One of the frustrating points for me are discussions about overcoming critical voice don’t talk much about identifying how it shows up. Borrowing from the day job, one of the most important parts of solving any problem is identifying exactly what the problem is.
You can’t tackle critical voice until you identify its presence.
Of course, once you identify one place it’s coming in, it pivots and tries something else. Then it gets sneaky as you get smarter about it. These are the places I’ve run into it, some with me, all of it with other writers.
This first batch are the common ones. Once I started digging into critical voice, it surprised me how it can work its way into the story. I was also surprised at how many of these connect to other forms of critical voice. It truly breeds if it gets a foothold.
Let’s dive in!
Negativity can show up in a lot of ways, some as obvious as “writing is torture” to “I’ll bang out a draft.” It’s pretty much anything that puts down your writing. In an article in a magazine, the author referred to “churning out” a draft.
Think about the image that brings up. You’re paddling in deep waters, feet churning, trying to stay afloat.
Most writing memes bouncing about Facebook and Twitter play up on all this negativity. A pie chart showing the time writing (tiny) and surfing the internet (big). Or the writing style assignment chart where you might be “lawful” or “chaotic.” Or ones referencing “Franken-Drafts.”
People laugh at them and can’t see the implied put-down. Lawful sounds like you’re pleasing a teacher. Chaotic sounds like your story is a mess. If you’re a pantser, you always get informed by other writers that your stories are a mess.
Sometimes, you’ll have to listen to what you’re saying about you’re writing. I called my pantser process “screwy” and “throwing paint at the wall to see what sticks” because I was so frustrated with what I didn’t realize was critical voice’s interference.
The negativity feeds on itself until that’s all you can see.
This one’s fairly common. A lot of experiences here are rooted in school where we write a paper and get a grade back from the teacher. You might have seen writers asking for permission to write something, or want someone to tell them the story is good.
Other people’s critical voices can show up if you don’t comment in the way they expect, especially if they’re unaware that they’re seeking validation. Over the years, there have been some spectacular meltdowns over reviews, even when they’re good reviews. Agents no longer send personal comments because of this.
This is also a reason you shouldn’t give critiques on writing message boards. I did critiques for a little while to help me learn. I was always kind and tried to be careful not to be negative. But I’d still run into writers who simply wanted the validation and they turned extremely nasty when they didn’t get it.
Writing by committee
Another common one is fueled by how we do things in the workplace. Everyone gets around a meeting table, discusses the report, presentation, or whatever, and then makes changes. They all have a say in shaping the document.
So writers come in, asking for critiques, then developmental editing. They make all the changes identified, without ever questioning if these changes are right for their story. Essentially, they hand off agency for their story to other people.
Add to that a lot of writers doing the critiques don’t know what they’re talking about, and even some of the developmental editors may not either (and I know that statement is controversial. But some developmental editors are writers who couldn’t make money writing.).
The story loses what made it that writer’s story.
I ran afoul of this early on. I asked two family members to read my stories. One didn’t read fiction at all. But I took all their comments as a call to action to fix issues in the story.
One day, I looked at my story and asked, “What happened?”
It had lost me along the way.
I decided not to show anyone the story until I had submitted it to a magazine. This made me more confident in identifying that I was satisfied with how the story came out.
That’s a big step, though. A lot of writers fear it, and it was pretty scary for me at first. I posted in a well-known writing blog that I didn’t ask for critiques. Another writer zoomed in and said she would never let a story go without getting critiques. Her critical voice definitely had its hackles up!
Really, what’s the worst that will happen? The magazine/agent sends you a form rejection.
Perfecting the story
We’ve all seen it on the cooking channels. A baker pontificates early on in the competition that everything she produces is perfect. She doesn’t let a cake go out until every flaw is corrected and it shines. Then she self-destructs under the timed competition and turns out the worst cake she’s ever created.
Perfection is a way for the critical voice to dangle a candy bar in front of you, out of reach in such a way you’ll never get it.
The standard becomes so high that it’s toxic. Some writers have trouble letting work go because they could fix one more thing. If they submit the story, they fret about the typo they missed on page thirty. Surely that must have been why the editor/agent rejected it…
(If you get a form rejection, the first reader probably didn’t get past the first sentence.)
I never had problems letting the story go so I could submit it. But I did in other areas.
When I learned I needed to add more setting to my stories, critical voice took control. It decided to hit that skill with a battering ram. On Rogue God, setting turned from something fun to describe (as I’m experiencing with Space Dutchman) into “you can’t go onto the next scene until you get the setting right.”
In my day job, the other area surfaced: Typos.
I’m a typo-making machine. I try to get what I write correct, but I don’t always see the typos, especially not missing articles like is, if, or it. The tools have gotten better at helping me catch them (though I have none of those tools are work! Grr!).
At work, I got berated several times for simple typos. In one case, a boss-type person had an actual meltdown—and it wasn’t even my typo!
Critical voice said, “Let’s fix this.” Critical voice and creative voice both hated being treated like this. In hindsight, the reaction from the boss-type person was way over the top. Other people’s critical voice strikes again!
So critical voice came up with this elaborate system for checking presentations:
After I finished the presentation, I read through it, corrected typos and formatting errors.
Printed it and let it sit for thirty minutes (because I was always in firefighting mode and had to get it out). I might take a break and walk away from it at that point.
I read that copy, looking for more typos.
Attached it to an email, opened the file, and scanned it one more time. Sometimes I found yet more typos. Fixed those, and repeated the same process.
And someone would still find what I thought was a glaringly obvious typo. I’d apologize, say “I should have caught that,” and berate myself for not doing exactly that. It was a very unrealistic standard, much like the baker who expects perfection in a timed baking competition.
It wasn’t until I was handed two tasks that required written input from other people. It was eye-opening!
I had to prepare their submissions to a big boss. This included making sure they followed the guidelines, and that they hadn’t made any typos. It had to get past an administrative assistant who would have kicked it back for serial commas.
Some hadn’t even run spellcheck. Sentences were seventy words long. If a word could be spelled with a space or without, they spelled it both ways. They listed acronyms and didn’t define them because they didn’t know what the acronym meant.
It was the sloppiness you see from writers dashing off the first draft to get it out of the way.
Maybe, I thought, I shouldn’t put as much weight on the typos as I was.
Recently, I’ve been watching the TV series Better Human, Better Dog. A lot of the stories are about how the dog owner’s fears and tension translate into confusion for the dog. It’s made me wonder if my fear of typos translated into how people treated me.
Just something to think about.
I’m saving this post. Always nice to be reminded of this from time to time.
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Spot on – excellent points, and very well written.
Thanks again for this series!
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