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Writers Talk About Writing

Five Ways to Silence the Devil on Your Shoulder

Are you old enough to remember TV cartoons from the 1960s? If so (or if you're a 'toon fan), you may recall a miniature devil, complete with pitchfork, who sat on the shoulder of many a main character. This little devil whispered bad advice and spiteful ideas into the character's ear -- egging him on to do the wrong or rotten thing.

Believe it or not, you too have a devil sitting on your shoulder. And he can really mess up your writing. He takes malicious glee in focusing on the negative -- particularly on what he decides you're doing "wrong." Don't believe me? Spend a week monitoring and recording all the negative thoughts you have about your writing, no matter how fleeting. If you're honest the list will almost certainly include comments like:

  • Gee, I'm a crummy writer
  • In a million years, no one will ever want to read this
  • I'm no good at writing introductions [ledes]
  • I can't write to save my life
  • B-O-R-I-N-G
  • I'm never going to get any better at this writing business, so why don't I just stop?

With the "help" of the devil, we all tend to be hard on ourselves -- often much harder than our readers. It helps to know that. But being aware of this problem is only the first step. The next step is to take action.

Let me give you five extremely effective strategies for fighting back.

Bully him in return. When the devil starts to tell you that you're a crummy writer, "yell" (silently, in your mind) "STOP!" Shake your head, shrug your shoulder. Wiggle your fingers. (And if, like me, you're a fan of the '50s musical, you could even consider humming a salutary chorus of "I'm gonna wash that man right out of my hair...")

Negotiate. When the devil says your writing is boring tell him: "You may be right, but I don't have time to deal with this right now." If you're feeling generous, you might add: "Can we talk about it later, when I'm not so busy writing?"

Agree with him. Have you ever noticed how easy it is to disarm people when you suddenly and unexpectedly agree with them? It takes the wind right out of their sails and they tend to become very silent. Say to your devil: "Yeah, you're probably right; I'm a crummy writer. But, do you know what? I'm going to finish this writing anyway." Then do it.

Argue with him. Start by deconstructing what the devil is telling you. Notice how so many of his comments are absolutes and over-generalizations: "You always write such boring introductions." Or, "Why don't you ever write anything pithy?" Do those comments make any sense at all? Can you honestly say that every single introduction you've ever written in your entire life, from kindergarten until today, has been boring? Do you know for absolute certain that the word "pithy" does not apply to a single sentence you've ever crafted? Of course not! The devil needs to generalize because the devil doesn't speak the truth. Call him on it.

Replace him. And this is the most fun step of all. Give your devil an alter-ego -- a little white angel who sits on your other shoulder. (They did that in the cartoons, too, remember?) And for every nasty comment the devil makes, have your angel say the opposite. If the devil whispers: "You're a crummy writer," your angel should reply: "You're a BRILLIANT writer." Note: It doesn't matter whether you believe this is true. This is a battle of over-generalizations. Be bold!

Negative thoughts will not only hurt your writing; they'll also make writing slower and more painful. Don't let the devil get away with it. Be sure to fight back.

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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of Your Happy First Draft. 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 February 26th 2007, 5:43 PM
Comment by: Linda H.
Daphne, as usual, your thoughts hit right on target. I remember those cartoons. Thanks for the encouragement and advice.
Monday February 26th 2007, 6:55 PM
Comment by: Nan S.
I am in the middle of writing my Capstone in my last semester of graduate studies for my masters. The devil is alive and in color on my shoulder most days while I struggle with pithy, scientific writing.

Thanks for providing me with the tools to battle this monster.
Monday February 26th 2007, 9:22 PM
Comment by: halley E.
It's nice to know Im not the only one.
Wednesday February 28th 2007, 4:20 PM
Comment by: Kathryn D.
In 1976 I had the misfortune of becoming "the ground" for a large sound system in use at a bicentennial festival. Although I was DOA on arrival at the hospital, doctors were successful in restarting my heart and, ultimately, patching me back together. When friends and curious strangers asked me later what it was like to die, I told them that the last thing I remembered as the electricity coursed through my body was the argument going on between the good angel and the little devil who fluttered on either side of my head discussing whether or not I should keep fighting or give in to the painful current. No bright lights or beloved departed beckoning me toward an afterlife; just those bloody cartoon figures of my childhood slugging out my will to live. Have beaten the little devil that time, I find him easier to dispatch when he talks trash about my writing.
Wednesday February 28th 2007, 9:35 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Wow! What a story, Kathryn. Thanks for sharing. I hope you work this into your writing sometime -- either in an autobiographical piece, or fictionalized in a short story or novel.
Thursday March 1st 2007, 10:16 PM
Comment by: chas M.
"Whether you think you can or you can't, you're right." Henry Ford said that.
"Whatever you believe is real becomes real." I said that.
See Ideas that Change the World
Sunday March 4th 2007, 2:56 PM
Comment by: E. Mike S.
I find the general tenor of Ms. Gray-Grant's piece and many of the comments that follow to be too negative about that little devil and too positive about the little angel that sits the opposite shoulder. Frankly, I always found the little devil much more entertaining and the little angel a bore.

