly McCowan Business Storytelling, The Art of Editing 17 Comments

If you’ve been following me since I founded Inkbot Editing back in 2010, you’ve probably noticed a slow waning of my blog posts. I used to write religiously, and you heard from me at least once or twice a month. I was writing about a wide range of topics: punctuationthe value of an editorhow my dog makes me a better editor…you name it.

The reason for the slow decline in my blogging over the past year or so is twofold.

The first reason is that I’ve been happily working away, managing a diverse client list and tons of exciting editing and copywriting projects.

The other reason is fear, pure and simple. It’s the fear of being judged, which you’ve also probably felt at some time in your life.

That’s why I wanted to write about it today. I wanted to share something with you that feels deeply personal (and vulnerable), in the hopes that it will spark a productive discussion and make you think about this topic in a different way.

Granted, if you’re not a professional editor, hopefully your writing won’t be put under the same microscope that mine is. And hey, I totally understand. That’s the name of the game! After all, who would hire an editor who makes tonz of grammatickal and spelling misteaks?

But one of my mottos is “even editors need editors.” To some, this may sound ridiculous, but we all reach that stage when we’ve spent so much time with a piece of writing that we just can’t see it anymore. Our brain starts to skim through it, which is exactly the opposite of the slow, deliberate process needed for copyediting.

And once our brains reach that tipping point of no longer seeing the little picture, typos and homophones sneak in and stand there proudly, just waiting to make us look bad.

In a perfect world, I let my blog posts sit for a couple of days to “stew.” I come back to them later with fresh eyes, and I proofread everything, find images, and post the new piece to my website.

But I’m not perfect, and I don’t always follow this process. Sometimes I want to push “publish” and get the post out there. I read it and reread it until my eyes hurt. Then I read it aloud. I have my computer read it aloud to me. Then, finally, I push “publish.” But that’s not the end of the paranoia: even after the post is published, I proceed to anxiously reread it at least two more times, just to triple check that I’ve caught everything.

Have you done this too?

This anxiety stems from fear: the fear that people will judge us negatively for a typo or missed word. Yes, I’m a highly trained, professional editor, but I still have a fear of being judged. I think we all face this in our lives, and especially in our careers. (Imposter syndrome is a thing, you guys!)

I’m generally a very confident person, but after receiving some harshly worded emails from editors last year (one wrote, “You call yourself an editor?” after finding a typo in an email I sent out), I got to the point where I was editing my sentences as I wrote them, which is like pouring molasses on the creative process. Eventually, I just stopped blogging.

I don’t know about you, but when I write creatively, I have to find my groove. I need to write whatever comes into my mind with no judgment. I can’t stop myself to read the sentence I just wrote; I have to say go until I reach the finish line. Then, and only then, do I go back and start to do developmental editing (big-picture work of structuring and reordering the post), and then copyediting (fixing grammar and punctuation issues, formatting headings, fixing typos, etc.).

I know this writing process works for me. I know I’m a strong editor and writer. But over the past year, I’ve let fear take the reins and put the brakes on my creative process. I’ve continued writing for clients, but writing for my own blog has been pushed to the back burner.

Feeling picked apart and jumped all over because you made a mistake leads to shame and embarrassment. And shame and embarrassment (or being made to feel like you’re not good enough) are the exact opposite feelings you need to stay creative.

As Brené Brown says, “If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment.” I know this firsthand, and that’s why I think it’s vital to talk about it openly.

I’m a big believer that editors should never get up on their high horses about being “better at English” than other people. Laughing at a typo with the understanding that it could happen to anyone, including yourself, is a lot different than pointing and laughing at someone and judging them as stupid.

I also believe that typos can happen to anyone, especially in today’s quick-fire world of text messages, tweets, Facebook posts, and rushed emails.

Sometimes my friends will text me and then correct their typo and say, “How embarrassing! You’re an editor.” This makes me sad. I tell them, and I mean it, that I don’t judge anyone for typos, poor spelling, or grammatical mistakes. My dad has always had terrible spelling, and he’s in metallurgical-engineering textbooks around the world for his contributions to that field. He’s one of the smartest people I know.

I have many dyslexic friends who have very insightful, valuable things to say and give to this world. I also have many friends for whom English is a second language. They tell me that they’re so afraid of making a mistake and being ridiculed that they hold their tongue and don’t share their ideas.

Judging people because they made a mistake you “would never” make isn’t right. Making people feel shamed and embarrassed for making a mistake while expressing themselves isn’t right.

Brené Brown also says, “If we’re going to find our way back to each other, we have to understand and know empathy, because empathy’s the antidote to shame. The two most powerful words when we’re in struggle? Me too.”

Editors are people too. Typos happen to us too. We’re paranoid about them, and this paranoia stops us from writing and sharing and teaching as much as we can.

So, my friends, I’m making a promise to myself to stop letting fear impede my creative process, and I need you to help keep me accountable. I want to write at least one blog post per month for Inkbot Editing, starting with this one. So, if you don’t hear from me for a while, I want you to reach out to me on Twitter or Facebook, or send me an email.

I love helping fellow writers and editors, and I have plenty of helpful advice and tips and tricks to share with you. I also know that you have a lot to teach me! So, cheers to writing, and to accepting others for what they’re trying to say instead of how they say it.

* * *

Have you experienced fear that has halted your creative process or made you reluctant to share your ideas? Tell me in the comments, and let the Inkbot Editing word-nerd community know how we can help and support your creative journey.

Molly McCowan
Molly McCowan is a professional writer and editor from Fort Collins, Colorado. As the Lead Word Nerd at Inkbot Editing, it's her job to make you look good.
  • The plumber’s leaky house is a HUGE speedbump that so many entrepreneurs go over time and time again.

