You know that voice that crops up in your head when you’re writing and tells you that you’re not creative enough, not clever enough, and that your writing will never live up to your own or other people’s expectations? Some people refer to that voice as their inner critic or inner censor. Writer and IWC founder Sarah Carriger says, “An old teacher of mine called it the shitbird because it swoops in to crap all over whatever you’re working on. A lot of learning how to be a writer is learning how to wrangle your shitbird.”
The inner critic we’re talking about here is not the one who helps you revise your work, but the one who wants to stop you from taking the risk that is writing. This unhelpful voice can show up at any stage of the writing process, making you feel like your work is so bad that you might as well quit now before you embarrass yourself.
Here’s a secret: it’s wrong.
Your inner critic is very good at voicing your deepest fears about your writing, but it doesn’t have any real understanding of the writing process. It doesn’t know or accept that good writing comes from lots of terrible first drafts and plenty of time and practice to learn the craft.
If you pay attention, you’ll notice your inner critic usually shows up when you feel like you’re not meeting your own expectations, or when you think there’s a problem with your story, poem or novel but you don’t know exactly what it is or how to fix it.
The more you learn and the more you practice, the less power that negative voice has over you. Unfortunately, it never completely goes away – no matter how accomplished or successful you become. When best-selling, award-winning author A.M. Homes gave a master class for the IWC, Sarah asked her if she has a shirtbird. Homes replied, “Honey, I’ve got a flock.” But she just keeps on writing.
It takes effort, but you can learn to counteract the negative voice and keep writing anyway, and over time it will become easier and easier to ignore.
Below are four main strategies and lots of tactics that IWC students and teachers have used to deal with their inner critics.
1. Learn the difference between the inner critic and constructive criticism
What your inner critic tells you will sound legit until you have learned what constructive criticism looks like, and then you’ll realize how superficial and unbalanced your inner critic’s feedback is.
A good critique will include just as much positive feedback as critical feedback, and critical feedback will be focused on specific problems and areas for improvement. It will give you a way forward instead of shutting you down.
How is this different from the inner critic? The inner critic isn’t so nuanced; it can only tell you how terrible your writing is, and probably won’t even be able to tell you why. It can’t point to a structural problem in a scene and brainstorm ways to restructure it. It can only tell you that there are problems, and because it’s a bit melodramatic, it will probably tell you that those problems are insurmountable. And it will often extrapolate: “This scene is terrible and therefore you are a terrible writer and YOU ALWAYS WILL BE. Put down your pen and take up bowling instead!”
Critiquing is a skill that can be learned and is an extremely valuable tool for overcoming your inner critic. A writing school like the IWC will teach you how to give and receive constructive criticism and you’ll learn, through repeated practice, how to tell the difference between the inner critic’s unhelpful commentary and the good stuff that will help make you a better writer.
Many IWC teachers and students have a tactic to remind themselves that their inner critic doesn’t know what it’s talking about: they give it a name. If you give your critic a name and a silly persona, it’s easier to remember it’s not the voice of authority, it’s just Fred who shows up in a panic when you sit down to write, worried you’re going to make a mistake. You can reassure him it’s all part of the process and keep writing.
2. Find some cheerleaders for your work and write for them
It can be intimidating to write for an ‘audience’ or even to try to imagine your ideal reader. When you’re trying to please an imaginary person it’s easy to imagine failing them, so stop trying to please them. If you’re feeling negative about your writing, don’t even try to please yourself. Just pick someone – a friend, a teacher, someone in your class – who is enthusiastic about your work, and write for them. It’s easier to ignore your inner critic’s insidious voice when you think about how much you’re looking forward to sharing your work with your friends.
Ellen Keith, IWC teacher and best-selling author of The Dutch Wife, keeps a document of all the encouraging feedback she’s received over the years. She says, “When I’m really struggling, I refer back to it to remind myself that people have connected with the things I have written.” Remembering that you’re not writing for ‘an audience’ but for real people who appreciate your work, can help you overcome the voice of your inner critic on those days when it’s too loud for you to ignore on your own.
As you begin to share your work on a regular basis, you’ll learn that your readers will find things to love in your writing, even when you can’t. Readers want to believe in your story. They want to fall in love with your style, or your characters, your world. They do not care that you think your writing is terrible, or derivative or anything else your inner critic tells you.
IWC teacher Emanda Percival says she regularly shares difficult drafts with her writing group because “they always find something that works, even if they rip it apart, and motivate me to keep working on it.” Sharing your writing can be scary, but once you get used to it, it can be a very effective way to counteract your inner critic by letting you get feedback from real people rather than that anxious voice inside your head.
