Standing Up To Your Inner Critic

Everybody has that voice in their head that likes to come off like a bit of a smarty pants.  Every time you have a good idea, the voice will be more than happy tell you why that idea sucks.  Every time you are feeling motivated to try something new, the voice will give you ten reasons why you shouldn’t even bother.  Every time you have a cool experience, the voice will remind you of every single mistake you made.

Of course, we know that voice belongs to our inner critic (which I’ll just go ahead and call the IC from here on out).

Now I believe that it isn’t really the IC’s fault that it has such a bad rap.  At the right time and place, a solid IC is necessary to make sure you are realistically approaching things and considering things from all angles.  But when given it center stage at the wrong time, the IC can completely wipe out every bit of self-confidence you have.

I'm a great example.  I’ve said for years that I wanted to write a book.  (any other wannabe authors out there?)  I started my first manuscript when I was twelve.  I had a succession of starts and stops for the next fifteen years.  I kept saying that I wanted to write a book so bad.  But I couldn’t get it together to do it.  I’d start writing, and before long that voice would creep up in the back of my head and tell me the story was crap.  I’d go back and reread chapters filled with despair.  Why bother writing it at all then?  So I’d stuff the papers away for another day.  You know- for the next time inspiration hit.

It was a fluke that I ran across an article one day about a book called No Plot No Problem! A Low Stress, High Velocity Way to Writing a Novel in 30 Days by Chris Baty (affiliate link).  I actually thought it was kind of humorous.  A book in 30 days?  Who does something crazy like that?  But I was intrigued so I picked it up, and then devoured the book in a day. 

It left me with my head spinning.  Was it possible?  Could I really do it?  This guy had done it, and in telling his story I knew that lots of other people had done it too.  Maybe I could write a book after all.

The biggest a-ha for me in the book was Baty’s advice for dealing with my IC. (finally!)  He said that you pack your IC up for thirty days and send her off to a cozy island somewhere to take a much needed vacation.  There would be a place for the IC in the process, but it wasn’t during this initial writing stretch.  So let the IC relax and not worry about it. 

Then you get down to business and don’t look back.  Don’t go back over what you’ve written, don’t judge a single thing that comes out while you are writing: just write.  There is no way you can write that volume of words in the time you have if the IC is on patrol, and doing things like rereading will bring her back with a vengeance.  Let her sit on her island in the sun with a mai tai, and you’ll let her know when you need her.

The advice seemed so simple and yet so life shattering at the same time.   I took it to heart.  In November 2004, I wrote my first novel during National Novel Writing Month.  In November 2005, I wrote my second novel.  Each time, I sent my IC off on a nice vacation (it gets cold here in Minnesota in the winter) and I just wrote like I had never written before.

What I discovered is that during that initial writing process I tended to lose the pure joy in writing because of the pressure of my IC to “be good”.   I was missing out on the discovery of characters and what they are made of, and the fascinating twists and turns they took me when I just allow them to roam free.   They surprised me.  And it was EASY.  By taking away all of the internal judgement for awhile, the ideas poured out of me.

So I wrote my 50,000 words, and took a deep breath.  Amazed and a bit terrified because now that I had this novel, what do you do next?


Bring back the IC (who was well-rested and tanned from her month long sabbatical).  It was just what I needed.  Her judgmental eye and unforgiving stance on what did and didn't work all along the way was a breath of fresh air.  She ripped my manuscript to shreds, but I could SEE the potential to make it better.  (A good edit goes a long way.)  She helped me take my novel to the next level, and I know that I couldn’t have done it without her.

So remember that there is a time and place for your inner critic.  She is there for a reason.  Using her effectively will make your work better.  Allowing her to have a say at inappropriate times will ensure you get stuck.  As long as you control her, you’ll find greater success in any aspect that you are looking to improve.

(photo credit by NotionsCapital)

Reader Comments (6)

Christy, I really liked this post as I've just returned from Blogworld Expo which I took in, in person.

