Goins, Writer

On Writing, Ideas, and Making a Difference

The More Books You Write, the Harder it Gets (The Secret to Writing Mastery)

Recently, I finished writing my fifth book. I thought it’d be done in March, so naturally, it was complete six months after that. This is often the way it goes.

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Writing a book is hard. I don’t think that statement should surprise anyone who’s acquainted with this craft, this trade that Ernest Hemingway said contained no masters, only apprentices.

But the thing that surprises me about writing, the thing that I never would have learned had I not decided to commit my life’s work to it is this:

The more you do it, the harder it gets.

Sure, there are parts that become less taxing, like developing the discipline to write every day or growing your ability to write a sentence that is grammatically correct. Practice can make certain parts seem effortless. But it can also reveal how much more you need to grow.

That’s what happened to me recently.

Now that my publisher has my latest book (it should be out next summer, by the way), I am struck with the realization that the experience of writing it has been harder, more grueling, and more painstaking than any other project I’ve worked on thus far.

People who know me ask if I am relieved. No. The truth is, I am scared. What if I messed something up? What if I didn’t honor the research well enough, or miscited a source, or simply didn’t do a good enough job stating my case? What if everyone finds out I’m really an imposter?

As Maya Angelou once said:

“I have written eleven books, but each time I think, Uh-oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.”

No wonder writers are known for their bouts of depression and drinking habits. This stuff is hard.

But the truth is, I think anything you aspire to do with excellence will make you feel this way. The more you do it, the better you do it, the worse you’ll feel. The secret to mastery is that the more you do it, the harder it will become.

Why is this?

1. It means you’re actually taking your work seriously.

I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing—feeling bad for doing good work. At least, in the proper context, it can guide you toward mastery.

This was true for me when I finished the second draft of my latest book and realized I wasn’t even halfway toward a finished product. At that point in my previous book, I was done and satisfied with the work. The chasm between the two books made me sad: A book that went on to become a bestseller was now, in my mind, one that I wouldn’t be proud to turn in.

But this is the way it is. As you grow in your craft, you become more self-conscious. You learn how much you don’t know. And that knowledge makes you humble, and better.

Steven Pressfield once wrote that it’s only the amateur who thinks that he has arrived. The professional is filled with constant self-doubt. If you’re wondering whether or not you have what it takes, that means you do.

So get back to work, and keep growing.

2. It means you’re not done yet.

Along those lines, once we complete a major piece of work, like a book, there’s often this sense of incompletion, emptiness even.

My friend Joe told me this when he completed his memoir the same day I finished my book. I texted him the day after, and he told me that he felt directionless and without purpose now. That made a lot of sense to me.

The truth is, writing a book, even finishing one, will not give you the sense of satisfaction you think it might. And if it does, that feeling won’t last long. This is why so many entrepreneurs sell their businesses only to go start another (see my friend Casey’s post on why selling his business and essentially becoming financially independent didn’t make him happy).

Why is this? Does it mean the act of creation isn’t all it’s cracked up to be? Not at all. It means that the point of being creative is to be creating, not to be done. Which is why the minute I turned my book in, I started working on a new book. My job is not to be done with the work. My job is to be working.

You are never done. Your master work is not complete. Your best work is far ahead of you—whether you have weeks, years, or decades left. There’s more of your story to share, more work to create, more yet to be done.

3. It means you’re getting better.

Socrates once said that the more he knew, the more he realized he didn’t know. This is the definition of wisdom. The older I get, the less willing I am to give advice, and the more hesitant I am to share an opinion—simply because I realize more and more that I have no idea what I’m talking about.

Even in writing my fifth book, which is basically narrative-driven personal development, I am offering less advice and more just trying to share some stories that I found fascinating.

Getting better means you start focusing more on yourself and less on what other people are doing. Mastery is a deeply personal thing.

But one thing I do know is this: The more you create, the better you get. But as your capacity to create better work increases so often does your taste. Of course, in the beginning, as Ira Glass has so wonderfully stated, in a creative career, your taste almost always outpaces your talent. As you grow, though, what you can produce will come more into alignment with what you like.

The truth, though, is you will never be satisfied. I’m certainly not. I’ve worked harder on this book than any other by a factor of ten. And yet, I am more worried, more scared, more unsure about this project than anything I’ve previously written. Why? Because I am starting to see how far I have to go, and where mastery truly lies—always on the horizon, in our sights but just beyond reach.

