Dealing with Imposter Syndrome and Related Problems

Newer editors often tell me something along the lines of “I feel like I have Imposter Syndrome. I don’t feel confident about approaching publishers or other potential clients.” So, clear your schedule and make a cup of tea because I want to talk about these challenges, and I have a lot to say!

You’ve probably heard about writer’s block. Well, editors/aspiring editors can feel equally paralyzed when it comes to marketing themselves, especially to organizations that have gate-keepers, like publishing companies and book packagers. But if you don’t get over this paralysis/inaction, you can’t (obviously) reach your goals.

In my work, I’ve discovered that the challenges that stall us fall into a few related but in many ways distinct categories:

  • lacking the required skills or being uncertain about having the required skills
  • negative-thinking-related (wondering who’d ever want to work with us)
  • motivation-related (having no real reason, such as a deadline, to market your services and get clients)

Keep in mind that these challenges can be connected; if you have trouble believing anyone would ever want to hire you, you’re going to have trouble finding the motivation to market.

These types of self-doubt happen to all of us from time to time but they’re particularly challenging for newer editors because you don’t have the assurance that comes from experience (“I’ve landed new clients before and I will again.”)

Skill-related Concerns

Skill-related concerns crop up when you’re not sure you have the skill to do the work and when you’re worried that other people (such as those who hire editors) won’t find your argument (to hire you) compelling.

They also crop up when don’t know how to do what you need to do next, are unsure whether you’re going in the right direction, have never encountered a particular editing problem before, or have but aren’t convinced you know how to solve it.

Sometimes fear of encountering these challenges stops us from even getting started. Other times, we’re reluctant to take on anything that presents a challenge because we’re not sure we’ll succeed.

Often the answer is to do some research or outreach, such as reading books and blog posts on the subject; attending classes or a conference; or asking colleagues (joining an editor’s group is a great way to find such colleagues).

You have many resources to help you improve your craft. It’s just a matter of connecting the dots.

Skill-related challenges sometimes show up as a dismissiveness of your own work. “I don’t have twenty years’ experience” or “I’ve only edited a few novels—what do I know about it?”

Yet the only way to become a good editor is to edit. You can’t learn to edit just by reading books and taking classes. At some point you have to edit a manuscript. And if you want to make a living at editing, at some point you have to edit a manuscript and submit an invoice for your work. And, of course, when you’re editing for someone who knows something about editing (an experienced author, a publisher or packager), you’re very concerned about how they will evaluate your skill—they probably know how to evaluate your efforts better than you can. A newby indie author probably doesn’t care (or notice) if we don’t write our queries as effectively as possible, but a publisher will. What if we fall short of the mark? What if we get a project and we fail?

It’s easier to defeat negative self-talk if you have a realistic understanding of your capabilities.

But I also think it’s important not to get too wrapped up in guessing what someone will say if you market to them. The biggest problem holding freelance editors back from success is their wanting to “get ready” to act. They want to take one more class, or do one more edit for a friend, or read one more book and then they’ll take the next step.

Now, if you have no credentials at all, you’ll have to get some. But probably not as many as you think you need. When I started out, I had a college degree and a bunch of bills to pay. I always hesitate to admit this but I will: I wasn’t even entirely sure why CMOS mattered to anyone. I still managed to land my first publishing client within a few weeks of trying.

Now, I’m not saying my experience is universal or the same thing will happen to you. Of course luck played a role—my letter of introduction landed on the right desk at the right time. But I will say that the more actions you take, the more likely you will get “lucky.”

My general position is that when you’re first starting out, you need to say yes a whole lot more than you say no. That is to say, you need to try, see what happens, then make any necessary changes and try again.

If you’re anything like me, what you want from your freelancing career is to get a bunch of clients to pay you good money to fund your living expenses, not to mention add a little chunk of change to your retirement account.

But if you’re anything like me, this is hard. Potential clients do not automatically convert to paying clients, money does not land in your bank account without massive effort, and projects go south from time to time despite your best efforts to keep them moving.

Dealing with Negative Thinking

Let me tell you a story about Negative Nelly.

She’s that oh-so-annoying voice in your head that says, “Why are you locked in your office trying to build a freelancing business no one cares about when you could be frolicking by the ocean?” (Now that I live ten minutes from the ocean this is a bigger problem for me than it was when I lived in landlocked Kansas.)

My Negative Nelly thinks I could be earning real money, losing weight, being a better mother, saving the world, and telling those kids to stay off my lawn if only I didn’t spend so much time trying to get people to pay me to edit their words. Who do I think is going to care that I can help them create a better story? I might as well watch Tangled again instead for all the difference it will make.

Also, remember how I’ve made mistakes before? Negative Nelly doesn’t want me to forget. Just in case I was laboring under a delusion of competence. She doesn’t know why I bother. When she thinks of all those lost opportunities—do I remember that time I turned down a date so I could work on a project quote that was rejected? I’m going to die friendless and alone and also I will be buried in an unmarked grave because no one will even remember who I am.

