“This article is terrible.”
“You call this writing?”
“Everything you have to say is boring.”
“You’re just not good enough.”
These are the kinds of things you’d expect to hear from a horrible boss, a troll in the comments, or a cruel bully.
Yet too often, these are the kinds of things that we say to ourselves.
We may claim that this way of speaking to ourselves and attacking our writing is useful: It’s just us being realistic and giving ourselves an honest self-critique. After all, Simon Cowell was the best judge, right? So why should we be Paula Abdul, overenthusiastically praising ourselves?
But this sort of thinking isn’t constructive criticism. It’s just, well, mean.
And it’s the opposite of practical. It kills productivity, rattles our confidence, and stifles our creativity.
Unfortunately, this way of thinking can seem hard to shake; you can’t tell yourself to just stop thinking this way — especially if it’s become habitual.
However, there are some simple, concrete steps you can take to start silencing your self-critic. Learning to tune out that negative voice is a skill; the more you work at it, the easier it will be to disregard it.
Once your inner bully has been tamed, your creativity will feel safe to come back out and play.
I’m not gonna lie — this is not a fun process. However, it’s essential to figure out the why behind your negative thinking so that you can take the most effective steps toward quieting that annoying voice.
Highly negative self-criticizing can stem from all sorts of experiences. Maybe you had a particularly cruel teacher who put down your writing and made you feel as though there was no point in trying to improve. Maybe you had a harsh parent, or a sibling that outshone you, or a friend who breezed through projects while you struggled.
Sometimes, the initial negativity stems from a more internal source. Maybe you’re comparing your first drafts to the completed work of masters (I can start a self-hating spiral if I pick up a great book while I’m struggling with an outline). Or maybe you have a hard time feeling like a “real author” because you haven’t achieved all of your goals yet.
Maybe you’re a copywriter who worries you can’t write the novel you’re always daydreaming about, or maybe you’re a programmer who fears that you don’t have the writing experience to maintain a blog or write a how-to book.
You may even just be naturally insecure, shy, or negative. Some of us are hard-wired a bit pessimistically, and that’s okay; we just need to learn to work with or around that way of thinking.
Once you know the why behind your negative thinking, confronting it (with the following tips) can feel much less overwhelming, intimidating, and confusing.
Writing is scary; there are no two ways about it. Anyone that disagrees has likely never written or is some kind of mutant, superpowered wizard (and I will both envy and admire you).
But for most of us, it’s a hard, intimidating, vulnerable process.
Think about it: We have to come up with our own ideas or take on someone else’s; deal with pitches being shot down or ignored; create something purely out of our own thoughts, words, and observations; be open to criticisms and edits; and then we have to put it out there for the public (and other writers) to dissect, criticize, and tear apart.
No wonder so many of us have confidence issues.
Thankfully, there’s a way to condition ourselves to stand up to such fears and find them easier and easier to face, each time we do:
Often used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, phobias, and anxiety, exposure therapy is the process of slowly exposing yourself to things that are challenging for you, starting small and building up to the things that frighten you most.
For instance, if you’re scared of heights (like me!), you can create a list of exposures, from least to most frightening, maybe starting with standing on the lowest rung of a ladder and building up to skydiving.
You can face your writing fears in the same proven, systematic way. Figure out what would scare you the most, and create a list of exposures building up to it. You could work up to sharing your writing with close friends, then a writing group, then submitting to small-audience blogs, and then finally uploading to your own blog or submitting to your dream publisher.
You could also challenge yourself with writing fears that really get your heart racing and that will make you feel all-powerful when you conquer them. Completing National Novel Writing Month, competing in a poetry slam, or starting a YouTube channel performing skits you’ve written could all be great ways to face your fears head-on and make facing an editor’s notes seem like no big thing at all.
One of the best ways to train yourself to write without constantly criticizing yourself is to write with absolutely no preconceived ideas, goals, or planned content in mind at all.
Freewriting is the process of writing whatever pops into your head in a stream of consciousness flow, without any judgment, editing, or criticism. In fact, you can even throw away whatever you’ve freewritten without rereading it (although oftentimes I’ve found great nuggets to build from hidden in the mix).
It’s also a deceptively simple thing to do: For a set amount of minutes, words, or pages, you put pen to paper (or fingers to keys) and write. No planning, no stopping, no backtracking, no rethinking, no staring at the last sentence you wrote, no editing, no judgment.