I think the virtual attendance at these events will rise as bandwidth and speed increases. Physically attending a conference is very expensive in money and time when all is factored in. I think people go for various reasons but one that I think is unhealthy about going to them is if you are using it to just escape your daily routine. You go and feel you're doing something very important and worthwhile when in fact, you may be better off staying at home, taking in a few sessions via the internet and getting other work done.

Having said that, I do think the excitement of being together and all the chance meetings that go on at a physical conference can be very worthwhile, the trick is picking which conferences will deliver. I personally found this year's Blogworld Expo worth the effort and expense and would possibly consider going again.

My other issue (they are my own) of doing these things virtually is that I'm too tempted to not take part during the live streamcasts. It's easy to have interruptions and then I drop looking at them. At a conference, I don't tend to do that.

It's a dilemma. I loved your post.

October 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJohn McLachlan

Thanks for stopping by and commenting John! I am glad to hear you enjoyed Blogworld- it's definitely on my list for next year given all the good stuff I've heard from folks that were able to attend.

I do think that the hybrid models that we are starting to see (in-person attendance with live streaming video) is going to become more and more popular as an option as more people start asking for it. (Perhaps the economic downturn pushed that forward a bit?) Just saving the travel expense can make a significant difference in someone's budget.

I completely agree with your thoughts on distractions/interruptions. I did find myself multi-tasking during the live streams, but a) I was supposed to be working :) and b) I knew that I would have access to the replay later. I know I would have been more focused if I didn't have that safety net.

Thanks again for the kind words!

October 18, 2010 | Registered CommenterChristy Smith

How true!

A recent post on CopyBlogger said something similar, "Write drunk. Edit Sober".

I notice myself letting the IC in more when I write on the computer, and less when I write on a hard format (paper, dirt, whatever I can make markings in :) ).

I have a moleskin journal that is kind of like a locked filing cabinet that my IC is not allowed in to. It makes a huge difference being able to write uninhibited and once it's focused and tuned, unleash my IC on my writings!

Great post Christy! I'm really enjoying thinkblotcom!

P.S. I may overuse exclamation marks.

October 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChase Adams

Hi Chase- nice to see you and thanks for stopping by and commenting! (I enjoy exclamation marks myself.) :)

I've found that too that the physical act of writing in a notebook seems to inspire more original and creative thinking at times. I had to work quite hard to bang out my 50,000 words for Nanowrimo on the computer, but I think in that instance I knew exactly how many words I had to get down for my daily quota and I was more worried about that then anything else. (I think knowing exactly where you want to end up at the end of a session can help keep the IC away too.)

I LOVED that tip on the Copyblogger post. Too true. :)

I have 3 different notebooks running right now depending on what I am writing about. (I have a notebook addiction, but that would be another post for another day- lol.) I'm trying to do more sketching than writing in one of them because I think visual exploration of a topic pulls from an area of your brain that the IC doesn't even know exists. Just another way I get around her.

Thanks again for the comment and kind words!


October 19, 2010 | Registered CommenterChristy Smith

The greatest human skill is practice. We can get better at anything. All we have to do something. I'm a huge believer in writing to get better at writing. Editing is great; it cleans up the icky stuff that tries to interject into our art. The pure creative process needs to be honored, though.
I really enjoyed reading this post. Well written. Solid concept. Thanks for sharing that personal story. It's reassuring that other people have that little bastard (or bitch, as the case may be) of a critic. I agree the critic has its place, but it's certainly not in the driver's seat. Not all the time, anyway.
Keep up the good work and I wish you the best with your site/blog. Thanks for sharing your art with the world.

October 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPatrick Ray

Thank you for the comment and kind words Patrick! There is really something to be said for honoring the creative process as you mentioned. So much of our life's experience can be found in the journey to an end goal that to try to shortcut it or get around it means that we will miss out on something valuable.
I agree that the best way to get better is just to DO it. Don't be afraid of it because every time you do it you get better (and it gets a lot easier!).

October 21, 2010 | Registered CommenterChristy Smith

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