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Five Easy Ways To Shake The Writing Devil Off Your Shoulder

Aug 17, 2007
When asked if he ever talked to himself, Woody Allen liked to respond: "Yeah, it's the only way I know to have an intelligent conversation with someone." Ba-da-bum.

Seriously, though, talking to yourself is big problem for many of us writers. That's because we spend a lot of each day in our own heads, lost in our own thoughts. And our interior selves are prone to nattering. Occasionally, they say helpful stuff like: "don't worry," or "buck up," or "it'll be better tomorrow." But more often they say hurtful or downright nasty things like:

Gee, you're a crummy writer
In a million years, no one will ever read this
This lede (beginning of an article) is incredibly dull
No one is going to buy what you're trying to sell
You can't write a call to action to save your life
That headline sucks
You're no good at this
Let's face it, this is just too hard

Are you old enough to remember TV cartoons from the 1960s? If so (or if you're a 'toon fan), you may recall a miniature devil, complete with pitchfork, who sat on the shoulder of many a main character. This little devil whispered bad advice and spiteful ideas into the character's ears -- egging him on to do the wrong or rotten thing.

You might visualize the malicious little voice inside your head -- the one that tells you you're a crummy writer -- as that cartoon devil. Gleefully, he focuses on the negative in your writing, particularly on what you're doing "wrong."

Of course, this devil can be dealt with. But first you need to recognize him and his mouthy ways. Your first step is to start auditing what he tells you. Pay attention! Write down what he says. Note the time of day. Notice how often he pesters you. Once you start listening for his voice, you may be surprised at what he's telling you. Perhaps you had no idea how effectively his comments were tying you in knots.

Then, when you've completed your audit, you can move on to exorcising him. Here are five extremely effective strategies for fighting back:

Bully him in return. When the devil starts to tell you that you're a crummy writer, "yell" (silently, in your mind) "STOP!" Shake your head, shrug your shoulder. Wiggle your fingers. (And if, like me, you're a fan of the '50s musical, you could even consider humming a salutary chorus of "I'm gonna wash that man right out of my hair...")

Negotiate. When the devil says your writing is boring tell him: "You may be right, but I don't have time to deal with this." If you're feeling generous, you might add: "I'll think about it later when I'm not so busy writing."

Agree with him. Have you ever noticed how easy it is to disarm people when you suddenly and unexpectedly agree with them? It takes the wind right out of their sails and they tend to become very silent. Say to your devil: "Yeah, you're probably right; I'm a crummy writer. But, you do know what? I'm going to finish this writing anyway." Then do it.

Argue with him. Start by deconstructing what the devil is telling you. Notice how so many of his comments are absolutes and over-generalizations: "You always write such boring introductions." Or, "Why don't you ever write anything pithy?" Do those comments make any sense at all? Can you honestly say that every single introduction you've ever written in your entire life, from kindergarten until today, has been boring? Do you know for absolute certain that the word "pithy" does not apply to a single sentence you've ever crafted? Of course not! The devil needs to generalize because the devil doesn't speak the truth. Call him on it.

Replace him. And this is the most fun step of all. Give your devil an alter-ego -- a little white angel who sits on your other shoulder. (They did that in the cartoons, too, remember?) And for every nasty comment the devil makes, have your angel say the opposite. If the devil whispers: "You're a crummy writer," your angel should reply: "You're a BRILLIANT writer." Note: It doesn't matter whether you believe this is true. This is a battle of over-generalizations. Be bold!

Negative thoughts will not only hurt your writing; they'll also make writing slower and more painful. Don't let the devil get away with it. Be sure to fight back.
About the Author
A former journalist, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach who helps people writer better, faster. Visit her website at http://www.publicationcoach.com where you can sign up for her free weekly newsletter on power writing.
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