Unfortunately, lots of beginning writers have had experiences in workshops and writing groups that fed their inner critic. Particularly if you’re new to sharing your work, make sure you join a workshop like those at the IWC where everyone is taught how to critique, and feedback is guided by an experienced instructor. It’s a great way to find some cheerleaders and get some feedback that will help you grow as a writer. And you’ll begin to build a network of writing friends who will be there to pick you up when your inner critic gets you down.
3. Give yourself time to learn and improve
This point may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s amazing how many people abandon their writing dreams because their inner critic convinces them that if they’re not great from the get-go, they never will be. The truth is you actually have to learn how to write and it takes time and lots of practice.
Kristen Roupenian, author of the viral short story “Cat Person”, confessed in her IWC master class, “I can’t believe how mean I was to nascent writer Kristen, who was just trying to write a story and who didn’t know how because she hadn’t done it before. And how weirdly sure I was that I should be good at what I was doing instantly. Why did I think that? But I did. And I felt shame when I wasn’t…The longer you can keep yourself doing it [writing], the more likely you are to succeed so whatever you can do to make it easier on yourself that’s the right thing to do.”
When you’re first starting out, every idea seems precious, and every mistake feels like a failure. But the more you write, the more you realize that ideas are everywhere, and one ‘failure’ (or even many failures!) doesn’t invalidate your writing. It actually makes it better.
Teacher Inge Lamboo likes to direct students to Ira Glass’s talk on “the taste gap” – that period when you know what good writing looks like but you can’t quite get there yet. Glass points out that everyone who does creative work experiences this gap and a lot of people give in to their inner critic during this period – they quit instead of working to close the gap between their taste and their abilities.
It can be demoralizing to compare ourselves to writers further along the path than we are. Just remember 1) the more you write, the better you’ll get, and 2) even when you’re just starting out, you can find an audience for your work who will love and appreciate it (see point 2). Teacher Jennifer van der Kwast says, “For me, I know my inner critic is at its worst when I compare myself to my favorite writers and think I will never be that good. I have to remind myself there’s room for everyone, that the more voices out there, the better.”
Sarah reports, “A student said to me the other day how much seeing her fellow students’ progress has meant to her – not just seeing their work go from messy first draft to published story, but also their growth as writers through the years. ‘Being a part of a workshop pulls back the curtain on the whole creative process – you realize it’s not magic or talent, but persistence that wins the day and that you can do it too.’” The more you focus on the learning process, the less fodder you’ll give your inner critic.
4. Take the pressure off your writing, particularly your initial drafts
Just as you have to give yourself time to become good, you have to give every story, poem, novel time to become good. Expecting whatever it is you’re writing to be brilliant from the outset is a recipe for writer’s block. This applies equally to beginners and seasoned pros: the higher your expectations for whatever you’re working on, the easier it is for your inner critic to constantly point out where it’s not living up.
Sarah advises, “Stay focused on the process, not the outcome. If you sit down to write a story imagining it will be published in The New Yorker, you’ll have a swarm of shitbirds circling your head before you type the first word. That’s why even in our advanced workshops, we encourage writers to still approach their work as an exercise. Many of those exercises eventually get published, but taking the pressure off gives their authors the space to finish without interference from their inner critic.”
Teacher Jennifer Gryzenhout often uses exercises to get herself to the page when her inner critic is making it hard. “I get out my journal and write, just an exercise. I tell myself that it doesn’t matter, it is just an exercise. And often the writing sparks an idea, or an expression or phrase that gets me back on track and gives me a boost.” Megin Jimenez, IWC teacher and author of the award-winning collection Mongrel Tongue, has another way to take the pressure off: “When I’m not feeling good about what I’m working on, I give myself a very short time limit (like fifteen minutes) to write. This makes it hard to come up with an excuse to keep avoiding it (“you can handle fifteen minutes!”) and usually tricks me into working on it longer and feeling better about it.”
Many writers find that separating the drafting and editing process helps stave off their inner critic. As Inge Lamboo points out in this interview, “They are different skill sets, right brain vs. left brain. Drafting is creative, imaginative…Revising and editing, on the other hand, are more logical, analytical, systematic. In practice, separating these two activities means: embrace the shitty first draft.”
The inner critic affects all of us at times and can show up in writers who have been writing for twenty years as well as those who are brand new to writing. However, if you remember that your inner critic doesn’t really understand the writing process, which involves giving yourself permission to write badly so that you can get to something better, you can build up your resilience to it over time until it’s no longer something that holds you back.
Author bio: Beka is a Level IV student at the IWC and Senior Prose Editor at The Hopper literary magazine. You can learn more about their work at bekaturtle.com.