When It’s OK to Listen to Your Inner Editor

sara-letourneau

We’ve all wrangled with our inner editor at some point in our writing process. This voice in our head critiques our craft in mid-stream, from the big picture (“This plot hole needs to be fixed!”) to minor details (“That’s not the right word!”). And quite often, it can be distracting – or, worse, discouraging. No wonder many writers suggest that we ignore or “turn off” our inner editor so we can focus on our work.

I agree with that advice, though I’d phrase mine this way:

Ignore your inner editor so you can focus on your work – but don’t forget to listen to it at the right times.

Yes, that voice can help improve your work in certain instances. The trick is recognizing when you should or shouldn’t pay attention to it. And with practice, careful thought, and self-assertiveness (well, you are putting your foot down with yourself!), you can tune in and out of your inner editor’s chatter as you see fit.

So, let’s touch on common scenarios featuring the inner editor and how to handle its criticisms – er, input – when appropriate.

When Is It OK to Listen to Your Inner Editor?

When Revising Your WIP: At this stage you’re performing “minor surgery” on your story. You have a good idea of what it’s about and what large-scale changes (additions, deletions, moves, etc.) might strengthen it. What if your inner editor chimes in with an idea you missed before? Depending on how you work best, you can either incorporate that suggestion now or wait until the next draft.

When Editing Your WIP: Editing differs from revising in that you’re polishing your writing and fixing tiny elements like punctuation. Your inner editor might remind you now to slow down and choose the precise words, emotions, or images for the scene at hand. That’s perfectly fine. Take that moment to listen and refine, especially if you’re submitting the story to an editor or beta-readers next.

When Its Suggestions Are Valid: Your inner editor doesn’t always nag or berate you. Sometimes it speaks calmly and constructively, like “Is the protagonist behaving in-character here?” or “You might want to check the definition of this word.” These moments, when your inner editor acts as your conscience and not as a frightened child, are ideal times to listen to it.

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Courtesy: Pixabay

When Is It NOT OK to Listen to Your Inner Editor?

When Drafting Your WIP: This is when you’re still learning about your story – and often when your inner editor shouts loudest. When it does, it’s crucial to remember to simply write. Otherwise, you’ll keep going back to rewrite scenes or entire chapters when you should be adding new ones instead. After all, you want to finish that draft, right?

When Your Ego Takes Over: Sometimes your inner editor turns into your worst critic. You question your characters, plot, voice – every element of your story. This isn’t your inner editor talking, though; it’s your ego. All writers wrestle with doubts and fears throughout their process. So while it unfortunately comes with the territory, remember you aren’t alone in fighting your inner demons, and you can find a way to overcome them.

Learning How to Manage Your Inner Editor

As you can see, half the battle is recognizing when and why you should listen to your inner editor. But how can you manage that relationship without neglecting advice that might actually help? Here are some tips:

  • Distinguish the advice from the “screaming.” When your inner editor speaks, listen carefully to its message and tone. Then ask yourself, “Will this improve my WIP? Or am I beating myself up?” You might already know the answer subconsciously.
  • When drafting, take notes of changes instead of incorporating them immediately. That way, you can focus on finishing your story while creating a revision / editing checklist for Draft #2. I did this during my WIP’s first draft, and it was one of the smartest changes I’ve ever made to my writing process.
  • Develop a strategy for overcoming writer’s doubt. Whether you prefer to take a writing course or channel your creativity through other outlets, it’s good to have a method for rebuilding your confidence in case your inner editor overpowers you.
  • Step away from the WIP temporarily. If your inner editor refuses to be quiet, give yourself permission to take a day or two off from writing. This will let you clear your head and gain a fresh (and less critical) perspective for when you return to your work.

