HAVE YOU EVER started writing a new piece, only to get stuck editing the first page over and over? Maybe you were writing in your journal and found yourself editing your words, even though no one but you would ever read them. There was that voice in your head — you know the one — telling you that your writing isn’t any good, criticizing the phrasing, maybe even shaming you. Questioning why you want to write in the first place. “What makes you think you have anything worth saying?” the voice asks.
If you have an active inner editor and critic, you may feel paralyzed or stuck, unable to make progress.
Here are some quick tips to help you get your inner critic to chill out.
- Call out your critic. Awareness is key to freedom from your inner critic. Keep a notebook or a pad of sticky notes close at hand for this purpose. For a week, whenever you hear that critical voice in your head, write down what she says. (My critic is a “she.” Yours may be a “he,” “they,” or “it.”) By the end of the week, you’ll have recorded pretty much all your critic has to say. Seeing these messages written out so plainly will help you identify your patterns and question the truth of the statements.
- Picture your critic as a person. Empathize with your critic; she’s there to help — or so she thinks. Tell her that you appreciate her concern, but she’s interrupting your creative process and she needs to leave the room. I have found it helpful to actually get up, act as though I’m escorting a physical person out of my writing space, and close the door after her. (You might be surprised to discover how well this little pantomime works.)
- In the beginning, set a timer. To get into the practice of uninterrupted creative time, set a timer for 10 or 15 minutes and then write without stopping until the timer goes off. Doing this will help you develop the habit of separating your inner editor from your creative process. When the timer goes off, put your writing away and don’t look at it until your scheduled editing session.
- When you sit down to write, don’t look back. Don’t review what you’ve already written. Do not correct spelling, punctuation, or reread the previous sentence. The key is to get the ideas and writing flowing. Remember that it’s not only okay to write junk, it’s imperative! (That’s where the jewels tend to hide.) And it’s so much easier to just let yourself write when you don’t worry about the quality. When you’re tempted to review, just remind yourself that you’ve set aside a special time to do so and now is not it.
- Put your critic to work by scheduling separate writing and editing sessions. The creative process uses different parts of your brain than the linear processes of analyzing and editing. While it’s important to allow the creative process to flow without interruption, your critic can actually serve the editing process. By scheduling a separate session, your inner editor knows she’ll get her turn, so she’s less likely to interrupt your creative time. Remind your critic that she’s only welcome if she focuses on ways to improve the writing, not on general and unhelpful criticism. Work on what you wrote yesterday or the week before, never what you wrote today. You’ll have a fresher and less subjective view of those passages.
- When you edit, pretend that you are your ideal reader. Make up a profile of a person who you would love to read your story and then pretend to be that person (upwardly mobile businessman, mom of two toddlers, sports enthusiast, a person entering retirement, etc). This little bit of internal subterfuge will help you get some distance and objectivity.
Follow these tips, and you’ll find that you allow yourself to be creative in new ways, your inner editor/critic will learn to wait patiently, and your writing will improve.
You might even finish that story or memoir you started!