    The thing you’re best at for doing for others is the worst thing you are doing for yourself and your own business. I suffer from that a LOT when it comes to marketing WTF. Speaking of a blogging dry spell, I think it’s been about a year – and I can directly tie tens of thousands of dollars to my blogging efforts – so it’s just plain stupid to not be blogging for myself. And yet…

    Anyway, re: nitpicky bastards who call you out on your own craft – My suggestion is: make it game. If someone spots a typo in your work, email, or social media, you send them a special treat. Also: Grammarly will eliminate a lot of the stupid “whoopsies” that come from speed-writing posts, and while you really do need a human for anything you’re gonna sell, for DIY-style marketing that *shouldn’t* get published in an encyclopedia somewhere, it’s often enough. I’d never rely on JUST that for a book or elearning product or anything that was mission-critical or revenue generating, though.

    • Thanks, Nick! I love the plumber analogy; I haven’t heard it put that way before, and it’s so true.

  • Punch fear in the face, Molly! Fear is a big, bad, bombastic bully!

    • I will, Melanie! I will punch fear in the face! (And I think I might write this down and tape it to my computer as a reminder. Hah!)

  • Nicole Roccas

    I readily relate to this post and want to thank you for posting. I had a similar experience this past fall, in terms of getting harsh criticism for missing some mistakes as an editor. In this case, it was for a client–my longest standing client actually, someone I had built up a lot of trust with–and her reaction was simply out of proportion with the magnitude of the mistakes. I’ve read in editing books that an amazing copy editor catches 8 out of every 10 errors–no one catches everything, and there are so many things in that gray area between overt errors and just… not-the-greatest writing. Anyway. In my case, the client reamed me out despite my apologies, etc. It was absolutely harrowing, almost traumatizing (for a people-pleaser like myself) and I’ve had cold feet when it comes to editing ever since. I struggle now more than ever with putting myself out there, seeking out new potential clients, and believing that the work I do has any value. I also let my professional blog posts dwindle because it was simply too exhausting trying to worry about all these things. Like you, I’ve been realizing that I need to step back in the ring (read: earn a livable income again) and trust my skills (and work on them when necessary, but not give up on myself). Thanks so much for writing this and affirming some of what I’ve been struggling with. Keep writing! 🙂

    • Thank you so much for sharing this, Nicole! I’ve experienced this too. Most copyeditors are perfectionists, so when we learn that we’ve missed a few things, we feel like we’ve failed completely.

      But you’re right: even the best editors catch about 8 out of 10 errors. We’re the “safety net” for authors, but we need safety nets, too. Proofreaders! I know it isn’t possible on every project, but I don’t feel secure unless I can convince my clients to have their work proofread after I edit it. And I never proofread documents I’ve copyedited! We all have our blind spots, and publishing error-free documents is a team effort.

      Trust yourself: we all make mistakes, and someone who overreacts (or who thinks editors are robots who can catch every single error) is probably not your ideal client anyway. I’ve had to learn that the hard way a few times. 🙂

      • Jodi Wibbels

        Great article, Molly! With your current rush of deadlines, could you use some help with proofreading?

  • Ranee Boyd Tomlin

    Molly, as you know, I’m a copyeditor who writes an occasional blog. And I’m my own worst critic, writing in constant fear of appearing less knowledgeable and professional than my peers. Everything you’ve written rings true; I offer empathy and the resounding words, “Me too.” Oh—and remember I’m a big fan of your writing, so I look forward to your return to regular creativity.

    • Thanks so much for your comment, Ranee! I am definitely my own harshest critic, and I’m a perfectionist to boot. I’m slowly learning to be more gentle with myself—I’m only human, after all. Your support means a lot to me!

  • Kristen Tate

    Such a great post! Thanks for your honesty – I too go through a mental “gulp and let it go” process every time I post something. Brava!

    • Thank you for your comment, Kristen! I’m right there with you on that “gulp and let it go” thing, too. 🙂

  • It’s interesting, because as a novelist I have no fear of being judged – I still think about it, but part of that thought process is thinking up replies or how to not care; unfortunately, as far as blogging my thoughts go, I have allowed fear to stifle my ability to express an opinion. A part of it, I think, is that in the modern environment of blogging, so many people are offering opinions that get validated by either applause or derision, and if what you offer isn’t even noticed, well at least for me this is the case, you end up asking what the point is. I’ve allowed the idea of validation destroy my blogging voice. Whereas with a novel, like a song, it’s a creative process that exists beyond validation (even if we still desire that in the end).

    • Very interesting points, Warwick! I agree with you. Blog posts feel like they don’t “go anywhere” if they don’t get very many comments, shares, or views. That can get very discouraging, and it’s not the same as writing something like a novel. Thanks for making me think about this in a different way!

  • Mark P Trotter

    This resonates with most writers I work with. Once the customer/client base rises the fear of judgement stifles personal writing.
    For me I started painting again which gave me a creative outlet that I am used to any other persons brutal criticism – just as everyone thinks they can do better than the artist and voices their opinion the same applies to the writer. Once you have it in more than one area of life being judged is less of a fear.
    Loved the article

    • Thanks for your comment, Mark! My mom is a fine artist (watercolor and oil paintings), and I did talk to her about this subject and how it applies to artists as well. I’m glad you’re painting again!

  • Deb

    Thank you for writing about this important topic! This is also why wanna-be authors never finish their books and entrepreneurs on a tight budget never post to their blog – like me! And even though my business is called SlightlyOff-OnPurpose, I still hesitate to embrace my Slightly Off side for fear of being judged. Thank you, Molly, for giving me the courage to start blogging again and again and again!

    • Thank you so much, Deb! You inspired me to be brave and put this topic out there—without your support, I probably wouldn’t have posted it. You’re the best!