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5. criticism, critical thinking, and the inner critic

I’ve mentioned the Inner Critic in a few earlier chapters, that voice inside us that makes judgmental observations when we’re trying to write. The role of criticism in the creative process is often misunderstood. As writers, we need internal critical faculties, but we also need to control when and how how to use them effectively so that we don’t stop or inhibit the creative flow. Most experienced writers learn the discipline of engaging the Inner Critic at appropriate times and in constructive ways as they refine their writing process.


There is a misunderstanding about the role of critical thinking and criticism in our creative work and it arises from the word “criticism” itself.

There are two standard definitions of criticism:

1. the expression of disapproval of someone or something; finding fault or pointing out errors or weaknesses.

2. the art of analyzing or evaluating the merits and faults of an artistic work.

Of course, these two definitions are related, but in the creative process it’s the second definition that is the most useful to us. Notice that this definition includes the word “art,” meaning that there is an aspect of criticism that is creative and develops through experience and understanding. The second definition also mentions both merits and faults. In our habitual thinking, we often make the mistake of thinking that criticism only involves observing and considering weaknesses Recognizing strengths and positive qualities is just as important to the creative process as assessing faults.

The Inner Critic often gives voice to the first definition of the word. It speaks in a small, niggling voice in our internal dialog and says, “that sounds terrible” or “that idea is not unique or interesting” or “we’ve heard that before” or “let’s wait until a better idea comes along.” These little judgements, and many others (as I’m sure every writer has heard), kill the creative process, stop the flow of ideas, and paralyze the writer. Hearing similar judgements pronounced by a teacher can be even more devastating.

However, to be valuable, our teachers’ judgements can’t be only positive. We’ve all probably had the experience of showing our work to a teacher, looking for advice, and hearing something like: “Wow, that’s great! Amazing! Wonderful!” and nothing more.

While these kind of compliments feel good in the moment, they are useless on two levels. First, they provide no specific insight into why the work is good, what succeeds, and what’s special and powerful. Having someone more experienced and knowledgeable give us an accurate assessment of what exactly it is about the piece that works is extremely useful. Positive comments that include details – for example, the final section of this piece is really well-scored and it balances the opening – are much more useful than a pat on the back and a “well done.”

Second, a simple compliment, however well intentioned, doesn’t provide any insight into those problem spots where we have struggled and where we doubt the effectiveness of our solutions. Worse, we wonder if there are other problems, flaws that we’re simply unaware of. We might feel patronized and dismissed, wondering if our teachers either don’t think enough of us as writers to engage in a serious dialog, or if they can’t be bothered to deeply consider our work. Most likely, it’s because they’re uncomfortable giving criticism that illuminates the faults or weakness in our work, fearing that a frank assessment might discourage rather than motivate us to improve our work.

So, criticism should give an accurate assessment of both the strengths and weakness of the work, and it should be detailed and thorough. Our Inner Critic needs to be trained to provide the useful kind of criticism, rather than the slow, quiet poison of negativity.

critical thinking

Critical thinking is an essential skill, one every writer needs to be able to apply to their own work. In exercising critical thinking, the writer takes a mental step back – rising above their subjective engagement with their music – makes an objective and deep evaluation of any and all aspects of their work, and forms a judgement about the effectiveness of their writing, on both the detail and large-scale levels. This is particularly important when refining and developing ideas, and also in solving the kinds of problems that arise during the writing process.

By problems, I mean the questions and challenges that come up as we write: how should this chord be voiced? What instrument should play this line? Should it be doubled? Should the chorus happen twice here or should the song move to the bridge? Should I use a different loop here? Have we heard this one too much? Writers are often faced with these kinds of choices, and decisions should be made at the right time during the writing process. You don’t need to make these choices while the creative energy is flowing strongly and deeply: you can defer these decisions until later so you don’t stop the flow. Your ability to think critically should allow you to decide which problems need to be solved now and which can be solved later.