In short, it really is possible for us to work with our inner editor. Figuring out how will require work on our part (let’s face it, inner editors rarely compromise). But once we do, we can transform that relationship from painfully one-sided to respectfully harmonious – most of the time. 😉

Do you find yourself “arguing” with your inner editor sometimes? Have you learned when to ignore or shut down that voice, and when to listen to it?

sara-_framedSara is a fantasy writer living in Massachusetts who devours good books, geeks out about character arcs, and drinks too much tea. In addition to WHW’s Resident Writing Coach Program, she writes the Theme: A Story’s Soul column at DIY MFA and is hard at work on a YA fantasy novel. Find out more about Sara here, visit her personal blog, Goodreads profile, and find her online.
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30 Responses to When It’s OK to Listen to Your Inner Editor

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  3. E E Rawls says:

    Great post, Sara!
    Thankfully I’ve been able to tone down my inner editor during first drafts, but that wasn’t always the case! It took years of writing stories for me to learn how to better control the nagging critiques during that first stage, and to save the editing for later drafts. I find that planning out a solid outline of the story before the writing begins does wonders to calm my inner editor, and helps it to wait patiently for draft 2.

    • Thanks, E.! And you’re right, it takes practice and patience to learn when we should or shouldn’t listen to our inner editor. Sometimes it can take us years to figure it out, like you mentioned. But once we know the difference, we can determine what changes we need to make to our writing process so we know how to handle that “conflict” in the future. I’m glad you found a method of managing your inner editor that works for you! 🙂

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  5. Erik says:

    Thank you for writing one crucial thing! Even when you’ve decided you shouldn’t take your inner editor’s advice, listen to that voice and take notes.

    Trying to silence a thought isn’t really going to work. (Just try not to think of a pink elephant… I said NOT to think of it… yeah, you see…)

    It’ll likely be much faster to just make that note than to fight that voice for the rest of the afternoon.

    I find trying to note down what the problem is ends in two ways: either it’s general worry and no real problem actually exists, or there’s a genuine problem that I might have to deal with later when editing. And I’m thankful for having noticed it.

    It usually turns out that clarifying what’s up brings a lot of stress out of the situation. Instead of having the shadow of a monster running around in my head (horror movies do this very successfully – only hinting the monster until the very end), I’ve put a spotlight on the problem, know what it’s about and have a much better chance to solve it.

    • ^^ These are all excellent insights, Erik. Even if we note down the inner editor’s comment regardless of what it is, the act of writing it down will help us figure out whether we’re criticizing ourselves / worrying too much about something or discovering a valid way of improving our work. So thank you for sharing your experience and adding to the discussion. 😉

      And yeah, I’ve had a hard time getting the pink elephant out of my head after you mentioned it. *lol* So, again, valid point!

  6. Good advice, Sara! I hadn’t thought about managing your inner editor in this way. But this is a good perspective!

  7. As with so many “guidelines” of writing, listening to internal editors isn’t a clearly right-or-wrong question. There are times to listen and times to tell them to shut their pie holes. Thanks for breaking it down for us, Sara :).

  8. Great post Sara! It is easy to get our emotions churned up when our internal editor is involved. It’s good to have a guideline when to tune him out or not! 🙂

    • Sara L. says:

      Thanks Angela! 🙂 Yes, it’s easy for writers to react emotionally to our inner editor, especially when it’s “criticizing” us. So it’s important to take a step back and distance ourselves from that self-criticism (because, in the end, we are the ones criticizing ourselves), then consider the cause of that message. Calmness and reason are our friends in those cases.

  9. sjhigbee says:

    Another great, informative article, Sara… And you’re right – at times it’s really difficult to differentiate between the inner editor and ego. Like those who have also commented, I think you’ve effectively covered this problem, which is an ongoing issue that – I’ve found – that really doesn’t go away, no matter how many books you write.

    • Sara L. says:

      ^^ You’re right, Sarah. We’re going to have to confront our inner editor every time we write a story, no matter how long we’ve been writing or how confident we feel in our work. So we need to learn to manage, or even collaborate with, that voice in our heads, and to not give up when its criticisms get too loud. It’s a balancing act for sure, but if we have the right attitude and method for managing our inner editor, we can achieve that balance (again, most of the time). 😉

  10. :Donna says:

    Another invaluable post since knowing WHEN to edit is so critical and often difficult. Thank you, Sara! 😀

  11. A.S. Akkalon says:

    I think I’m fairly good at keeping my inner editor out of the way while I’m drafting. You might find him peeping in the window, waving a little to try to catch my attention, and not quite getting up the nerve to tap on the glass. What I need to work on is listening to him at the right times.

    Your suggestion to keep a file of editing notes is one I use, and I find it really helpful. I can keep the thought for later, but having it doesn’t interfere with my momentum. Sometimes I go on to implement these ideas, sometimes I don’t.

