On Writing,  publishing

Beating Critical Voice For Fiction Writers

More Than Likely That is Not the Title…

But you get the idea. I’m going to start a series of posts here that will turn into a short book at some point about the fight we all wage against Critical Voice (with echoes and dread horror/slasher/music.)

And I hope to give a bunch of advice on how to beat back critical voice as well and get the fun back into your writing.

So here with go with a short introduction first. Then I’ll go from there over the next weeks. I have sixty-seven books to put out this year. This will be one of them. But I want to write it here first, right out in the open.


By the very nature of the word “critical,” critical voice is a negative thing. Can’t be anything else.

Critical means finding fault, finding errors, finding problems. You know, people like book or movie critics. The critical people often also exists inside our own families. Or friends who want to hold us back without realizing that is what they are doing. And so on and so on.

In the human condition, the critical voice in trained into our heads to save most of us from doing really stupid things. It is, in other words, a survival mechanism. Don’t jump off that ledge. Don’t run in front of that car. Obvious ones, taught to us by our parents.

We all have thousands of them. Don’t run naked down the street (unless you were a streaker in the 1960s.) Don’t insult someone with a gun. Don’t jump out of perfectly good airplanes. (Wait, I did that more than once.) Don’t jump off cliffs. (Wait, I did that more than once at well, a couple times on skis, a couple times with hang gliders.)

I need to stop before I start realizing I am lucky to be alive. But you get the idea. Obvious things our critical voices should stop us from doing every day.

And then there are the not-so-obvious examples that show up as self-esteem issues. I’m not capable of (blank) because (blank). We all have them in one area or another.

Then there is the political or religious critical voice about how some other person or belief is not as good as your own. Just look at our world right now and you see people dying over that little manifestation of poor critical training.

We had no critical voice when we were born.

It is all trained. Every bit of it, from the not walking in front of a car to self-loathing to hatred and bigotry. All critical voice, all taught and trained, often into belief status.

When it comes to writing, the training came from small comments from family or friends, from a book, from classes in schools. We absorbed and were trained in the teachers’ belief systems. Most of the time we have no idea where we learned something or why we even internalized it.

And that critical voice belief system, for the most part, is that fiction writing can’t be done.

That’s right, it is a belief system. And even though you will have gotten past it and are writing, you will hear it constantly from everyone around you. Often in small ways, but sometimes in pretty blatant examples.

So right from the start with fiction writing, we are in a battle with the world around us and ourselves. I could spend an entire chapter listing all the crap we all were trained about fiction writing. I did some of it in books called Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing. All of us took in most of that crap in in one form or another.

You know. From things like: “You can’t make a living writing fiction.”

And then there is the big one: “You must rewrite everything.”

(I bet that hit a few belief systems right there. Taught belief systems.)

We all learned chapters full of silly stuff that actually has nothing to do with the creative process in fiction writing.

Our critical voices absorbed it all. Some bits just ended up surface knowledge, easy to shed, other parts ended up as a belief so deep as to be like breathing, impossible to stop.

So here we are… fiction writers with the job to sit alone in a room and make stuff up.

We have the door closed, the computer on, a mug of black tee beside our keyboard, a white screen in front of us. No one is in the room.

No one.

Yet all those people who taught us critical stuff about writing are all there, like ghosts with bad breath, floating in and out and stopping the writing cold. Or worse yet, making you write safe, careful stuff that is perfectly polished with no voice. Stuff that is same because same is safe.

And boring and dull. Sameness never sells.

Our job is to kick all those stinky ghosts from our training all out of the office, then let our two-year-old who hasn’t been trained yet by all the critical nature of our world out to play on that white screen. The two-year-old lives in all of us.

I call it the creative voice.

And over the years that creative voice has learned story, has learned more writing skills than you can ever imagine consciously that you know. Why? Because that creative voice has been absorbing story almost from day one.

But our critical voice has one job and that is to make up stuff that could go wrong and control the creative voice, not let it use stuff that the critical voice doesn’t yet know. Because that might be dangerous.

So there is a constant battle for most writers starting out. And for early writers, the critical voice always wins.

For long-time professionals, the creative voice always wins.

See the battle there? The path you need to travel?

The creative voice is where all our art lives. And it likes to play. It doesn’t like rules. Have you ever been around a two-year-old child? They challenge everything. Parents’ job to be the critical voice, to train that child in the ways of society.

So one of the best paths to becoming a long-term fiction writer is learn to control the critical voice, shut it out of all writing decisions, and let the creative voice out to play.

And that is what this book is about.

You might not even know that something you are doing is critical-voice based and is stopping or hurting your art. With luck, this book will point some of that out.

More than anything, this is a book about learning how to get out of our own way and just tell a story and have fun with the storytelling.

But to do that, the battle is between a two-year-old child and a big evil dictator with an army behind him of people who taught you all the information you need to now ignore.

The two-year-old creative voice must win.

See why there are so few long-term fiction writers? But it is possible for the creative voice to win the battle and in this book I hope to give you and your creative voice some weapons to fight with.

Onward into the battle.


