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I'm a real perfectionist and the cringe I often feel at what I write is quite strong and distracting. It's taking the enjoyment out of writing and I'm finding it hard to avoid focusing on how bad my writing is and actually write. I've seen/heard it a lot that you need 'just write the book' and 'push through' the inner critic picking away at what you're writing, but does anyone here have advice on how to actually do that?

There's only so much help you can get from advice as broad as 'just push through.' I was wondering if I might find some more specific advice on what to do in order to push through.

I get that this is probably gonna be one of those 'this is different for everyone' things, but I figured it was worth seeing if/how more experienced authors deal with this and going from there.

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  • This looks to be largely the same as How to deal with self-criticism?
    – Laurel
    Jun 20 at 22:51
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    @Laurel Personally, I interpret that question to be more about dissatisfaction with a finished product that you know is a good quality and never being satisfied with what you achieve, rather than how to put the inner critic aside for a while, in order to focus on actually creating the thing
    – aurorajack
    Jun 20 at 23:30

5 Answers 5

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First of all, this is a very natural and typical experience for most writers that they learn to overcome.

The intensity of the cringe varies from person to person, according to their personality. It is nothing to feel bad about.

The notion that helped me put my "cringe" into perspective, and enabled me to put it in a box when I write, was when someone told me that every single novel and short story and script you've ever read, is the result of the process of intensive revision and rewrite. Think of your favorite book and how well it is written. It did not look like that when the author wrote their first draft. If it helps you, you can imagine it was full of cringe that the author worked through and fixed to make it the novel you utterly enjoy.

This is why Neal Gaiman -- Blessed be his name -- says that the first draft is for you, and the second draft is so you look like you know what you are doing.

When we write our first words on the page we are creating something that doesn't exist. And, no matter how much we want things to be perfect, they never will be. Not by a long shot. All authors have different processes. But, the universal truth is that no one can evaluate and react to a sentence until it is on the page.

And, just as some thoughts can be expressed in a single sentence, some ideas in your novel or scenes can be expressed in a single sentence. Therefore, to know if the idea is good or not or if the scene is working or not or how to fix a scene or whether to throw it away, we have to see the whole thing completed. And, you can't do that if you are editing and re-editing every single sentence you write.

One technique to learn to silence your inner critic is called writing sprints. These are timed exercises where you turn off every distraction around -- no email, no social media, et cetera -- and you write for fifteen or thirty minutes. Your twin focus is to just write and not edit. It doesn't matter if it sucks. You put words to page. Then, you take a break for fifteen minutes. Not reading your writing not editing. You go for a walk. Dance around your apartment naked. Whatever. Then repeat two or three more times.

If you are like most people, the more you repeat this exercise, the easier it is to silence your critic and just write. Because you are promising your inner critic that they'll get their say later. And because you are giving your imagination kind of free rein for a while.

The first few times are very uncomfortable for most people. But they end up writing more words per session after only a few cycles.

I think the key is to not berate yourself when you see a typo or a sentence is wrongly formed, you tell yourself you'll fix it later. Surprisingly, it works amazingly well based on my and fellow students' reactions to the exercise.

You can find a bunch of variants of so-called writing-sprints online if you have questions.

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Label your Drafts

In the software world, the application My-Work-0.0.1 is going to be a buggy mess. Everyone knows this just looking at it, because it's version 0-dot-something. It's not even "in beta" yet.

Your first draft is going to be a buggy mess too. Everyone's is.

Break your work down into scenes and label each scene with something that tells you how many times you've revisited it. You'll notice pretty quickly that the sections you've revised are significantly better than the brand new work. That's normal.

Every time you open a new document and label it Next-Scene-0.0.1 you're giving yourself permission to suck. Needing this permission is normal too.

(I've seen a version of this that was much more explicit. The author labeled new documents "The Worst Possible Version of the Scene that Does X" in big letters. After some revisions it might be "A Bad Version of the Scene That Does X". After more revisions it became "Scene About X". You can pick whatever tone suits you.)