Art is never finished, Leonardo da Vinci once said, only abandoned—and so, your job is not to master the work, but to never abandon it. At least, to never abandon the work you promised yourself you wouldn’t quit. For me, that’s writing. Not a single book. But the act itself. I never want to be done writing, and I never want to abandon it.

When you find yourself feeling dissatisfied with what you’re producing and wondering if you’ll ever have what it takes, take heart. This means that you are better understanding the depth of your craft. The more I write, the more I realize what great writing requires and how far yet I have to go. It’s a challenge, to be sure, but not an insurmountable one.

So, I will keep writing. I will start that next book right now—not tomorrow, not in three weeks, but now. What does this mean? At this point, not much. I’ve opened up a new file on my computer and called it “New Book.” I’ve written one sentence, saying, “This is the next book.”

That’s not much. But then again, for a perfectionist who never feels like his work is done, moving on to the next project is everything. It’s what keeps me going.

The point of being a writer is to be writing. I love finishing projects, I love selling books and helping people. But I love writing even more. That’s what I promised myself when I began this journey five books ago—that if I could just write for a living, I would.

So, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go get started on Book #6.

Have you wrestled with self-confidence? Have you abandoned any work of art that you should restart? Share in the comments.

About Jeff Goins

I write books and help writers get their work out into the world. I am the best-selling author of four books, including The Art of Work. Each week, I send out a newsletter with free tips on writing and creativity.

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  • The more I write, the more unqualified I feel to write. Yet I keep writing and experience the knowing that this is what I was meant to do. Writing is such a psychological experience. Joy and angst all rolled into one. Just like our spirit needs our ego, you have to embrace both spectrums.

  • Hi Jeff,

    The thing with being human is we cling to many limiting beliefs/mental blocks/failure-producing/self-sabotaging tendencies, all acquired from other folks, none are own, that reveal themselves as we grow.

    Methinks this is 1 that is WAY common 😉

    I find that practicing – doing something frequently, like writing eBooks – improves my skills. But I developed this habit/vibe *after* fully embracing worthiness and deserving issues linked to my faulty, acquired limiting belief of: “the more you work, the more prolific you become, the harder things get.”

    You, Maya A and other brilliants souls can just keep writing books forever. No probs. But those mental blocks need to be faced, embraced and released to dissolve the energies. You’re doing an awesome job in that regard because I see your blog, your books and your online presence, all indicative that you’re keeping at it despite the lower energies that pop up in your mind.

    2 years ago I was completely flummoxed about writing my second bite-sized eBook (6,000 to 15,000 words).

    126 eBooks later, I could genuinely write 1 a day if I weren’t focused – intuitively-nudged – to promote each eBook effectively through guest posting, blog commenting to build bonds, etc.

    Thanks for the share, as always.

    Ryan

  • “Socrates once said that the more he knew, the more he realized he didn’t know.” I’ve been unknowingly paraphrasing that for years, but with slightly more colorful language…

    Anyone who claims to have mastered writing is full of crap.

  • This is great! Thanks Jeff.

  • “The older I get, the less willing I am to give advice, and the more hesitant I am to share an opinion—simply because I realize more and more that I have no idea what I’m talking about.” Hit the nail on the head with that nugget, Jeff. Exciting writing in this piece.

  • Deborah Flora

    “The older I get, the less willing I am to give advice, and the more hesitant I am to share an opinion—simply because I realize more and more that I have no idea what I’m talking about.”

    Yes! Exactly. I’ve felt this way for a long time, too. I’ve told a few close friends on different occasions over the years “That the older I get, the less I feel I know and the more questions I have!”

    I also love the thought that art is never finished. So true! I often tell my children that we never quit learning throughout our whole life. There is always something new, whether exciting or daunting, something we want to learn or something we have to learn.

    Have a great week!

