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I write non-fiction articles for my website and a weekly paid newsletter, and I’m doing that for some time now. However, I still struggle a lot with self-criticism, and find it hard to regard an article as “good”, let alone something I’m proud of. Rationally, I know that I am competent at writing, and often I look forward to writing something. So, I'm motivated to write, and procrastination isn't a very big issue.

However, as soon as I sit down to actually write something, I discard a lot of ideas as “not good enough". When I do start writing, I criticize my own article, which more often than not results in not finishing it or not publicizing it. This greatly limits my productive output, and more important, my joy in writing.

I did a search on this site for self-criticism and perfectionism, and found little to no answers. I don’t think I’m the only (article) writer who struggles with this, so I can’t imagine how tough writing a complete novel would be.

So my question is: how do you deal with self-criticism? And how do you prevent perfectionism limiting your productive output and joy in writing? I know the obvious answer would be ‘just write’, but I find that just writing something is often not sufficient (but perhaps I'm wrong in that assumption).

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14 Answers 14

"Just write" is the first part of your answer. You have to kick your personal editor out of your head while writing. He is silencing your voice of creativity, so silence him! You need him after you have written everything down, not before and not while you are writing.

The second part is: find other critics. Not your friends, not your family. People who tell you the truth! You will hate them for telling you the truth and you will trust them for doing it. Then you've found a much better indicator for the quality of your writing.

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Thanks for your comment John. Silencing my personal editor would make a huge difference. I really liked your suggestion to find other critics for an honest and more better indicator of my writing skills. Thanks! –  Jura25 Dec 11 '10 at 11:57
    
Why would you hate them for telling the truth of "this is great!"? Or do you expect them never to say that? Huh? If so, forget writing. If not, then why should I expect to hate what they tell me? –  Jürgen A. Erhard Dec 11 '10 at 17:27
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@jae: If they are worth their "money", then they will tell you how bad your writing is. They will point shamelessly and brutally to your weaknesses. You will not like it. But this is the most valuable critique you can get. If you know your weaknesses, you can eliminate them. If you want someone to say "This is great", ask your Mom. I promise you, it will not be helpful improving your writing. If you want these critics to say "This is great", you have a long way to go and you will hate them for that. –  John Smithers Dec 11 '10 at 18:04
    
"One size does not fit all". And anything more just gets my blood to boil, so I'll leave it at that... since "brutally" speaks volumes. Volumes that tell me that discussion is probably futile. Thanks for replying anyway. –  Jürgen A. Erhard Dec 11 '10 at 18:35
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I agree absolutely with the suggestion to find other critics. Your friends and family are more likely to say they love your work, mainly because they love you. I use a select few beta readers who I respect because they won't hesitate to tell me that the steaming pile that smells was what I wrote! –  Steven Drennon Jul 22 '11 at 5:01
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Check out Overcoming Writer's Block. It's hard as hell, but you have to push past it and keep writing. You've got be prepared to let your first draft suck. Finish it, and then edit it. Maybe leave yourself little notes as you work through it: "This sucks, but I'll fix it in the redraft", and keep going. Whatever you do, keep going.

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Thanks for the link Stephen, great article. I especially liked the part of taking yourself too seriously. I can't say that's something I don't recognize in myself. ;) Thanks for responding! –  Jura25 Dec 12 '10 at 10:36
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Have you ever looked back over your old writing? With a positive look?

I caught myself going "This is a great turn of phrase" in some old email and then realized that email was mine!

So... go back over your previous stuff and try to find the good bits. Don't dwell too much on the bad bits (you won't, very likely, be able to totally ignore it, natch).

Self-criticism isn't bad per se. Being hindered, nay, paralyzed by self-criticism, that's bad.

It's also the bane of all perfectionists... but being a perfectionist is good. Just being paralyzed is bad.

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Haha, great that it turned out to be your own email Jae! :) Well, if I look back at my old writing, I still have a nagging feeling that it can (read: should) be better. Though, I have to admit I also see good parts. Thanks for providing some perspective! –  Jura25 Dec 12 '10 at 10:40
    
Oh, I do see absolutely abysmal crap too. Like multiple exclamation marks. In writing that isn't even that old. Or... an overuse of... ellipses ;-) I'm just convinced that it's important to see both, the bad and the good. –  Jürgen A. Erhard Dec 12 '10 at 13:37
    
Ah... what I wanted to express is simple: if you have a problem with A, work on it. Anyone disagree? No? Now, if A is "seeing what I do well", then work on that. In time, you'll get better at that, and something else will start to be a bigger problem, so you work on that. Repeat til death. –  Jürgen A. Erhard Dec 12 '10 at 13:45
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To give a more philosophical point of view, your opinion of your own work as a whole really doesn't matter. Finding out what you're doing relatively better and worse is important, as is having some way of knowing whether you're improving or not. Write, and let other people decide how good it is.

