The How and Why of Working With Your Inner Critic

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Working with your Inner Critic

 Image from Flickr by fakelvis

The real secret is that anyone can write a book. There’s no initiation ceremony. No dues to pay. You don’t need a special degree from a fancy school. Writing is for everyone, and this is your chance to scrawl your name across the page.

– Gennifer Albin (quoted here)

Writing is for everyone – but so many writers and almost-writers struggle against a little nagging voice that says it isn’t for you. That voice is the Inner Critic.

Your Inner Critic can be a hugely destructive force, sapping your confidence, encouraging you to skip writing sessions, and even making you think about giving up on writing altogether.

You don’t have to defeat your Inner Critic, or silence it altogether, though. Your Inner Critic is critical, in all three senses of the word:

  • It criticises you, telling you that you’re not good enough.
  • It critiques your writing – in the way that a workshop group would.
  • It’s a vital part of your writing.

Recognising Your Inner Critic

Your Inner Critic might:

  • Not say anything – but create a general feeling of “this isn’t good enough” or “this isn’t working”.
  • Sound like someone you know – perhaps a teacher from years ago, or your mother-in-law, or someone who belittled your writing in the past.
  • Make grand, sweeping – and generally untrue – statements (“There’s no money in fiction, so you’re wasting your time.”)
  • Make lots of nitpicky comments (“That word doesn’t sound quite right, and are you sure you want a comma there?”)

You might find that it’s helpful to keep a writing journal, jotting down an entry after each writing session. Over time, this can help you spot patterns. Many writers find that getting going is the hardest part, as this is often when the Inner Critic’s voice is strongest. “I felt reluctant to start and it took me half an hour to get going – I kept second-guessing myself and deleting things – but once I was into the flow, I wrote 500 words quite easily.”

Why You Need to Work With Your Inner Critic

(This is one way to look at the Inner Critic – I find it a constructive and helpful way to view the Inner Critic’s role. If you have a different take on this, though, please do feel free to share it in the comments.)

Your Inner Critic isn’t a bad guy (or gal). At heart, your inner critic wants to protect you.

It says all those nasty things – you’re not good enough, it’s not worth bothering – to protect you from heartache and rejection. After all, if you give up and don’t try at all, you can never fail.

If it helps, imagine your Inner Critic as an anxious parent, saying let me do it for you, you’re too young, you’ll hurt yourself – that way, you can reframe this negative voice into at least a slightly more constructive one.

And when it comes to the constant nitpicking – that sounds clichéd, you could find a better word, this paragraph is going nowhere – your Inner Critic is trying to help you grow as a writer. It’s like a teacher saying this essay is a B+ but you could take it to an A.

Reining Back Your Inner Critic

The Inner Critic can get a little over-zealous. If you find yourself avoiding writing, day after day, or if you can’t get through a sentence without rewriting it three times, you need to persuade your Inner Critic to take a back seat.

After all, you’re not a child – you don’t need your Inner Critic hovering over you. And while you might want your Inner Critic’s (often helpful) editorial suggestions, you don’t want those in the middle of your first draft.

Chris Baty, founder of NaNoWriMo, suggests temporarily locking away your Inner Critic – he calls it your Inner Editor – while you write your first draft:

This month, you’ll leave your Inner Editor here with me at the fully licensed, board-certified No Plot? No Problem! Inner Editor Kennel – where it can spent its days carping with other Inner Editors, happily pointing out typos in the newspaper and complaining about the numerous plot holes on daytime television.

(From the excellent No Plot? No Problem!Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk)

If you find that your Inner Critic persists, try doing quick warm-up writing exercises. One of my favourites is to pick a prompt and write as fast as I can for five minutes – I find there’s not time for the Inner Critic to get a word in! And if I’m only spending five minutes, I know it doesn’t matter if I produce total rubbish. (Though I’m often surprised at the new ideas that arise from this.)

Another great way to get on with a task, whatever your Inner Critic tries to tell you, is to have enough incentive. As Writers’ Huddle member Karine puts it:

  • Get a purchase order with a deadline first – for me it works perfectly.
  • Find a means to be compelled to write – check first what it means for you to be compelled and don’t underestimate the degree of obligation you need to reach in order for it to be effective!

Letting Your Inner Critic Help You Edit

A great opportunity to let your Inner Critic loose is when you’ve got that vital first draft finished. And don’t underestimate this as an achievement – as Sean from Writers’ Huddle says:

Get to the end of your first draft, whatever it takes. If you do, you’ve done more than most people who think about writing ever do.

Your Inner Critic can help you to:

  • Identify characters or storylines that need more work. Perhaps one of your characters is a little flat, or you’ve got one strand of your story that’s weaker than the rest.
  • Find scenes that aren’t quite there yet. Maybe they need a faster pace, or more conflict. (I often find that I can cut the first paragraph or two of a scene, and jump right into the action.)
  • Pick up sentences, phrases and words that aren’t as good as they could be. Perhaps you’ve got an over-complicated sentence that needs breaking up, or you’ve used the same phrase multiple times throughout your work.

You don’t have to follow every suggestion the Inner Critic makes, though – just as you wouldn’t follow every suggestion that your workshop group makes. Sometimes, you’ll decide you’re perfectly happy with a character or scene or phrase just as it stands.

Next time you sit down to write, take a moment to acknowledge that inner voice. Make a conscious decision to tune it out, just for a bit, while you work on draft material. When you turn to editing – whether that’s in a day or in a year – the Inner Critic will have its turn.

