Write it now: don’t let the self-crit demon torpedo your novel

There’s a demon that lurks under most writing desks. The demon of self-criticism. Its special power is paralysis.

Ernest Hemingway ( J F Kennedy Presidential library, released to public domain)
Ernest Hemingway ( J F Kennedy Presidential library, released to public domain)

Most desks? Some writers don’t meet this particular demon. They think their work is brilliant and sail ahead, churning out words, blissfully happy and feeling productive as their word-count meter ticks up for all the world to see.

That’s unfortunate, because meeting the self-crit demon is one of the most important parts of writing. Writers who churn out content without self-critiquing usually find opinion differs about their work. They think it’s brilliant. Everybody else thinks it sucks. Self-critique helps ensure authors keep that essential twist, the emotional dynamic, that is the secret to great writing. It keeps them on the straight-and-narrow. And – most crucially – it keeps them pushing the limits of quality.

Bottom line is that writers MUST be self-aware – MUST question what they do, and MUST understand their craft well enough to know how to find the answers to those questions.

As Hemingway put it, you sit down at the typewriter and bleed. He knew all about self-criticism. Great writers are dogged by it. That’s why they are great writers – because they are constantly pushing the limits, driving to improve. All the time.

The problem comes when the self-crit demon exerts its special power – paralysis. Where your awareness of your imagined limitations causes you to stop. The problem, I think, usually happens when the concept you have in your head – the shapes, patterns and emotional content you are trying to convey – simply doesn’t seem to translate into the written word.

It’s a common fate for writers. Normal. The way around it is to make the self-crit demon your friend. Here’s how:

1. “I’ll never be good enough.” Yes you will be. If you’ve got enough savvy to know you’re not happy with what you’ve written, you’ve got the savvy to figure out the answer. Truly incompetent people usually aren’t competent enough to know they’re incompetent. Work the problem. What is the point at which you’re getting frustrated? Can’t think of words? Or do the words not describe what you want? Is it stylistic, or content? Or both? Break the problem down. Make notes. Draw pictures of it if you have to – as in, Venn diagrams. Try it. Don’t forget, writing isn’t really about words. It’s about shape, patterns and concepts.

My Adler Gabrielle 25 - on which I typed maybe a million words in the 1980s.
My Adler Gabrielle 25 – on which I typed maybe a million words in the 1980s.

2. “Why can’t I write the scene as I imagine it?” Look at what you’re writing. Is it descriptive, as if you are watching a movie, or are you working the characters – presenting things as they react to them? You might be conceptualising the scene one way in your head, but expecting to read it the other.

3. “I keep getting stuck”. That’s normal. As I posted a while back, don’t be afraid to throw stuff out and start again. There are a lot of techniques to beat ‘writers block’ – and it’s faster to use them than it is to flounder around in circles.

4. “I can’t seem to control my writing”. You can  Practise makes perfect. Be prepared to write – and write – and write. Then throw it all away. Then write some more. Look at it this way: concert pianists don’t just sit down and perform. Behind that 90 minute virtuoso concert is a LOT of training – years of it, including hours and hours of practise just for that concert. Writing is no different.

Have you ever met the self-crit writing demon? And conquered it? I’d love to hear your story.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: Step-by-step tips for National November Writing Month, NaNo prompts, more ‘Write it now’, more fun stuff…and more… Watch this space.


8 thoughts on “Write it now: don’t let the self-crit demon torpedo your novel

  1. I wrote today!!! The next piece on my developing manuscript about the outlaw Jesse James.

    Headlines

    We read’em best we could. Well, Jesse read
    them to me. I ain’t no shepherd of letters
    and readin’ seems to me a time waster.
    Kinda like fishin’ in a bucket of sand –

    nothin’ gonna come from it. Besides, like I says,
    Jesse done read me all I needed to know.
    Told me about the musket bangin’ and the stabbin
    and the bleedin’ and the slaves gettin’

    all uppity cuz they all were thinkin’
    North folks was comin’ to spread freedom
    on them like butter. Truth told though,
    slaves wouldn’t know what to do with freedom

    no more than a bullfrog would know what to do
    with a guitar. And who’s gonna lend a bullfrog his guitar?

    1. That’s a wonderful piece – as always, evocative and filled with character. It was Tolkien, I think, who said that great literature had to begin with narrative poetry…and he was right. Thank you for sharing!

  2. I think I need an exorcism. Either that or I’m an amazing writer who just doesn’t realise it😉

    I’m hoping the push to win NaNoWriMo will help. I’m not going to allow myself to edit while I write, sculpting each sentence and every scene until it’s perfect. That’s what gets me bogged down every time. I’ll write first, and let the demon out to play once the first draft is done. At least, that’s the plan.

    1. Sounds like a good plan to me. There’s that old adage – ‘a bad first draft is better than no first draft’. Editing is for later. Good luck with Nano – and all strength to your writing arm!..

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