This article by Joanne Grant is from the March 2021 edition of Nink, the monthly newsletter of Novelists, Inc. (NINC). Nink, which is packed each month with informative articles for career novelists, is a benefit of NINC membership.
I have worked with writers long enough to recognise that the key to success relies not only on skill and talent, but a strong self-belief and a mindset for growth. I have also noticed a number of common barriers that writers face that threaten to hold them back. In this article, I am going to focus on three of these barriers and offer some tips on how to identify them and overcome them.
There is nothing wrong with an attention to detail when it comes to your writing. It shows care and professionalism, and your editor will thank you for it! However, perfectionism in its most extreme form is toxic, inhibiting, and can not only hold you back, but sap potential joy from your writing too.
When perfectionism becomes problematic
You may describe yourself as a perfectionist because you always try your best, or are striving to improve—these are pursuits to be encouraged. It becomes problematic when you’re torturing yourself with another proofread, or editing to such a degree that you can’t move forward and it becomes detrimental to you and/or your work.
At its worst, perfectionism can prevent work from being finished, but for the published perfectionist, it doles out a punishment of a different type.
If you’re always striving for perfection, feedback wounds deeply, and there is a nagging feeling that you could’ve done better. But no book will ever be “perfect” because nothing created is beyond criticism. As a result, these writers never feel satisfied with their achievements as they strive for the impossible: perfection.
If you can relate to this, then don’t worry—you can make steps to wean yourself off this unhealthy habit whilst maintaining quality, because the likelihood is your perfectionist tendencies are contributing little, or any value to your work.
Step 1: Ask yourself, what is the worst thing that could happen if you were to dial back on your perfectionism a notch? Be honest about it.
Step 2: Commit to dialling back your perfectionism a step or two. For example, if you habitually proof your manuscript five times before submitting to your editor, reduce it to three times.
Step 3: Sit back and analyse the results of your experiment through the lens of your worst-case scenario. Has your editor actually sacked you because you only proofed your manuscript three times? No, didn’t think so!
Recognise that perfectionism can slow you down, cause you pain, and the amount of time you’re putting in is likely disproportionate to the outcome.
As with anything, the more you practise reducing your perfectionist tendencies, the easier and more natural it will become.
Whether you call it your inner critic, your inner editor or something else, that voice that crops up when you’re writing and makes you doubt yourself can be a real barrier to creativity. But how can you tell the difference between your own voice and the inner critic?
Identifying the inner critic
The inner critic is sneaky. It often sounds like your own voice, but it can sometimes take on the tone of someone you know such as a teacher, parent or editor. This can make it easier to identify. Either way, the inner critic is usually negative or downright mean, with its agitated or worried tone. It speaks in definite terms that welcome no discussion; there are no shades of grey and things are either good or bad.
Underneath it all, your inner critic is trying to keep you safe by holding you back from something you are fearful of. It taps into that fear, exploits it, and sadly, if you believe these negative statements, can become self-fulfilling.
The good news is once you’ve recognised your inner critic, you can tackle it!
Overcoming your inner critic
The key thing to remember about your inner critic is that it offers opinions, not facts. If you question these opinions, you’ll discover there is little or no evidence for them. Next time your inner critic shows up, try this exercise.
Step 1: Distance yourself from the inner critic by referring to it as “you” rather than “I.” For example, change:
“I’m the worst writer in the world!” to “You think I’m the worst writer in the world.”
Naming your inner critic can further help create this distance.
Step 2: Address your inner critic calmly by thanking them for their opinion, then ask them politely to leave. They’re less likely to argue back if you take this approach.
Step 3: Replace the negative statement with one that is more balanced, rational and realistic:
“I may not be the best writer in the world, but I can work to improve!”
Once you start to recognise the inner critic at work, you can unravel these negative statements by questioning the truth of them and replacing them with a realistic, proactive thought to keep you moving forward, rather than holding you back.
Have you ever seen a post, blog or tweet from a writer sharing how quickly they’ve finished their first draft, or they’ve just landed (what seems like) another book deal and it’s made you feel bad? I don’t mean a pang of jealousy, that you soon forget, I’m talking about a reaction that lingers and negatively affects you and your writing.
Maybe it triggers your inner critic on all the reasons why you’ll never be like those other writers. Or the green-eyed monster is in full flow commenting that some writers get all the luck.
Whatever the reaction, it sucks away your motivation, confidence and creativity. You know logically there is no malicious intent directed at you, and that what is posted on social media isn’t always the truth or the full picture, but the damage is done all the same.
So, what can you do to address this?
Overcoming the comparison trap
You now have some tips to quieten down the inner critic, but if this is something that really affects you, next time something sets you off, try this exercise.
Step 1: Ask yourself, why does it make me feel this way, what is really going on? This may be uncomfortable because you’re taking the focus internally, rather than blaming your feelings externally on the post or the person, for the way you feel.
Step 2: Take whatever it is at the root of what affects you and decide what you can do about it.
For example, if those posts about high word counts make you feel inferior before you’ve even started writing for the day, then explore ways to increase your productivity. Avoid social media first thing and set your own realistic goals for success.
Step 3: You’ve identified what it is you can do, now make it happen! Put a plan in place to achieve your goals so next time you see a post about word counts, you can think: “That’s great—they’re hitting their word count goals and so am I!” Goodbye inner critic and green-eyed monster!
The truth is, what underlies these common barriers is fear and self-doubt.
Recognising how they show up in your writing is the first step to learning how to overcome them followed by putting into practise techniques to help.
The other big truth here is: often the biggest thing holding you back is yourself. Lean in to your fear and choose to do something about it in a proactive, meaningful way because you can take back control of your writing journey.