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Four Ways to Silence Your Inner Comments Section

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Crack open any book on the craft of writing published in the last fifty years, and you’re almost guaranteed to find a chapter on how to “silence your inner critic.” The inner critic is that voice that says you’re not good enough, that you need to go back and fix this awkward phrase or that plot hole before you even think of sharing your work with another soul, you hack. And there’s some excellent advice out there from giants of writing: Stephen King in On Writing advises outrunning the inner critic by refusing to turn back and edit until the first draft is complete. In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott suggests envisioning each critical voice in your head as a mouse, which you will then silence by dropping them into a Mason jar and screwing on the lid.

All good advice, and still relevant. But the longer I’ve been writing in the internet age, the more I find myself allowing in a new inner critic that these classics don’t address:

The inner comments section.

Comments sections are often cited as the worst places on the internet (Writer Unboxed is a notable exception, and I promise they did not pay me to say this), but the same principle can be applied to anywhere that an audience is invited to respond directly to published content, including social media. Our inner comments sections, like our inner critics, will all look different, but mine resembles the sort of commenter that takes every sentence in bad faith.

Unintentionally, I’ve started couching the words I write in clarifications against arguments that no one has made, almost as if I’m trying to anticipate every bad-faith reading someone could have. I even did it at the start of this post: writing, “All good advice, and always relevant,” after quoting two respected authors, as though to head off someone asking whether I’m saying that King and Lamott gave bad advice. I know I’m not the only one, too; once you notice others doing this, you won’t be able to unsee it.

And the thing is, no reasonable person would read the opening to this post and jump straight to, “Are you saying that these two authors aren’t smart? What makes you any better??” But that’s the way my brain has adapted to existing on the internet. Even when I wrote political opinion pieces for my college newspaper, I didn’t get that many bad-faith responses, though that was [REDACTED] years ago, and this particular form of casual internet harassment seems to have gotten more popular since then.

Like inner critics, inner comments sections will say that you should probably just not write at all. But unlike inner critics, your inner comments section may tell you that it can be silenced if you simply write in such a way that eliminates every possible bad-faith reading. That is, of course, impossible. Attempting to write a perfectly watertight article or a novel without plot holes is a great way to A) go insane, and B) play the world’s worst game of Whack-A-Mole as you chase every possible misreading of your words off the edge of a cliff.

In some cases, advice geared toward silencing our inner critics can also be applied to inner comments sections. But I would argue that we must also look at our inner comments as unique obstacles that require unique responses. Luckily, there are things that we can do to keep these voices from taking up residence in our minds as our inner critic’s loud and cranky neighbor.

1. Understand that your brain is trying to protect you.

A few years ago, a scientist claimed that housecats see their owners as nothing but big, unintelligent cats. That’s the reason our pets bring us dead mice and birds: they think we need help feeding ourselves. I like to think of our brains as similar to these cats. Humans didn’t get this far without a healthy sense of self-preservation, and part of the reason behind that is the protective instincts in our amygdalae. If an action carries a risk, the amygdala says, then we shouldn’t do the action. Unfortunately, most actions carry risks—even writing. But the amygdala is just one part of the brain, which does not understand that other parts of the brain are capable of managing threats when they occur. In short, when your inner comments section gets loud, that’s your brain sensing a threat and trying to protect you from it. By understanding this, we can remind those slightly more evolved parts of our brain that our inner comments sections are not real threats. And even if we do experience something unpleasant in a real-life comments section—unless there is an actual threat to our physical safety, which unfortunately is an all-to-real possibility at times—we are adults who can use healthy coping mechanisms to manage our distress.

2. Recognize the difference between your inner critic and your inner comments section.

There are some fundamental differences between it and your inner comments section. Your inner critic tells you that your writing is crap, that you aren’t good enough, that your story is unimaginative, that you’ll never sell that book. In a twisted way, the inner critic is (unkindly, and not productively) trying to get you to be a better writer. There’s a reason the inner critic is also sometimes called the inner editor: you’re channeling what your brain things a (not nice) editor might say to critique your work. Unlike editors, though, internet comments sections aren’t there to help your writing improve, nor are they supposed to have your best interests in mind. In their purest state, comments sections are there to allow readers to engage with the text and with one another. In reality, they are often populated by people who are there to tear someone else down. Many modern tips for dealing with the inner critic advocate for self-compassion, or for replacing the urge to bully yourself with gentle encouragement and understanding. But when caught imagining the internet discourse forming around our work, we can remind ourselves that comments sections are not looking out for us at all. They are not our colleagues or our friends: they are background chatter. Why would you listen to someone who’s just being mean to you out of spite?

3. Actually face the bad voices.

Allowing the inner critic to take up permanent residence in our minds is not a good idea. But sometimes, ignoring a problem will only make it worse. To silence in inner critic, I’ve found it helpful at times to sit down with a pen and paper and list out, stream of consciousness style, every fear I’m having about my work at that moment. I’ve started doing the same exercise with fears related specifically to reader reactions to my work. Every time I allow the inner comments section to say its piece, I recognize just how ridiculous they sound. As someone who processes information best through writing, I’ve allowed myself to take pen to paper and write down every silly response and bad-faith argument that I can think of someone having to my writing. By doing so, I’ve helped myself understand that if I live my writing life in fear that someone will misunderstand or respond poorly to something I write, I would never write anything. And since that’s not an option for me, I’ve found it easier to look past the risk that there may be a bad response one day, and choose to keep my voice and stay true to myself. Because that’s how I’ve decided I want to live my life: as long as I write things that I myself can be proud of, I’ll consider myself a success.

4. Take external actions for internal comfort.

I’ve written primarily here about the inner comments section that exists only in my head. But it’s no secret that some writers, especially those from traditionally excluded backgrounds, have been targeted by real threats to their physical safety. Before you sit down to write, consider whether you feel prepared to accept (and overlook, ignore, or report) negative reader reactions. Is there a way you can write what you want while understanding—and not minding—that you may receive some blowback? If you can’t possibly write this thing without being distracted with fear over a potential response, are there steps you can take to make yourself feel safer? Consider whether you would like to take concrete steps to protect yourself—for example, using a pen name, scrubbing your personal information from the internet, using auto-block lists on social media, and so on. Sometimes knowing that we have taken concrete steps to strengthen our safety and privacy can go a long way toward quieting fears.

Do you have an inner comments section that has kept you from writing? Have you found other ways to silence your inner comments section?


About Kelsey Allagood

Kelsey Allagood (she/her) is a writer, occasional photographer, and trained political analyst specializing in the causes of war and systemic oppression. This background led her to begin writing fantasy fiction steeped in the anthropology of conflict. Her writing can be found in literary magazines such as Barrelhouse, GRIFFEL, Menacing Hedge, and Wanderlust. Her photography is forthcoming in RESURRECTION mag. She has also written on peaceful resistance movements, art as a form of political resistance, and countering violent extremist ideology. Kelsey has a Bachelor’s Degree in international and cultural studies from the University of Tampa and a Master’s Degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University. She lives in Maryland with her husband, mother, and a rescue dog named Henry.

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