May 19, 2012

How to Make Peace With Your Internal Editor (And Whether or Not You Should)

At Academic Ladder, we emphasize the importance of identifying negative self-talk when it arises during a writing session and silencing overly critical inner voices.  We talk about replacing the negative self-statements with positive ones, and re-framing what our internal editors are saying.  This is especially important to do when writing a first draft, or when freewriting, because stopping every few words to edit is neither efficient nor effective.

But what if it's hard to speak back to those negative voices because deep down in your gut you really believe they're right?  What if there's some truth to what your inner critic is saying?  This is a hard one, because sometimes it's difficult to separate the negativity and criticism that comes from fear or pain from the more protective voices of caution.  There are times when it may be necessary to listen to those cautionary voices rather than shut them out entirely.

For instance, when I sat down to write this blog post, I began questioning everything from the use of the parenthetical phrase in the title to my choice of the word "emphasize."  I was also thinking about whether or not this topic would be too heavy for a blog post, and whether or not I even wanted to suggest writers should make peace with their internal editors, especially while writing.  In the end, I decided  that there is a strange balance between silencing and acknowledging our internal editors, and that finding that balance is really key in order to make progress.

There are ways to tell the difference between a critical voice that's helpful and one that's callously destructive.  First, ask yourself where and maybe even whom the voice is coming from.  If the statement is harsh and general, chances are the words may not even be your own.  Maybe you've internalized the opinions of an overly critical parent or teacher, or maybe the statement is emblematic of the toxic nature of your academic environment.  Statements like "This is never going to work," or "You are lazy," or "You are not good enough/smart enough to do this" are most likely not coming from you, but from someone else.  Sometimes it's good to figure out from whom.

Another question to ask yourself is "what will listening to this statement serve?"  If the answer is "nothing," then that's definitely a voice not worth listening to.  On the other hand, if listening to the statement will be productive, that might be a voice worth considering, just not right then.   You can make a note in the draft to come back to that point and and think about it later, after you've gotten the day's writing done.

Finally, there are some voices we must not ignore.  These are the voices that say things like "I can't keep going on like this," or "I am burning out," or "I am pushing myself beyond my limits."  Pushing yourself can be good, but at a certain point, especially if you've been at the writing for awhile during a given session, this may be your internal protective voice kicking in and saying "Listen, you've had enough.  It's time for a break."

The more self-aware you are during this process, the more you'll be able to tell the difference between the internal editor you need to listen to and the ones you need to edit out.  Not all negative voices are harmful, just as not all positive voices are helpful.  As you practice daily or near-daily writing habits, you'll start to learn how to tell the difference, and how and when to listen to the voices that have your back.

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