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.
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 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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