GYWO is Get Your Words Out, a wonderful writing accountability community. I wrote this post for the GYWO community, and the moderators have kindly allowed me to mirror it on Story Hospital. My previous GYWO post was on staying strong while writing long.
This post, in somewhat circular fashion, was developed from two previous Story Hospital posts, #89: Countering a Cruel Inner Critic and NaNoWriMo: Reassuring Your Inner Critic. Those dealt with very specific circumstances. I hope this more general take on inner critics is useful to a wider range of readers.
We’ve all had to deal with tough critics, and sometimes your toughest critic lives in your head. It can be very difficult to know how to deal with a disembodied inner voice that sneers at your writing, at the idea of writing, or at you for wanting to be a writer. Those inner critic voices somehow know just how to poke us in our emotional and psychological sore spots. Then there’s the inner critic that’s more directly critiquing your work. Even if the critique is accurate, it’s often badly timed or otherwise unwelcome. I often hear my inner critic’s voice most loudly when I’m drafting; it sees all the flaws in what I’ve written so far wants me to go back and revise it before the draft is finished. That process works for some people, but it sure doesn’t work for me, and I really need my inner critic to get off my back and let me make my imperfect first draft happen.
So what do you do with an inner critic when it’s getting in your way or making you feel bad about yourself?
First let’s address the less toxic inner critic, the one that starts nagging you when you’re mid-draft. It genuinely wants to improve your writing but is going about it in ways that make it harder to write.
Some people suggest shushing or fighting with this inner critic when it pipes up with “Your plot’s a mess” or “That’s probably not the word you wanted” or “These characters are flatter than cardboard”. In my experience, pushing back directly will only rebound onto you. This inner critic is a creature made of anxiety and ego, and saying “Stop worrying!” to an anxious person has never, ever worked in the history of ever. Also, you don’t actually want to get rid of the part of yourself that assesses and critiques your work, because you’ll need it when you do revisions. You just want it to step back and let you get on with writing. The best way to do that is to address the underlying concerns that make analysis and revision feel so important that they take priority over drafting.
Here are some things that your inner critic might want, and some ways to reassure it without sacrificing your wordcount to the tempting, distracting lure of revisions.
Stress relief through avoidance. Is deadline pressure getting to you? Maybe you can just… pretend it’s not there for a bit. The inner critic suggests that rereading and revising will be a great distraction and still let you feel like you’re making progress toward your goal.
Address this urge with other stressbusters. Take naps and hot baths, go for walks, listen to soothing music, take anxiolytics, snuggle a pet or a loved one, and otherwise address your stress. That way, when you sit down to write, you can handle the pressure instead of buckling under the weight of it, and you can take the risks inherent in creative work without feeling like it’s more than you can handle. Just make sure the stressbusting doesn’t cut too much into your writing time.
A sense of control. If you’re in the middle of a rough draft, your book is probably doing all sorts of bananapants things that you have no idea how to cope with. Plot threads are showing up or disappearing or refusing to resolve themselves, relationships are going off the rails, you’re at the point in your outline (or vague mental concept) that says “EMOTIONAL CLIMAX/GIANT BATTLE GOES HERE,” and you just killed off one of your favorite characters and don’t even know why. In the midst of that chaos, revisions beckon as a way of reasserting order.
An orthogonal approach is good here too. Find other ways to scratch the anti-chaos itch. I get an amazing amount of emotional and psychological mileage out of doing laundry. Maybe your thing is washing dishes or tidying your room or organizing your library by color or playing Planarity or scrolling through Things Organized Neatly or listening to Bach’s solo cello suites. Whatever it is, take a few minutes to reorder your frantic brain. Then do a quick five-minute bullet-point outline of the next scene you want to write—Rachel Aaron has a great description of how to do this—and give it your best shot.
You can also try going entirely through this worry and out the other side by reveling in the loss of control. Writing is much safer than other traditional ways of experimenting with a lack of control, such as jumping out of an airplane or getting out the fuzzy handcuffs. In fact, it’s the safest way to not be in control that I know of, because it involves no other people at all. So go ahead and be uncontrolled. Let the bananapants things be bananapants. Listen to your writerly instincts, kill off that character, and trust that at some point you’ll figure out what story purpose that serves. Trust your intuition and your gut. Have some fun. If it gets too wild for you and you need to safeword, you can close the file or put the notebook down and take a break, or go back to outlining, or sharpen all your pencils to the same length. But you might find that you and the chaos get along better than you expected.
Reassurance about your writing skill. If you’ve reread your rough draft, you’re painfully aware of how rough it is. The inner critic suggests that polishing it might give you more confidence as a writer and make the rest of the writing easier.
Trying to directly counter this with “Well I DO believe I’m a good writer!” will probably get you mired in an inner back-and-forth between your confidence and your doubt. Instead, remind your inner critic that it’s okay to write badly because you’ll fix it in revisions—when the piece you’re working on is done.
Take a few minutes to make a revision plan, even if it’s just “put it in a drawer until after finals and revise it over winter break” or “wait until March and do National Novel Editing Month with community support.” That little bit of planning for revising later will do wonders for letting you get on with writing now.
The comforting familiarity of feeling bad. If you’ve learned through unpleasant experience that feeling good about your work (or yourself) is dangerous, and feeling bad about your work (or yourself) is safe, it’s incredibly difficult to take the ongoing risk of writing a book and persisting in writing it all the way to the end. You might start to value yourself and think you’ve done something well. You might start to see yourself as a success, someone capable of real accomplishment. And then, your inner critic claims, bad things will happen. Giving up altogether would be safest, but rereading and revising is a good second-best.
