Silence your inner critic

Just write first, and leave the copy-editing for later.

I wrote two blog posts recently that addressed the widespread issue of writer’s block. In the first, I suggested that warming up before writing is a good idea to get you into the zone. In the second, I argued that you need to figure out what the story is before you can write productively. There’s a third element to writing productively. Even if you have figured out your story and have warmed up properly, you may still find yourself staring at a blank page for extended periods of time. If this is the case, you are almost certainly operating with an inner critic that holds you back the moment you want to commit words to paper. You need to silence your inner critic to write effectively.

Before I discuss the inner critic in more detail, I want to frame this discussion within the concept of writing modes. It is important to realize that there are two distinct writing modes, contents generation and copy-editing. They have distinct goals, and it is best to not muddle the waters between them. Every time you sit in front of a word processor, you should know exactly which mode you’re operating under. If I asked you “Sally, are you generating content or are you copy-editing?” you should answer immediately, without hesitation.1 In the next two paragraphs I give a brief description of each of these two writing modes.

Contents generation. The sole purpose of contents generation is to get words onto the page. As quickly as possible, and as many words as possible. During contents generation, you should not worry too much about word choice, grammar, or even connection between sentences. Just create material to copy-edit later on.

Copy-editing. The purpose of copy-editing is to polish your text. Fix all the grammatical mistakes you made. Make sure each sentence connects properly to the previous one. Fix all the awkward word choices you have made and eliminate all colloquialisms. Verify all punctuation. Copy-editing can be hard, and it is usually slow. I sometimes agonize 5–10 minutes over a single sentence I need to fix. Importantly, however, copy-editing is not about contents generation. As you copy-edit, you only work with the material you already have. You don’t try to add entire paragraphs of new material.

The inner critic is that inner voice that wants you to copy edit as you’re trying to generate contents. You have in your mind a picture of all these sentences you need to say, but the moment you try to commit them to paper the inner critic comes along and says: “Well, that doesn’t sound too smart. And it doesn’t connect to what you’ve written before. And anyway, who uses words like ‘fun’ in formal writing?” And there you go, switching from contents generation to copy-editing, trying to fix this one sentence you need to write before you can proceed to the next.

The problem with trying to copy-edit as you’re generating contents is that you’re constantly keeping yourself from getting into the zone where writing just flows effortlessly. This severely limits your overall productivity. You might think that it comes out the same either way, since yes you’re generating slower but you’re also writing higher-quality sentences. Unfortunately, that’s usually not the case. The secret about writing in the zone is that most sentences are spectacularly useful. With just a little copy-editing, they can generally be brought into a sufficiently decent shape that they can be published. The carefully copy-edited sentences your inner critic makes you write, on the other hand, may be beautiful by themselves but they tend to be poorly connected with their surrounding context. Because these sentences were not written quickly, your mind started to wander from topic to topic as you were writing, and hence the sentences don’t hang together. The latter sentences seem to be telling a totally different story than the earlier sentences. To fix this mess, you’ll need more copy-editing than you would have needed had you written quickly in the first place.

So how do you silence your inner critic? You just ignore it. When you know that you’re in contents generation mode, you cannot afford staring at blank paper for extended periods of time. Any time you detect yourself doing so, just write down the first sentence that comes to mind and then move on. Remember, you can always go back and copy-edit. In fact, you should do so anyway.2 When you’re in contents-generation mode, get comfortable with writing half-baked sentences. Just write it down how it is on your mind. If you can’t find the right word, write “that thing.” If you can’t find the correct phrasing, write a sentence that describes the actual sentence that should be there instead, such as “here I need to place a sentence that explains how the inner critic prevents me from writing effectively.” If you want, you can mark the sentence in italics or in a different color to indicate that it urgently needs revision. Either way, do everything you can to generate contents and to not be stuck.

To give you a frame of reference: It usually takes me about an hour to generate all the contents for a typical blog post such as this one and then another hour to copy-edit it. In practice, though, I don’t write the whole post before I do any copy-editing. I usually write about a paragraph, copy-edit it, write another paragraph, copy-edit that one, and so on. At the end, I copy-edit the whole post a couple more times before I publish it. During copy-editing, I end up modifying maybe 10% of the text. So you can see that the amount of writing I actually do during copy-editing is minimal compared to the amount of writing done during contents generation. Also, keep in mind that I don’t copy-edit posts on my blog as much as I would any formal writing. I want a raw and direct voice on my blog, more like a conversation than like formal writing, and so I leave copy-editing to a minimum. For example, this post contains a few instances of a dangling “this”—as in “This severely limits your overall productivity”—that I would edit out if this were a scientific paper and not a blog post.

  1. If your name is not Sally it’s Ok to hesitate a bit and wonder who I might be talking to.↩︎

  2. Please promise me that you won’t ever hand over your writing to anybody else unless you have gone through at least one serious round of copy-editing after you had generated all the contents.↩︎

Claus O. Wilke
Professor of Integrative Biology


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