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Posted, Feb. 9, 2005
Updated, Feb. 9, 2005

QuickLink: A77483

Writing Tool #43: Self-criticism
Go from nice and easy to rough and tough.

By Roy Peter Clark (more by author)
Senior Scholar, Poynter Institute

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Limit self-criticism at the beginning. Turn it loose during revision.


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As I peruse my collection of books on writing, I find they fall into two broad categories. In one box, I find books written mostly by men, works such as "The Elements of Style" and "On Writing Well." These classics by Strunk & White and William Zinsser capture writing as a craft, so they concern themselves with toolboxes and blueprints. In the other box, I find books written more often by women, such as "Bird by Bird" and "Wild Mind." In these works by Anne Lamott and Natalie Goldberg, I'm less likely to find advice on technique than on living a life of language, of seeing a world of stories.

The standards for these great books by women go back at least to the 1930s when Dorothea Brande wrote "Becoming a Writer" (1934) and Brenda Ueland wrote "If You Want to Write" (1938). It is a blessing that both books remain in print, inviting a new generation into the community of writers.

Brande expresses her preference for coffee, a medium-soft lead pencil, and a noiseless portable typewriter. She offers advice on what writers should read and when they should write. Her concerns include meditation, imitation, practice, and recreation. But she is most powerful on the topic of self-criticism. To become a fluent writer, she argues, one must silence the critic early in the process. The critic becomes useful only when enough work has been done to warrant evaluation and revision. Influenced by Freud, she argues that, during the early stages of creation, the writer should write freely, "harnessing the unconscious":

Up to this point it is best to resist the temptation to reread your productions. While you are training yourself into facility in writing and teaching yourself to start writing whenever and wherever opportunity offers, the less you turn a critical eye upon your own material the better -- even for a cursory survey. The excellence or triteness of your writing was not the matter under consideration. But now, turning back to see what it may reveal under a dispassionate survey, you may find those outpourings very enlightening.

Four decades later, another woman writer, Gail Godwin, would cover the same territory in an essay titled "The Watcher at the Gate" (1974). For Godwin, the watcher stands for the "restraining critic who lived inside me," and who appeared in many forms to lock the doors of her creativity.

It is amazing the lengths a Watcher will go to keep you from pursing the flow of your imagination. Watchers are notorious pencil sharpeners, ribbon changers, plant waterers, home repairers and abhorrers of messy rooms or messy pages. They are compulsive looker-uppers. They cultivate self-important eccentricities they think are suitable for "writers." And they'd rather die (and kill your inspiration with them) than risk making a fool of themselves.

Like Brande, Godwin draws her central images from Freud, who quotes Schiller: "In the case of a creative mind…the intellect has withdrawn its watchers from the gates, and the ideas rush in…and only then does it review and inspect the multitude." Schiller chides a friend: "You reject too soon and discriminate too severely."

Brenda Ueland fights the battle against internal and external criticism with the passion of a warrior princess and the zeal of a suffragette. She titles one of her chapters: "Why Women who do too much housework should neglect it for their writing." Her first chapter argues, "Everybody is talented, original and has something important to say."

She notes that "all people who try to write…become anxious, timid, contracted, become perfectionists, so terribly afraid that they may put something down that is not as good as Shakespeare." That is one loud critical voice, one gargantuan watcher.

And so no wonder you don't write and put it off month after month, decade after decade. For when you write, if it is to be any good at all, you must feel free, -- free and not anxious.  The only good teachers for you are those friends who love you, who think you are interesting, or very important, or wonderfully funny; whose attitude is:

"Tell me more. Tell me all you can. I want to understand more about everything you feel and know and all the changes inside and out of you. Let more come out."

And if you have no such friend, -- and you want to write, -- well then you must imagine one.

For Godwin, weapons against the watcher include such things as deadlines, writing fast, writing at odd times, writing when you're tired, writing on cheap paper, writing in surprising forms from which no one expects excellence.

So far, I have emphasized only one side of the equation: the value of silencing the voice of the internal critic early in the process.  You have a right to ask: "But when the voice speaks out during revision, what should I hope she says to me?" She will be a more useful critic, I say immodestly, after exposure to this set of tools. With exposure, the voice might say: "Do you need that adverb?" Or "Is this the place for a gold coin?"  Or "Isn't it time for you to climb down the ladder of abstraction and offer a good example?"

So I end with an important lesson: That the self-conscious application of all this writing advice will paralyze you if you try to apply it too early, or if you misapply it as orthodoxy. Dorothea Brande, Brenda Ueland, Gail Godwin -- these women have the right idea.  There's enough hard critical work to do, and enough criticism to face. So begin with a gift to yourself, maybe that first cup of coffee.

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1. Be more conscious now of those moments when the critical voice starts shouting in your ear.  What is the voice saying?  Make a list of the negative things the voice is likely to say about you.  Now burn the list and flush it down the toilet.

2. Have at least one person in your circle of helpers who praises you without reservation, who is willing to tell you what works in your story, even when you know that so much work remains to be done.  Can you play this role in the life of another writer?

3. Be aware of the moment in the story process when you are ready to call the critical voice on stage.  Make a list of the kinds of questions you'd like the voice to ask you. Consult these writing tools to form the list.

4. Godwin writes that she fools the watcher by disguising the form of the writing. So if she is working on a draft of a short story, she may disguise it in the form of a letter.  The next time you struggle with a story, put a salutation at the top ("Dear Friend") and write a message to your friend about the story. See what happens.

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