This one is hard. Sometimes it’s years-in-therapy levels of hard. But for a quick fix that might just be enough to get that draft written, focus on writing discipline, determination, safety, and love.
Writing discipline is butt-in-chair, write-until-wordcount stuff. Use whatever tricks you’ve employed in the past to write school papers or make work deadlines (as long as they don’t rely on shame, guilt, or yelling at yourself). Work toward a defined, quantifiable goal; that’s inherently intellectual and factual, and spending time in that space will help you get out of the terrified self-negating space. You don’t need to have feelings about your daily goal, or your progress toward it. You just need to keep writing until you achieve it. Think of yourself as a word-generating robot if that’s what will help you shake the fear of success. I definitely do not recommend being a robot all the time; you will eventually need to grapple with those feelings. But for a short time, in pursuit of a goal that will broadly benefit your mental health, a little deliberate temporary roboticization is probably fine. If your inner critic insists that you need to feel bad, explain that you can feel bad later. Right now is for writing.
Determination means returning to why you set this goal for yourself in the first place, and why you decided to write this particular story. If the story directly or indirectly counters self-denigration or the people who taught it to you, so much the better. Get yourself all fired up and excited about your project, and stoke your intention to make it a reality. Get up in your inner critic’s face with your determination or sweep it up in your enthusiasm.
Safety is both physical and emotional. For the next little while, play everything as safe as possible. Cross at the crosswalk and wait for the light to turn green. Hold off on that potentially difficult or awkward conversation with a partner, friend, or supervisor. Don’t have even a little bit of that food you might be allergic to. Spend time with people who are kind to you and don’t make your spidey-sense tingle. Reread and rewatch media that you already know you’ll enjoy. Save up all your risk-tolerance for facing the blank page. If your inner critic frets that you’re in danger, reassure them that you’re taking the best possible care of yourself.
Love is love of all kinds. Spend some time with people who want the best for you and believe in you. Pet your pets. Be gentle and kind to yourself. The time you spend expressing or receiving sincere and genuine love will help you believe that it’s okay for you to feel good and achieve things. And if you can, try to love your inner critic too. They’re anxious and sad and could use a hug. They might even hug you back.
This leads us to the cruel inner critic, the one that wants you to feel bad about yourself, the one that wants you to give up. This is a bigger challenge, as it’s often rooted in deep history and/or amplified by depression, and those things are best tackled with the help of a mental health professional. But here are some places you can start on your own.
As with the nagging critic, we can consider the cruel critic in terms of what it seems to want.
Safety. Is your inner critic trying to protect you from external criticism? Is it saying cruel things to you because you fear hearing them from other people, and hearing them from yourself seems somehow not quite as bad? How can you help yourself, and your inner critic, feel safe writing?
Maybe you can write only for yourself for a while, just to practice allowing yourself to write. Even if your critic claims that your work would be harmful to others, which I doubt is the case, it can’t harm anyone if it’s just sitting on your hard drive. You aren’t taking anyone’s space; you aren’t exploiting anyone.
Authority. Have there been times when you’ve tried to talk about things you feel or things you want or things you’re writing and someone else shut you down? Someone authoritative installed that inner critic in your head; someone first said those hurtful things to you. How do you deal with that person? If you have gotten away from them (which I hope you have), it may help to remind yourself that the critic-voice is that person’s voice, and that person is no longer in your life, and so the critic also no longer has a place in your life. You can speak directly to it: “Hey, I ditched you and you’re not welcome here anymore.” If the person is still around, you probably have ways to manage them to minimize the harm they can do to you; some of those techniques could be applicable to the critic as well.
Look for other voices, beneficial and supportive authorities, that can replace the critic voice. This is akin to habit-building, in that it’s not enough to stop doing the harmful thing: there has to be a beneficial thing to replace it that fills the same need. Do you have a writing mentor you trust, whose voice you can invoke instead? “I know you think that, critic, but mentor knows more about writing than you do, and they say it’s absolutely fine for me to write this story idea if I want to.” “Okay, critic, but mentor has been in publishing a long time and says there’s plenty of room for stories of all kinds.”
Contributing to a general pattern of disliking yourself. Maybe you feel like you’re a bad person already, and this is just one manifestation of feeling like that. You could just as easily be judging yourself for wearing a particular style of clothing or wanting to eat a particular food or having a particular hobby. The kangaroo court of the inner critic judged you and found you guilty, with no attention paid to the actual content of your ideas or your character. So I encourage you to remember that that court has no real power over you. It can’t throw you in jail or fine you. You aren’t subject to its judgments; you aren’t even in its jurisdiction. When it judges you to be a bad person, here are some ways you can respond:
- “Okay, I’m a bad person who’s going to write this bad idea.”
- “That’s your opinion. I have a different opinion, and I’m the one in charge of my life, so I’m going to do it my way.”
- “I’ll consider that. Okay, I’ve considered it and I’m rejecting it.”
- “You don’t have any power over me, so I’m going to ignore what you say.”
Acknowledge that that’s a thing the inner critic has said, and then go ahead and write whatever you want to write. It will be hard, hard, hard, and very scary—at first. But over time, when no punishment falls, you will start to really believe that the inner critic can’t stop you and can’t hold you back. You will install a volume control on Critic Radio; you may not be able to turn it off, but you can turn it down to a murmur that doesn’t distract you too much from the important thing, which is your writing.
I believe in you. You can finish your project. You will finish your project. And then you will have proven that cruel voice wrong, and you can satisfy your more analytical self with plenty of delicious, delicious revisions.
What are some of your best tips for dealing with the unhelpful, writing-blocking voice in your head?