  • Paula Schnackenberg

    This blog just validated everything I was feeling. I am so glad I’m not alone

  • Karen Mazzu

    Wrestling and art are totally odd, triggering concepts to me. Most of my childhood and adolescence was spent in school programs that labeled me gifted, talented, and creative. Also, I couldn’t care less about any of that because I wanted to become the greatest pro wrestler of all time. After failing, or feeling failed by and abandoning art/painting as a vocation, and pro wrestling (which acquaintances still ask me about all the time, when am I going to go back to wrestling?) I learned that if I place my identity or value ANYWHERE outside the confines of “does this bring glory to God?” and “would I want an impressionable youth to see or hear about anything I’m doing and imitate it? Do I want to propagate this kind of value in the world and culture?” I am crippled by self doubt. So I’m trying to learn how to live again, but with faith instead of selfish ambition and pride. Jesus told us to give up our lives and follow him. My life was spent trying to make a name for myself, a brand, and now I only want my name and life to be a testimony to the goodness, lovingkindness, and mercy of God. I’m afraid to have self confidence again because so much pain resulted from me thinking that pursuit of my plans and desires was the only thing that mattered. Isn’t that kind of self confidence misplaced? Our greater responsibility should be to be humble and loving toward one another, rather than creating the best work of art, or living the coolest life. But I could be wrong, or at least not entirely correct 🙂

    • Ann Marie Thomas

      Karen, I love your heart and your humility! But you are God’s work of art (Ephesians 2:10), and shouldn’t you make that the best you can? When you become the best wrestler or artist and people praise you, you can give the glory to God. Don’t settle for second best, God deserves only the best.

    • Andria Olivier

      Karen, I asked myself the same question with writing a book that I have hashed away at for decades. Though muse was beckoning, so was God. If I wrote what muse wanted me to write with only myself to answer to, I feared I might be putting my time into something that would be taking up so much of my life that it would render that part of my past worthless. Without warning I realized that if I did it in a way that would ultimately glorify God, as I hope it does, it would only then be worth it. I realized that if I told his story in what I was creating, that would be worthwhile. He is our story and our song, as the saying goes.

      • alanj1

        Right on Andria! Karen, it’s possible that I have juggled or tossed that question around more than most, never coming up with an answer, until the last few months. I could never figure out what my mission or purpose was, which was tantamount to knowing what my passion is, or how to work out my purpose.

        I believe many confuse what those things are, or simply never understand there is a difference. So often, as in my case, it has been present in front of my face since youth, hiding in plain sight. Yet I had to arrive at a point in life where I was ready to see it, fully embrace it, and determine to move forward. It only took me until I was into my seventh decade to get there, and I am determined to embrace the “better late than never” attitude!

        “Encouraging others, to discover what they love to do, and then to do it with courage, passion and determination.” That’s my purpose, and the vehicle is by any means I am capable of doing now, or learning how to do. We have all been blessed with talents and abilities, some used, developed, and others lying latent and ignored. When passion gets in the picture, and knowing it’s what you love doing, there will be no holding back. It’s just the beginning.

        So don’t get too confused as to what to do. Settle down, and seriously begin to do whatever it takes to first figure out what your purpose in life is all about. Deep inside you know, but it just has to come to the surface.

        Many get caught in the trap of attempting to determine what brings glory to God. If you could know the mind of God, which is impossible, then the answer to that question would also be very simple.

        It’s the same as a perfectionist, attempting to do something perfectly, when no human being has any example of perfection other than what was accomplished on the cross, or that it was not intended for imperfect humans to be perfect in this life.

        To bring it into perspective a little more, keep in mind that even though God decided never to flood the earth again, He did not see that having done so was a “bad” thing. It is human nature that looks for the two extremes.

        So try not to wrestle yourself to a pin Karen. Make an escape to discover first, what it is that moves and motivates you. There may be several things, but there is one you are going to resonate with the most. Look for what’s hiding in plain sight!

  • Von

    I’ve been ghostwriting for a while. Outlining, writing, and finishing novels for other people is much easier than writing one for myself. My self-confidence tanks once I get started, and I end up abandoning my projects (even my mostly finished ones) in favor of returning to ghostwriting. And it’s just stupid fear or lack of confidence or self-sabotage holding me back–I’ve written books, both fiction and nonfiction, and been paid for them. I know how the process works, so why can’t I make it work for me? Sigh.

    • Susanne

      What is your passion, Von? I don’t mean writing. What makes you jump out of bed in the morning and helps you to sail through the day? It is that passion coupled with your natural gifts that you need to share with others in a book. Make sense?