Writing's recursive nature welcomes that devil. Without the self-critical, self-reflective aspect of writing, which that devil can provide, we'd babble. Any number of random blog sites demonstrate that.

Yes, yes, I know, such negativity, in the words of [another subscriber], can attack "the formation of good habits" that can lead to success. But aren't we in danger here of crossing the line into delusion if we believe the opposite, as Chas Martin seems to, that "Whatever you believe is real becomes real"? Doesn't realism suggest a healthy dose of occasional skepticism, even about our own abilities and possibilities?
Sunday March 4th 2007, 6:02 PM
Comment by: Ranji G.
In response to Mike Seybert's comments, legend has it, that the little devil on Leo Tolstoy's shoulder caused him to re-write a chapter in his book, "War and Peace", 200 times. Does anyone know which was that chapter? Though painful, battling the devil can be helpful sometimes.
Friday March 9th 2007, 4:17 AM
Comment by: Thomas C.
In the realm of music, the little guy patiently waits until I'm thorough with a piece, Then quietly whispers to me how many of my heros can play it so much better and with a geater understanding than me.

I've come to understand that this is the darker side of my ego, which wishes to keep me in that same old box that has restricted me for many years. Through my reading of A Course in Miracles, I have learned the the ego is a damned liar, and true growth and creative freedom begins when you stop listenting your ego, which is only interested in maintaining status quo, and thereby is threatened by change. Learn that the ego is the negative aspect of each of our personality, and will go away when you stop allowing it to control your life. Admittedly a dificult process, but the rewards are so immediate and undeniably truthful,that your life may actually begin anew in ways which are truly miraculous. Dont believe me? Try it and your life will truly explode wih miracle after miracle and the truth of your work will be apparent to all ..Pax
Friday March 9th 2007, 1:19 PM
Comment by: Marisha C.
The little devil is real enough, though sometimes "he" has the voice of a woman--mine sounds remarkably like my mother! Mike Seybert's comment is not only amusing, but helpful--getting to know that devil is, I believe, key. In my experience, the devil doesn't yield to arguments, bullying, or negotiating--I differ from Daphne Gray-Grant on those points. The devil can, however, be confused and silenced by kindness. "Thank you for sharing," is a possible phrase (credit Anne Lamott, BIRD BY BIRD). Give the devil a place at the feast, a seat at the inner table, and the devil will often shut up and eat.
Saturday March 10th 2007, 10:13 AM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Interesting comments! Thanks for writing, everyone. Mike, I agree with you about blogging. (I hope this doesn't sound too uncharitable, but sometimes when I read a tiresome, rambling, blog, I wish the person HAD listened to his or her devil!)

The key distinction I should make is that when I'm talking about dealing with the devil, I'm referring to WRITING -- not to editing. The mindset for writing needs to be open and accepting. The real problem is that too many people try to write (create) and edit (be critical) at the same time. I like to say, that's like trying to wash the dishes while you're still eating dinner. To use your word, Thomas, the ego shouldn't be involved in writing.

The time to be critical (although constructively so) is when you're editing. (And it's probably helpful to keep your ego at bay, here too, although of course you do need to engage your "critical mind".)

Ranji, I hadn't heard about Tolstoy rewriting a chapter in War and Peace 200 times, but I can believe it. Perhaps he would have benefitted from hearing the following comment from Annie Dillard: "The feeling that the work is magnificent, and the feeling that it is abominable, are both mosquitoes to be repelled, ignored, or killed, but not indulged."

Marisha, I agree that the strategy of saying "thank you for sharing" will work for some people, some of the time; I disagree that it will work for everyone,all of the time, which is why I gave five different strategies.

Friday January 13th 2012, 7:44 PM
Comment by: Lily T. (Mesilla, NM)
I combat this little shoulder devil nearly every day. He seems to be more of a sarcastic bent than over generalization but I believe Daphne's methods work on sarcastic shoulder demons as well as over generalizing ones. I'll be sure to put a little angel on the other shoulder-thank you, Daphne.

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