Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Five Ways to Get Your Inner Critic to Shut Up

One of my 17-year-old daughters sometimes slaps the side of her own head and says, "Stupid, stupid." I don't think anyone -- particularly not one of my kids -- should ever call themselves stupid. But I see writers doing it all the time.

Admit it. You're probably your own harshest critic. By your standards, your writing is never interesting enough. Or persuasive enough. Or well organized enough. In fact, while you're in the middle of the act of writing a voice inside your head is often saying things like: "My boss is going to go crazy when seeing this article." Or, "why would anyone want to read this piece of dreck?" Or, "my sources are going to be so pissed off when they find out which quotes I've used."

Don't you think it's time to tell you inner critic to shut up? Here are five tips for quietening that supremely unhelpful voice:

1) Stop thinking about HOW your work is going to turn out and focus instead on WHAT you are writing. Your job as a writer is to write. When you write, write. When you edit, edit. Don't ever mix up these two entirely separate tasks or you are dooming yourself to remain a slow, pained writer.

2) If, like many people, including me, you have a hard time stopping yourself from editing while you write, resolve to make writing without editing your next project. (I stopped editing while I wrote about 10 years ago and it changed my life.) Try turning off your monitor (or, hanging a dishtowel over it) so you can't see what you're writing. If that seems too drastic, here's a trick I found on Richard Shackcloth's blog (which, sadly, seems to be dormant now): use a hashtag # whenever you spot something you want to fix later. (I love that he describes this as a promissory note!) Furthermore, if something specific occurs to you that you're afraid of forgetting about then write #note: and explain what you want to remember. For example: #note: make sure the VP is really okay with this. Or #note: check spelling. By making this promise to your inner critic you should be able to persuade him or her to become silent.

3) Write with a loud timer clicking in the background. This advice initially seemed counterintuitive to me and I always did my pomodoros with a silent digital timer tracking the minutes. But recently I've discovered the joy of what a friend of mine likes to call "the wall of sound." Something about the ticking not only serves to remind me that I need to be writing (this keeps me off email and the Internet) but it also serves to distract part of my brain so that I simply don't have the mental RAM for self-criticism. You can find "noisy" timers on the Internet or get a kitchen timer from a dollar store.

4) Use Write or Die. I've written about this free web app before and urge you again to try it. Simply enter your desired word count, and your self-imposed time limit into the fr/ee software and when you stop writing for more than 10 seconds you'll be "punished" with a screen that changes colour and, following that, by a loud, unpleasant noise. This turns writing into a game, which is a great way of silencing your inner critic. (Critics abhor games.)

5) Put an elastic band on your wrist and snap it every time a self-critical thought goes through your head. For a split second you will have left behind worries about your writing and shifted them to the (mild) pain on your wrist. This creates the space for you to refocus on your writing.

Remember, your inner critic will have plenty of time to comment when you begin to edit. And at that point those comments may even be useful. But when you are writing, you inner critic should shut the heck up.

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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:

Wednesday November 9th 2011, 1:38 AM
Comment by: Alice M. (Neuss Germany)
Amusing advice for focusing. But doesn't a # disappear in the text? I use the color highlighting and comment functions that are available in most word processing software programs. Color is great for drawing your attention to something. And you can develop your own color code for "check spelling", "check with VP", "check terminology", etc.
Wednesday November 9th 2011, 7:43 AM
Comment by: Melinda J. (Wilmington, NC)
A wonderful article that zeroes in on my biggest writing roadblock: the paralysis that ensues when every sentence that makes it to the page has had to fight its way past a swarm of critical wasps to get there.

@Alice M: For me, at least, the utility of the # is that you can insert it on the fly without breaking concentration, and when it's time for editing, do a simple search for that character. I think if I set up and implemented a color-coding system, I would be falling into exactly the thing this technique is designed to avoid--engaging in edit-think when I'm meant to be composing.
Wednesday November 9th 2011, 12:14 PM
Comment by: Susan B.
Another excellent column. Lots of useable ideas for writers to free themselves into a more creative, affirming space. I'm going to bring this to my writers group and cross post to fb, too.
Wednesday November 9th 2011, 2:05 PM
Comment by: Anne Y. (Monterey, CA)
Thank you, Daphne! The best tip I picked up here is the #. I will put it into practice today. I like the sound idea as well - I'll try putting my metronome to work this afternoon.
Thursday November 10th 2011, 10:42 AM
Comment by: Beryl S. (Schroeder, MN)
I began reading this not knowing it was Dana's but only a few sentences in, I recognized her voice primarily because her advice is so relevant!
Monday November 14th 2011, 8:52 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks for the comments everyone. Sorry to take so long to reply but I've been travelling (in New York) and didn't have reliable wireless the whole time. Alice, I agree that colour is great for drawing your attention -- but it might draw a little too much of it. Me? I use XXXXXXXs. Lots of them. The eye can't miss them. I wrote an article today, on my plane ride home, and used them many times to mark stuff I'm going to go fix, right now!

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