Making Peace with Your Inner Critic: How to Stop Sabotaging Your Writing Life and Get Moving on That Book

If I had a way to capture the self-talk inside most writers' brains, as they sit down to do their writing practice, here's what I might hear:

“You need a lot more backstory here.”

“This section will take months of research. Stop writing and get started. It’ll be a good distraction.”

“You need to explain what your character is thinking here. Your writing isn’t good enough to just let the action show it.”

“For God’s sake, use bigger words. Everyone will think you’re uneducated.”

“Get to the action. How is anyone going to know what’s happening if you go on and on about setting?”

“This is pretty boring, you know. Maybe wrap it up faster.”

“Your mother will hate this section. Kill it.”

“Why don’t you run out and get the dry-cleaning now, then write when you get back?”

Who does all this talking? Who makes us hate our own writing? I call this being the Inner Critic, and we each have one. The challenge is to figure out what to do about its venomous voice, its worrisome messages, and how to keep writing anyway.

I've interviewed hundreds of writers at every skill level about the Inner Critic. Professional writers, even those who have published widely and won awards, are well acquainted with this inner voice. Sometimes it's funny, sometimes it's sad, sometimes it's menacing. But rarely is it truthful--and too often it sabotages our efforts to make art, to do our writing. Professional writers have learned to calm the voice, to write anyway. Some relied on alcohol or drugs or distractions to get a word in edgewise. I've found a better plan.

First, it's important to face the facts: The Inner Critic is part of any book journey—no matter how many books you’ve published.

Facing Down the Critic Inside You

Your first step is to disable the Inner Critic's overwhelming influence. I call this renegotiating the contract. You might think you don't have a contract. Read on.

Common wisdom suggests you fight the IC--use any means you can. Engage it in its own Hunger Games. But that often turns into a never-ending battle.

The way that's worked for me is this: Get to know your Critic and make it an ally, not an enemy.

First, recognize when it's affecting you. It can be both strong and sneaky. As you explore and plan your book, it might worry that you don’t have a good enough idea. It will rumble in the background, causing doubt that your ideas are serious enough or good enough.

Then, as you write your book and form the chapters, it will convince you the draft is definitely in OK shape to show your best friend—right now, today! This, of course, is a not-so-subtle sabotage attempt, made real when your friend asks about missing parts and you crumble with the realization that you have omitted half your story.

Or as you revise, the Critic will get bored with inner story, theme, or pacing, those essential fine-tuning steps each book writer must implement. It will even tell you to edit out the juicy parts because all your relatives will shun you when they read them. And as you try to sell your book, the Critic will come into full battle mode. It may suggest you stop now before any rejection letters arrive.

It's actually trying to protect you. Sound impossible? Here's how I experienced it, with one of my books that was published years ago. The lesson taught me a lot about how to keep writing, and how to work with the Inner Critic.

The Inner Critic as a Gatekeeper

One morning, I was finishing up a chapter in my self-help/memoir that centered on my business bankruptcy back in the 1980s. As I wrote, the Inner Critic began flooding me with feelings of shame about my failure. I began writing more slowly, reluctantly. The voice inside my head got louder, warning me to stop my exploration. “Why bring up this all over again?” it argued. “Totally in the past, not helpful to anyone else. Let it be.”

I persisted, angry at its interference. Suddenly I had to run to the bathroom. I was very ill, vomiting and dizzy. As I lay on the bathroom floor, the cold tiles against my face, I wondered if this was the work of the Inner Critic. Had it escalated the sensation of shame so strongly, that it turned into a physical reaction?

After a while, I came back to my desk. I was shaken. How could I keep writing if I was going to make myself sick? But I knew in my heart that the bankruptcy story was important in my book. During the 1980s recession, I met so many people who were devastated by failing businesses and personal loss. I wanted to help them with my own and others’ experience. How could I do this if I couldn’t get past my own Inner Critic?

So I did what I tell my writing students to do: take a break and do a freewrite—write outside my story. I located my writing notebook under the manuscript pages. I began writing about being literally sick with shame. As I wrote, I got the idea to start a “treaty” letter to this Gatekeeper-as-Inner-Critic, thanking it for its help in keeping me safe all these years. I wrote about how I appreciated its role. I wrote how I understood why it brought caution to my writing life because it had my best interests at heart. With each sentence, I felt a lessening of tension in my gut, a softening in my heart. No longer waged in battle, I was able to see my Inner Critic in a new way.

Then I asked it kindly to step aside, to let me write this chapter. I explained why I needed to write it, reassured the Critic that this story didn’t have to end up in the final book. I just needed to get it on paper. When the letter was finished, I closed my notebook and went back to my desk. The chapter flowed out better than I could’ve imagined and the Inner Critic was noticeably calmer the rest of that writing session. My Inner Critic only wanted to protect me from the shame of fame: people looking at me in a different way because I told about a business failure many years before. By collaborating with this gate-keeping voice, instead of rejecting its help, I was able to proceed.

My book, How to Master Change in Your Life, was finally published, and I got more letters and comments about that bankruptcy chapter than any other.

My intuition was right—people needed to hear about self-forgiveness for big mistakes.

A Letter to the Inner Critic

This is an exercise from my book, Your Book Starts Here. I've used it for years and recommend regularly as a detox for IC damage. You'll need about thirty minutes to try it.

1. Start a letter to your particular Inner Critic. Do this on paper or on the computer--whichever is easier. To start, describe your Inner Critic. What does he/she/it sound like? Can you picture the IC? Does the IC remind you of someone in your past?

2. Ask the Inner Critic what it’s contributing to your life. Listen sincerely for anything that might come, even small protections it offers. How does it keep you sane or safe, connected to others, responsible? How does it make you feel intelligent? How does it bring you respect of peers?

3. Thank it for its help in these areas. If more comes to mind as you write, add your gratitude about those.

I know this sounds wacky, but trust me--it works. Making friends, expressing respect, leads to successful renegotiation of the contract you may not even know you have.

4. Now write a request to the Inner Critic: ask it to step aside for just one week. Tell it you’ll be exploring a new avenue in your writing and you feel you need freedom. Ask for its help in letting you try it.

5. Mark on your calendar to follow up in a week.

6. After one week, spend five minutes freewriting about any changes you’ve noticed.

Are there fewer blocks in your creative process? Is your writing any different? Do you experience less negative self-talk?

See if you want to extend the request for another week, or even (go for it!) a month.