If you’d like a bit more direction, you can freewrite on a particular topic for a set amount of time (or a set word or page count). You can choose a writing prompt, set your timer, and then write whatever comes to you on that subject.
Freewriting is simply practice — like doodling — without any sort of pressure to create greatness, or even mediocrity. Yet, that pesky self-critic will almost certainly still come out to play. I can’t tell you how many times, while freewriting, I’ve been bombarded by negative thoughts: “Even your gibberish is pretentious.” “This is all you’re thinking about?” “You’re freewriting wrong. Yes, I know there are no rules. You’re still doing it wrong.”
As with any skill (and, remember, ignoring your self-critic is definitely a skill), practice makes perfect. The more you force yourself to write whatever nonsensical, babbling gibberish is in your brain, even as your self-critic rants and raves and throws a tantrum, the easier it’ll be to start tuning out that nasty little voice in your head when you are writing something of consequence.
And another, confidence-boosting bonus of freewriting? If you do end up finding a great idea for a story, blog post, or article in your unplanned, mad-dash, stream-of-consciousness rambling, you’ll start to see that you do have great ideas — even if your self-critic doesn’t think so.
Our brains really do not like to be told what to do.
For example, give yourself a strict order: Tell yourself, for the next 30 seconds, you can think about literally anything except a unicorn. You cannot, no matter what, imagine a unicorn.
… yeah, I was picturing a unicorn, too.
It’d be fantastic if our brains were obedient enough to order around. We could simply tell our inner self-critic to knock off, and it would disappear. Alas, it’s not that easy.
But with our thoughts, as in many other things in our lives, it’s not about what happens to us — it’s how we react to it that matters.
You can’t really control your inner monologue. You can’t force yourself to never have any nagging self-doubt creep out while you’re writing. You can, however, work on not reacting to those thoughts in a negative way — or ultimately in any way at all.
A fantastic way to do this is to practice mindful meditation, which trains you to allow your thoughts and feelings to come and go without you judging, reacting, or being heavily influenced by them.
A particularly useful tool in mindful meditation is “mental noting.” Mental noting is simply the process of noting what the thought or feeling is that is distracting you from your focus (whether that focus is meditation, writing, or even just relaxing as you rewatch Gilmore Girls for the
thirdmillionth time), and then letting it go.
For instance, if you’re working on your latest article, focusing on finding the right words, and all of a sudden find yourself thinking, “This is terrible — no one will ever want to read this anyway,” instead of spiraling into more negative thoughts, take the following steps:
This process may seem overly simple, but it really does do wonders (my writing confidence, as well as my anxiety, have improved significantly since I started practicing this). If you’re new to meditation, or if you’ve tried it before and would love to give new methods and techniques a try, I highly suggest trying an app like Headspace (my personal favorite).
I meditate with it each morning as soon as I wake up, and then freewrite, and the routine has helped my writing more than I can say.
One of the hardest things to admit about writing is that your first draft will likely be ugly. The tone may be off or change constantly, your word choice may be repetitive or unnatural, you may have no flow at all, you may ramble on and on for paragraphs (or pages), or you may have to scrap it all and start again fresh.
And boy, will your self-critic just love that.
But as cruel as your inner monologue may be during your first draft, its judgments are totally unnecessary. An imperfect first draft, or even a terrible one, doesn’t mean you are a bad writer — it just means it’s a first draft.
It’s not meant to be perfect. It’s not meant to flow out of you, ready for print, with no edits whatsoever.
As hard, ugly, and painful as it is, to ever get to a place where you can edit and start turning your work into the piece it’s meant to be, you have to slog through your first draft.
And can it ever be a slog.
Do whatever it takes to help you power through, despite how difficult it can be. Take Neil Gaiman’s advice and show up to write every day, regardless of your mood or inspiration, or set up certain hours you write each day, as Ernest Hemingway did.
My current favorite method is the Pomodoro Technique (I’ll force myself to focus and write for a set number of pomodoros, no matter what). I also love Don Roos’ Kitchen Timer method, where, the day before you write, you decide how long you plan on writing the next day.
When the next day comes, you turn off your phone, turn off your internet, turn on a kitchen timer for your set time, and then write. If you get stuck, you switch over to a journal, and once you tire of that, you switch back to your writing project, until your timer goes off.
(I learned the Kitchen Timer method from Lauren Graham’s book, Talking as Fast as I Can. See, all those Gilmore Girls marathons were productive!)