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Good point David (and thanks for responding), do you have some suggestion as to how to measure whether or not there is improvement? –  Jura25 Dec 12 '10 at 10:33
    
fully agree ('s why I +1'd yesterday) Though... I'd like to emphasize "your opinion ". You still need to get a feeling, an eye, for what is good and what is bad yourself, since you can't ask someone else for each and every paragraph. ;-) –  Jürgen A. Erhard Dec 12 '10 at 13:42
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There is a wonderful book by Dorothea Brande called Becoming A Writer, published in 1934, but still widely read today and often cited. In it Brande talks about developing two selves for the writer, a split personality, with one self being a creative, sensitive and artistic person and the other being a detail-obsessed sharp minded editor. The two personalities are both needed for a good work, but they should never meet and you should be able to turn them on and off at will.

I think this applies here. You need to turn off the Creative, Artistic side and whip out Spock the Editor when dealing with criticism. Then, when it is time for more first drafts and creativity, bring out the Artist again and send Spock back to his closet.

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anything done in excess is normally deemed an obsession. Regardless of what the quality of your writing is, you're clearly obsessed with the standard of your work. Perhaps you should just write the articles with the notion that bad work doesnt get published?

Some of the other commentators on this page have suggested getting others, with an objective outlook, to review your work. That's probably the best advice, too. Maybe sent it to people who are au fait with the world of writing, and who can shine light on your literary Pungent.

As for sharpening your skill and success as a writer, there is only two things you can do: read and write. You cannot expect to be a good writer if you dont expend an impressive amount of time reading. Regardless of the material you're reading, just make sure you always haave a book in hand.. The same can be said about writing. Carry on practicing at every given opportunity. It really is that simple.

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I was wondering about this a couple of weeks ago. I am bogged down in a story and self-doubt was overwhelming me. How terrible the story was, how boring it was in places, &etc. I think most of us know the drill.

I got the idea to write down the snarkiest possible review of the story. Absolutely vicious and truthful. Just doing that helped, but a little while later I eventually came up with a great comeback. It had me laughing for a while.

And it made me feel so much better. Oddly, it has lasted for quite some time, it seems to have quieted the demons for a while, I doubt they are gone forever but I'll take it one day at a time.

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Sometimes the best advice for writing is: do more research.

That might mean reading more books, interviewing more people, taking more classes, or engaging with different points of view. Debate. Argue (in writing) the big points and the little points. The hallmark of good writing (fiction or non-fiction) is clarity. Clarity comes from knowing your subject; knowing what's essential and what isn't.

In fiction, clarity comes from plot and character development. In non-fiction, clarity comes from detailed research. In either case, flaws are often a result of not doing enough work to get at the essentials. Style is great, but style can't save a bad plot, animate dull characters, resolve contradictions, or turn a bad argument into a good one.

If your subject changes regularly (as in journalism), then you need to know everything about why you've chosen that subject. What's essential about that story that you decided to tell it now?

Gain confidence in your knowledge of the material and you should gain confidence in your ability to express your ideas.

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"Sometimes the best advice for writing is: do more research." This is almost always toxic to me. Doing research is easier than writing. And there's never enough research. So effectively that's just listening to one's inner critic and doing other things than writing. –  Lukas Stejskal Jul 19 '11 at 11:15
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If you use research as an excuse to avoid writing, stop doing that. If you think research is easier than writing, you're probably not doing very thorough research. The adage, "write what you know" works just well flipped, "know what you write." –  patrick Jul 22 '11 at 2:53
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I'm speaking in context of the question: "How to deal with self-criticism? And how do you prevent perfectionism to limit your productive output and joy in writing?" I agree that you should "know what you write", but "do more research" is a bad advice to someone struggling with self-criticism and perfectionism while writing, for the reasons I wrote above. –  Lukas Stejskal Jul 22 '11 at 10:04
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All the other answers are good and practical, but in a way they might be missing the most critical (pardon the pun) part. Writing is a very personal thing that exposes aspects of who you are (and of who you think you are - which may be quite different.)

