Writing and the Importance of Self-Criticism

As a writer it is of vital importance to know when the thing you are writing, or even have finished writing, isn’t working. I don’t refer here to those moments of doubt, where you think something is a bit rubbish. That feeling of doubt is normal and usually should be ignored. What I mean is when something really isn’t working, when the characters are flat and unlikable, when the story is going up the wrong alley or if things are getting a bit too complicated, if there’s too much to the story. In all creative professions self-criticism is just as necessary as external criticism and it is wise to pay attention to both, up to a certain point. When you’re in the throes of a mad writing passion self-criticism is pretty much all you have and your critical thinking skills need to be good enough to allow you take a momentary step backwards and to help you notice when you have a problem.

It isn’t something you can start doing overnight though. You first have to be able to tell the difference between a moment of quality related doubt and something that is a problem and then you need to know how best to solve that problem without making things worse. It’s something that takes a long time to learn and the only way to really learn is to practice. That means looking at what you’ve written before, looking at where you went wrong, what you could have done better and sometimes (and this is contrary to what is a heavily touted piece of advice) it means going back through what you are currently writing as well. This latter does, sometimes, lead to moments of doubt but it can also save your work from going off the rails before it is too late. It can mean the difference between a story that ends brilliantly and one that ends in a metaphorical car crash.

If only I’d had this skill when I was thirteen and writing my first proper attempt at a novel, Under the Fuhrer’s Control. If ever there was a story that went off the rails and an example of why self-criticism is important, it was this. What started out as a whodunit in a prisoner of war camp quickly blew up into a nonsensical mess- The woman who left the British senior officer at the altar turned up, was revealed to actually be her identical twin sister only to be assumed she wasn’t and killed only for her twin to turn up later on, everyone escapes through a hidden tunnel, the murderer turns out to be the camp commandant in disguise, it’s all taking place on an island the size of Wales, which is off the coast of France, and nobody has noticed it, and the Nazis aren’t actually Nazis but British Communists pretending to be Nazis… That is only scratching the surface but you can see how it went off the rails. Had my thirteen year old self had more critical self-awareness it could have ended up as something much better than the dross it was.

Compare to its successor, my attempt to turn that book into something workable, Charlie Fuller– Which will be out in May of next year (on Charlie’s 100th Birthday.) In the fourteen years between now and when I wrote the previous book I have learnt a lot and Charlie ended up with almost none of the ridiculousness of that first piece but it still had problems. Had I not had been able to think critically it would have had a cluster-f**k of a last chapter but I salvaged that by rewriting. Throwing away all ten thousand words of it I was able to make it tighter, more fitting. Through self-criticism I also managed to cut the whole book down in size by a whopping thirty thousand words.

Being able to detach yourself and think critically about your own work is, at the end of the day, a form of quality control. By thinking critically and looking at what is good and what is bad about a piece, about what fits and what doesn’t, by thinking of ways you can improve things your work naturally ends up being of a higher quality. As humans we tend to be blind to our own faults and flaws, especially so when it comes to the things we create. Critical thinking and self-criticism is a way to see through that blindness, to see things as an independent audience might see them. It allows us to see the faults and flaws in our own work and therefore gives us a chance to eliminate them.

It can be tough having to admit there are faults and sometimes in correcting those faults you have to be brutal. A character that doesn’t gel with the story or is exceptionally excruciating may need to be eliminated entirely, for instance. If the plot isn’t working you may need to restructure it entirely. You may, in some cases, need to start from scratch. Some ideas have to be ditched, especially if they don’t work within the framework of the story. Sometimes, even when you’ve spent a year, maybe more, on something, you have to throw everything away and start afresh. It isn’t easy, but whoever said writing was? It’s an art and all good art takes time to get right. You have to pour your heart, body and soul into it. You have to be analytical, ruthless and at all times striving to do the best job you can.

The phrase ‘kill your darlings’ is apt in learning to be self-critical, but not in the way it is usually used. Usually it is taken to mean ‘cut out all the stuff you like’ and, as one website puts it, ‘your most self-indulgent passages.’ I’d like to use it in a different way. I want to use to say cut or change anything that doesn’t work, even if you happen to be madly in love with it. Cut or change it. If a self-indulgent passage works within the context of the work, by all means you can keep it. If there is something you really like it can stay so long as it is beneficial to the characters or the plot, so long as it doesn’t drag the story down. If, however, getting rid of that thing you love, be it a character or a line or a plot point, will make the whole thing better then you should kill your darling. Be sure not to get rid of everything you love, however, as then you’ll lose much of what is driving you to write in the first place. You won’t be as proud of the final product and you won’t have as much enthusiasm for it. Without that enthusiasm you’ll have difficulty selling it to the big wide world.

The result of a lack of self-criticism (Courtesy of Daily Mirror/Lucasfilm/Disney)

The textbook example of what happens when you don’t think self-critically or even listen to your critics is George Lucas. To start with, Indiana Jones- Lucas insisted on aliens for the fourth film, an idea that was terrible from the outset. He was even told this by Steven Spielberg (who sometimes himself suffers from self-critical failure) but refused to listen. As a result of a whole lack of self-critical thinking and the fact that Lucas and Spielberg are such powerful industry figures that nobody dares tell them they’re being silly, the film ended up as one hot mess. Even a tiny bit of critical thinking would have helped as far as Crystal Skull was concerned. Worse is Star Wars. It’s common knowledge that the prequels suck monkey d**k and most of that is down to Lucas. Would we have suffered Jar-Jar Binks if Lucas had the ability to be self-critical? I doubt it. He isn’t the only Hollywood mogul who suffers from this problem- Ridley Scott is fast becoming another example, especially in light of the Alien prequels- But Lucas is certainly the most prominent example.

If you want to write and put that piece of writing out into the public sphere then self-criticism should be an integral part of your repertoire. You have to detach yourself, be partisan. You have to be ruthless and sometimes you will have to kill your darlings. It’s something that takes time to learn how to do and it takes a lot of practice but not only is it necessary it also very much worthwhile for by being able to self-criticise you are also able to iron out the flaws of your own work and take it to the next level. Without this skill you end up like George Lucas, and nobody wants another one of him around.


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