Finding Your “Writing Conscience”

Many times, authors think of critique and writing support in terms of groups–either a writer’s group with regular meetings or, in some cases, an online group, where writers share and critique one another’s work in a virtual setting.

Writers’ groups are useful, and important, tools in the writer’s arsenal. Today, however, I’d like to talk about another writer’s tool: one I like to call a “writing conscience.”

In the Disney film Pinocchio, Pinocchio describes Jiminy Cricket as “my conscience. He tells me what’s right and wrong.” Although the external conscience feature didn’t always work out as intended, Jiminy Cricket did his best to keep the little puppet on the straight and narrow path.

Like Pinocchio, writers have a tendency to make the easy decision instead of the “right” one when it comes to writing time–and editing–and any number of other obligations writers face. We tend to be lazy. We tell ourselves we’ll work tomorrow…(and tomorrow…and tomorrow…until our petty pace indeed creeps out until the last syllable of recorded time , with no more words accomplished). We fail to push ourselves to improve with every draft and every manuscript.

In short, we need a Jiminy-Cricket-style external conscience. 

A “writing conscience” is a friend–normally, another writer–with whom you share accountability. The manner in which you hold one another accountable can vary, but the relationship is essentially a pact to keep one another moving (and moving forward) both in word count and in skill. Some examples:

— “Sprinting” during writing sessions. Check in with one another before the session starts, and set your individual goals for the hour (or however long you intend to work before checking in). The goals don’t have to match, and it’s not a contest–when you check in at the end, the only measurement is whether or not you stayed on task and met your individual goal.

–Encouraging one another (and checking in) with regular messages. It’s easy to isolate yourself in the writing process, and in life, whether writing is your career or your avocation. Writing consciences help one another avoid this isolation, by checking in periodically, with encouragement or just to see how the work-in-progress is proceeding. Text messages are a great way to do this.

–“Talking Story.” Whether a writer works from an outline or by the seat of his or her pants, there comes a time in every manuscript when the writer needs a second opinion. It might be something as simple as whether a character’s name needs changing, or as complicated as fixing the linchpin clue in a mystery plot. Writing consciences help one another over these hurdles with honest advice.

Writing consciences can help with other things, too, like manuscript critique and beta reading. However, the conscience can also be a person who doesn’t read the entire manuscript, if that’s what works for you. The most important thing to remember is that the job’s reciprocal–when someone acts as a conscience for you, you need to return the favor. It’s an investment in someone else who’s invested in you as well. That’s why it works.

People often ask me how I stay on track to practice law and write a couple of books a year. The answer is, in part, my writing conscience. She’s there for me–as I am for her–and it keeps us both on track.

If you haven’t got a writing conscience, I strongly recommend you give it a try. If you do…I’d love to hear what your writing conscience does for you!