There are some days when I open up an older rough draft of a story I worked on several months ago, assuming it will be terrible, only to see that it isn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be.
When I was studying creative writing, some days I would take what I thought was a perfectly written piece to a workshop session, only for it to be torn apart by my tutor and fellow students. Sometimes it can be difficult to determine whether my inner critic is right or wrong.
The “inner critic” is the nagging voice inside our heads that judges our own work. If it becomes too loud, it can drown out all other thoughts and drain a writer’s self-confidence. In the worst cases it discourages people from ever writing again or trying to get their work published.
While we mostly speak of it as an enemy of writers, in many ways the inner critic is a necessary evil. Jackie Johansen says on The Write Practice blog that it’s a method of self-preservation to protect us from the risks of stepping outside our comfort zones. But thinking of the critic as a friend who is just trying to protect us allows us to stop demonizing it.
Of course, while it is important to listen to advice from our friends, they’re not always the best people to get writing advice from. Stepping outside your comfort zone can be dangerous, but when writing, it is often necessary to take such risks.
So, how can you tell when you should listen to the inner critic and when you should tell it to leave you alone?
The inner critic can be a good judge at times, but it is only one person’s opinion—your own. This is why it is useful to have your work looked over by a writers group or a beta reader for a second opinion. These readers will also be better than your inner critic at spotting errors that you haven’t noticed.
If your readers agree with the niggling doubts of your inner critic, then maybe it was right. If they don’t mention it, then it might be because your inner critic was wrong.
A series of interviews with Australian authors for Vice revealed that jealousy is common among authors due to the limitations of the publishing market (especially in smaller markets such as Australia) and the isolating nature of being an author. Yet the authors also revealed that jealousy can be surprisingly motivating.
Khalid Warsame said, “I don’t think I’d ever really improve as a writer if I weren’t constantly measuring myself against other writers,” while Ellena Savage added, “Because of the fact that it’s so hard to find a place as a writer or artist, self-respect seems to be lacking across the arts, but I don’t think good art happens without it.”
We’re taught from a young age that negative emotions like jealousy are bad and should be avoided. But like all emotions, the key is to learn to keep it in balance.
An article in Psychology Today suggests what is known in Aikido as “stealing the technique”—studying the people you admire and learning how you can do the same as them. You can use the success of others to reflect upon your own strengths as well as what you need to work on.
So, when the inner critic says things like “That author is so much better than you,” or “Don’t you wish you could be like them?” don’t see it as an excuse to quit. Use it as motivation to become just as good at the craft as they are.
Researching and reading other authors is an important part of becoming a good writer. The downside is that it can cause us to compare ourselves to our favorites or other authors who are more successful. It’s tempting to follow up with “I’ll never be as good as them” or “Why am I even trying?”
But remember—none of those successful authors started out as world-class writers or bestsellers. They slugged away sending off early work for rejection and developed their craft over time.
It’s more than likely that their first few books sold barely any copies after those early years. J.K. Rowling was rejected by 12 publishers before the Harry Potter series was picked up, and the first book had an initial print run of only 500 copies.
Even after finding success, the inner critic never fully goes away. Just like in the examples above, the same authors you idolize still compare themselves to their own favorite authors and wish they could be just as good as them.
As I was reading Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale, I was shocked to learn that Russell T. Davies (who at the time was the showrunner for Doctor Who) expressed jealousy toward other television writers, either because they had entered the industry earlier than he had or just because he wished he could write as well as they could. Considering that I would happily trade lives with Davies, it was humbling to learn that even the most successful writers can feel the same way.
When you do begin comparing yourself to another author, remind yourself that the two of you are very different writers at different stages of your careers. You can seek inspiration and guidance from them, but not to the point of becoming so intimidated that you stop writing altogether.
Focus your energy on making your own work better and you’ll start to see it happen.
Think back to the last time you had a visit from your inner critic. Odds are, you were feeling tired after a long day of work or stressed about all the things you had to get done.
Or you may have been focusing so hard on the what the critic was telling you that you forced yourself into tunnel vision and could only see the mistakes in your writing. Or maybe you were just going through a slow day and couldn’t think of any new ideas, so the critic accused you of being an unoriginal hack.
When you find thoughts such as these creeping in, it’s time to stop for the day or take a break. You know those signs on the side of the highway warning tired drivers to take a break? They are up there because it is true. Writing while you are tired won’t cause a car accident, but it will result in sloppy writing, which will only make the inner critic judge you even more.
When this happens, instead do something relaxing, get a good night’s sleep, and return to your work when you are fresh and thinking clearly again. That way you will be able to look at your piece objectively to see what about it works and what needs to be changed, and you will be able to come up with new ideas again.
Often when the inner critic talks to you, it is reassuring to know that, and it was merely your own anxiety talking. The inner critic can often manifest as anxiety and persist even when others reassure us that we have nothing to worry about.
There is no singular way to get rid of anxious thoughts, only to learn to deal with them when they do show up. To combat these anxious thoughts, stop thinking in extremes or overgeneralizing negatives, which minimalizes positives, and stop believing your own delusional thoughts.
For instance, when you start thinking things like “I’m never going to be any good as a writer,” take a step back and tell yourself “My writing skills aren’t yet as good as I want them to be, but if I keep working on it every day, then I will get better.” Putting thoughts such as these into your own mind works much better than simply stewing in the negatives.
We tend to assume that the job of a professional critic is to point out nothing but flaws in whatever they are reviewing, but this isn’t true. A good critic is one who can find not only the weaknesses in a work of art but also its merits.
Perhaps this is also why writers often assume that the purpose of their own inner critic is to tear apart their writing. In fact, it should be used as a method of self-reflection to help you recognize and correct your own mistakes and make your work better.
Now Novel suggests writing down all of the doubts that the inner critic tells you about your work. Go through each concern, and decide whether or not it is really valid. If you’re worried that a plot point is too clichéd, for example, ask yourself how many times you have seen it before in other books. If you’re worried that your dialogue sounds inauthentic, read it out loud to hear how it flows.
When you do discover genuine mistakes, instead of immediately jumping to the thought of “I’m a terrible writer,” ask yourself, “How can I make this better?”
Say you do go over your writing and discover that you have been overly relying upon clichés. Rather than thinking “I have no originality,” ask yourself what you can do differently to subvert those clichés. Now Novel also suggests looking for resources such as articles or writing books with advice for each item on your list.
While looking over the draft of my first novel, I despaired to find that it was a cliché-ridden mess. Yet I also found that I was good at writing interpersonal relationships and had some strong characters, which have migrated into my current novel-in-progress.
The inner critic prevented me from publishing a terrible book that would have negatively affected my reputation, but also helped me to recognize my own strengths and make my new novel better than the first.
The inner critic can often be the bane of an author’s existence, but it doesn’t always have to be. When you start to feel jealous, anxious, or just not good enough as a writer, then go over your work to see how you can make it better, show it to a trusted writer friend, or just take the night off and return to your writing in the morning.
By doing this, you can form a good working relationship with your inner critic and keep it in balance. You can make the critic work for you and help you to become a better writer rather than letting it destroy your confidence completely.
Jessica is a British freelance arts and culture writer with a degree in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University and now living and working in Finland with her husband, who is also a writer. She has previously had work published in The Bath Chronicle, Fan/Slash Fic, and Blueink Review and is currently a contributing writer for The Culture Trip. You can see more of her work at woodthewriter.com.