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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

Jettison Judgment and Develop Discernment (to Reduce Writer’s Block)

My second recommendation to Liz’s question about achieving a healthy balance between pride and humility is to jettison judgment and develop discernment.

I have a theory that judgment is at the heart of every writer’s block (and most other forms of writing resistance).

Usually it’s negative judgment and harsh criticism that creates resistance. But I’ve worked with a handful of students and clients who were stymied by praise from a revered writing teacher or mentor. Lavish praise (sometimes accompanied with a statement like “You should have no difficulty finishing (or publishing) this piece”) creates high expectations. So the writer delays working on the piece until s/he feels capable of performing to that high standard. Not surprisingly, that day rarely arrives.

Positive judgment, especially unwarranted praise that is not tied to performance (i.e. everybody gets a trophy), is a source of excessive pride, while negative judgment is a source of excessive humility. But positive or negative, judgment never serves a writer.

Jettison Judgment

Judgment is often based more on personal opinion and bias than on verifiable, objective fact. Judgment is too focused on evaluating whether the writing is what it should be to recognize what it really is. And because judgment does not accept what the work is, it cannot see how the work can be improved.

Negative judgment consists of sweeping generalizations: “The entire thing is crap; it’s hopeless, pointless and irrelevant; the characters are flat and uninteresting; the plot is unbelievable and trite; the language is hackneyed and cliché.” Criticism of the work often slides to scathing indictments of the writer: “I’ll never be able to do this right, I don’t have what it takes, s/he is a hack.” To top it off, negative judgment assumes that what’s wrong is so wrong it cannot possibly be made right.

Positive judgment, while more pleasant, is just as detrimental. Positive judgment also makes sweeping generalizations that the writing is perfect just the way it is. There’s no need to revise or improve, because the work has magically achieved perfection on the first attempt. Where negative judgment denies the possibility of improvement, positive judgment denies the need for improvement.

Develop Discernment

Because discernment asks questions, it finds answers

Where judgment makes sweeping generalizations, discernment makes specific observations. Because these observations are not tainted by judgment, the writer is able to really hear them and use them. Instead of shutting down the writer with “This whole thing is crap,” discernment observes “This section isn’t moving like the others. I wonder why. How can you/I change the pace?”

Discerning observations open possibilities. They free the writer to explore and expand her or his repertoire. Discernment allows a writer to improve the current work and to develop the craft skills needed to keep growing as a writer.

Judgment offers a preliminary evaluation, then rejects (as bad) or inflates (as good) based on that incomplete evaluation without ever fully seeing, understanding and accepting what is.

Discernment on the other hand simultaneously accepts the work as it is and appreciates what it can be. This acceptance allows a discerning person to evaluate writing honestly and make effective changes.

Discernment Development Tips

Develop your judgment-radar. Listen to all the judgments you have about everything all the time. Notice when you’re judging and stop. Easier said than done, I know. It helps to know that as soon as you observe yourself judging your writing or anything else, that observation strengthens your discernment. Just noticing “I’m judging this traffic jam or email from my boss or whatever” stops the judgment, at least for the moment, and replaces it with an observation. When you accept that you’re judging, you move into discernment.

Develop a Process habit. One of the benefits of Process – creative play with no expectations – is the development of discernment. Every time you do Process, you practice setting expectations aside and refraining from judgment. You play and observe what happens, but it’s never a big deal. Because you’re just playing, you can say “Oh, the red finger paint does this,” not “I screwed up; the red paint looks ugly when I mix it with green.”

Refrain from evaluating your work for a day or two. Looking at your writing too soon makes it harder to stay with discernment and out of judgment. If you notice you’re judging your work, remind yourself “It’s too soon to judge.” In fact, it will always be too soon to judge. But with a few days distance between creating and reviewing, you can set aside judgment’s “good or bad” dichotomy and discern “effective or needs something” instead.

Ultimately, judgment’s “good or bad” analysis is boring. It doesn’t take us anywhere new. Discernment makes creativity and creative change possible – and that’s where the real thrill is.

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21 Comments on “Jettison Judgment and Develop Discernment (to Reduce Writer’s Block)”

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  5. Rachel V. July 29, 2011 at 11:32 pm #

    Thanks, Rosanne, for this interesting post.

    I like your analysis of the “good or bad” judgement a writer has about their work. I can easily relate. I think there is another option, too, which we often overlook – because it is more difficult to discern – and that is neutral. The days when I show up to write and make progress and don’t judge my writing probably outweigh the days when I judge my writing as good or bad, but those “neutral” days aren’t the days I usually remember.

    I’ll be interested in trying out the tips you provide, particularly refraining from evaluating my work too soon.


    • rosannebane July 30, 2011 at 10:05 am #

      Thanks Rachel! I think neutral is the place where we can be discerning. The days when you’re making progress and don’t judge your writing are most likely your most effective days. You’re right, too, that you won’t remember those days as vividly exactly because they aren’t laden with emotion (the more emotion, the stronger the memory, and the brain remembers negative experiences most clearly of all). Giving yourself a small reward releases two neurotransmitters that help the brain remember, so those neutral days are prime times to reward yourself.



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