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How to keep writing when your inner critic screams

Picture-20-500x303, www.funnytypos.comThis post is dedicated to all writers participating in NANOWRIMO. I hope you find this technique as liberating as I have. Good luck in November.

 

We all know that moment, we are typing merrily away, words tumbling from our fingers and flying on to the page, then it happens.

Maybe it is a word, not quite right, too long, too simple, too obscure. You don’t know what exactly is wrong. However, its wrong and it’s wrong on your page.

Maybe it’s the grammar, something clunky about the sentence, perhaps the subject or the verb, maybe the tense or simply the spelling. So now if you just…

What happens next is that we drop into edit mode, your inner critic takes over and all the creative flow drains away whilst we correct, fiddle, adjust, rearrange, and agonise over word choice. The wonderful creativity has dried up and it can be many minutes before it again comes back on stream.

Time and time again I see the same sage advice telling us that when we are in full creative flow we should ignore spelling, grammar, style errors and instead concentrate on getting the story down, to let the words pour out of us. That the time to correct these things is later, not now. To do it when the fantastic creative rush is over, to correct when we are wearing a different hat, the hat of an editor.

Can I follow that advice? When I see red squiggles two lines up or maybe “the the” just above my cursor, can I leave them alone? What about the worse situation when the current word is just plain wrong, do I plough on and leave it alone? And what should I do when a plot hole opens up beneath my character, making nonsense of my entire scene?

Can I follow that advice? No I can’t.

My inner critic screams and I drop into editor mode and fiddle. I can’t stop myself, it needs to be fixed and in so doing I murder my writing speed and slaughter my creative sibling previously occupying my mind.

However, there is a neat trick that I have learned, one that can fence off your inner critic and stop him/her from jumping in and destroying your creative flow. This trick revolves around two things. The first is;

  • Give yourself permission, via bargaining, to edit it later.

And the second is;

  • Guarantee that promise with a promissory, in this case the hash symbol #.

It works like this; when you hit a point where the inner critic jumps up and demands a correction or improvement, strike a bargain with him/her and agree to make that particular correction later. To prove your sincerity mark the offending word with a hash mark. Here is an example;

Magnus watched the Roman legions and waited for the officer as he climbed…

but “officer” is wrong in this historical context and so your inner critic screams.
Now bargain with him/her, promise to research it later and mark the word like this;

Magnus watched the Roman legions and waited for the officer# as he climbed…

Your critic will be happy that the correction is marked and therefore “in progress”, so he/she leaves you alone and allows you to write about the evil treachery that Marcus is about to perform.

Yes, it is a trick but it is a trick that works, by giving your brain this promissory token of the hash marked word, your internal critic becomes placated and allows your creative mind to continue to work uninterrupted. Then when eventually you don the editor’s hat, the text search tool instantly finds all instances of “#” in your work, and so it is easy and quick to find and fix the marked problems. Additionally since you are now in full editor mode the quality of your corrections will be far higher.

The hash mark doesn’t stop at being useful with word choice, earlier I mentioned the appearance of sudden plot holes. Maybe your protagonist now needs to fly a plane and this skill has never been mentioned before this point. Just pop down a hash mark and a note e.g.

#note; Foreshadow Reginald’s flying skills in early chapters.”

This enables you to carry on and write about Reginald’s daring escape, and allows you to completely forget the issue until it resurfaces whilst searching for hash marks whilst editing.

The unknown is another place the hash mark can be useful. Suppose your heroine has performed one heroic feat and she is about to perform a second related one in a different location. Unfortunately for you, at the moment you haven’t a clue on how she will get to the next location but you do know all about and do want to write all about, the next heroic feat at the second location. To stop the drudgery of writing the necessary linking prose from destroying your creativity, then put it on hold by using a hash mark. For example;

#note; Lots of trouble travelling to location two, make sure she arrives extremely tired and minus her weapons.”

Now the hash mark will flag it during each edit until you are ready to write it. There is no longer a need to rush writing it because there is now a little hash mark secretary, one who will during editing searches, tap repeatedly on your shoulder until the right words arrive.

Whether it is dates, spelling, points of grammar, statistics, names, word choice, sizes, seasons, etc. Whenever something starts to break your writing flow, simply pop down a hash mark and promise your critical inner sibling “we will come back to that later” and carry on.

