I’ve made short posts about this earlier on my Swedish Instagram, but here’s an entire long blog post in English about the matter: the importance of distinguishing self-critique from self-bashing.

There’s a lot of writing advice aimed at aspiring authors which paints “self-critique” as a problem that we should overcome. Writers often post themselves, on Insta and other places, about their problems with self-critique, how they must stop being so critical, learn to silence the critical voice in their heads, etc. When you read all this, you might easily get the impression that the world is full of writers who are close to perfecting their skills already, writers who could publish their scripts tomorrow and mesmerize countless readers with their amazing prose, if only they stopped criticizing themselves. But that’s not true! Writing is hard. Most aspiring writers who struggle with their scripts have tons of problems and weaknesses, and their texts need to be improved many times over before they see the light of publication.

Discounting some clumsy attempts in my youth, I didn’t begin writing fiction until 2018, and my first publication (a short story in NoHiding Publishing’s fantasy anthology Sommarsjälar (Summer Souls)) came out just now, so I’m a noob in this area. But I’ve still published philosophy for ten years now, and learnt a fair bit about that business along the way, and I think some lessons learnt can be transferred straight to fiction. One of those lessons is that harsh self-criticism is important, and that people often aren’t sufficiently self-critical. Of course you ask your colleagues for feedback, but if you can’t be really critical against your own texts and improve them yourself, your colleagues will be saddled with a hopelessly momentous task. When I was a freshly minted PhD and in the habit of dismissing the little critical voice in my head which said, for instance, that an argument might be too weak or slightly unclear, what was the result? Desk rejection upon desk rejection (that is, rejection with only standard comments, for those of you who don’t know the academic lingo: “we are sorry to say that we have decided not to publish your paper in our journal. We get many high quality contributions…” followed by something vaguely positive and encouraging.) It wasn’t until I had improved my ability to criticize myself hard and revise-revise-revise on my own initiative, plus taking critique from colleagues seriously, that I got published and my career got going.

Nevertheless, you do have a problem if you keep bashing yourself. So what’s the difference? Some is purely emotional – a person bashing themself feels stupid, worthless, hopeless, and so on, while a person constructively criticizing themself doesn’t suffer from these paralyzing negative emotions. (You obviously don’t feel happy about it when you realize that a paragraph is bad and needs to be rewritten before it’s good enough, but it’s possible to note this while being pretty neutral, emotion-wise. It’s definitely possible to note this without any dramatic and destructive negative feelings.) Some of it is conative – self-criticism is followed by motivation to write on and improve, while self-bashing is followed by a lack of motivation, not feeling like writing anymore, because it all sucks anyway. Finally, some of the difference might be cognitive, and have to do with how you formulate your thoughts. “Wait a minute, this part doesn’t work at all, I gotta do some serious rewriting to make this good” vs “wait a minute, this part doesn’t work at all, damn I suck, I’m an idiot, I’ll never make it.”

It’s so terribly important to be able to distinguish self-criticism from self-bashing, for whereas the latter is something you should work on overcoming, the former is something you need to practice and improve, if your goal is to write for anything other than your own drawer.