By David E. Sharp
The writing journey is a hazardous one, full of setbacks and self-doubt. I remember asking myself why I thought I had a story to tell. I felt like a fraud. The sight of my manuscript in progress would put me into a tailspin of criticism and despair. I wondered if Amazon would deliver sackcloth and ashes to help me wallow. The memories are vivid. On the one hand, it feels ages ago. On the other—more literal—hand, it was last Thursday.
You need no introduction to your inner critic if you are a writer. It follows you around an inner voice, shaming you for your mistakes, pointing out all your failures, and scrutinizing your every decision. The inner critic can have a detrimental effect on your writing life. It lays the foundation for imposter syndrome. Inner critics are the bane of first drafts, harping on all their infantile flaws before they can grow into anything. They are unyielding perfectionists, draconian masters, and lousy roommates. But are they all wrong?
Life Without the Inner Critic
You will find no shortage of articles directed at banishing your inner critic. I understand the intent, but I don’t believe that is the answer. While the inner critic can cause havoc if given free rein, it still plays an essential role in our writing.
As a fledgling writer, I set pen to paper with no inhibitions, my inspiration overflowing, and my confidence levels dangerously close to delirium. Never mind that I had no idea what I was doing! What is writing but scribbling some words on paper? How difficult could it be? Any fool could do this, and I was excelling at it. Or so I let myself believe.
My inner critic had yet to develop. Oh, but he was coming.
Literary agents describe an influx of queries every December from new writers who just blasted through their 50,000-word manuscripts during National Novel Writing Month. All these starry-eyed writers with dreams of grandeur are positive they have just written the great American novel. Now they just need to drop it in the hands of those eager publishers with a quick wink, and you’re welcome, and the royalties will start pouring in.
Is it so awful that an inner critic might step in here and say, “Hold up a minute.” Why don’t we take another look at that ‘masterpiece’ before you start shopping it out?”
Criticism Is a Two-Sided Coin
While self-criticism can be devastating when given free rein, the lack of self-criticism is not a great situation either. If we seek constructive criticism from others, why can’t we seek constructive criticism from ourselves? No writer wants to champion a weak, amateurish manuscript. We want a manuscript we can be proud to have written. We want a manuscript that can stand up to scrutiny. And who is that first, best scrutinizer? Welcome back, inner critic!
The goal of good criticism is an improvement. Good criticism inspires growth and develops our writing skills. Solid writing groups can be a massive benefit with insights and suggestions that pull us out of our blind spots and get us on the track for a better result. But we can offer some of that same benefit to ourselves. We need to train our inner critic to follow the same rules we would expect in any helpful writing group.
How can the project be better?
Remember that improvement is not perfectionism, however. Perfection is an unreachable goal, and striving for it is an exercise in futility. Keep improving until your manuscript is the best you can make it.
Criticism should be realistic.
Make sure your inner critic is providing honest feedback. Skewing toward negativity is no more helpful than naïve overconfidence. No, it’s not horrible, and you’re not a failure. Yes, it is a work in progress, and you have work to do.
Criticism is about what works as well as what does not.
You are not helping yourself by being blind to the good stuff. It is not arrogant to let yourself enjoy your own writing. You can’t expect anyone else to have fun if you don’t find it entertaining. Train your inner critic to take a balanced view of what works well and what needs more attention.
Criticism is not about pleasing everyone.
You cannot create something that people will universally love. Create something that you will love and focus on your target readers. The right people will love it when it is ready. When the wrong people don’t love it, that is not a sign of failure.
Criticism has a proper time and place. Your first draft is neither. Learn to silence that critical voice when it is not helpful. It will get its chance to speak its opinion, but until then, it can stay gagged and duct-taped to a chair in some tiny closet of your mind.
The Benefits of a Constructive Inner Critic
Training your inner critic to work for you instead of against you offers some fantastic benefits. Your writing improves. The criticism you receive from others will be more valuable since you have already addressed the apparent problems. Negative criticism from others will be less impactful since your work has already run the gauntlet of your scrutiny. And you have trained yourself to approach flawed writing with an expert eye for improvement.
For more on taming your own inner critic, check out these resources:
Nanowrimo Writers, Don’t Submit that Manuscript
Why Being Your Own Biggest Critic Is the Best and the Worst