 

 

Photo credit: Picture-20-500×303 www.funnytypos.com, by not-stated.
T
How to keep writing when your inner critic screams” by Andy Shackcloth is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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45 comments to How to keep writing when your inner critic screams

  • [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Andy Shackcloth, Mari L. McCarthy. Mari L. McCarthy said: Write-ON Andy! http://fb.me/wbL4LMlg [...]

  • This is really useless advice! Inner critic is very bossy but will try the hashtag trick and see if it placates. Thanks. :)

  • This is an absolutely brilliant idea and I shall be putting it into practice today! Using the hashtag is much better than going into italics, or highlighting. Thanks!

  • Ita Roche

    Fantastic – I needed this so badly. I use to stop and insert comment when something missing in plot etc registered but that left me going down another road and messed up the flow I was in.Love the # for mistakes – going to use that all the time now as I found it impossible to shut the critique up. Fantastic post – thanks for sharing it.

  • [...] I read a great post this morning on how to silence your inner critic (thanks to Andy Shack). Excellent advice for anyone doing NaNo: (hint) I shall be using a lot of [...]

  • Love the hashmark idea. But I’d also suggest you turn off the nasty red squiggles. I used to be the ultimate perfectionist. NaNoWriMo went a long way toward a cure. I’m still struggling, but now I can catch myself hunting for the right word or trying to figure out how to improve a sentence, and just go on writing.

  • Hi everyone, thanks for taking the time to comment.

    Marisa, that’s fair, my wife is always saying that I’m full of useless ideas :)

    If I may just add: In some of these comments and RTs on Twitter people have been adding in ‘how to stop’ or ‘to silence’ your inner critic. Well…. that’s not exactly… how it seems to work.

    For me it has developed into a partnership with my critical other half, he screams, I pop down a #. We kinda work as a team, creative bit first followed by the analytical bit later. I can’t shut him up but I can work with him if he agrees to work with me.

    I know it sounds schizo but it works for me so I don’t care if it makes me come across as loony-tunes

  • Christine Carmichael

    Wow.

    Where have you been all my life? I have been in internal critic hell. Got all wound up and determined to get it ‘right’. Lost my voice, lost the plot and lost my mind.

    The thing is, our internal critic is there for a reason, to keep us safe. However, as you say Shack, if we can acknowledge its participation in our endeavours and say thank you, it might just take a back seat.

    What a great, simple idea. Another one is to turn off Word edit settings because they pull you out of the story too.

    If I may, I will share you with my critique group.

    Thank you.
    Christine

  • Hi Cristine, I would be so pleased if you shared it with everyone who might benefit.

    This has been of such benefit to me that I get a bit evangelical about it. (In a loony-tunes sort of way.)

    I use it when I am working in my journal using old fashioned ball point, it works just the same and when I transcribe I honour the # marks and copy them across as well.

    When you do your first edit and take loads of them out, would you please let me know how you felt afterwards. I’ll not say anymore but would love to know how it affected you.

    • Christine Carmichael

      Shack,

      It’s been a while since I replied because I’ve just submitted a full MS and have four other works in the pipeline.

      I can’t tell you how amazing using the # key has been, particularly during the discovery draft. It’s the weirdest thing – it seems to give the editing part of my brain permission to shut-up. I use the editing tools on word and go on a search and destroy mission. They pop-up – sometimes I’ve added a note to the # or a remark, but mostly it’s because I want to think about another word or phrase.

      Like you, I’ve become evangelical about it and other writers, especially newbies, are incredibly grateful.

      Who would have thought something so simple would be so freeing – does that make sense?

      Many thanks again.
      Christine

      • Hi Christine,

        Thanks for coming back and explaining how “freeing” it made you. I noticed that since you honoured your bargain with your critical self, she honoured the agreement with you. Yeah, I know it sounds daft but my and it would appear your brain works that way. Then when they stop (creative and critical selves) elbowing each other in the ribs, you become free to just let the ideas out.

        OK, end of evangelical gushing.

        I am so very, very pleased that you are also sharing this. Thanks for that, sharing is also important.

        Wishing you every success
        Andy (Shack)

  • DOT

    Interesting trick which I will certainly try. However, I wonder to what extent the inner critic screams louder when you type on a computer as it is so easy to delete, insert, and amend than if you write by hand. I usually scribble by hand when I start a piece, and because my writing, when stimulated by an idea, is so awful and my spelling collapses and my grammar shuts its eyes and wishes it were elsewhere, I don’t care how badly the text reads so long as I am getting my thoughts out. After that I transfer it to screen and tidy it up. But the hash thought will still come in useful at this stage – so thanks.