Ahem. Nelly has had a long, long time to hone her craft and she’s very good. She knows just where to stick the knives.

I’ve lived with Nelly for many years, and for a sorry number of them I listened to her. Finally, I realized that she wasn’t helping anything. Even if she was right about my competence, giving up wasn’t going to make me a better editor, was it?

I also recognized that the options weren’t usually saving the world or working on my business, but they tended to be watching a movie or working on my business, or cleaning the house or working on my business. Every time Nelly started in about saving the world, I pointed out that I could also be a meth addict instead of a freelancer, or a Mafioso instead of a freelancer. The world isn’t made up of either/or, but a spectrum of ways we can live. Freelance editing can integrate into almost any of them.

A friend of mine makes Nelly go sit on the porch when she’s working. Another sends hers to Tahiti. Both have little rituals they use to banish Nelly before they start writing. Give it a try.

Unpacking the Negative Thoughts

Sometimes Nelly presents herself as just a big roiling ball of fear. Fear of success, fear of failure, fear of sucking, fear of not knowing you suck, fear of pretty much everything. Instead of letting that big ball of fear stop you, open it up. What, actually, does Nelly think is going to happen if you keep trying?

She’ll tell you, if you listen. She’ll say, If you take the risk and freelance instead of staying at your day job, maybe you won’t make enough to pay the bills. If you keep the day job and try to freelance on the side, maybe you’ll get distracted from your day job and wind up fired. If you invest in starting a freelance business, maybe you won’t spend enough time with your kids and they’ll grow up to be hoodlums. Maybe maybe maybe.

Often, once you know what that big ball of fear is about, you can do something to address it. Maybe you do need to work on your craft. The answer isn’t to let Nelly stop you. The answer is to take a class or read a book.

When Nelly starts in with “You’ll never get any clients,” thank her for her concern, but remind her that a lot of people do establish successful freelance editing businesses. If she says this edit sucks, tell her she may be right but the next one will be better.

Nelly is a nuisance, but letting her stop you is a choice. Don’t keep making it.

Positive Reminders

I keep a folder called Nice Things People Say About Me on my computer. Whenever someone compliments me on my work, I put it in the folder. When Negative Nelly gets going, I’ll take a peek at the contents of that folder to remind myself that someone who isn’t me thinks I do good work.

I also keep an accomplishment list so that I can remind myself of projects that worked out. I list projects I’ve worked on, awards the books I’ve edited have been nominated for and/or won, anything like that. When I first started, the accomplishment list was more about marketing tasks, like sending out letters of introduction. It doesn’t matter what stage of your career you’re at, you’re accomplishing something that you can keep on the list.

This helps when I get nineteen “thanks, but no thanks” responses in a single week and Negative Nelly starts up.

Confronting Negative Thoughts

Sometimes you can ignore Nelly and she’ll go away. But sometimes she doesn’t. When she’s got you by the throat, it may help to confront the thinking. First, write down what your negative thoughts are. They might be things like, “I’ll never get any clients” or “I can never stand out against the competition” or “No one values my skills.” Just list them all on a page. Sometimes just getting them out can help you turn your attention back to doing the work.

If that’s not enough, take the next step. Look at each negative thought in turn and ask yourself how you know it to be true. If you think, “I’ll never get any clients” then challenge that idea. Why won’t you get clients? Go to an editors’ organization like the Editorial Freelancers Association or Editors’ Association of Earth (a Facebook group) and you’ll see lots of people are getting clients. You could certainly be one of them.

If Nelly says you’re pawning your financial security, look at your bank account. Is it true? Probably not. If Nelly says you’re sacrificing your children’s future, look at your kids. Is it true? Probably not.

If the answer is yes, then okay, maybe you do have some work to do. But almost certainly Nelly is doing what she does best, fear-mongering.

Next, challenge yourself to think of the negative thought in a new way. When you say, “I’ll never get clients,” you’re probably thinking of a very specific type of thing, like, “I’ll never be able to get enough clients to make six figures without putting a tremendous effort into it.”

Well, okay, you probably won’t. But if it’s just a question of one client—surely you can find one client somewhere, even if you have to work for beer money.

Finally, ask yourself, “So what?” Okay, so you don’t ever get one single client, ever, under any circumstances, even offering to work for free. You’ll still have a good life, won’t you? I hope you will. I expect you will. Asking yourself “So what?” keeps this whole endeavor in perspective. You can have a great life, and even be a skilled editor, and not necessarily rock it as a freelancer. But don’t let negative thinking stop you from trying.

In the end, mostly our negative thinking comes down to uncertainty. We don’t know if we’ll ever achieve what we want to achieve. Even if we do finish writing the quote/letter of introduction/insert task here, there’s nothing to say anyone will respond to it. And even if we do every possible thing we know how to do to be successful, there are no guarantees. We cannot control the outcome.