Once you finish your first draft, you’ll be ready to really dive in and get to work. Don’t let your self-critic dismiss your writing even before it has a chance to be written.
As already mentioned, writing can be incredibly stressful. Constant rejection, judgment, criticism, deadlines — it can be exhausting and grueling (and wonderful and inspiring and fulfilling, but it doesn’t always feel so rosy).
Writing can also be an incredibly isolated process. Generally, it’s just you alone with your thoughts, and those thoughts aren’t always supportive.
Not only can it be easy to believe what your self-critic says when you’ve been alone with its voice all day, it can also be very easy to start to think that you’re the only writer who is thinking that way. We mainly see the finished products of other writers’ work and struggle; we don’t see their process or hear their negative internal monologue.
This is why finding a group or communities of writers to connect with can be a miracle.
Sometimes, all you need to squash your anxieties is the realization that almost every other writer is thinking the same way. You may love a particular blogger’s writing style and think it comes across as light, breezy, and effortless; once they tell you that they had to rewrite your favorite post 15 times, and they still think their tone sounds immature and unpolished, you can start to see how unrealistic our negative thoughts can be.
Also, when every writer you speak to has thought they’re the worst writer in existence, the absurdity of that statement starts to become incredibly clear; I mean, we can’t all be the worst writer.
Thanks to the internet, there are lots of places to find this community, if you do work alone. There are lots of sites and apps to help you find meetups and get-togethers, and most of these offer writers’ groups (and if there isn’t one in your area, consider starting one).
You can also find forums online, inspiring YouTube channels (I love Savannah Brown’s channel on poetry/writing, creativity, and mental health), blogs, etc.
You can even take to social media to find — or create — your own writing community, especially if you’re feeling down or lacking inspiration. Amie McNee turned her self-doubt and worry over her novel-writing process into a beautiful Instagram account, Inspired to Write, that’s built up a strong, vibrant, supportive writing community.
When you’re brave enough to admit your fears to others, you’ll often find you’re not alone — and that may be all you need to fight them off.
We all have bad days. We all have dark thoughts. We all have a nasty little self-critic who may jump out and attack us at random moments.
But sometimes, it does go beyond that. Meditation, or community, or a productive schedule may not be enough to fight off those thoughts. Sometimes the root causes go deeper, and sometimes they’re too much to handle on your own.
And that’s okay; you don’t have to fight it alone.
Many writers suffer from depression, anxiety, or other mood disorders (I myself have depression, panic disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder). When the thoughts from these illnesses combine with the expected stress and negative thinking that writing can inspire, it can be a highly overwhelming mix.
If this is the case for you, there’s no shame at all in seeking help. There’s no way I’d be able to write as much as I do now (and I’m writing more and more each day, thankfully) without the help of my therapist and my mental health support groups.
If you’re feeling down on yourself more than usual, if your anxieties are particularly strong, or if the cause of your self-doubt is something you’d like some assistance in sorting out, don’t be afraid to get help.
As writers, we rely a lot on our mind and our emotions. Keep them healthy and sharp, just like you would any other tool or skill. If you sprained your ankle or broke your arm, you’d see a doctor or practice physical therapy; your mind deserves the same level of care as your body does.
What’s more, you’re just as important as your writing, and you deserve to take care of yourself. Whatever horrible things your self-critic, or any other negative part of your mind, says about you not being worth it are not true.
Remember, you aren’t alone in this.
Once you start to heal, your ability to create will, too.
We’re all hard on ourselves and our writing from time to time. And when we’re our own worst critic, it can seem impossible to silence those negative thoughts and let ourselves write freely.
But if you take the proper steps to become aware of why you think the way you do, face your fears, let yourself write freely, become more mindful, push through an ugly first draft, find others who understand the struggle, and get help if it gets to be too much, your negative thoughts will lose their power.
Ignoring your self-critic is a skill, and like any skill, it takes time, effort, and patience to develop it. These steps aren’t a magical cure; you can’t perform them once and then expect to never self-criticize again. But the more you work at it, the less and less that negative voice will affect you.
Once you stop listening to your self-critic, you can finally say the things you most want to say.
No matter what your self-critic thinks about your writing, we’re all eager to read it.
Amanda Kaye Stein graduated from the Academy of Art University with an A.A. in Fashion Design (focus on Fashion Illustration and Creative Writing). She’s worked as a freelance writer, editor, social media manager, graphic designer, artist, and comedy improv performer. She’s an aspiring novelist, YouTube creator, and ukulele rock star.