  • Great idea–using hashtag which is also searchable. I’d probably use it before the word just for consistency. But love the idea. Thanks.

  • I had been marking those troublesome spots with italics to keep writing, but I like the idea of using the hash mark so I can search it. I have also made comments using the comment feature, but I’ve found that comments also have limits and also aren’t searchable.

    I’ve gotten myself into a pickle with my manuscript. I have a very poor memory, so I have to write things down as I go. Sometimes I’ll make a comment about something that has to happen either much earlier or much later in the novel, but rather than find those spots and blow my writing time, I’ll make the comment wherever I am at the moment.

    I have several months worth of those comments piling up, and it took me two hours last night cutting and pasting to put them where they belong. I’m hoping the hash mark thing will go faster.

  • Hi Dot, You are right about the hash still working at the later stage. If I’m so blocked on something that when I return I still can’t get it right, rather than wasting ages agonising over it I just leave the hash in place and move on to where I can be creative. With each pass through the problem has more fresh thoughts thrown at it until it yields.

    Hi Gale, Consistent is good, although I will admit to just swearing and dropping one on the end of a half typed word. Have also dropped the odd silly at times i.e. “#really, really, really don’t like this bit#” my version of throwing my toys out of the pram.

    Hi Scooter, I doubt if it will help with the cutting and pasting time but as for finding them it will be a breeze. You might like to consider a extra trick for that misplaced note.
    If when you need to drop a note about some other-place issue at the current location, use a modified hash eg. “#’” (I only use the apostropy because it is next to the # and doesn’t require a shift press). Then when you are searching, looking for a #’ will take you to items that need to move without also finding every spelling, bad word, phrasing or toy out of the pram moment.

  • kath

    Great advice! I do something similar – when I know I need to add a scene etc I WRITE IT IN CAPITALS – ADD BIT HERE ABOUT HOW FLO GETS FROM A TO B – which is a great eye catcher when returning to the document later. But I love the hashtag idea for bits you’ve written but don’t like. Trouble is, sometimes that applies to my entire chapter….

  • Thanks for the suggestions! It’ll be a while before I get all of the edits sorted out.

  • Genius! Genius! Genius!! I am adopting this *today*!! I usually use caps, like Kath (above) mentioned – PLACE and NAME, and NAME2, for instance. but this hashtag idea is pure genius.

    Thank you! Deadlines loom and this is exactly what I needed to shut that critic up!

    Julie

  • [...] all those doing Nanowrimo, I stumbled across a useful technique for turning off your inner critic today. Last year, I used highlighting instead of the suggested hash symbol # to mark places I [...]

  • Ooh, this sounds good. Will try it today!

  • Great idea thank you. In the recesses of my mind I recall using a hash or italic, but only because I ran out of time I think – it makes good sense to feed the editor to take the edge off wanting to make changes or get text perfect, so the creative energy can flow freely. I can almost pin point the times Ive opened a document to get on with the business of writing, then been drawn in straight away to nitpick the words on the page or grasp for the perfect sentence instead of giving permission to just go with the flow. Thank you.

    I think “Marisa” above meant useful not useless, because she has put a smiley on the end of the page. Surely someone isnt going to criticise free advice, its so rear to find advice without a price tag swinging from it – so thank you.

  • Wonderful. Thank you. I tried this last year with notes to self scattered all throughout my book, and it worked pretty well. I’m sure the hash mark will make them stand out better, and is a great way to mark offending words as well.

  • Oh, thanks everyone for taking the time to comment and say thanks. I would have liked to respond to everyone personally but… so I will just say thanks again.

    Nicole, Yes I think that was Marisa’s intention, I certainly took it as ironic wit, where as my wife’s comments are simple observations. ;)

  • [...] I stumbled upon this lovely little article with a suggestion that I think is incredibly fantastic, and I wonder why in the world I’ve [...]

  • [...] to 50,000 words last November when I took part in NaNoWriMo and so it’s fitting that I found this post today (dedicated to all writers taking part in NaNoWriMo this year starting in a couple of weeks). [...]

  • [...] How to Keep Writing When Your Inner Critic Screams – I don’t know about you, but I deal with this issue on a regular basis. Whether [...]

  • I agree 100%! Write, write and write. When finished then go back and fix everything. Go ahead, over use those words, cliches, etc. It all can be fixed in editing. Stopping because something doesn’t feel right or sound right will only interrupt the flow.