These kinds of problems are solved through the use of your critical facilities aligned with your craft and creativity. When faced with choices, your skill and creativity provide you with a number of possible solutions and your critical thinking allows you to consider each possibility and find the one that fits best in the context of the flowing music of your work.

One of the most useful things a teacher can do is encourage us to develop our critical thinking. They often do this indirectly by asking us to articulate the reasons for our choices. They might ask, “Why did you put that chord there?” “Have you considered leaving the background vocals out until the bridge?” “How do you hear the amount of reverb supporting the meaning of the lyric?” In asking these kinds of question, they are modeling the kind of constructive critical attitude we should develop: when we’ve developed our own critical faculties, we’ll know we need to to ask ourselves questions, and what questions to ask, without external prodding.

When we are asked to articulate our thinking, we must think deeply about our work and the choices we’ve made during the writing process, and be able to intelligently discuss the relative strengths and weaknesses of the various possibilities we considered before settling on our final choice. These kinds of conversations require a higher level of thinking, and engaging in them is sign of real progress on the road to gaining real skill as a writer.

when to listen to the Inner Critic

The Inner Critic can be quite useful when engaged at the right time and in the right way. The Inner Critic is not an enemy to be silenced, but is a wise counselor to consult at the appropriate time. You don’t need the Inner Critic during the initial rush of creative energy that powers your writing, when ideas are flowing and coming quickly. If you hear the its voice at this time, tell it to wait, that you will give it your full attention later, and then get back to writing.

Once you have many of your ideas fixed and you’ve made most of the important decisions that shape your piece, that’s the point at which you engage your critical facilities. And at this point the Inner Critic is no longer a separate, distracting voice, but becomes an integrated part of your critical judgement, guided by your creativity and skill. This is the part of the writing process where you refine and develop your ideas. In Chapter 3, I wrote about how and when to refine your work. Here, I list a few of the most important things to check, things that come with the initial inspiration and expression of the piece. But no matter how inspired these ideas feel, even those that feel like a direct expression of the creative spirit, they need to be reviewed and possible refined or developed. Here a few things to check early in the writing process.

Working with Form: It’s common that we lose sight of the large-scale balance of a piece when we’re sketching our initial ideas. There are a number of things we should check on from time to time during the writing process:

  • How is the length of the piece? Is it too long, too short?
  • Is there introductory material? If not, should there be? If so, is too long, too short?
  • Are the energy peaks and valleys – the thresholds – in the right places? Does the energy rise and fall in pleasing way?
  • Do the textures support the form in a good way: providing interest without being distracting?

These are some of the ideas that often come up. You will no doubt consider others.

Check for Development: Transformation and development may or may not be an important quality in your piece, but if it is, you should take a close look at your work to see if you’ve developed your ideas in a way that works for you. Of course, development needs to be balanced: if there’s little development, the piece can be repetitive and boring, but if there’s too much, or if it’s too extreme, the piece can be too busy and overly fussy. Here are a few things to check:

  • Look at anything that repeats within the piece. An exact repetition means that there is no development. There’s a lot of instances when this is perfectly appropriate, particularly in groove-based or minimalist styles. However, a direct repetition can often appear if the writer has been lazy, repeating ideas by essentially just copying and pasting when some kind of development or transformation would be better.
  • Check all the things in your middle- and background writing to make sure these ideas are fully developed. We often take less time with material that’s not in the foreground and these ideas should get as much of your creative attention as the rest of the piece.
  • In a similar way, check all those places where you introduce new ideas to see if you can use something from elsewhere in the piece that can serve as a way to unify the piece. Reusing ideas, usually developed in some way, is often a better option than using a new idea, particularly in the middle- and background.

When you get to the point in your writing process where you are finishing the piece, you’ll review every aspect of the piece, all of its details down to the smallest level. That the final point at which your art and craft come together to insure that every choice you’ve made is the result of the highest level of creativity unencumbered by technical limitations.

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