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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.

Writing Stoppers or Starters? Transform Your Inner Critic to Your Inner Coach

Who would want to read what I write?

Does that question fill you with curiosity and anticipation? Or with self-doubt and despair? Is this a stopper question for you or a starter?

It really can go either way, although it can be difficult to imagine feeling the opposite of your original reaction. This kind of question is like the image to the right: is it a young woman or a old crone?

Young Woman or Crone?

Either answer is correct. Whether you see an old woman or a young one doesn’t reveal anything profound about your personality. But you see it one way and it’s hard to see it the other way.

Unlike the young woman/old woman image, your tendency to see stoppers or starters does have a significant impact on your writing.

Stopper or Starter Quiz

As you read the following questions, identify how many are stoppers that make you sigh, slump in your chair and adopt the Eyeore attitude (“Good morning Pooh. If it is a good morning, which I doubt.”).

How many are starters that grab your interest, make you sit up and start pondering options and possibilities?

  • What do I know?
  • Who cares?
  • What’s the point?
  • Who do I think I am?
  • How could I begin?
  • What difference can my writing make?

If you see more starters than stoppers, congratulations, your Inner Coach is predominant. If you see more stoppers than starters, your Saboteur is predominant.

The Saboteur is what some people call the Inner Critic, but the Saboteur has far more tricks than criticism. Assaulting you with rhetorical questions that push you away from writing is one of the Saboteur’s favorites.

The Power of the Question

Questions are powerful, especially when the questioner assumes she/he knows the answer. Consider where the power lies when teachers ask questions in class or on exams and when Senators question witnesses at Congressional hearings.

When I’m at my best as a coach, I ask questions that open hidden doors and expand my clients’ perspective. Coaching questions don’t presume an answer. They invite us to consider possibilities, look for more answers and ask more questions.

But Saboteur’s rhetorical questions shut down our thinking and limit our perspective. Like any powerful tool, a question in the hands of the Saboteur is a dangerous weapon.

How does your Saboteur personalize stopper questions for you? What questions pop into your mind to stop your initiative, stall your creative thinking, or keep you from even thinking about writing?

It is our never-ending job to disarm the Saboteur. Start by taking the rhetorical, “you idiot” tone out of the questions that stop you. Ask them as genuine questions.

Change “How could I even begin?” to “How could I begin?” and you open your mind to possibilities.

When asked as genuine question, “Who would want to read what I write?” is the beginning of vital audience analysis.

The genuine version of “What do I know” is the start of brainstorming.

“Who do I think I am?” is an intriguing existential question when you really think about it.

The Saboteur’s rhetorical questions do have one redeeming characteristic. When you transform the rhetorical to a genuine question and freewrite a real response, you often identify the Saboteur’s hidden tricks and discover how to stop them before they stop you.

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10 Comments on “Writing Stoppers or Starters? Transform Your Inner Critic to Your Inner Coach”

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    • rosannebane December 17, 2015 at 2:55 pm #

      Thanks Bali Villa! What kind of writing do you do or want to do?


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  3. Joel D Canfield March 12, 2013 at 3:38 pm #

    As I was reading the questions, I guessed the point, switched from a rhetorical tone to a sincere tone, and what a difference it made.


  4. mireland1966 March 12, 2013 at 2:35 pm #

    I think that I have an unusually active Saboteur because of my training and experience in journalism. It seems quite difficult for me to access the creative/imaginative part of my brain. I
    believe that I need to work harder to overcome the critical/analytical side of my brain if I am to succeed at writing a novel or creative non fiction.


    • rosannebane March 12, 2013 at 4:03 pm #

      I know that when I’m in edit and here’s-how-you-can-improve-your-business-writing mode with MBAs, my fiction suffers. (Fortunately for my fiction, it’s just a few months of the year.)

      But take heart in that fact that all writing is creative (including journalism, so you are already a creative writer) and that all creativity requires both the analytical and imaginative parts of the brain. You may not need to overcome your analytical side of your brain so much as give it a break from time to time and invite the imaginative side to speak up. Creativity requires transitioning from left-hemisphere-style thinking to right-hemisphere-style thinking and back again and again.


      • mireland1966 March 12, 2013 at 4:23 pm #

        It doesn’t help that I have Bi Polar Disorder, and the time change and change of seasons exacerbates the problem!


        • rosannebane March 12, 2013 at 9:42 pm #

          I can see how the combination of bipolar disorder, time change and season change could get your Saboteur extra busy. It might help to remember that your Saboteur thinking is always a lie or a distortion of the truth. I trust you’re working with a mental health professional for the bipolar disorder.


          • mireland1966 March 12, 2013 at 9:48 pm #

            Yes, re professional help; have been for more than 20 years! Sometimes the illness is a blessing, and sometimes it’s a curse. Unfortunately, while meds help keep me sane, they also flatten most creativity. Yet, I have practiced journalism over the years, but have never really gotten anywhere with fiction.


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