Silencing the Inner Critic
Anyone aiming at a career in writing must learn the craft. Joining writers organizations, attending conferences and workshops, and reading books are all ways to acquire this knowledge. But as important as this information is, it can end up working against you if you let it.
When I first got serious about writing, I devoured every book I could find about craft. (A testament to those days is the 200+ books on this subject I now have lining my workroom shelves!)
Of course I learned a lot from those books; essential knowledge I needed as a writer. The problem was, I got to the point I had so many rules in my head, I couldn’t put a single sentence on the page without some inner voice pointing out the mistakes I was making.
In the end I had to find ways to silence that inner critic or I wouldn’t get any writing done. Here are some of the best ways I found.
Freewriting goes by other names – stream-of-consciousness writing, timed writing, flash writing. But whatever you call it, the idea is the same: pick a topic and let yourself go.
With freewriting you don’t give a thought to grammar, punctuation, spelling, etc; you just write whatever pops in your head. If you make a mistake, don’t cross it out, don’t even stop, just keep your hand moving.
In Writing Down The Bones, Natalie Goldberg suggests setting a timer and writing as fast as you can until it goes off. That way your internal critic doesn’t get a chance to edit your words.
If you think of your creative mind as a dog, freewriting is letting it off the leash for a run. By giving yourself the freedom to write anything with no expectations, you escape the tyranny of rules and the judgments of your inner critic.
If done according to the principles of freewriting, journaling is another way to silence your critic. The difference with journaling is you don’t use a timer and there’s no set topic. Personally I find both techniques useful – journaling relaxes me and freewriting is like shot of espresso.
The great thing about both freewriting and journaling is that they also solidify your author voice. Because you’re not trying to write like someone else, or even well, you’re more likely to express yourself naturally, in your own true voice.
Write your first draft fast.
When I practice journaling or freewriting regularly it becomes easier to allow myself the same freedom when writing the first draft of a story. By telling myself ‘this doesn’t count’ I naturally slip into freewriting mode. As an added bonus, writing fast lets me take full advantage of the initial enthusiasm I feel for my topic.
Practice until it becomes automatic.
There’s a fourth way I’ve found that helps silence my inner critic and it’s possibly the best way of all. When, in my study of the craft, I find a rule I want to apply to my own writing, I practice it first. I practice it until the ‘right’ way becomes automatic. And – here’s the trick – I practice it away from my work in progress.
A jazz musician striving to improve his improvisation skills learns all the modes in every key. He practices these scales until they simply flow from his fingers and he doesn’t have to think about them anymore.
If a musician has to consciously recall the formula for a Dorian mode, there’s no way his improvisation with flow. Those scales have to be there, in his fingers, ready to incorporate into the music with no conscious effort.
I believe it works the same for writers. When I read about something I think will improve my writing, I can’t just say, ‘that’s a good idea, I’ll start doing that’ and then go off to work on my novel. Rather than help, that rule will just become a stumbling block, something I’ll trip over every time the issue comes up.
The better way is to practice it first, away from my writing, by setting myself targeted exercises. Here’s an example.
For a while I got into the habit of starting a lot of my sentences with words ending in ‘ing’:
'Tearing her gaze from the aberration, she looked out the window.’
'Holding her breath, she slid her handbag off the shelf.’
Now this sentence structure is perfectly fine, there’s nothing wrong with it – unless you overdo it, which I was. But as soon as a writer friend pointed this out to me, it became just one more thing my inner critic could nag me about. I decided, rather than let that happen, I would address the issue before I returned to my work in progress.
To start, I went through some of my chapters and wrote down all the sentences starting with an ‘ing’ word. When I had about a dozen, I set myself the task of finding five alternate ways to write each sentence.
This exercise not only opened my eyes to the many ways I could rephrase a sentence, it helped me break the habit I’d gotten into of limiting myself to just a few. Further, by opening up this range of options, when I returned to my work in progress I came up with alternate sentence structures without having to consciously think about it.
These are the ways that help me best in silencing my inner critic. Of course I don’t want to silence her forever as I’ll need her knowledge in the editing stage. But for now, as I’m writing my current first draft, I’m happy for her to sit in the closet!