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.