What to do with Your Inner Critic(s)

We're on our last two days of guest posts. I don't know about you, but I've been learning a ton! Today we have Jennifer Bertman, who blogs at From the Mixed-Up Files of Jennifer Bertman. My favorite part of her blog is the weekly photo-interview with writers and illustrators, highlighting their work spaces. Who wouldn't want a peek into a writer's room? She's got a huge list so far. Check it out.

What to do with Your Inner Critic(s) by Jennifer Bertman

Since I last posted I’ve been working on something fun that will be taking place in this spot starting next week. If you’re interested in creative people and hearing more about how they work, especially children’s book writers and illustrators, make sure to check back here on Monday.

I’ve also been chipping away at my revisions. I have to say, one of the biggest challenges in writing for me is stifling that inner critic. Critics plural, really. I imagine them all up there in my brain, squished together on a couch (a large couch, there are a lot of them) watching my creative process like it’s their own personal reality show. Chomping chips and spraying crumbs all over the place as they talk, wet rings from their beverage glasses marking up the furniture. Jumping all over each other’s words to point things out:

“How many times do you think she’ll rewrite that sentence?”
“She’s going with that version? The way she had the sentence two versions ago was way better.”
“Pass the chips, Stan.”
“The screen’s not magic, honey. Staring at it like that doesn’t make the words appear.”
“Could this scene be any more boring? Where’s the tension?”
“Stop hogging the dip, Hilde. And don’t think we didn’t notice that double dip.”
“For pete’s sake! What does the character want? Cheesecake, world peace, give me something here.”
“Maybe the character wants boring dialogue. That’s what they’re getting anyway.”

Like that. They’re a fun bunch, aren’t they? So what do you do with these inner critics. I’ll tell you up front, I don’t have an ironclad solution here. But I’ve gathered this much:

The worst thing to do is let them win. You always have to come back to the writing. You can’t walk away forever. If it matters to you, you have to come back to the writing.

You can try to fight them. Sometimes I argue back. Or I imagine gagging them with a bandana and duct tape and locking them in a mental closet so their chatter becomes more like a mumbling hum of bees. But it can be mentally draining to fight these critics, and eventually they work themselves free and resume their spots on the couch.

You could set up a nice bar and try to appease them with booze. But that road can easily lead to a louder and unruly environment, with the critics coming to blows over your excessive use of adverbs. And it’s pretty much inevitable that someone in the mix will end up being an emotional, crying drunk and someone else will be retching in the toilet. By the time they all pass out you’ll be too exhausted and the stench will be too unbearable to get any writing done.

The thing is, as annoying as they are, there is some benefit to having these critics around. Sometimes they offer something worth listening to. Maybe the dialogue could be sharper or maybe that scene is lacking tension. Maybe you do need to knock it off with the adverbs already. I don’t think the answer is to plow forward stubbornly, ignoring everything they have to say, anymore than it’s to run away.

The key for me has been to learn to work with them. What I know about these inner critics:

1) They want me to succeed. Deep down at least. Because they know if I do, they can claim a part of that. The criticism is their know-it-all way of trying to point me down the path they think will work best.
2) You can never please them all. You will never write something that every single one is excited about or interested in. (Especially Stan and Hilde. Those two never agree on anything.)

So I continue to chip away and try my best to tune out my mental characters and tune in my novel characters. Occasionally I have to shout at them to pipe down, or they bait me into an argument. I might stuff them in a closet so I can finally get some peace and quiet. Often times it’s in the peace and quiet that their words resonate most. The relevant ones rise to the top and I might even get excited as I see their point and understand how I can improve a scene. And crazily enough, if the peace and quiet lingers too long, I might even start to miss their constant chatter and bickering. Ring marks, crumbs, and all.

Jennifer Bertram has worked in various aspects of publishing, including interning for YM magazine, reading slush for a literary agent, and most recently being the managing editor for the SCBWI's regional magazine, Kite Tales. She's currently revising her middle grade mystery.

How do you lock up your inner editor? Or have you learned to live with them?


  1. I really have a hard time silencing my inner critic. Sometimes I write in the dark, and that helps, or I type with my eyes closed.


  2. The inner critic is the worst but often time right. Following my gut sometimes makes the difference in listening to the inner critic and knowing when to shut it out. If the gut says it's good, then I can leave the critic at the door. If the gut says it really isn't quite right, then I revise again and again.

  3. That's a great perspective, Terri!


  4. I actually don't have inner critics like that - not while I'm in the process of writing, at least. I think that's why I end up rewriting a great deal!

    They tend to jump out after the work is complete, and even then, only a few months after, when the work has been left alone for a long, long time...

    When they do jump out, I tend to listen (except if they're just being mean, you know the ones - "This sucks, you're never going to sell it" type critics. I have plenty of those!).

  5. So that's part of your secret! Keeping the editor at bay. I wish I had that kind of tenacity. :)


  6. I have a love-hate relationship with my inner critic. As Jennifer mentioned, I believe my inner critic has my best interest at heart. That belief lessens the sting of said critic's slings and arrows.

    The hate part is obvious--who wants his or her work slammed to any degree? It's tough not to wrap up some portion of your self-worth with your work-product.

    When my inner critic's voice drowns out my own, I hand over my work to someone I trust for assessment. Jennifer's words ring true for me: No matter what, "[i]f it matters to you, you have to come back to the writing."

    Great post.

  7. Having someone you trust is a key point. Great wisdom, Janette!

  8. Thanks for sharing this post, Debbie! I've been enjoying all your guest posts--what a great idea.

  9. You're welcome, Jenn. I'm enjoying your series on YA!




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