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    P. G. Wodehouse did something a bit similar, but using position instead of words. As described by Douglas Adams in his introduction to Wodehouse's last, unfinished book Sunset At Blandings, “When he was writing a book, he used to pin the pages in undulating waves around the wall of his workroom. Pages he felt were working well would be pinned up high, and those that still needed work would be lower down the wall. His aim was to get the entire manuscript up to the picture rail before he handed it in.”
    – gidds
    2 days ago
  • @gidds - i love the visual of the paper crawling up the wall as the manuscript improves
    – codeMonkey
    yesterday
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A trick I use to avoid getting stuck while writing is this: if I'm not super happy with a phrase and feel like it could be better but can't actually figure out how in the moment, I mark it with a symbol I wouldn't use otherwise (I use #). This allows me to go "OK, I'll come back to this later" and move on. (Same for bits where I need to do research or come up with a name - just put #NAME or #[look up tech-appropriate ways to decorate glazed mugs] or whatever.) They're like TODO comments with the advantage that it's super easy to run a find to make sure you have them all, and using them makes it easier to keep up the writing momentum.

Fair warning: the overall effect of this tends to be that #on the whole my #first draft looks like this with every #paragraph pretty much littered with #hash marks, and a significant chunk of editing consists of me going "I have no idea what past me was on, this is all fine" and removing all of them. So it's... possible for this to become an unhelpful crutch. However, I think it did, and to some extent still does, help me actually write by giving myself permission to let the first draft not be perfect, in a way that all the higher-level advice out there did not.

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Referring to a related form of creativity, a wise person (I don't remember who) once said that everyone has a hundred bad songs inside them, and you have to write all those out before you can get to the good ones.

That's not entirely true, of course — but it can be a very helpful lie to tell yourself. The first songs you write are likely to be bad, but as you write more, you'll gain practice; you'll probably learn more about the techniques, about what works and what doesn't, and about how to spur your creativity, so that they will improve.

Maybe a similar lie can be helpful when writing prose?

So try writing expecting it to be bad. Treat it as an exercise, where only the practice matters and the result will be discarded. Then maybe it'll be easier to persuade your inner critic to give it up as a bad job and keep quiet, leaving you to continue writing uninterrupted.

You can always come back to it afterward and see if it turned out not to be so bad after all. Maybe there are some ideas worth noting down for future use? Some turns of phrase, or some stylistic patterns you can file away? There's even the remote possibility that the whole thing could be hacked into the kernel of something good. But if not, you've lost nothing — and gained the experience.

Either way, consider that possibility only when you've finished the whole draft — until then, tell yourself that it's just a piece of bad writing you need to get out the way to make room for the good stuff.


To digress slightly, I've long thought that to be successful in any of the creative fields, you need two very different skills:

  • Creativity: the ability to generate raw material (whether it's poetry, prose, story ideas, tunes, images, patterns, or whatever).
  • Judgement: the ability to tell what works and what doesn't, what's good and what's bad, so you can keep the good and remove/rework the bad.

Both of those are crucial — yet I suspect it's impossible to do both at the same time! Maybe part of learning to be successful in a creative field is learning how to focus on only one of those things at a time, and how to flip between them as needed?

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  • Came here to say this. There's bound to be a certain % of junk, so just start dumping it out en masse.
    – Ejaz
    2 days ago
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The first draft is not the finished book

A common misconception is that you sit down. You write. Out comes magic. Once you've finished the first draft you're done. The book is finished and there is no more to do about it. If it's bad, you're a bad writer.

Nothing could be more wrong.

Yes, we all wish we could write first drafts that were gorgeous... (or at least many of us do).

But a first draft is more like a test you take, and then the second draft you get to retake that test, and then a third, and a fourth time. Up to a handful or so of drafts you're more or less guaranteed to make it better.