  • This is freaking brilliant!

    Normally, I put things in ALL CAPS when I mean to come back to them, but I have ot search for them manually come edit time. Never been a better use of hash -er- #.

    Thanksies!

  • This seems like something that will help me. redrafting right now I’ll see how it (#) works since I run into this editor’s mode constntly.

  • Denise, very good point about those cliches, trying to find an alternative is often the creative flow equivalent of driving into a brick wall. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

    Claire, Samuel, so glad that you both liked the technique, hope it works as well for you as it has done for me.

    Don’t forget to tell a friend about using the # in this way. Even if it didn’t work for you it might make all the difference to them.

  • I am embarking on NaNoWriMo for the first time. Your tip is very valuable, I was wondering how I would be able to ignore Nissi Peters the other me. She is such a perfectionist, I am a free spirit. :)

    Thank you for the tip. Another friend recommends highlight, but it is not working for me with my other wip. I will definitely try this method.

  • Hi Glynis, I also have tried highlighting and font changes but for me the act of going back to do the highlighting is often enough to switch on the editing mode.

    Another limitation of highlighting is when I am away from the keyboard and working in my journal. Hash still works there and if the edit point is really important then I drop a hash in the text and another one in the margin, just so it is easy to locate when reviewing the journal entries.

    Good luck with NaNoWriMo, may your time Gremlins play elsewhere that month.

  • Whoa… nice. I’m definitely using that.

    Thank you sir!

    -bn

  • [...] check a fact. That can be lethal, it can stop me for days sometimes. I’ve recently come upon good advice for dealing with this problem that I look forward to trying, but so far my perfectionist streak has [...]

  • Louise Kelly

    Hurrah! just what I need. I find myself constantly stopping to worry about such things. Am nanowrimo-ing this month and as I’m writing something historical it might just save my bacon. Thanks.

  • freemount

    I can think of a few times last night when this would have done the trick. (I was three-quarters the way through a thrilling car chase when “…Hammering the accelerator he REALIZED THAT HE DOES NOT DRIVE. CRAP.”)

    I think I require one additional piece to silence the IE, though, and that is not just promised time to edit, but imminent editing time. I think the plan will be to promise myself my lunch hour the next day to fix these errors and misjudgments (as I did today). In the process, I find I’m expanding on what I wrote, the prose is much improved, and I’m happier to move on to the coming scenes tonight! Without having fixed them, I’m not sure I would be, though I realize that not everyone will be able to make that compromise (and I may not be able to all month, either).

  • Thanks Louise. If it saves your bacon remember to pass the tip along to another needy scribbler.

    Freemount hi. Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely. If you don’t keep your promises then why would your critical self continue to believe you.

    You have touched on another point that I was eluding to with Christine back on Oct 6th. The request I made of her was “after you have gone back and done a serious editing session and cleared loads of # marks, how did you feel?”

    As with you I find I am happier, my head is clear, I am comfortable with my prose and my creativity expands dramatically. It’s like my creative and critical self are in tune. It’s a good feeling.

    To All; Good luck throughout November

    • Christine Carmichael

      LOL!

      I’ve just replied to this earlier, I meant to say that I’d lost your link and then found you again when I was listing sites I visit.

      I’ve just been blogging about using the # key to a bunch of romance writers in the U.S.A during their creative process and they’re over the moon. It certainly expands my creative process. So I’m delighted to have found you again! AND been able to reply and say what a fabulous and freeing little key the # is, especially during edits, nothing is missed.

      Thank you again Shack.

      • Christine

        Would you mind putting up the link to the bog post you are referring to? I for one would love to read it and you may have a different viewpoint that I and the readers of this blog may benefit from.

        Thanks
        Andy (Shack)

  • nabi

    This is helping me so much but I’ve also heard that inline notes don’t count towards your final word count.

  • The hash mark is a great idea, I’m sure that many of us that read your blog are helped by your tips.

  • [...] Here’s a lovely little article which shows you how to stop that happening.  It’s a very clever and ridiculously simple technique and I can tell already that it’s going to work for me.  I hope it works for you too. Go and read it, but don’t forget to come back. [...]

  • Thanks for this suggestion of the hashtag. Love that it’s an easy searchable symbol for the next go around. Much appreciated!!

  • Thank you SO much for this. My inner critic is so annoying, I think I can finally get her to shut up.