One approach to this might be to do some journaling. Ask yourself questions like the following ones and write whatever comes to mind. The first few "answers" to each will probably be logical and rational, but the "real", deeper answers may come after you acknowledge the first ones, let them go, and see what else is there.

If my work (any kind of work) isn't good enough, what do I think will happen?

When my work wasn't good enough in the past (especially during childhood), how did people important to me respond to it? Did they judge me and not just my work?

Did I feel like I wasn't "good enough" as a person to deserve love and care if my work wasn't good enough?

Did people tell me that bad things would happen to me if I wasn't good enough?

What would people think of me?

How would that make me feel?

Almost no piece of writing (or almost anything else we do) is beyond improvement, so how "good" is "good enough"? Is it ever good enough?

Almost no piece of writing will be liked by everyone. How important is it to me that I feel my work is good? How important is it that other people approve of my work?

Obviously, if writing is part of earning your living, you do need some approval from others, but when you're in the writing process, the approval you need the most is from yourself and from all the other voices from the past that are still in your head repeating the judgments and limitations of the past.

Sometimes, just writing all of this down and seeing it on paper (or on the computer screen) will be enough to release old feelings of limitation or judgment. Sometimes, further work will be needed.

If you have a "spiritual" bent to your personality, then meditating, praying, or giving the results of your work to a higher power and trusting that the best outcome will occur can really free up your energy and creativity while relaxing you at the same time.

This is a big topic and has been the subject of many books, so please understand that what is presented here is just an invitation to look further.

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Self criticism is a really good tool which knocks consciousness into your work. An editorial which is reviewed before publishing time and time again and is chiseled into finesse by the insecurity of obsession with quality, always radiates a certain level of textural finish which is completely absent if the skeptical operation is not performed on it. But, what you need to keep in mind is that criticism is like the icing on the cake. You need to bake the base first. If you think of criticizing an article without having first drafted it, it isn't criticism at all, it's apprehensiveness and its a really wasteful inhibition. Do not confuse apprehensiveness with criticism.

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I am currently having the same problem in the writing of my novel's first draft. Like many writers, I have an inner critic that is always hovering over my shoulder, whispering--sometimes shouting--about all the cleaning up the trash heap will need. and I find myself sinking in my chair; banging my head into my desk; deleting, deleting, deleting; stressing; etc.

Here's the thing, I keep telling myself to quit stressing over how utterly hideous the writing is, to ignore the cynical voice, and just focus on getting the ideas down on paper. Then shift through those many pages and erase the bad ideas. Work it out later. Make it beautiful later.

My problem--and perhaps yours, too--was I never listened to myself. That all changed when I read an article (if I could remember where, I'd cite it) a few days back on how to deal with this. It was a simple enough 'solution': Write a big, bold note to yourself and place it where you can see it when ever you're writing.

Mine literally says:

Quit being a detail obsessed idiot and just WRITE. The first draft is meant to be blunt and awful and ugly; its purpose is to simply get your ideas down on paper. BLUNTNESS IS YOUR FRIEND! And realizing so is your best weapon against sulking about how horrible your work is.

Ha, ha. Funny (a bit insulting) and yet effective.

To my utter surprise, I wrote a whole chapter in one day. Accomplishing that feat gave me a confidence boost I desperately needed. (despite the fact that I know what I put down on paper is the worse I've ever done--all the easier to replace later, yes?)

Another great tip I received was Don't read anything back until you are finished with the first draft in whole. If you can't fight the urge to read back, turn off the computer's back light or temporarily turn the font color the same as the background, therefore making it impossible to sneak peeks without a lot of effort.

Only then can you release that inner critic and tear it to shreds. That little monster will be your best friend through the process of rewriting.

I hope this helps you as much as it did me.

