As writers, we spend a lot of time in our own heads, trying to coax words onto the page. Then, once the words get there, we spend a lot of time trying to reshape them to clarify our ideas.
It’s a process filled with self-esteem peril.
We end up criticizing ourselves for not working hard enough, not working often enough, not working in the right way, or not working on the right thing. Or, we get frustrated with the words we did produce, wondering why we can’t match the ideal we had in our heads.
There’s an awful lot of focus on what we did ‘wrong,’ or on what is missing from our work. That focus can be hard on the brain and can affect our sense of self-worth. It’s very tricky to separate ourselves from our work and when we need to adjust our words, it can feel like we are trying to adjust ourselves. And that can really hurt.
Now, obviously, we want our writing to be as clear as possible. We want to communicate our stories, our ideas, and our concepts effectively. And we want to enjoy our writing process (at least most of the time) and we want our audience to enjoy reading our work.
So, how do we deal with the conflict between those two aspects of our writing practice?
How can we find a balance between wanting to grow and improve as a writer and our need to maintain good self esteem?
I think the answer lies in changing our perspective on improvement by adjusting how we speak to ourselves about our writing.
Given that this is ‘Take 5 Friday,’ here are five suggestions for introducing more kindness into the way you talk to yourself about your writing. These are not intended to be viewed as ‘steps,’ so just pick the ones that appeal to you and give them a try. (It will take practice, so please don’t be harsh to yourself about that process either. )
Encouragement is Just as True as Criticism
Between the human brain’s natural negativity bias and our society’s tendency to see criticism as somehow more ‘valid’ than encouragement, we learn to dismiss positive remarks about ourselves and embrace negative ones.
This doesn’t serve us very well in any context but it can be especially true in writing.
Somehow, we think that encouraging ourselves, identifying and celebrating our strengths, speaking positively to ourselves, is a fake approach. And we see harsh, negative, critical commentary as somehow more accurate.
However, we all have strengths and weaknesses in our writing (and in our lives.) In order to get a complete picture of our projects and of our abilities, we need to see both. And, since we tend to magnify the negative and minimize the positive, spending a bit more time celebrating our strengths will probably give us a more accurate sense of our work.
And, focusing on the criticisms we (and others) have of our work can be discouraging and actually keep us from making progress in our stories. If we choose to encourage ourselves and to focus on our strengths while simply acknowledging that there is work to be done in some areas, we will be able to keep writing.
Encouragement and praise is not automatically unrealistic. Negativity and criticism is not automatically more accurate than self-kindness. It is possible to grow as a writer without being mean to yourself in the process.
Critical Dialogue vs. Practical Dialogue
While I often remind people to positively reframe the way they speak to themselves, I’m borrowing this particular framing from Bert Dodson’s book Keys to Drawing. His advice is intended for visual artists but I think it applies to any creative endeavour.
To paraphrase, Dodson recommends that you keep your internal conversation directed in a practical, curious, and observational manner (Practical Dialogue) rather than in a harsh, personally critical one (Critical Dialogue.) He advises us to avoid phrasing like ‘That face doesn’t look right.’ and instead say things like ‘Is the line of the eyebrow pointing toward the hairline or toward the ear?’
When we’re writing, practical dialogue could be ‘Have I described everything that the reader needs to see in this room?’ rather than the more critical dialogue of ‘I never get descriptions right!’
This change in phrasing helps you stay curious and open about your work instead of judging yourself harshly and making the task ahead seem impossible.
Perhaps you could even make this practice into a writing exercise. Make two columns on a piece of paper (or on your screen.) In one column, make a list of things that you feel like you do ‘wrong’ in your writing, the things you struggle with. In the other column, reframe your first list as more neutral, practical questions about your work. It will take a little practice to implement this approach so keep the paper nearby. When you are writing and you catch your inner monologue veering toward the critical, consult your list and practice reframing those statements into questions.
It may be a bit awkward at first but your efforts will pay off in a more kind, relaxed, and curious approach to your writing.
Giving attention to vs. working on/fixing
I’ve borrowed the phrasing ‘giving attention’ from Adriene Mischler of Yoga with Adriene. She uses it to help her audience address strengthening certain muscles or to help those muscles relax. So, instead of ‘working on’ those muscles, you are giving them attention.
That phrase was so steeped in self-kindness that I immediately had to borrow it to use in other contexts.
So, perhaps, instead of ‘working on’ or ‘fixing’ your challenges with character development, you could give your characters some attention. Maybe you could give some attention to your work habits instead of trying to fix them.
It’s a small change but it can really help you feel differently about the work ahead.
For me, at least, giving something some attention is far more inviting than fixing it.
When I started Taekwondo in 2009, I used to get very stressed out about all of the things that I couldn’t do. Gradually, though, I realized that the learning in TKD is VERY incremental. I didn’t have to learn red belt patterns until I reached that level. I didn’t have to be an expert at front kick, I could just keep getting better at it bit by bit. Basically, I tried to embrace the idea of ‘…yet.’ So, instead of saying ‘I can’t do’ the challenge of the moment, I practiced telling myself ‘I can’t do that…yet.’ That phrasing left me open for the possibility of learning and doing it later.
The same is true in our writing.
Perhaps you aren’t good at subplots…yet. It’s possible that your dialogue isn’t snappy…yet. Maybe your characters aren’t fleshed out…yet.
Adopting ‘…yet’ as part of your self-talk will take some of the pressure off. It removes the expectation that you will be good at everything at once. And, it gives you room to develop your skills.
You don’t need to be a writing black belt in every aspect right now, you can build up to that level.
PS – Even though there is the perception that black belts are experts, that’s not true. Black belts are just the most experienced learners. We have the skills and practice to make the most of the instruction we are receiving but we will always be ‘giving attention’ to some aspects of our practice. Interestingly, in our manual, the development of a TKD student is compared to someone who first learns the alphabet, and then learns to form sentences, then paragraphs and then longer works. Even the most skilled martial artist is still learning and even a writer with a black belt in their craft is still figuring things out.
Join the Club
Every single writer struggles with some aspect of writing. We might have trouble getting started, or we might have to redo some paragraphs over and over. We may get lost in description or we may leave our readers without enough information to understand our setting.
Whatever challenges you face with your work, there are other writers facing the same issue.
Even the most prolific, most famous writers struggle with some parts of writing.
So, your struggles don’t mean that you aren’t a real writer. Your struggles mean that you ARE a real writer- you have joined the club.
It may not always be fun to be part of the writer club but it can be very rewarding – especially if you are kind to yourself in the process.
Whether you are new to writing or an experienced professional, you can benefit from speaking more kindly to yourself about your work and about your process. You don’t need to be harsh to develop a consistent and dedicated approach to guiding your stories out of your head and into the world. In fact, if you are kind to yourself, you will make the whole process more inviting and that will definitely help you get more writing done.
And that’s what we’re all trying to do, isn’t it?