Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Is Your Writing Hampered by a Shoulder Devil?

I was having coffee with a friend of mine recently and she started telling me about the "voices" inside her head. As soon as she described the voices, I laughed in recognition, "Oh, we all have devils on our shoulders!" I said.

Do you know what I mean? A shoulder devil is a plot device for dramatic — and humorous — effect in animation and comic strips. The devil represents temptation and is usually accompanied by a shoulder angel representing conscience. For cartoon artists, these opposing personas are particularly useful for revealing the inner conflict facing any character.

Trouble is, my friend didn't have an angel and a devil — she just had two devils! (For her, one was bleak and nasty while the other was humorous and nasty.) Talk about compulsive over-achieving in the devil department!

Then, it suddenly occurred to me that many writers have two devils on their shoulders — perhaps not all the time, but certainly while they're writing. If this describes you, resolve to start looking for an angel immediately (and recognize I mean this in a metaphoric, non-spiritual sense!) Here's what an angel should do for you:

  1. An angel should see and remark on the good you do in everything — no matter how small. My angel forces me to write down the things I accomplish each day. Sometimes I feel a little bit silly while entering this list onto my hard-drive, but I do it anyway.

  2. An angel wants you to achieve your goals. So if your goal is to write 250 words per day, the angel doesn't care whether they are bedazzling, rave-worthy or pitch-perfect words. He or she just wants 250 words. Angels really care about goals.

  3. An angel is more concerned about YOU than what you're producing. The angel wants you to be happy. Yes, I know writing can sometimes feel like the LAST thing on earth you want to be doing and you may want to think the angel will give you a reprieve from it. Nope. See point 2, above. Your angel understands that to feel really good about yourself, you need to be able to achieve your goals.

  4. An angel understands what it can and cannot do — and cleverly concerns itself only with the former. (The devil prefers to focus on the latter!) In terms of writing, angels know that they cannot score big publishing deals or create happy bosses/clients for you. They know their only job is to help you produce words. What happens to the words is beyond their control so they don't worry about it.

  5. An angel helps balance the voice of the devil. Isn't it demoralizing to hear the constant negative talk of the devil? "Your writing is no good." "You are boring your readers to tears." "Your boss is going to fire you for this piece of garbage." But remember: For every yin there is a yang. For every negative, a positive. Don't let your devil get away with all of his/her negativity unchallenged. 

OK, so now you want an angel. I realize a big question remains — where can you find one? Too bad there isn't an angel-finding machine (kind of like a GPS). 

My best advice is to create your own angel. For a while, this will seem phony and fake — you may even feel as though you are putting words in the made-up angel's mouth. THIS IS OKAY. The technique of "acting as if" or "faking it until you make it" actually works. (For example, the act of smiling will make you feel happier, even if you don't feel happy in the first place.)

So the next time your shoulder devil appears and starts criticizing your work, summon an angel to say only positive things about what you're doing. You might even find it life-changing.

By the way, I just received an email from my friend with the two devils. Yesterday, an angel suddenly arrived on her shoulder, countering all the negative remarks from her devils. "Thanks for the suggestion," she wrote. "I'm not sure how it arrived, other than just thinking of it." 

Maybe you need to think of it, too.


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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Monday September 19th 2011, 12:03 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
This article is now filed in two of my folders: "Writing" and "Mental Health." We all seem to have that familiar full-time devil on one shoulder, and we know we need an angel on the other. Daphne, you make it clear that in addition to our regular angel who might be with us quite often, we also sometimes need a specialist to cheer us on when we are particularly challenged by certain activities (such as writing), or events, moods or people.

Today I'm going to install some little cushions on my angel shoulder, play pleasant music (instrumental, so as not to interfere with conversations), and fill a 2-cubic-inch refrigerator with plenty of healthy, tempting treats. Along with the mini CD player and tiny refrigerator, maybe I'll have a micro-wave oven ... whatever it takes to encourage the angels to get comfy and stay awhile!

The Happy Quibbler
Monday September 19th 2011, 1:21 PM
Comment by: Steve V.
What if you have two angels? Does that mean you have to summon a devil?

Nice column by the way. Thank you.
Monday September 19th 2011, 10:46 PM
Comment by: Fiona W. (Portland, OR)
Nah. If you have two angels, you either are so talented you deserve it, or maybe just lucky.

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