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>That little monster will be your best friend through the process of rewriting. - Honestly, no, it's a little bit more complicated, depending on what you rewrite and how. The critic is not your creative voice. If you need your creative voice, silence the critic, no matter if rewriting or not. Keep in mind that many successful writers say, that rewriting is a terrible waste of time. Maybe that's true for you too, maybe not. –  John Smithers Jul 9 '12 at 8:45
    
@JohnSmithers let me clarify, I know the critic is not the creative voice, far from it, the critic is what is constantly policing the creative voice. what I meant was when you are rewriting, that critic will help you remove the truly bad ideas. Of course, even though I've been writing for almost four years, I'm still a pretty young writer who have a lot to learn; so I might be completely wrong. –  FearlessWriter Jul 9 '12 at 20:08
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I'm also working on a weekly publication, and struggle with a lot of the same feelings. I think that rather than trying to address the problem head-on, what has worked for me is to have a fairly strict but reasonable writing schedule that I stick to every day. Following the Seinfeld productivity method, I got myself a giant year calendar and mark the calendar for every day I sit down to do two hours of sustained writing work.

I find that working in small chunks but doing my work every day limits the amount of time my brain spends in self-judgement mode, and that it also puts a cool down period in place so that if I do start tellign myself a piece of work isn't good enough, some time passes before I look at it again, and that helps a lot.

I'll admit, this doesn't eliminate my perfectionism, it just spreads it out a little more evenly and prevents it from totally freezing me up. Also, shifting the balance from "did I write well today?" to "did I sit down and do my work today?

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I sense in your question, as well as the other answers, a common theme that I shall take an opposite stance on. I’ll convey it as an example using myself because I recognize (perhaps incorrectly) similar struggles to my own. When I first got into writing (about six years ago), the writing just poured out of me. Screenwriting is my thing and back then I could write 4 scenes a day. At that pace, I could finish a draft in 2-3 weeks. When I finished a draft, I felt like a god.

Over time, I wrote more scripts. I read books on screenwriting, took classes, joined writers groups, and kept on writing, but a funny thing started to happen. As my skill and understanding improved, my writing began to slow down. I would become stuck, blocked, stymied. I’d set something down and not write again for months. I couldn’t complete a sentence without minor flaws overwhelming me. Worst of all, the pleasure of writing, the fun, just wasn’t there. The fear that my writing was crap, began to haunt me.

Throwing caution to the wind, I started a new story who’s premise I specifically designed to be the opposite of every other thing I ever wrote. I completed the first draft effortlessly and the story felt great. I showed it to people and they loved it. Then came the second draft and everything ground to a halt again.

It took forever to finish a small piece and I struggled the whole time. Finally, I shared it with a writer friend, not because I thought it was good, but out of desperation. As he struggled to explain why he didn’t like it, a realization hit me like a ton of bricks. The whole 2nd draft sucked - fundamentally the wrong approach for the story. It wasn't a little off, it was WAY off. The solution: throw it out, start over; no editing, no tweaking, no salvaging. My gut (my inner critic) was screaming at me, but I wasn’t listening.

If I could magically help the world of writing, I’d replace the term with ‘rewriting’ and similarly exchange ‘1st draft’ for ‘prototype.’ I’ve belonged to two writer’s groups now, worked with many other amateur writers and I’d say four out of five struggle to commit to rewriting, instead producing successive drafts increasingly over-edited and under-written.

I think I’m in a middle stage in my writing development. My early work sucked, but I didn’t care because I was clueless. I didn't even have an inner critic. Years later, my gut can’t tell me what’s good while I’m writing, but it can tell me when something sucks. So I can write well only if I commit to rewriting as apposed to the numerous ‘salvage operations’ I was running on bad writing. My answer to your question, “How do I deal with self criticism?” the inner self critic? More and more, I try to listen. When it all feels wrong, I take it as a sign that it is wrong and I start over. I rewrite instead of editing.

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One of the things that a regular or consistent publishing schedule means is that not every piece of work you produce for it will be as good as each other, or even the last one. Sometimes, you will send, and have published, a duffer.

Hopefully, you will get some feedback on them, to indicate the areas that others feel do not quite hit the mark. It will help you to focus your inner critic on these areas especially.

The other thing to bear in mind is that you are not trying to write a classic masterpiece. Use the writing you can do to hone and mold your skill. Don't ask "is this perfect/brilliant" or whatever you do, turn it round and ask "does this have a good idea in it?". If so it is worth pursuing ( and if not, then chuck it and try something else ). For an early draft, that is sufficient - on later drafts, you need to then ask "is this being clearly expressed?" - and work towards that. Maybe, at a final stage, ask "does this work as a whole?"

If you ask different questions at different stages, you might find yourself able to silence the wrong questions at the wrong times, knowing that they will be addressed later. And once you have a core "good idea" down, you will know that it is worth cleaning up.

Finally, if you have a good idea, even if written appallingly, some people will get it.

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