By Noelle Sterne


You’re writing along like butter, and suddenly a stomach-wrenching jolt slams you up against a figurative concrete wall. The thunderous voice in your head rebukes: “THAT’S THE WORST, MOST HORRIBLE, STUPID PHRASE SINCE  . . .”

Such a message doesn’t have to plunge you into a full block. Recognize it for what it is—merely your old programming, maybe residue of parental strictures, telling you that you shouldn’t be writing, you’ll never be a writer, and you might as well go sell burn phones (if that’s not already your day job).

I’ve experienced this forbidding voice many times. But its fearsome fireworks, like those of the Wizard of Oz, mask its instability. And, as Dorothy and her friends proved on the yellow brick road, the terrifying presence is vanquished when we take one step after another and trust that we’re on the right path.

When I first heard that deafening, dismissive voice, it stopped me cold. First I sat staring at the blank screen. Then I wandered hopelessly around the house, like an orphan in a canyon. My current project lay abandoned, drafts yellowing and hard drive ossifying.

I longed for a savior on a white laptop. But I realized that only I could break my catatonic state and pierce through my paralysis. So, cowering, I sidled up to the keyboard again.

Staring at the offending passage, I heard again the dread voice. As usual, I almost froze. But then from some subconscious forest, the Excalibur appeared. It charged me to type one more word that calmed, commanded, and cut through the hailstorm of criticism: FIX.

This innocent three-letter word, I’ve found, triggers a palliative magic that renders the fiend powerless and keeps me writing.

Why FIX It?

Here’s why this FIXing technique works:

  1. It tells me that what I’ve just written isn’t typed in cement.
  2. It reminds me that this is only the first draft, or fifth, or fifteenth.
  3. It assures me I’ve got as many shots as I want.
  4. It lets me admit that this might not be my finest hour, but so what?
  5. It gently confirms that the writing process is one of trial and error, coaxing and courting, boldness, patience, and courage.

How FIXing Works

Miraculously, too, FIXing shows me I can trust my mind. And it releases my imprisoned creativity.  I recognized the curative powers of FIX from the wise observations of writer and illustrator Jennifer Paros. She places our blunders in the wholesome context of creativity. “In creating a story, a picture, or anything, it is almost impossible to delineate between mistakes and process. Mistakes are an integral part of the process; they’re drafts, attempts, and experiments” (“Put a Line Through It,” Author Magazine, May 2017).

            What we label “mistakes” are part of our creative process. Joan Didion said, “I don’t know what I think until I write it down.” Other writers have echoed this thought (Stephen King, Flannery O’Connor, E. M. Forster). How do we know what we think until we write this, and then that, and then maybe that other?

Our “mistakes” are part of our writing evolution and lead us, eventually, to what we do think so we can experiment and correct. After I type FIX, as I’m deep into the next paragraph, my eyes often flit back up the screen to the horrendous phrase I tagged. Like apples bobbing up in water, new words and thoughts surface. They’re invariably better than those on the screen, and sometimes even the right ones.

For example, a few lines back, the orphan simile came rather easily. But the words and thoughts directly before it ignited the ogre’s abuse:

I felt like a waif . . .

A stray, I moped . . .

I moped around like an orphan . . .

I wanted to run for the coal cellar. Yet, holding on, I weakly picked out FIX. Three lines and barely five minutes later, the right phrase popped up, and I wandered hopelessly no more.

More Fixes

The more I write, the more I refine the FIX method. Other codes help maintain that precious writing Flow. So, I type REP when in the current draft I can’t help repeating a word too close to the previous use. And W for what I know deeply is a bad, bad word. And D for Decide whether to follow a particular line of reasoning, flesh out a certain character, go down a tangential plot path, or indulge in profound introspection.

All such codes (or admitted tricks), especially during early drafts, contribute to our awareness of writing and refinement of what we want to write. Using the codes sharpens our editing skills too—we’re moving closer to the right words and phrases, even if we haven’t yet corralled them.

So, the next time you hear your own version of the frightful condemning voice, just greet it with a FIX, a REP, a W, a D, or your own variation. Your work will go smoother and with fewer slumps, stalls, halts, and outright freezes. You’ll gain greater confidence in your writing mind, your abilities, and your creativity. You’ll know that in your writing, you can FIX anything.

