Manuscript March: I’m Not a Real Writer, and Other Fallacies

I’ve spent a lot of time with postgrads. I’ve been one (at various levels) for six years. I’ve led a postgraduate association. Represented postgrads on university committees. Organised postgrad events. Led networking sessions. Researched postgrad populations. The biggest secret I’ve uncovered through all of this is…

We feel like we’re faking it.

A great many of us feel inauthentic as scholars, as researchers, and as writers. This was my personal dirty secret for quite a while. I was working on research projects and doing fine, but I secretly thought that I wasn’t as good as everybody else. The other postgrads knew what they were doing – but I was just a faker, sticking around until the admissions people realised what a terrible mistake they’d made by granting me a place.

As I met more and more postgraduate students, and started hearing their concerns, it became clear that I wasn’t the only one. These sorts of pesky thoughts were an epidemic:

“I’m not a proper researcher.”

“I don’t know what I’m doing.”


“I’m not a real writer.”

This last one is very common. Everyone has something that makes them feel impaired as a writer. Perhaps you never quite grasped grammar lessons at school. Perhaps you’re writing in a second or third language. Perhaps you’ve misspelled the same few words your whole life. (Misspelt? Mispelled? Oh dammit.) The point is, there are a million reasons we might feel like fakers when we sit down at a keyboard.

Fortunately, they’re all NONSENSE.

Let’s bust a few myths right now, shall we?

You do not need to spend years in a plush leather chair, puffing on pipe tobacco and reading Proust by fireside to be authentic as a writer. Real writers have off days. Real writers sometimes can’t spell. Real writers waste time when they probably shouldn’t. Real writers write at home in their pyjamas while eating cereal. Real writers dance around to Taylor Swift when they’re stuck for a phrase.

I never said they were graceful.

OK, this confession might be getting a little specific to me. But the point is, real writers are human, and not some special separate species that we aspire to become. We’re real writers already – in training, yes, but real nonetheless.

Unfortunately, self-doubt is a powerful beast. When we doubt our abilities – and this is especially true for our ability to write – we risk becoming intellectually paralysed. We risk becoming stuck in that blank space on the page.

So here is my message to myself and, if you’re struggling with self-doubt, to you.

We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t have authentic talent. Someone in a position of authority looked at each of our applications, checked our writing samples, and thought: yes, this person has the potential to research and write at a high level.

Since that day, we’ve only gotten better. We’ve had more practice: by writing notes to our readings, drafting chapters, writing for publication, being critiqued, and so on.

Plus, it’s not just postgrads who feel this way. This lack of scholarly confidence has been researched, and as it turns out, even early career academics feel like they’re faking it.* Think back to your undergrad days. Think back to some of the tutors, lecturers, and mentors you had that were yet to reach Associate Professor or Professor status. They were intimidatingly smart, and clearly knew what they were doing. But even they probably experienced the same sense of self-doubt.

So logically, these “I’m not a real…” thoughts must be false. I think we need to turn them around. Instead of “I’m not a real writer” perhaps we should think “I’m already a writer, and I’m becoming a better one.” That kind of thinking is far more encouraging, and it opens the door to self-improvement.

I’m already a writer, and my English grammar is improving.

I’m already a writer, and I’m learning how to link my paragraphs.

I’m already a writer, and I’m working on limiting my Taylor Swift references.

It’s tough to rewire your own thoughts. The psychological baggage of self-doubt is hard to drop. But perhaps if we keep reassuring ourselves, we can shake it off, shake it off.

Sorry. I’ll stop now.


*There’s a colossal amount of research confirming the prevalence of feelings of inauthenticity among postgraduate and early career researchers. If you’re interested, check out Louise Archer’s article as a starting point:

Archer, L. (2008). Younger academics’ constructions of ‘authenticity’, ‘success’ and professional identity. Studies in Higher Education, 33(4), 385-403. DOI: 10.1080/03075070802211729

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

4 thoughts on “Manuscript March: I’m Not a Real Writer, and Other Fallacies

  1. ‘Imposter syndrome’ is I agree incredibly real to us! Early in my PhD studies (5 years and 8 months part time I worked on mine) another PhD student posted the link below to her FB page. I printed it out and read it every day I needed to write, and it helped. It really did. It does not contain views I’m suggesting are endorsed by AUT, but it’s really helpful for a giggle and a nod when you’re struggling (and dancing around the room to Taylor Swift)

  2. Thanks so much for this encouraging post. I felt like giving Taylor Swift some ammo for a new song – ‘it’s me, it’s me’!!
    I really did think I was the only ‘faker’ out there….someone who was pretending to do a Masters Thesis, while not knowing what I was doing!!
    But then, that’s the journey, isn’t it?

    1. Absolutely! No one starts a research degree knowing everything… that would defeat the purpose.

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