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  • Thomas Bennett

    So excited for this blog series and the book to follow. Your “Writing into the Dark” workshop and “Novel Structure” workshop have done a tremendous amount to help me clear a lot of critical voice stuff. I now understand I can write a novel if I just keep writing, which I totally intend to.

    I’ve said this privately, but thank you for being one of the few consistently optimistic voices in my head gently (and sometimes not so gently) prodding me forward, and never letting me get down on myself when I didn’t meet a goal.

    As always write a next sentence.

    • dwsmith

      Thanks, Thomas. Appreciate that. Having fun and writing the next sentence really is the key. Beyond that, nothing really matters much. And it is stunning the good stuff that happens if you just start having fun with the writing again.

  • JM

    Another part of critical voice we learn is in school. We are forced to read “classic literature” which is incredibly boring and (depending on the era in which it was written) hard to read. And we’re told THOSE are the best books in the world.

    Someone (I can’t remember who) once described it as the Puritan Work Ethic of Literature: if you’re enjoying it, then it can’t be good for you.

    And then you try to write a story that’s fun, and that critical voice in your head pulls out those English class lessons from school and says, “It’s ‘FUN’? Then it must be crap.”

    And, of course, English class has a second critical voice tactic. It teaches us to be critics, not to write creatively, with our essays examining those books rather than writing our own. I’ll tell you a quick story about learning to be a critic.

    It was senior year in high school. We had our final assignment of the year, final essay of high school, on “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.”
    I was so utterly entrenched in critical analysis, I was almost literally missing the forest for the trees. The topic was “the inevitability of the protagonist’s profession” and I read the book with that topic in mind, pulling out every detail and crafting a superb paper proving conclusively that the protagonist would become a priest.
    And then, not ten minutes after I handed in my masterwork, we start discussing the book in class and I realized that I’d ignored the title: “Portrait of the ARTIST as a Young Man.”
    I was mortified.
    I was horrified.
    I got an “A.”

    I never actually saw the graded version of that paper. Maybe the teacher was tired and gave everyone A’s for that quarter, since it was our last and didn’t really matter. Maybe he thought I was being funny and got the joke (the joke I never intended) about the pointlessness of critical analysis. I was too afraid to ask. But I never forgot the lesson that critical analysis can prove whatever you want to prove and can completely miss the POINT of a novel.

  • Dave Raines

    I’m looking forward to this. I have no talent for having fun. Maybe it’s something I can learn, or unearth? Or maybe I’ll find a hint of another solution.

    • dwsmith

      Dave, it can be learned. Both in life and in writing. Trust me, the family I grew up in, if I can learn it after escaping, you can learn it as a smart adult as well.

  • Mark Kuhn

    This is pure Gold, Dean. It was learning the difference between creative and critical voices that got me writing again. Of course the lectures and workshops helped. But the creative voice is what put back the desire to write. It’s realizing that sitting down and writing is the first step to hearing what the creative voice is all about and it’s incredible imagination. Hear it and listen and the fingers will move. Even on a lousy day, the words will come. Nothing wasted, all learning.
    I truly feel bad for people who have an urge to write and then get bludgeoned into outlining and rewriting, taught by so-called teachers that it is the only way to write anything. Very sad.
    Thanks again, Dean, for all you do for us.

  • Cora

    I can’t wait for this either. I’ve had an advantage though in amongst all the ‘regular’ English teacher stuff. At the beginning of grade 10 our (really weird) British English teacher had us all write a one page essay on any topic we wanted. I was one of only two people who received a pass. His comment when he handed it back? “It wasn’t boring”

    I try desperately to hang onto that, but it was a long time ago and there’s a whole lot of other critical voices in my head. Time to clear them out and stick with ‘it wasn’t boring’.

    • dwsmith

      A fantastic motto, Cora. Only problem for some people is that they don’t know they are making their work boring by polishing it to death. Making it same so they won’t be embarrassed by something, thus it is no longer new and unique and thus boring. But the writers don’t know they are doing that to their own work, sadly. But still a great motto. Not boring.

  • Stefon Mears

    Looking forward to this one, Dean. I swear, dealing with my critical voice is playing Whack-a-Mole. Every time I smack it down in one place, it pops up in another.

  • Kit Daven

    Looking forward to more articles on the Inner Critic. After reading Writing Into the Dark, I realized I was mistaking my need to go back and make tweaks and additions to the story as my inner critic, and tried very hard to stop doing that. Now that I know that this is truly my inner child at play, I encourage it in my process. So glad you’re going deeper into this subject.

  • Michelle Mulford

    Thanks for starting another writer’s book, Dean. I recently found this comic from Lynda Barry that illustrates critical voice quite well.


    It’s amazing the freedom that comes from not knowing where your story is going, even though right now mine tend to wander a lot before I figure out what story I’m really telling. But I remember you posting about loops, and not cutting anything until the story done, and I just keep writing past the sticking points.

  • T.K.

    years ago when I was teaching I overheard one student say to the other (in an exasperated voice), “Will you please turn off your internal editor!” I felt like I had succeeded.