© 2017 Noelle Sterne

Dr. Noelle Sterne


Author, editor, writing coach, writing workshop leader, and spiritual counselor, Noelle has published over 400 writing craft articles, spiritual pieces, essays, and short stories. Publications include Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Coffeehouse For Writers, Funds for Writers, InnerSelf, Inside Higher Ed, New Age Journal, Pen & Prosper, Sasee, Story Monsters Ink, The Write Place At the Write Time, Unity Magazine, Writer’s Journal, Writing in a Woman’s Voice, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest. Academic editor and coach, with the Ph.D. from Columbia University, she helps doctoral students wrestling with their dissertations and publishes articles in several blogs for dissertation writers. Her book Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books) contains examples from her practice, writing, and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets, relabel their past, and reach lifelong yearnings. Her book Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015) further aids doctoral candidates to award of their degrees. As part of pursuing her writing Dream, Noelle’s mission is to help other writers reach their own and create the lives they truly desire.

A Chicken Soup for the Soul podcast (May 16, 2017) featured her story “Time to Say Goodbye” from a 2013 volume(!):


Noelle’s books:

Author, Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles. Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015.

Author, Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your DreamsUnity Books, 2011.

Published posts on Two Drops of Ink:

1) Do You Want to Prevent Predictable Plots?



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  1. Thank you Noelle, I appreciate your advice using codes, but most of all, giving ourselves permission to make mistakes knowing full well we can go back and FIX it or using a better word. Great insights, Thanks.

    • John–

      As you rightly indicate, the codes are a kind of permission–to keep going, keep making mistakes, keep writing out the junk. Many thanks.

  2. Hi Dr. Stern – I love that you have come up with codes (or tricks as you alternatively named them) to keep the writing flowing. I often “trick” my brain in other areas to my advantage (such as telling myself I’m not really eating a donut if I am eating donut holes-lol!) so why not use some tricks to keep writing?! Thank you for sharing yours. 😊

    • Terry–

      Yes, the tricks work, and as I said, our minds are eminently trickable. Let’s use that faculty to our advantage, in addition to donut holes (and vanilla ice cream hardly counts as ice cream). Extending, our “reality” is what we believe. So let’s believe in ourselves as writers! Thank you for your thanks.

  3. Hi, Dr. Sterne.

    Writing “for real” is a new adventure for me. As a result of my last eighteen months of study and ongoing writing excercises, I can attest to the practicality of the points made in your post.

    Personally, I thoroughly enjoy the intial rough draft. It is hours of freewriting for me, wildly divergent, surprising, yet extremely satisfying. Then comes…the work! That’s the part which requires extensive effort for this 75-year old who failed every English class in school.

    Your post was enjoyable reading and will reside in my reference file. Writers would be remiss in not heeding your advice.

    Thank you for this submission.

    • Thank you, Slug. Your “white-hot writing” method is excellent. Many writers agonize instead of speed ahead. The editing should get easier, and you could consider hiring a college English major or teacher for the sticky grammar parts. That would free you for the more creative aspects.

      • Dr. Sterne…yes, indeed, editing does become easier but quickly discovered it is directly dependent upon hours spent actually writing.

        Thank you for the suggestion of hiring a grammar literate person. Right now, can’t imagine writing anything worthy of such attention.

        I’ll continue to plug along, learning, utilizing the points in your post.

  4. I went the other way with a recent first draft, not stopping for anything; typos, hideous sentence structure, questionable grammar. It worked. I’m paying the price on my first edit,it’s going painfully slowly, but for someone with a boisterous internal critic, this worked. Wonderful article!😊

    • Mike–

      You’ve found a method that does indeed work. Despite the travails of second+ drafts, the first is often the hardest to crack. So, bravo! The editing should get easier (keep telling this to yourself and your internal critic).

  5. Thank you, Dr. Sterne. This is a wonderful how-to as well as encouraging.

    Playing on your theme of FIX, it aligns with many of my drafting, editing, and revising methods. F – if I write something in a different font, I can verify its relevance, or find a quote after drafting. I – italics alert me that I might want to stop belaboring a point and pick out only the most relevant in the revision. X – Like Joan Didion, I’m writing to see where I’m going.

    Even if I end up in OZ, at least I made it through the Haunted Forest and slew a few monkeys if I get it all down – then, we’ll get back to Kansas – sorry… Wizard has always been a favorite movie.

    I also turn off all notifications in a draft. My fingers meant to type an “o” and hit the “p”. I don’t need the visual reminder at that point, reinforcing my inner critic. One is bad enough.

    Again, thank you for always providing information and practical suggestions to improve our writing. You are such an asset to the site.

      • Hi, Dr. Sterne. Thank you. You’re more than welcome to use any of those methods. I think this is the way it’s supposed to be – collaborating, sharing what works, and in doing so, we free up our minds to learn something new. Just how I think the Universe works. She smiles.

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