    I’ve been editing recently and I’ve noticed something odd. It usually takes me going over a scene three times to consciously realise that something about the scene is bugging me and to actually fix it. My inner critic saw the problem the first time I read it. Why didn’t I? I need to teach him to speak up.

    • Sara L. says:

      You’re on the right track, A.S. It sounds like you’ve taught yourself how to “block out” your inner editor when you need to – perhaps too well. But now you also recognize when it might be good to listen to him. See what happens when you let him “speak up” in cases like that, and let me know how it goes.

      Glad you like the editing notes suggestion, btw. It’s great not only for maintaining momentum with the current draft, but also for remembering the revision / editing ideas in the first place. That was the other reason why I started keeping notes and checklists for future drafts – I was afraid I’d forget those ideas later on! 😉

  12. Faith Rivens says:

    A great post, Sara!
    It’s actually perfectly timed with NaNoWriMo at the moment. One thing I’ve learned when writing first drafts is that the inner critic is better kept quiet, though I do let her slip in every now and then just to make notes for improvement. But boy does she like taking control when we get into draft edits!
    Thanks for sharing your insight 🙂

    • Sara L. says:

      You’re welcome, Faith! You know what’s weird, though? I hadn’t thought of how timely this topic might be for anyone doing NaNoWriMo. So I’m glad it worked out that way, for both you and anyone else who’s doing it. 🙂

      “But boy does she like taking control when we get into draft edits!”

      Mine does the same thing! They’re control freaks, aren’t they? 😉 I actually let mine get a little carried away on the last day of editing Draft #3 of my WIP recently. I had a short checklist of universal changes to make after finishing the last chapter… and then I found OTHER things I wanted to change. And before I knew it, I’d been pecking away at the WIP for almost 3 hours, and I said, “Sara, STOP. You’re done. Go eat dinner. NOW.” (*laughs, then blushes*) So even when you think your “relationship” with your inner editor is under control, sometimes she sneaks up on you!

  13. Julie Hiner says:

    Fantastic article!!! Very well written, with real, practical advice. Thanks so much for sharing 🙂

  14. Jack T. says:

    This is a most valuable site for any writer. I constantly read, but don’t comment, because I’m not a big-name author, what could I contribute, right? But I think I have something this time. Probably like all of us, as I write, I tend to put what I feel like is my best prose on the page. When the inner editor suggests a change, I often feel ambiguous and uncertain about it; should I or shouldn’t I? If you find this to be the case, you might consider placing one of those little fat notebooks next to your keyboard, and every time your inner editor whispers, “that’s not the right word,” or points out an opportunity where you could have foreshadowed three chapters back, jot a quick note in your edit book, and move on with the creative flow. Don’t try to deal with it until your first draft is finished. Then when you sit down to the first edit, you’ll have a catalog of prospective changes and updates at your fingertips, and having waited to deal with them until your first draft was finished, you’ll be past the love affair with your original prose, and ready to evaluate them objectively. The little bonus is that you will have spared yourself from stopping mid-sentence to make an “agonizing” decision over a single word, only to find the creative flow dried up when you try to move on.

    • Jack T. says:

      What a dunce! Having posted my “brilliant” dissertation, I then went back a clicked some of the links, only to find what I said covered in much more thorough detail elsewhere. I guess you could say I published based on a first-draft reading. There’s a lesson here somewhere…

      • Sara L. says:

        *lol* That’s OK, Jack! But yes, you nailed exactly what I was talking about, but on a more specific level. It’s easy to get hung up on possible edits to chapters or scenes you’ve already worked when you should really focus on finishing the current draft. Note-taking, or the “edit journal” you mentioned, can help with that.

        Glad to know you found the additional links handy, too. And thanks for commenting!

  15. Excellent post! I like how you differentiate times when the inner editor is helpful and unhelpful. Sometimes I view the inner critic as a friend–when it says “You suck!”, instead of shouting back “Shut up!”, asking “Any advice for me?”

    • Sara L. says:

      Thanks, Jennifer! Yes, knowing the difference between when the inner editor is being helpful and when it’s not is very important. So is our reaction to its messages. Your example is a good one. Keep that calm, positive mentality going, and it will take you farther than you might think with your writing. 🙂

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