Six lies your brain tells you about your writing

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We’ve all had times when we’ve felt like the cartoon character with the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other. That was my predicament the day after I baked the most recent batch of birthday cupcakes.

In the one ear: “Go ahead, have one more. Vanilla icing doesn’t really count.”

And from the other shoulder: “Don’t give in. Self-control is the queen of virtues and the virtue of queens."

Sadly, my guardian angel lost that day (to the scale’s gain). But, in her defence, I think she was tuckered out. Because every time I sit down to write, a battle rages, between the angel of self-confidence and the devil of self-doubt and procrastination.

Most clients I work with are tortured by a similar conflict. They hear, over and over again, the devilish voice of an inner critic telling them that they can’t just can't write.

Those demonic voices come from our personal history as writers, which, for most of us, involves battle scars. By the time we reach adulthood, we’ve suffered through years of formal education that have de-naturalized the writing process, made it mysterious and difficult. To master it, we think, you need a whip and chains—or at least the ability to memorize a grammar textbook and a thesaurus.

For anyone who can read, writing should be as natural a process as speaking. But the devil dwells in the details. Years of being pursued for grammatical infractions and branded with marginal corrections convince us that we don’t know enough about the nitty-gritty “rules” of writing to get it even half right.

That’s the devil on the shoulder talking. Our self-critical brain loves to tell us lies that interfere with our ability to simply let the words out. Here are six of those nasty sayings and tips for defeating them.

1. “You can’t start writing because you don’t know what to say.”

Not knowing what to say is actually the perfect reason to start writing! Creativity isn’t a gift; it’s a discipline. Just show up to the blank page, start scribbling, and you’ll be surprised to discover what you already have to say. (If this sounds scary to you, check out my video on freewriting—starting from nothing is easier than you think!)

2. “You make too many grammatical mistakes.”

Congratulations! You just proved you’re human. Even the most articulate speakers tend to bend grammar “rules” when they speak, and skilled writers often do the same. It’s not correctness but clarity that truly matters.

3. “English isn’t your first language.”

And your point is…? Over the past 20 years, I’ve taught or coached hundreds of clients who spoke English as a second or third language. In many cases, they learned to excel at writing clear, concise sentences because limits on their vocabulary and grammar compelled them to keep things short and simple. Constraints can become strengths.

4. “Whatever you write will never be good enough.”

Good enough for whom? The best back-talk for this lie is a conversation with the person who gives the stamp of approval to your writing. If that’s your manager, ask them to articulate for you the specific criteria they look for in excellent writing. (If they can’t do that, ask me about customized assessment tools, which quickly take the guesswork out of evaluating writing.)

5. “Your ideas are all over the place.”

Sounds like you’re in great shape for someone carving written thoughts out of thin air. I’m a big believer in Ann Lamott’s advice to write “shitty first drafts.” (That’s just one of the pearls of wisdom from her wonderful book on writing, Bird by Bird.) In fact, I’m highly suspicious of a first draft that falls into place too neatly. That’s usually a sign that the thinking behind it doesn’t go deep enough.

Messiness often signals a mental breakthrough about to happen. I discovered that years ago, when I noticed that my undergraduate students could write a perfectly coherent, well-punctuated summary but struggled to articulate a new idea. I learned to pay close attention to bungled sentences, which often indicated a writer on the verge—someone close to creating, rather than just parroting, a thought.

6. “You’re just a bad writer.”

If you have children and have read any parenting advice issued during the last quarter century, then you must see how stupidly damaging this statement is. You can’t be a “bad” writer any more than you can be a “bad” person.

But you can be a person who’s learning to write better. There’s a great deal of power in the word “yet”—as in “I’m not a strong writer YET” or “I’m not a persuasive proposal writer YET.”

So the next time the devil on your writing shoulder tries to hold you back, what will your comeback be?

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