Seeing Past Criticism in Writing


My growth as a writer has depended upon learning ways to protect myself from myself. Having bipolar disorder, I have had to learn to see flaws without self-abuse, and to correct my work while keeping despair at bay.

While trying to avoid mood crashes during painstaking revision, I stumbled on a way to improve my prose without focusing on my errors. My technique is similar to an exercise Natalie Goldberg introduced in her famous book Writing Down the Bones, which I highly recommend.

She asked readers to write a page or two of text but afterward, instead of combing through the text for what is wrong, you search for the places where your mind is “present.”

What does she mean by the mind being present? Or, to put it a different way, how can the mind be absent? Minds sometimes wander during writing, and empty words take the place of thought. Often there are fillers in writing, kind of like the Styrofoam peanuts in a cardboard package that obscure the real treasure like a new stereo. Something similar happens in conversation when people say “um” or “ya know” a lot.

Like Styrofoam fillers, words often end up obscuring rather than expressing our thoughts. Clunky transitions, inflated language, verbosity, and poor organization can kill reader interest. The Natalie Goldberg exercise is to go through the text and find places where the thoughts appear to “jump off the page” or where there is a sense of clarity. The “filler” is thrown out altogether so there is no need to pick over it.

I loved this exercise and started doing something similar whenever I found myself becoming so self-critical while revising that the words would seem to tangle together into a blur.

I still use my technique a lot. First I make a copy of the passage I want to revise. Then I find the parts I like most and highlight them, sentences or phrases where the prose is transparent, honest, vivid, or intriguing. I look for text that evokes the original vision that drove me want to write the piece in the first place.

I delete the rest.

Drastic? Well, maybe, but it is not as drastic as it sounds since I have made a copy; if I change my mind about the passages I have cut, I can always bring them back. But after trimming the excess, what I am left with are my favorite parts that, however fragmented, remind me that writing is about building, not shooting down what does not work.

Reminded of my original vision, I work to make the rest of the text rise to the level of the parts I love. I build transitions to glue together the sentences I have broken apart in order to create something new. I use the process mainly in my nonfiction, but it is useful even in fiction as a way to rediscover my focus and get me back on track. It makes me ask, what is the substance of what I want to say? What was the point of view, emotion, or theme that excited me originally?

“Rebuilding” text is not always easy, but I enjoy it. I do not resent the rewriting I do in order to create a product I am proud to share. What makes writing psychologically torturous is that we are wired to locate and shoot down errors in our writing. Revision is like a game of Whack-a-Mole without any of the fun. Ew gross! Bad, bad, bad! Get it out NOW!

We approach out work with a trouble shooting mindset. Instead of watering flowers we are pulling weeds. As we do, the neglected flowers wither. “Rebuilding” allows me to return my focus to the flowers.

Visual art offers a similar example. Michelangelo said he saw sculptures in stone and his objective was to cut away everything that was not the sculpture, thereby releasing a form from its rocky prison. Even though he chipped away all the useless parts, he never lost sight of the original vision that inspired him.

Too often, writing feels more like killing than bringing something new to life. The dream of what could be becomes lost as enthusiasm fizzles. Remembering to focus on the parts that appeal to us reconnects us with our original vision and illuminates the way forward so that, headed for the flowers, we can leave the weeds behind.

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16 thoughts on “Seeing Past Criticism in Writing

  1. Hey, that’s pretty good, I like that! “The Natalie Goldberg exercise is to go through the text and find places where the thoughts appear to “jump off the page” or where there is a sense of clarity. The “filler” is thrown out altogether so there is no need to pick over it.”
    That is pretty darned neat!!

    • I’m glad you find the Natalie Goldberg advice helpful Vincent! It’s helped me a lot. Criticism coming from both myself and others can sometimes make me forget that there is anything good about my work. Techniques like that are an emotional life raft.

      The whole book “Writing Down the Bones” is awesome. It’s really helped me during times of underconfidence. 🙂

  2. This is great, Lisa. I’ve not heard of this technique and haven’t instinctively used it either. We’re so quick to navigate to what we don’t like in our writing. I love the concept. Thank you for introducing me to it.

  3. Hmmm. Sounds like something I have to try next time I can actually make my brain focus on something long enough to do it. Interesting concept… (But pressing the “delete” key hurts so much… XD)

    • Lol. I understand about hitting the “delete” key hurting but believe me, it is so liberating in this case. Besides you can make a copy first. It is definitely worth trying.

      I don’t use the technique in every case. I don’t always need it. I use it to as a ladder to climb out of sinkholes of self criticism and despair. It has saved my sanity so many times and allowed me to keep writing while also letting me enjoy it.

      Good luck with trying it! If it works for you let me know. 🙂

  4. Beautiful. What I find refreshing is how you reframe editing in this manner as finding the flowers rather than weeding the garden. I’ve written and edited similarly, but your mindset makes all the difference. When I’m stuck, sometimes I just type, cut and paste, cull and then weave.

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