Self-Criticism Hacks for Writers

To this perfection of nature in our poet we require exercise of those parts, exercitatio, and frequent. If his wit will not arrive suddenly at the dignity of the ancients, let him not yet fall out with it, quarrel, or be over hastily angry, offer to turn it away from study in humor; but come to it again upon better cogitation, try another time with labor. If then it succeed not, cast not away the quills yet, nor scratch the wainscot, beat not the poor desk, but bring all to the forge and file again; turn it anew. There is no statute law of the kingdom bids you be a poet against your will or the first quarter; if it comes in a year or two, it is well

Ben Jonson, Timber

Writing can be frustrating in ways that can feel disproportionate to the endeavor.

How can it feel so impossible?

From a distance, writing seems so simple! Those guys and gals who write stories and make the big bucks, all they do is put words on the page. How do they do it? What is their secret?

More importantly, what’s wrong with me that I can’t do that too?

Center stage: Self-criticism

Self criticism has a way of being self-fulfilling.

When you have it in the background of your awareness, it looks for a way of making itself come true.

“I suck at writing.”

Self-criticism rears its ugly head and blocks you up. It prevents you from writing.

“I suck because I can’t write.”

When you’re able to stumble to the keyboard, ready to churn out some words, self-criticism gets in the way and prevents you from writing anything worth keeping.

“I suck because what I write sucks.”

Writing isn’t always easy. But you can make a vital shift in your approach by hacking negative beliefs like self-criticism.

It has a voice; listen for it

What voice encroaches that doubts you and brings frustration?

Exercise

When you are feeling especially blocked, especially down in the dumps, and least likely to write anything worthwhile, now is your chance! In this low state, the negative self-critical voice is right there at the forefront, so it will be easy to see.

Freewrite for fifteen minutes. Write out the things that voice says. How do you feel? How do you feel about yourself? What are you noticing from this vantage point about who you are and what you want? What does this voice believe is wrong with you or what you want to write?

The point in doing this is not to believe what is being written, but to give this part of you some air. Giving it air means giving yourself space from its judgment and control. This is a powerful first step towards discerning what you really believe. It is necessary to separate your own perspective from the self-critical perspective.

It’s necessary to actually experience this. No theorizing will solve things, or otherwise you would have solved it already. It’s necessary to actually do the exercise and have the direct experience.

Repeat this exercise when you land in a negative space. Learn to recognize this voice.

The more you do this, the more you reveal how it is distinct from you.

At first it seems to speak in your own internal voice. But maybe you find that what your voice of self-criticism says doesn’t actually belong to you. Maybe you notice beliefs that you would like to let go of. Maybe you uncover some advice that belongs to someone else, such as a parent or teacher or a mistaken belief that you need to be a certain way. Maybe it’s otherwise good advice but it isn’t proving helpful right now.

If it belongs elsewhere, see what happens when you open to the possibility of letting that go.

No need to identify with the statements that you make when situated in one of the self-defeating contortions of negative beliefs.

Let old beliefs go. Especially if they aren’t even your beliefs. Let them go if they don’t serve you.

They’re just beliefs. They aren’t based in fact. They aren’t true.

All that’s needed is for you to really perceive them. When you see them, you can rest in your own freedom. You have a choice.

Do they help you towards truth? Towards being who you are and becoming more of who you want to become?

It can be very frustrating when you confront a mix of competing beliefs.

A very basic example of this:

  • you believe that you have to do something right now
  • you also believe that you aren’t good enough to do it

Suppressing the feelings won’t get you very far.

Frustration itself is not the problem.

Try the freewriting exercise when you are in the middle of the space of negativity. You can potentially do the freewriting exercise at any time, but when you engage it from within the experience, you don’t have to go looking for anything. Nothing is theoretical. It’s all right there in your experience. You are writing, and you are being with yourself as you explore your self-criticism, self-doubt, and other negative beliefs.

It isn’t a one time fix all affair. The more you do it, the more you gain a sense of momentum towards clarity.

Alternate approach: take time and space

So many of our negative beliefs are fed by how we are conditioned to believe that things absolutely must be handled right now immediately right now.

Having a bit — even a tiny slice — of extra time can grant you an emotional buffer, an opportunity for you to

  • feel what you feel
  • act from a more centered place

Even if it is urgent, it’s probably not as urgent as the frustrated part of you makes it seem.

That false urgency creates this extra layer of impossibility around the actual thing.

What if you took an extra two seconds to touch base with yourself? To feel your body, to breathe?

It can make all the difference in the world.

For one thing, when you take even two extra seconds before reacting, you are claiming your own personal space.

That tiny bit of extra space and time can give you all the perspective needed to make the right call, because you’re acting from a place closer to your center.

It’s also something to do periodically throughout the day. Don’t forget about your own need for energetic boundaries and personal space. Take a bit of time to reconnect with the wider reality.

  • While you write, focus fully.
  • Then take a delicious breather. Indulge fully.
  • Then dive in again.
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