Writing a Book: Three People Who Live in Your Head

May 22, 2018 | Better Writing

Most people think that writing is a solitary task. They imagine you sitting there at your laptop or with a yellow pad and a pen turning out a report, a blog post, or a book. But if you write much, you know that you’ve got people with you all the time. There are three people that live inside your head and make a difference in how well you write. One is your inner critic.

Your Inner Critic

Your inner critic is that voice in your head that tells you how you’re doing. For most of the people I work with, the inner critic tells you that your writing is pretty awful.

The inner critic says, “Who do you think you are?” Or “You can’t write a good book. Don’t even try.” Or “This stuff is awful! I hope no one sees it.” Your inner critic may use different words, but the idea is the same. It’s the inner critic that tells you that “Writing’s hard work, so you might as well not try. Besides, you’re not going to do well anyway.”

When your inner critic pops up, you need to do more than try to ignore it. You want to drive it away and send it to the outer reaches of a galaxy far, far away. Most writers I know who are plagued by a persistent inner critic have developed things that they say when that critic shows up. The one I like best is “Piss off! I’m writing here!”

That’s the most common kind of inner critic, but some people have an inner critic that tells them that “This is great work.” That’s the inner critic that tells you that “This is incredible stuff, we’ll never need revision, it is probably worthy of a Nobel prize.”

Dealing with that kind of inner critic is straightforward. Just take the stuff you’re working on and put it away for a while. “A while” can be an hour, or a day or two, or even a couple of months. Then go back and read what you wrote. When you do that, you’re more likely to notice everything that could be done better. You won’t have to say a word to your inner critic.

Those English Teachers

We owe a lot to our English teachers. They’re the ones who introduced us to literature and helped us learn to prepare and present our ideas. They still live in our heads, where their job is to tell us how we’re doing compared to their standards.

There’s one problem, though. The stuff you wrote for your English teacher was academic stuff. That means you probably learned only a single way to structure a piece of writing. It also means that you put far too much weight on the number of syllables, commas, and literary tricks that always tempt a business writer.

If you’re writing a business book, the best writing is conversational. It’s more like talking to a buddy and less like giving a lecture. Your English teacher doesn’t know that, so he or she keeps telling you that you’re doing it the wrong way. The only way you can overcome their energetic complaining is to remember what good business book writing looks like.

One of my clients did that by putting up a small sign in her writing cave that she could see while she worked. On the sign, it said “Would you say it that way to Tom?” Tom is her husband.

She told me that whenever she was tempted to use flowery language or a phrase like “I have long thought,” she would see that sign and think “If I said that, Tom would laugh.”

The Muse

It’s great to write on a day when your sails catch inspiration and you glide off smoothly, but that rarely happens. Amateurs are sure that great writing springs from inspiration. Great writers know that it’s more about getting to work.

Jack London once said that inspiration was not going to come to you, instead, you had to chase it down with a club. You get to inspiration through work. Good writers don’t wait for inspiration to work.

You’re more likely to get right to work if you end every writing session by planning precisely what you will write next. If that doesn’t work, and you’re stumped, my advice is, start writing. What usually happens is that you write a couple of paragraphs of useless stuff and then, suddenly, you hit your stride.

Bottom Line

Writing is not magic, it’s a craft. If you want to practice that craft and master it, you need to master your relations with those three people that live in your head.

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