If you found this post helpful, please share it with a fellow writer (or would-be writer) – especially if you suspect they’re struggling to overcome their own Inner Critic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thanks for commenting! I read all comments, and reply to as many as I can. Please keep the discussion constructive and friendly. Thank you!

20 thoughts on “The How and Why of Working With Your Inner Critic

  1. Hi Ali!

    Great tips here… another one, along the same lines of your five minute prompt, is to set a timer for ten minute intervals and write whatever comes to mind for those ten minutes. When the timer goes off, you stop. And then start again (if you have the time, inclination, etc.) If you were on a roll, you can continue in the same document… but I like closing that document and starting over in a new one.

    The idea is that, again, you’re only writing for ten minutes. You can do anything for ten minutes because ten minutes is nothing. I can’t even make Kraft Mac & Cheese in ten minutes!

    I only do that on days where my IE gets really bad… She can be a real Sith Warlord some mornings!

    Good luck to all those struggling writers out there!
    KL Stevens’s last blog post ..An Introduction, An Explanation

  2. Love this post! I keep my inner critic on when I’m outlining, lock her up when I’m writing my first draft, then back on when revising. It’s hard, though! Sometimes that critic wants to escape while I’m still drafting. Any tips for keeping her quiet?
    Jessica Flory’s last blog post ..What Type of Writer are You?

    • Thanks, Jessica!

      On keeping the Inner Critic quiet — different things work for different people. You might find it’s helpful to write down (on a piece of paper or in a separate document) some of the things she’s saying; it might be easier to dismiss them — or at least park them for later — when you can see them in black and white.

      Something that helps me, not just with the Inner Critic but with the drafting process in general, is to try to picture each scene — especially if I get stuck. Take a moment to close your eyes and *see* your characters — where are they standing/sitting, what’s their body language, what are they saying, etc. Once you’re into the flow of a scene and excited about writing it, the Inner Critic’s voice often fades!

  3. This is a great, practical and compassionate post! I sometimes find it is helpful to imagine my Inner Critic is frightened. She’s just afraid going to get hurt, almost like a worried, overprotective parent. It can help to reassure her. “It’s okay – we’re not going to let those meanies get to us.” Everyone’s Inner Critic probably has a unique tone – so important to find and address one’s personal Critic! Thanks for the insights!
    Karen Caffrey’s last blog post ..Adoptees’ Greatest Struggles

    • Thanks, Karen! I think yours is a great approach — personalising the Inner Critic can make it easier to communicate with him / her / it and to separate your own supportive voice from that critical or anxious one.

  4. While I revere Steve Pressfield’s “The War of Art” I have always been uncomfortable with the perspective of Resistance as an enemy to battle.

    Seth Godin suggests Resistance should be an ally.

    I’ve long taken the middle ground, that it’s like a rake in the yard: useful tool in the right hands, dangerous noggin-whacker if you don’t watch your step.

    You’ve isolated some key points I’ve noted in my own experience which I’ll be including in my book “Making Peace with Making Art” which will be all about that middle ground.

    Thanks for a stupendous post, Ali.
    Joel D Canfield’s last blog post ..Practical Advice from ‘The As If Principle’ by Dr. Richard Wiseman (An Actionable Books summary)

    • Thanks, Joel! I thought about including the concept of resistance but decided that was going to make for an overly complicated post. 🙂 If you’ve come across Mark Forster (www.markforster.net), he writes well about resistance — essentially (hopefully I’m not paraphrasing him too much), he sees it as a signpost helping you know what’s really worth tackling.

      Would love to see your book when it’s done — hope the writing’s going well. 🙂

      • I’m still in the research phase, because I was busy writing 6 other books while this one was churning in my head. Good thing, too, because I’d not heard of Mark Forster, and he’s done some deep thinking which will contribute to my own philosophical meanderings.

        I’ll give you a shout when it’s ready. And if you’d be interested in being a beta reader, you clearly get the concept and could provide marvelous feedback which I’d find most helpful.
        Joel D Canfield’s last blog post ..Practical Advice from ‘The As If Principle’ by Dr. Richard Wiseman (An Actionable Books summary)

        • Mark Forster’s “Get Everything Done (And Still Have Time to Play)” was the first time management books I read — came across in my 3rd year as an undergraduate, and it helped me a lot with my uni work plus life post-uni. 🙂 His second book, “How to Make Your Dreams Come True” is quite unusual in structure and well worth a read too, and the third, “Do it Tomorrow” is more of a time management system.

          I’d be delighted to be a beta-reader, though can’t promise very thorough feedback (depends how things are going with my work and with baby Kitty!) 🙂

  5. I love the idea of leaving your inner critic in a hotel with other critics. I think I’ll use that as mental imagery any time my inner critic tries to interrupt my first draft creative flow. 🙂

    • It’s a great idea, isn’t it? Chris Baty’s book even includes a special “button” to press when you’re ready for your Inner Critic to be taken away…

  6. I recently did a prompt and found that it helped me in picking up where I left off on a story I started months ago. After reading this and experiencing that I will stick with that.

  7. Reading this post today was most helpful in working with my inner critic. I hadn’t realized how vigorously she was telling me the story I’m working on isn’t very good, no one will like it, blah, blah, blah.

    Just realizing she was there motivated me to get back to writing and let go of all the judgments. Thanks!

    Also — for me, there’s nothing like free writing for a few minutes to get the I.C. distracted.

    • Thanks Jacki! I think free writing is a great way to get the fingers and brain engaged … as you say, it definitely distracts that Inner critic. 🙂

      Hope you can make good progress on your story.

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