At least if you know how to edit your drafts and rewrite them. For that, I recommend you start with James Scott Bell's "Revision and Self Editing for Publication". There are also tons of resources on the net.

The key takeaway is that you need to edit your first draft to make it better. It will not be good from the get-go.

After all, if our first drafts were, as a rule, published, some bastard would come along, write a second draft and blow us all out of competition.

But how do you deal with your inner critic?

Here's a "secret" to dealing with any form of disturbing thoughts.

You don't. You can't even.

Ever found yourself trying not to think something just to find yourself thinking of nothing but? Let me give you an example:

I want you to not think of a red fire truck. One with blue blinking lights and a silver ladder. As it screams by you on a street in your hometown on a sunny spring afternoon. Do not think of that...

Yeah, right?

You thought of a red fire truck.

The trick is to know that thinking is not doing, or for that matter manifesting. (If indeed a red fire truck did roar through your living room as you read this, you're a Marvel character and you need to stop snooping on us writers... ;o)

And just like you're not always in control of your thoughts, your inner critic will pop up and start telling you how everything sucks.

My theory is that your inner critic comes from your self-preservation. It's trying to protect you from harm. And sure, writing can be dangerous, but hopefully, you live in a part of the world where it's about your self-image, your pride, not your physical body. That none of the harm that could come to you would break any of your bones...

And just like you cannot not think a thought, you for sure cannot turn off your self-preservation. Thankfully!

The trick, instead, is not to push through, push away or push down the inner critic, instead, you need to listen to your inner critic/your self-preservation.

Imagine your mind is a stage, you, your consciousness, your "inner eye", is sitting in the audience, and entering the stage are all these thoughts and feelings.

You invite them onto that stage so they can tell you their thing.

Listen to them.

Describe what they have to say using objective language. Do not value it as good or bad, helpful or unhelpful, smart or stupid. Just pick up what the objective message is.

You might want to write it down. For instance as a note/comment in the manuscript.

Perhaps it's that you'll get bad critics. Perhaps it's that everyone will hate what you're writing, that it will be bad, that no one will care, etc.

Just take it in. Then let it be for a while. Take a break if the feelings are strong, keep writing, or go for a walk. Try not to come up with criticism, a plan, or anything else, just feel them and see what that feels like.

One of several things might happen:

The thought might go away and leave you without even feeling worried.

You may realize you are taking some kind of risk and figure out ways you could prepare yourself to deal with it better.

Or you find this is just a brain function specialized on predators sneaking in the bushes and fires, and it is taking control for a few moments.

Listen to the warnings, it is after all your self-preservation speaking, but know this; your self-preservation was made to protect you from physical danger.

It makes sense when dealing with physical danger to avoid it, to not go toward the danger, but instead run away from it...

Unfortunately, doing so with regards to non-physical danger (like failures at work or in your social life or anything else that will never escalate into physical danger—e.g. flocks of pigeons on town squares...) is at best going to limit your life experience, at worst cause phobias and all kinds of other problems.

Your self-preservation does not know this, and you cannot turn it off, so your best bet is to listen to it, let it come on the stage and tell you about the dangers, and then get the objective view of them, what is actually going to happen? Will my hair catch fire? Will I become homeless?

You can always ask, is this going to cause physical harm to me? Is my physical life in danger? Will it make me bleed? Will it break my bones? Unless you're writing some really heavy stuff the answer should be no, although a lot of brave people out there in bad places wouldn't even let those dangers stop them...

The thing is, once you've listened to your self-preservation enough, it seems it's happy that you have and will quiet down.

As long as you really listen to it and don't just listen to try to make it stop. It will of course know if you do. It's after all just another part of your mind. And your self-preservation has been trained for billions of years not to take that kind of negligent BS.

You may even be able to listen to your inner critic and keep working on the text (or anything else in your life it wants to warn you about) at the same time.

To read more about this, "technique" and similar thoughts, check out "Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life" by Steven C. Hayes.

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