Wednesday, January 25, 2017

On Being Your Own Worst Critic

by David E. Sharp

Nobody likes a critic. And for many writers, that sentiment is the source of a lot of self-loathing. Your very own inner critic is always with you, looking over your shoulder, making little remarks along the way, pointing out all your flaws. Is that REALLY how you want to say that? Where is this story going, anyway? You're not going to SHOW this to anyone, are you?

Aren't you glad you have an inner critic?

It could be worse. You could not have one. Think of the opening episodes of any talent-related reality show. How many poor souls are convinced they are exceptionally gifted singers or dancers or cat jugglers, only to be informed in the cruelest way that they're not? Some friendly advice: try to schedule your reality checks before you're on national television. So maybe an inner critic isn't all bad.

But that's not to say we shouldn't keep our critics on a short leash. Here are a few of my own thoughts
on how that's done.

Treat Yourself Like a Stranger.
Okay, but I know how to fix it.
I'll need a shotgun and a shovel...

Why do we seem to think we can be so much harder on ourselves than on others? To whom in your critique group would you say, "This is rubbish! Rubbish! You're a failure as a writer! You're not fit to sign greeting cards! Fail, Fail, FAIL!!!" And yet, when critiquing ourselves, we feel that unbridled savagery is somehow appropriate.

We must remember that tearing ourselves down is not a mark of humility. It really means we've lost objectivity. That's not the way to be a better writer. Instead, we should try to give ourselves the same advice we'd give to our peers. And with only as much name-calling too.

It's Okay to Be Your Own Fan.

Somehow, there sprouted an unwritten social rule that if you like your own work, you're a conceited artist-type. Sure, nobody likes people who constantly toot their own horns. But you wouldn't spend all those hours writing and rewriting a story you didn't like. Is it perfect? Probably not. Does it need a lot more work? Likely. Can you like it anyway? Of course! Take some time to revel in the good bits. It will help you get over the bumps later on.

Don't underestimate the
importance of quality control.

Also, don't underestimate
neon-skinned guys with lots of
words in their heads!
But DO Criticize Yourself.

There's a lot of content out there. If you want to attract readers, you're going to have to put your best work forward. That can't happen without a little help from your inner critic. And some exterior critics are a good idea too. Feedback is a part of writing, so we may as well get used to taking some criticism. But the key is accuracy. Only accurate analysis will help you to improve your work. Too much negativity, and you'll lose heart. Rose-colored glasses will blind you to points that need improvement. Like Goldilocks, we want our inner critic to be just right.

What Makes Criticism Work?

I once worked under a manager who could tell me anything. She could list out my faults without apology, and it never bothered me. As a result, I became better at what I did. What was her secret? Sincerity. I always had an innate sense that she had my professional growth in mind, and she also had the expertise to give me accurate feedback. She was never over-harsh nor over-gentle. We should treat ourselves with that same courtesy if we wish to grow in our writing. Earnestly desire to be a better writer, and let your self-analysis come from that place.

Okay. I admit.
This graphic has no relevance.
I just wanted to upload some
chilies arranged in a star.

What of it?
Are You Your Own Worst Critic?

Do you constantly scrutinize your own writing? I do. I can't glance at my own work without seeing something that needs to be tweaked (or completely overhauled). Enough so that I don't read my own writing unless I have time to edit it. Does that make me my own "worst" critic? I think that depends on whether my revisions improve what I've written. Usually, they do. I like the changes, and that makes me feel good. If opening yourself up to your own honest opinion has that effect, maybe that's not so bad. Why not be your own "best" critic?

For more resources on taming your inner critic, try:

The Art of Constructive Self-Criticism

How To Critique Your Own Work - And Get It Right
  -Written for artists of visual formats, but the principles are applicable to writers as well.

Dealing with Self-Doubt: Tips from 7 Popular Authors
  -And just in case you think highly successful authors don't suffer from the same thing...


Laura Mahal said...

David, I found this blog to be excellent. I always love your blogs, in fact. You do an outstanding job of teaching me something writerly, and you do it with humor and compassion.

I've learned quite a lot from you over the years. In this particular instance, I was reminded of the importance of exercising "self-compassion." It is true that I would never tell a critique mate that his or her work was sub-par. Even if the piece was peppered with comma splices, I would look for the positives and be sure to comment upon those.

So why was I beating myself up last night for using the wrong terminology for various ranks of Scottish policemen? Aah, because I ought to have caught that a "deputy" is a "constable" and a "Lieutenant" a "Chief Inspector." It would have been easy for me to have looked that up prior to submitting my story to a competition. (Ack! Major gaffe! Unforgivable!!) Answer to that question I posed a few sentences back: I don't remember to show myself the same level of compassion that I would to a fellow writers.

Now, it is clearly time for me to "... kick over the self-pity cart" and remember that, indeed, "Keats was not killed by a bad review." I'd best buck up, roll up my sleeves, and not focus on the fact that I used the word "up" twice in this sentence. Thanks for helping me to send that harsh inner critic packing for a little while.

Laura Mahal said...

And, oh my gracious, I shipped that without a careful review and have now found a typo. (Terrible. Unacceptable.) What I meant to write was that I don't often remember to show myself the same level of compassion that I would to a fellow writer. Singular, not plural.

Sigh. I've a ways to go in terms of self-compassion. It's late; people make mistakes; and last I checked, I was human. (All deals off after midnight.) So I'm going to have a cup of chamomile and call it a day.

Happy writing, everyone!

David Sharp said...

Thanks, Laura.

I definitely agree we have to accept that mistakes are part of the process. If I haven't spliced something with a comma by 10 AM, I'm not trying hard enough. I like to ruin a few paragraphs early in the day just so I can get some of the day's quota of errors out of the way. Then, just to be sure, I misspell a dozen-or-so words.

At least I won't get bored during the editing process.

Ronda Simmons said...


as always, great info here! My self-doubt can cripple me to the point where I'm convinced that since I know I won't be able to write something well, why even bother? That's when I go back to Anne Lamott's book "Bird by Bird" and remember that my first job is to write a shitty first draft. So I write what I know will be terrible, then I fix it. But first I have to slay that beast that says I can't.

Looking forward to your next blog! Ronda

David Sharp said...

Thanks, Ronda.

Anne Lamott has some great advice on that point. I'm a big proponent of "Write it first, then make it good." Of course, that's easier said than done. But you can't edit an empty page, so write away! Right away!

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