Tuning in, tuning out the writing voices in your head

Writing advice gets under people’s skin and into their guts and hearts.

When I chat to a person whose self-perception of their writing is a way more negative than the reality I see on the page, I often ask them ‘who told you your writing was like that?’ A school teacher, an undergraduate lecturer, a supervisor. Those comments stick, sometimes for decades.

Occasionally someone recalls advice I gave them in the past, and it’s amazing how often the comment that sunk in like a fish hook was something off-hand, a throw-away. It’s one of the reasons my posts are so full of hedging and permission not to follow my advice! I have learned how important it is not to add to the problem!

Random pontification by fiction authors or best-sellers also regularly gets into our heads. Some of it is helpful, some of it isn’t relevant to academic writing, some of it wasn’t even actually said by anyone. The internet is chock-full of made up quotes, many of them about writing or attributed to writers.

Plus, we all have the voices in our heads, the ones only we are responsible for, that chatter away worrying that we won’t be good enough and our writing is rubbish. Anne Lamott covers this beautifully in Bird by Bird, by the way, which I cannot recommend highly enough.

So what can we do about it?

Get a second, expert opinion.

Talk to an editor, an academic skills advisor, a writing coach. Does your feeling about your writing match what is actually happening on the page?

For example, if I write a shitty first draft, it’s really useful that I can see it’s terrible! I need to know what’s still wrong with it so I can fix that in later rounds of edits. So identifying negative aspects of your writing may be true and useful. However, many people believe they are ‘bad at writing’, when their work just needs some development. There is a difference between ‘my first draft was really rough, because it’s a first draft’ and ‘my draft was really rough because I can’t write’.

I’ve seen thousands of drafts by now, and I can tell you that people are much more likely to underestimate their writing than overestimate it. And if you are the 1% who overestimate your writing, you are unlikely to be reading this blog post or coming to a workshop! So on the balance of probability, your writing is likely to be fine, and we can make it excellent together.

Amplify the helpful voices

As you develop as a critical thinker and expert, you will also be developing as a critical thinker and expert about your own writing practice. This means you can start developing a judgement about what advice is useful, and what is belittling, irrelevant or unhelpful to you. Your preferences may not match other people’s, and that’s fine! Select the messages and motivations that work for you, personally.

For example, write out that useful voice’s catch-phrase and put it up in front of your computer. ‘The deadline is coming up, better get writing!’ or ‘Listen to the computer reading your work, you will definitely catch some final errors you would otherwise miss!’ Maybe you got some positive feedback from a supervisor or reviewer and you add that to your inspiration board.

Or you might find it useful to record these messages and add them to the beginning of your writing playlist. Literally turn up the volume on these useful messages!

Turn down the volume on the unhelpful voices

Anne Lamott describes imagining putting all those hyper-critical voices in a jar and then making them quieter and quieter so she has brain space to write. You will probably still be working against a confused background chatter of all kinds of thoughts and feelings: positive, negative, irrelevant, distracting, useful for later, funny, insightful, silly. Your brain is a thinking machine, and it will produce thoughts even when you are asleep or trying to focus on something else. We don’t have to erase the unhelpful voices entirely, we just need to turn the volume down.

What matters isn’t that you think perfect thoughts, but that you get some writing done. Academic writing is often done in bits and pieces, under time pressure, and with strict word and style limits. It’s always a bit of a compromise, so we don’t need to be perfect writing subjects. We just need to pick up our pens and keyboards and have a go, and then go back and have another go, and then get feedback and go again.

You have the power and the right to control your own thoughts

This practice is not unlike the idea of ‘turning the dial’ I explored a while back, in a post that really resonated with a lot of people. Rather than setting resolutions about how you are finally going to be perfect this time, just turn the dial a fraction towards your intentions. And that means turning the dial a fraction away from other ways of thinking, feeling and acting.

If you feel like you don’t have any power to control your own thoughts, you might want to talk to a counsellor or health professional. Bullying, mental illnesses and trauma can all interrupt our ability to move our dials. But there are also support and solutions which help you regain that capacity, and it’s very much worth putting in the time now, to help your flourish as a writer and as a whole person.

It can be liberating to realise you have some authority over the voices in your head, and that you have the power (and right!) to decide which ones you want to amplify and which you want to tune out. Give yourself great writing advice, and motivate yourself with the most effective catch-phrases. Don’t let that mean comment get in the way of being the amazing writer you are becoming.

Photo by Moja Msanii on Unsplash


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