When I wrote a manuscript for a veteran’s anthology, I had an unexpected critical voice clash.
I’d been accepted for the book, which was published by a traditional publisher. There aren’t many women veterans writing their stories, so it was a big deal for me. The editor of the book sent me comments for revision to my manuscript. Seemed straight forward. I made the corrections and sent them back.
Some time passed. Then she had more changes. I felt less certain of what she wanted. The changes requested were a few paragraphs pasted into email. I didn’t know it at the time, but she was getting this information from the New York editor. I suspect the New York editor didn’t have to time to spend providing specifics.
But I made the changes and sent them back. More time passed. I took the Depth in Writing workshop from WMG Publishing. That’s an amazing, transformative workshop. It shows you how to pull the reader down into the story with setting and five senses. It also was a horrifying revelation for me as to how bad the beginner advice is.
A third round of edits came back. By now, it had been about a year. This time, it was obviously the New York editor, and I was obviously not getting what she wanted. This time, the editor provided some crucial information and the proverbial lightbulb went off: The editor wanted depth.
So I went back into my manuscript and added the setting of Saudi Arabia, what it smelled like, the food, the dust.
When I finished, the critical voice slammed into me from the side. The manuscript had gone from 1,500 words to 3,000 words. Critical voice started spinning. “It’s too long! Now they’re going to reject it!”
I was terrified! I half-believed that story the critical voice told me. But I sent it back anyway, they were fine with it.
According to Choose Your Story, Change Your Life: Silence Your Inner Critic and Rewrite Your Life from the Inside Out by Kindra Hall, our critical voices also tell stories. They’re often negative or fearful. They can also sound calm and reasonable, like the problem is you, not it. Mine sometimes sounds logical.
But what can you do when it’s telling you stories that sound oh so reasonable?
Identify critical voice
This is the single most important step. Recognize when it’s there. Many people never get off this step and give up writing.
When you’re caught up in it, it’s also very hard to see that it’s there. Signs of presence include:
- Spending inordinate time on non-writing tasks and justifying them as writing. This can show up as revision, world-building, and even research. One writer sewed the costumes for her characters.
- Speaking negatively about your writing (i.e., “all first drafts are bad”).
- A struggle to get words down on the page.
- Stalling in some part of the process. This can be anywhere in the story.
- Getting defensive or angry when someone suggests other options. This often shows up during critiques.
- Unfinished projects, One writer in my critique group would write three chapters, then submit for critique. If anyone commented other than “It’s good,” he dropped the story and started another three chapters.
- A book as an event/is important/is your baby. This can happen to anyone. Two big name writers stalled on their last books. One is procrastinating in TV, and the other passed away without ever writing the book.
If you can spot when it’s trying to stick its foot in the door, often you can defuse it before it becomes a problem. Still, it sometimes sneaks up on you.
Identify the Origins of critical voice
Your critical voice likely came from somewhere, which will be the origin of the stories it tells. In Choose Your Story, Change Your Life: Silence Your Inner Critic and Rewrite Your Life from the Inside Out the author notes that these memories are often incredibly detailed.
Mine happened in second grade. The teacher was older than my grandparents. She called me to the front of the dingy classroom to answer a math problem on the chalkboard while the class watched. I had trouble solving the problem. She became impatient, spanked me in front of the class, and berated me angrily. I remember my face heating up with embarrassment, certain everyone was staring at me when I returned to my desk.
In hindsight, she was near retirement and may have hit her tolerance for young children. Other former students did not remember her kindly. She’s been dead for over thirty years, but my critical voice turned her into a critical voice zombie! I think that’s where my problems with typos and perfectionism orginate.
Understanding where the origins are can help minimize the impact of the old stories. I’ve had remind myself that the adult me would never have done what she did to me. Why was I doing ot to myself now?
Reframing is a method of changing your perspective, often on something negative. That’s critical voice!
Sometimes it’s asking different questions. I think if I’d reframed my questions about my writing issues instead of aiming at solutions, I’d have worked it out sooner.
This is one I’m experimenting with to overcome my critical voice fixating on word count. The challenge is that I needed to do something to ensure that I didn’t write only three hundred words and stop. That seems to be a natural stopping place for me.
But I recorded it on a spreadsheet like everyone recommends, I fell off it quickly and reverted back to some writing and not enough progress. Maybe like exercise, I needed a little bit of structure, but not too much. I accidentally stumbled into reframing word coutn as a task, not a goal. You track goals, you mark tasks completed.
Take a break
If you recognize that critical voice has gotten claws into you, take a break. Don’t try to battle with it. The break can be a few minutes to take a walk, an hour delay, or even the next day.
I was writing a short story called “Voices in a Calm Sea.” Really flowed through the second scene. But I was also on a short fuse deadline of five days. The next scene might have been the last one I needed. Critical voice zoomed in and bounced up and down. “Let’s get it done! Let’s get it done! We have to turn it in.”
Nope. I stopped right there and waited until the next day. I needed two more days to pull it all together. My creative voice doesn’t always come up with what it needs in order.
Get enough sleep
This was a surprising one that I discovered while taking Franklin-Covey’s 7 Habits course at work. Covey mentions it almost in passing, so it would have been easy to miss. If you don’t get enough sleep, it makes you more critical. So if your day job is keeping you awake at night, exhaustion can feed your critical voice ammunition.
There are some low-cost options to improve your sleep right away. You can purchase blackout curtains for your windows, along with either binding clips or butterfly clips. These do an amazing job of keeping out the street lights, along with some noise reduction. The clips are to make sure there isn’t a gap between the curtains (plus you can take them on travel and use them for the same purpose!).
Electrical tape can conceal any light sources in the room. I switched my alarm to an app called Sleep Cycle, rather than using a traditional alarm clock. There’s nothing worse than waking up and seeing those red numbers glaring back.
You can also use a fan set on low to filter out noises from the street. I’m also experimenting with a weighted blanket.
For more information on improving your sleep, try Dr. Mark Hyman’s Sleep Master Class. It’s free at the writing of this, though it says limited time (which has been several years).
Critical voice doesn’t have to cripple you. But it takes a lot of effort to identify it at first. Once you see how it works for you, you’ll start spotting it more quickly (most of the time, anyway).