      • Von

        Wow, Susanne,I’d never thought of it like that. Thanks so much for commenting and asking me that question. As soon as I read it, I knew the answer: helping and encouraging other people. I’m active in several different types of groups–homeschooling, writing, and juvenile arthritis where I spend a lot of time listening, encouraging, answering questions. I’m passionate about homeschooling my kids, getting them excited about learning, teaching them to be good citizens, etc. Those are all things that excite me and keep me motivated throughout the day. Now how to translate that into my writing… I guess the biggest element missing for me is that I need to feel like I’m helping someone else through my work–I didn’t realize that. You ROCK, Susanne–(((HUGS))) ♥

  • Dominic Chargualaf

    Wow. This is the post I needed. My favorite part about writing is editing. I have slight sense of joy when the piece is finished, but the next piece is more difficult to write than the next one. Thank You Jeff!

  • allen Berry

    I love writing. To watch words magically appear across the blank screen of a white page is a very enjoyable experience. Nuff Said.

  • Bodysin- Sations

    I dig that closure, ” so if you’ll excuse me….” Good stuff!!!

  • Elbita Bello

    So many things hold me back. I write poetry, children’s rhyming books, began a memoir… all of which have much potential but I get stuck in wondering if it is good enough. I also tend to hold back from hitting the self publish button because I am afraid of how my family may receive my truths ( as in my memoir). Writing comes easy to me, it’s moving forward that stalls me.

  • Jeff,

    Your post taught me a lot of new things. I’ve only started writing consistently for a year so it came as a huge surprise that it will become harder the more you do it.

    What you mentioned reminded me of the four stages of competence, which goes like this:

    1. Unconscious incompetence,
    2. Conscious incompetence,
    3. Conscious competence,
    4. Unconscious competence.

    And this seems like the second stage where you realise your what you lack and where you want to improve upon.

    Thanks for sharing and making me think!

    Cheers,
    Anh

  • Scott Allan

    A great post that explains the struggle that has been going on; I am now in the editing process of my 6th book but for “some reason” I’ve been delaying finishing it, going back again and again changing things, not happy with what I’ve been calling the FINAL product. At one point I even set it aside for one month and started another book, which I completed 70% before pul;ling this one back into the loop. An uncompleted project is just too much to bury for long. Now pushing towards the finish line…but uncertainty all the way

  • Courtney Edwin Gary

    “Practice makes perfect, but a perfect practice is rare.”

    Courtney Edwin Gary

  • Andria Olivier

    So the fact that I have no idea what I’m doing, but want so badly to create it anyway, is normal? The looming research, character development and plot work, not to mention all the countless things I’m sure I haven’t even considered yet, are so overwhelming sometimes that I just say to myself, “Nope, there’s no way on earth this will ever get anywhere.” Oi! And all this time I thought I was missing something.

    • Writing Expertise

      I think all writers feel absolutely hopeless, ill-prepared, and in some cases ‘drowning in quicksand’ when working on a creative project. We just don’t ever tell anybody! We’re certainly a funny bunch, that’s for sure.

  • I felt the exact same after I finished my very first book. I felt like it wasn’t good enough, sloppy, and in some cases downright bad! I almost wanted to scrap it entirely! Until, that is, I realised that a writer is NEVER going to believe they’re any good nor will they call their work a masterpiece (At least a good writer wouldn’t). That’s the job of readers to say such things.

    I think it’s the hardest thing for writers to jump over that hurdle of ‘self-doubt’ and ‘self-deprecation’. We’re all so used to belittling ourselves, we don’t take time to accept that yes we do need to improve.. But, we are not THAT terrible! I hope that all writers reach this conclusion, because I am certain the incidences of writer drug-addiction and alcoholism would drop exponentially!

  • I don’t quit writing persay but I am finding myself less an active writer. What I write this day are more of codes and computer languages, not for human (because I do web development).

    How can wake my dozing writing against this strong contestant?

  • Thank you for so openly sharing all the feelings that accompany writing. I’m sensing there’s a lot of joy, satisfaction but also self-doubt in the writing process. I’m crossing my fingers for the joyful process of writing your book 6.

  • “…writing, the thing that I never would have learned had I not decided to commit my life’s work to it…” – Love that.

  • Ashley Tauriac

    “The day after he felt directionless and without purpose.” I finished writing my book three months ago and have felt this growing the entire time- I am so happy to hear that it is normal! What an incredibly honest and real post. Thanks!