How to tame your inner writing critic

July 22, 2015
How do I silence the inner writing critic when I'm working on my thesis?

When writing, it's inevitable that at some point you will hit some kind of block and feel unable to make progress. There are many reasons why this happens, but sometimes it's caused by a sense of doubt about your writing or your research.

Your "inner writing critic" undermines everything, and so many people advise simply turning it off and writing fast without worrying about the end result. Over-thinking is the problem - so the argument goes - so stop thinking!

Now there may be some circumstances where this is a useful exercise, but it has severe limitations which are rarely acknowledged. By turning off the inner critic and "just writing" you can give yourself a short-term boost by producing a lot of words very quickly, but at some point you will have to slow down and think in order to sort out the detail. This is not simply a mater of polishing; it is also ensuring, for example, that the basic assumptions upon which your argument is built are correct and that the internal logic of your argument works. These are not things that can be easily fixed afterwards.

The ability to assess your own work is essential. If your inner critic is stopping you from writing anything at all then this is clearly a problem, but the problem is not that you have an inner critic, but that it is badly trained. Perhaps, then, it is better to think about how to train your inner critic to give useful feedback rather than turning it off completely.

Training the inner critic

1: start small

It is generally easier to practice on a small scale than with a huge piece of writing. I would suggest writing a short section explaining a single concept rather than trying to write thousands of words, because it will be easier to identify specific points to change.

2: be specific

Self-criticism needs to be specific and actionable in order for it to be useful. Saying, "this is all shit" isn't useful. But if you say, "I am unsure about this point", "this sentence is far too long", or "this point is repeated" then you can do something about it.

This is not always easy, so it's important to try to relax and take your time thinking about the problem. If you can't write anything at all, see this post on writer's block.

3: get feedback

If you find it hard to assess your own writing, get feedback from someone else. Again, this is best done with a short section; partly because it means the person you ask doesn't have to read a huge amount, and partly because most people are fairly consistent in their writing style and the mistakes they make.

If your supervisor is unwilling or unavailable then it might be worth finding a professional English tutor (assuming you're writing in English).

Some common problems to look out for

TMI (Too Much Information)

it can be tempting to try to include as much information as possible, in an attempt to show your supervisor or examiner how much you have read and how much you know. This usually results in very long paragraphs where there are several ideas all competing for the reader's attention, with none of them properly developed.

When this happens it's usually better to break the paragraph up and give more space to each individual idea by giving them paragraphs of their own (and also cutting any ideas that don't contribute).

Repetition

In long pieces of writing, it's easy to forget what you have already said (especially if you write fast without thinking, or if you start in the middle and "write around the subject"). Occasionally you may want to refer back to or remind the reader of something you said earlier, but generally you want to avoid repetition.

Take the time to establish each crucial idea upon which your argument relies, then you can move on knowing that the reader knows those ideas.

Lack of structure

The biggest problem I see in PhD students writing is a lack of clear structure. Ideas are introduced in the order the writer thought of them, with no thought given to the sequence of ideas.

For me, this is the most important skill to master. There is no point in crafting beautiful sentences if the reader is lost, so think about how you're going to lead them from one point to another.

Note: signposting does nothing to help the reader if the structure is bad (and it isn't usually necessary if the structure is good)

See these posts on structuring your writing

Academic writing: context is everything

How to write a compelling literature review

Signposting your writing

In conclusion

If you don't know how to assess your own writing, then it seems inevitable that you will be plagued by self-doubt. But if you can read your own work and say, "yes, I think that's OK", or if you can identify and fix problems then you can maintain some sense of control over the process.

I never fully turn off my inner critic when writing, and I slow down if I have a doubt about what I want to say. This causes no problems because my inner critic is well-trained and I know how to fix the problems it identifies, even if it takes some effort. Solving difficult problems of expression is immensely satisfying, and my inner critic is crucial in doing so. In other words, it helps me write well and enjoy the process.

If yours is obstructing, rather than aiding, your writing, the problem is not that you have an inner critic, just that it is badly trained.

Note: some people suffer severe anxiety or panic attacks when they try to write. Training the inner critic won't necessarily solve this as it can be caused by a deeper psychological problem (that I don't have the answers to). If this is the case, it's worth speaking to a qualified psychologist.

See also:
Why some perfectionism is a good thing
The more you write, the harder it gets
On writer's block

By Leonid Pasternak - http://www.art-in-exile.com/forums/photopost/showphoto.php?photo=14639, Public Domain, Link
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