When is the right time to listen to your inner critic?

Most writers have inner critics. That little voice inside you that tells you that you’re a terrible writer. That you have no business crafting a story. That taunts and jeers and makes you feel like you are the laughing stock of the entire writing community.

I ended up naming my inner critic Eris because she’d gotten a little too destructive for our own good. Took me a while, but we’re now on limited speaking terms, and we’re actually, finally, in a place where we can work well together.

Basically, it came down to knowing the right time to listen to Eris. Because there are right times, and there are not-so-right times.

The right time to listen to your inner critic

Believe it or not, inner critics actually have a purpose (beyond making us want to quit our stories and dig latrines instead).

Inner critics are supposed to be there for us when it is time to constructively critique our work—after the bulk of the writing is done.

The first stage of crafting a story, what I call the Discovery stage, is NOT the place for your inner critic. That’s a private cocktail party for you and your imagination and no one else. Not even other writers, no matter how well-meaning, should be allowed into this private party.

If your inner critic tries to crash this party, you have to be firm and re-direct it back from where it came. Explain that he/she/it will be invited to another party, a different kind of party, and to just be patient.

Maybe suggest to Ms. I.C. that while she is waiting, she should bone up on rules of 3-act structure or POV guidelines or character development—because you’ll be needing her to help you out with those fundamentals in a little while.

The inner critic is welcome for brief interludes after the Discovery stage, during the Construction stage. I should have a solid idea of structure and major turning points, but it is essential to make sure they work. I allow my inner critic to step in and take a look, but I don’t allow her to hang out the whole time, as I don’t want her to judge the actual content yet.

Some writers may not want their inner critic in this early, but for me, it’s helpful. I like to know if my structure is working at the time I’m building it. This way, I can fix any major foundational cracks before I add in the heft and loft of scenes, dialogue, detail, imagery, theme.

It’s tricky, though, to try allowing your inner critic in for a brief moment and then kicking her out. Letting her in at all is like letting the neighborhood kids in the house after I’ve baked a cake. So I perform the structure check in a separate time block from the writing. I may alternate days, or do a half-day structure check and half-day writing. Depends on what else is going on in my life at the moment.

The structure check should not take long, as I had also been keeping it in mind during the Discovery stage. But sometimes I have to see it play out for real, with scenes and chapters, to know if it really works or not.

The third stage, Refinement, is when my inner critic is pretty much sitting on my shoulder, alternately snacking away on peanut-butter bon-bons, and pointing out all the places I need to fix, modify, cut, enhance. We get along pretty well during the Refinement stage; we’re usually in agreement.

I know I make it sound easy to wrangle an inner critic, but it’s really like any relationship. There is a give-and-take. Each party must listen to each other and discuss the findings. There is an understanding of which one, the writer or the critic, knows best, and when. All of this is shaped and honed and built over time.

Two methods have worked for me. The first gets to the root of the problem, which is to understand why Eris got the best of me, time and again. If I learned anything in my college psych courses, it’s that treating the symptom doesn’t heal the infection.

I took some time to understand why Eris was ruling my creative life. I wrote her a letter, and then several more as the years went on. Finally, I managed to wrestle her into a position that benefited both of us, and I learned a lot about my real-world self and my natural writing forces in the process.

Inner Critic Hack

The other method that I use, which I put into gear anytime I work with Eris now, is to simply set a timer on her. She gets X number of minutes to help me make my writing better. Once the timer goes off, I kick her out of my head by physically walking away from my writing project and doing a chore that requires a fair level of attention, like cooking or helping kids with homework. Exercise is another option. I do not sink myself into a rote chore and here’s why: with rote activities like washing dishes, walking a familiar route, or weeding the garden, Eris has room to stick around and hassle me. But if I do something that requires me to actually pay attention and put my brain to work in another way, Eris disappears.

Switching gears from creative analysis to a physical activity does something pretty cool to my emotional response. Instead of attacking my manuscript immediately, I can cool off and think through Eris’s advice objectively. Eris isn’t always right. And that’s important to note. Of course, she thinks she’s right all the time, and she can be kind of nasty about it. I find that when I cycle through her suggestions I have more clarity—I can better gauge if she is being objective or not.

How about you? Do you have an inner critic? What is your relationship like?

Have a writerly day!

18 thoughts on “When is the right time to listen to your inner critic?”

  1. I like both of your approaches, Kate. One gives the IC specific times in which to participate. The other puts a time limit on the participation. Brilliant! Thanks for a thoughtful post. I’ll keep this in mind as I keep that pesky IC in her place.

  2. Great ideas here as always, Kate. I would say my inner critic is allowed during my outlining phase. I want it to question the directions my plot will take and whether the ideas themselves will be worth exploring. But like you, during my first draft–my ‘discovery’ phase, I like to just let things play out however my mind sees fit. Then, when I tackle draft two, that critic is back out. Hopefully, if I listened to it well enough in the outlining phase, it won’t be too hard on me. Of course, it always rears it’s head when the book is ready to go and waiting for its release. That’s when the inner critic gets really heartless, when it’s too late to do anything about it. 😄

    • Hey Carrie, We creatives need to be able to explore freely. It’s part of our job. The critic aspect is important, too. Figuring out how to make it all work so that we still love to create is tough! Oh, yes, for me, Eris pops up anytime I launch something, whether it is as small as a blog post or bigger like a coaching workshop. And you’re right, at that point, it’s like “Ya just couldn’t keep yer trap shut, could ya?”

  3. Loved this Kate! Love how you’ve gained control of Eris. Maybe some inner critics are more stubborn than Eris, lol. But your formula is appealing. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  4. Ditto what Letizia said. My inner critic is my friend, I’ve decided. But it took a long time for our relationship to get to this point. There were many tearful conversations before we agreed that sometimes it’s ok to disagree.

  5. What a brilliant idea – to write to our inner critic. Ask her what’s up, what her purpose is (surely not to derail our creativity and love of self, right?) and give her a bit of structure of what is expected of her.
    I also like the idea of giving her bon bons when she’s on my shoulder during the Construction stage. Maybe she’ll be a bit sweeter about the whole thing.
    Excellent, intelligent, and helpful post, Kate. THANKS.

    • Many of us bow to our inner critics and when that happens, so many great ideas never see the light of day. But ICs are good for some stuff, right, so it’s up to us to figure out how to tame them. It is our work, after all! 🙂

  6. Thanks, Kate, for the encouraging and helpful post. I do understand not doing rote chores like washing the dishes. Although many ideas pop into my head while doing dishes (or showering), it’s also a time when it’s possible for the IC to creep in. I appreciate your strategies for limiting the IC’s time and when to allow her in. Very helpful. 🙂

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