That fact is so very annoying.

In the end we have to remember that the process is what matters, and we need to focus on that. In other words, are you doing the work? Focusing on the process puts the emphasis where it belongs, on what you can control.

Focusing on the process—doing the tasks—is key, but without any deadline and with no rewards in sight, it’s hard to give “get more clients!” any kind of urgency. There’s always going to be something else that could use your attention. Even helping out at the PTA bake sale would be more fulfilling. At least someone will say thank you, right?

Accountability Partners

One thing that can help is to focus on your purpose as an editor as well as your personal reasons why this is the right choice for you. Remember that purpose. It can help you stay on task, even if you don’t feel like it. Even when you’re marketing.

A public statement of purpose can be a very powerful tool to motivate you to make progress. If you tell all your Facebook friends that you’re going to send out ten letters of introduction this week, you’re more motivated to get it done because you’ll feel the need to let them know you succeeded.

Sometimes you need to make a more formal pact regarding your commitment. I’ve used accountability partners for years and find them extremely helpful for keeping me on task. Basically, the process works by my finding a like-minded freelancer who has some long-term goals.

Each week we figure out what tasks for that week would give us significant progress toward that long-term goal (or goals) and make those tasks a priority.

We send our to-do lists to each other. Then we check in with each other midweek. If one of us is struggling, the other will help brainstorm solutions, offer resources, or just lend an ear. Often that’s enough to get unstuck.

Then we end the week with a statement of what we accomplished. Sometimes we’ll include something we learned about ourselves, the goal, or the process. Then we say what our tasks for the next week will be. Sometimes these relationships have gone on for years.

I’ve also done a boot camp version of this with a friend. We devote one day to making a big chunk of progress. We make a plan at the start of the day, then call each other every hour and report in: what we’ve done this hour and what we’re going to do the next. It’s amazing how well this approach works.

Be aware that if you start letting each other get away with excuses, the process stops working effectively. Yes, life happens and gets in the way of completing tasks, and there’s no point in beating yourself or each other up over that. But you should be able to get back on track afterwards, and to make some amount of progress, no matter how small, even during an otherwise challenging time. Be willing to ask each other the tough questions.


Some people reward themselves for doing the work. If they meet their goals by Friday, they get to go out to dinner. If they finish a marketing task, they get a treat. What that treat is varies from person to person—chocolate, an afternoon in the park, a pedicure, a new pen.

A small reward can give you a visible token of your progress, especially when your work seems otherwise unrewarding. A friend and I used to send each other such tokens whenever we met important goals. So I’d report success in reaching a milestone and I’d get a fun package in the mail. I still remember my delight in receiving a rainbow set of Sharpies (this happened more than ten years ago, and I remember the Sharpies!)

Another way to incentivize is to create a visual map of your progress. Hang a calendar on your wall and for every day you do one marketing task (for example), draw in a big fat happy face. Use a big red X on days you didn’t do the task. Pretty soon you’ll be focusing on not putting any red Xs on the calendar.

Create Artificial Deadlines

Sometimes working to meet a deadline is all the motivation you need. Look ahead on your calendar. Do you have a significant date that you could tie a deadline to? Suppose your class reunion is coming up and you’d like to be able to talk about your success with your new business. Peg your short-term goal(s) and to-do list to that deadline. A graduation, a retirement, a birthday, a vacation—all of these can serve as markers for doing certain tasks related to building your business.

Deadlines that are more closely tied to your actual business can work even better. A conference or class that includes feedback on some portion of your work can serve as a motivating deadline.

Play a Game

Sometimes your inner “I don’t wanna!” won’t listen to reason, and when that happens to me, I play some sort of silly game. For example, I set the timer for twenty minutes and see how many words I can edit in that amount of time. Then I’ll set it for another twenty minutes to see if I can beat my score. Yeah, I know, but it’s more productive than Candy Crush, right?

If you’re having trouble staying focused, you can use a similar game. Give yourself fifteen minutes in which you won’t check out Facebook. Then increase the challenge—make it half an hour. This seems silly but it is literally how you build focus.

I’m skilled at turning anything into a game. I’ll challenge myself to fill all the pages in my notebook with marketing ideas, no matter how far-fetched, or give myself just five minutes to research and resolve that stupid computer glitch I’m having.

I’m sure you can find similar challenges that take the focus off how much you hate ____ (fill in the blank). The less you dwell on negative thoughts, the less influence they have over your actions.

Don’t just assume that there’s something wrong with you or your work if you can’t always find the motivation to do it. Develop some strategies and tactics that will help you stay on course even during those times when you don’t particularly feel like it.

Once you’ve identified what’s stopping you and why, the solution is at hand. You can do this! It’s just a matter of giving yourself the help you need to get it done.

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