By Kath Walters
We all have an inner critic: the voice inside our head that comments on our every thought and action. Typically, the inner critic is not very kind to us. Psychologists will tell us that the inner critic’s voice reflects the stories we have internalised from our childhood when an adult delivered some guidance with too much force, too little care, or simply passed on their own negative beliefs without even being aware of them.
When we sit down to write, that inner critic can transform into an inner demon: a critic so vicious that we simply cannot get a word written. As soon as we put down a word, the inner demon is there to taunt us, and we hastily scratch our pen through our words, or delete them from our laptops or iPads completely. And we are back to the empty page.
Here are some typical comments of my inner demon:
- That’s rubbish.
- A two-year-old could write better than you.
- If your clients see that, they will sack you on the spot.
- Start again.
- Is that what you call original?
You get the picture.
Don’t slay the dragon
Our goal as writers is to make sure the inner critic does not overpower us, and bring our writing to a halt.
If we think of our writing as a sculpture, words are the clay. We need to get something down on the page in order to shape it, refine it and improve it.
Many writing teachers will tell you to silence the inner voice and suggest ways to do it. Writing in the Huffington Post, coach and author Marcia Sirota likens the inner critic to an abusive partner and advises us to get rid of it.
I’m not convinced. Certainly, we don’t want the inner critic to abuse us or paralyse us. But I believe the inner critic has a role. Here are some of the helpful things that an inner critic does:
- Stops us from being satisfied with poor-quality writing.
- Protects us from making a fool of ourselves in public.
- Makes us reflect and examine our actions.
- Insists that our readers deserve the respect of good quality content.
- Can actually be the voice of our reader, asking valid questions about the reliability of what we are writing?
- Helps us identify what is good and what is bad in our writing.
Do we want our writing to go out into the public sphere without a critical appraisal? No. So we need to bring the inner critic into the process. But when?
How to harness the inner critic
The inner critic is not such a bad ol’ fellow – she (or he) just takes herself a little too seriously and is way too eager to get involved.
Our job, then, is not to get rid of the inner critic; it is to help the inner critic find its place in the writing process.
The inner critic is not helpful early on – this is when she can do the most damage. She stops us from getting our words written at all.
Here are some steps to tame the inner critic, and put her in her place:
The inner critic wants to slow everything down.
One of the easier ways to put her in her place is to outrun her when you are writing your first draft. By this I mean just write quite quickly without stopping. If you are typing, no deleting. If you are handwriting, no crossing out. Just keep going.
Promise your inner critic that, once you come to the end of your first draft, you will give her a little more involvement in the writing process.
Give her the floor
The inner critic is a bit like Shakespeare’s shrew (The Taming of the Shrew.) She’s sparky, witty and wild. We want to harness her energy but not let her run the show. But you can sometimes give her the floor.
Write whatever she tells you to write. When you write down a sentence and the inner critic tells you its crap – write that down. For example: “Ok, that is actually crap, and I cannot write a word that is not crap.” Then move on to the next sentence. It’s a little cumbersome, but at least you can keep moving forward. Later, you can edit her out.
Listen to her advice
Once you have finished the first draft, you are ready to apply some critical faculties to your work. This is the time that the inner critic can be helpful.
If you have made notes of her nasty comments as you were writing, have a read before you delete everything she says. She might have a point. Perhaps she is saying exactly what a skeptical reader might think when they read your work.
For example, some of you will think as you read this blog: “Really? You want me to waste time writing down nasty comments about my own writing. I mean, how much of a waste of time is that? And what a negative experience!”
And so I might include that very comment in this blog (which I have in a nifty little way) and answer it.
My answer would be that it’s better to write something and then edit it than not to write at all. It is also better to stand up from the desk with words on the paper – even if they are nasty words – rather than no words. And my final answer would be that when we write down what the the inner critic says, without taking her too seriously, her words can end up in our story and make it better.
Have a chat with her
One of my clients recently read me an entertaining dialogue between him and his inner critic. It was a beautifully written because it was entirely authentic and true. He discovered much about himself, his writing and the purpose of his work as he wrote.
It can be worth having a dialogue with your inner voice but only if you write it down. There is absolutely no point in arguing with the inner voice in your head; the result of that is that you get nothing done.
And insist that she minds her manners. Our inner critics tend to be rude and insulting. Don’t listen unless she has something constructive to say. Every time she starts to run you down, just outrun her.
Don’t dialogue with the inner critic too often, however. The inner voice grows very big and hairy if we give her too much oxygen. We are putting her in her place, not inviting her to dinner.
Give her a role (in the chorus)
Your inner demon wants to be a star. Give her a role, but put her in the chorus. She wants to have the floor all the time; she needs to know when it’s her turn to speak. She wants to be rude. Don’t let her be.
Give your inner voice a role. Her role is to come in after the first draft and help you to see your writing as others would perceive it. Invite her in when she can help, and let her know when she is not needed.
I’d love to hear your thoughts.
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