The Craft: Rules for Writing, Rule #2: NO CRITIC

[This is part of a continuing series on the art of writing fiction.]

Well, I want to get back to my “Rules for Writing.” Today, I bring you my second rule. It’s the second most important rule and is a natural compliment to the first rule, “Get Black on White.” If you follow the second rule you’re guaranteed to get plenty of black on white.

The second rule is: NO CRITIC. critic[1]

This simply means that when you’re a writer, you’re a writer, not a critic. You MUST turn off the inner critic and let the writing flow.

To be honest, this isn’t a unique idea, it’s actually a slight adaptation of an idea I found in the first book I ever read about writing fiction aptly named, Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway. Here is how she sums it up.

[The] point is to keep going, and that is the only point. When the critic intrudes and tells you that what you’re doing is awful, tell the critic to take a dive, or acknowledge her/him and keep writing.

She returns to this theme again later:

…it is ideal, having turned your story over in your mind, to write the first draft at one sitting, pushing on through the action to the conclusion, no matter how dissatisfied you are with this paragraph, that character, this phrasing, or that incident.

Janet never uses the phrase, “NO CRITIC,” but the spirit is there. I have written “NO CRITIC” [always in CAPS] on sheets of paper to begin my writing day, on blank computer screens, or notes on my walls and fridge, but this blog post made me reconsider where I got the actual phrase from. After some thought and reminiscing, this is my best reconstruction.

It all happened long ago in Long Beach, California. I was a new writer and I thought I had found a cool book so I had to share my discovery with D—, of woodworking fame. So, I scrambled down to the Portfolio to share my discovery. I thought what I had found was real special, D— listened patiently and said,

“Yeah, well, it all really comes down to, no critic.”

I thought that was brilliant. No critic. So, I kept writing and not listening to the inner critic. And so did D—. Pretty soon, it was turned into all caps, “NO CRITIC” and was on the aforementioned post-it notes, sheets of paper and computer screens. Usually in red. And it became a mantra for us. Not only when we were writing, but in conversations with each other, at the gym, on the freeway, everywhere. The point was to use a good habit to drive out a bad one.

And it took lots of discipline. I don’t know how the rest of you read, but I read like a writer. That means I underline, I highlight, I analyze, I re-read, I read out loud, I read in the original language if I can (I know a little Spanish and Russian. I read Dante out loud to get the sounds though I don’t know a word of Italian). It was the same with my own stuff. So, it took tons and tons of practice before I could leave a bad phrase, overwriting, clichéd characters or stale dialogue on the page and keep going. It was those times when I stopped and focused too much on this or that flaw that I got caught and stopped writing for the day. Or never ever really got going.

So, here’s some advice: Get up, grab a piece of paper or a Post-It note write “NO CRITIC” on it somewhere you can see read it (when you write or in your daily routine) and say to yourself: “NO CRITIC.” And when you get down to writing, always have it ready so that when you get stuck, you can say it and keep on writing.

Two final points before I go. One, there is a time to reintroduce the “critic” to your work. For me, it’s about the third draft. This is when I polish, sculpt, tighten up the dialogue, lose long-winded descriptions, etc., etc. But this comes later, much later. And it has taken years of writing discipline to tame the inner critic and quarantine him to the later drafts. Second, the “in one sitting” advice mentioned above is clearly impossible to follow for novellas and novels. You need more than one sitting for a longer work. I will share my technique for doing this in another post. But for now, I will only say that the same NO CRITIC rule applies, but on many consecutive days: you will need to silence your inner critic each and every day, buckle down and keep going. Pretty soon, you’ll have draft one of a novel on your hands.

Good luck and remember, “NO CRITIC.”

A Short Blog Break

Well, it’s time for some vacation. I will take a blog break next week and plan to be back around Aug. 9 for a new posting.

Hope you enjoy the summer too.



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