Best-selling thriller writer Ian Rankin writes a book a year. At a certain point, usually at the end of the first month, he is struck by “the fear.” He becomes convinced that all the work he’s done so far has been a waste of time, that this new book won’t be any good.
When he mentions this to his wife, she usually asks, “Are you on page 65?” He then realizes that he goes through this phase with every novel, always at the same point. Always around page 65.
Many writers, if not all, experience this kind of doubt about their work at some stage. And, as writing is such a lonely profession, they don’t all have someone with whom they can share their frustrations.
As an editor, some authors even come to me at these times. They’re looking for someone who can give them feedback, someone with experience who can reassure them that their work is worth pursuing after all and they’re not wasting their time.
To be honest, there’s not much I can do for them, but over the years I‘ve come across some techniques that can help authors deal with that inner critic and get back to writing.
1. Choose which thoughts you listen to
It’s your mind’s job to keep questioning your actions. That worked well when we lived in caves. “Don’t go around that corner,” the mind would say, “you’ll get your head chewed off by a saber-toothed tiger.”
Even now, when we no longer have saber-toothed tigers to worry about, the mind continues to look out for us. It has our best interests at heart, but its suggestions aren’t always helpful. “Hmm,” it might ask, “are you sure you really want write this story? I mean, do you really think anybody will ever read this?”
You cannot stop the mind from doing its job. You cannot control the questions and criticism it throws at you. In short, you cannot control your thoughts, you cannot stop them from entering your mind. But you can decide which thoughts deserve your attention.
When your mind raises these doubts – your writing is terrible, no one will be interested in this story, or you should give up and find a job where you don’t even have to write your name – try to recognize this thought as nothing more than that: a thought. It’s just words. It’s just your mind doing its job.
Ask yourself, “Is this is a helpful thought?” If it’s not helpful, you can decide not to take this thought seriously and move on to the next one. Don’t worry, another one will be along again soon enough. Your mind likes to keep busy.
Novelist Dani Shapiro put it like this in an interview with Salon.com: “It helps to think of that inner censor as a beloved but annoying friend who has moved in for the duration. That friend is never going away. So you make peace with your inner censor. You say some version of, thanks very much for sharing, and then move on, past that censoring voice, and into your work.”
2. Give your critical thoughts a name
There are times when your mind takes its job a little too seriously. It won’t shut up, and those thoughts become difficult to ignore. When that happens, it helps to take a little distance from them, and one way to do that is to give these unhelpful thoughts a name.
For example, when Ian Rankin gets to the stage where he starts to doubt his story, he could say, “Oh, there are those Page 65 Thoughts again. Hi, Page 65 Thoughts, I’m only on page 62, you’ve arrived early this year.”
You could also treat these thoughts like a character, and give it a voice. The Whiny Inner Critic, for example, who always shows up at the most inappropriate moment. Try to hear those thoughts in the voice of the character. A little too high-pitched perhaps, a bit nasal maybe, annoying.
Or you could imagine these thoughts as a story. The Tale of Self Doubt, where the basic premise appears engaging but becomes repetitive and tiresome after a while. It’s the kind of daytime movie that might first attract your attention as you flick through the TV channels, but only ends up a disappointment. Try another channel.
Giving these thoughts a name helps you to become aware of how often they occur and how much they distract you from your writing. Just recognizing your self-doubt will help you regain your focus.
Feel free to pick your own name for your critical thoughts, you’re a writer after all (regardless of what your mind says).
3. Realize how important writing is to you
Sometimes, just sometimes, your mind is right. Your writing is bad. There will be days when you will write badly, very badly. You might even write a whole book that’s terrible.
But that shouldn’t stop you from writing.
Think about why you write, why it’s important to you, and try to remember these reasons when your mind is being overly critical, telling you that you’ll fail, that you’ll be rejected.
Don’t let those thoughts of failure stop you. You don’t give up on love just because you might get hurt some time. And you shouldn’t give up on something you love. Keep writing. It takes a lot of work, and some of it might be terrible, but if you stop, no one will ever get a chance to see the good stuff.