Reading time: About 5 minutes
This person may seem like your best, most concerned friend but, in fact, he or she is your worst enemy. Hello, let me introduce you to your inner editor…
I am wallowing in the book I’m writing now. It’s a food related memoir (including recipes) but it’s kind of stalled. I dip into it regularly — in the same way someone who’s cooking might drag a spoon, desultorily, through a stew sitting on a back burner of the stove. I know the random movement of the spoon isn’t going to do anything except prevent scorching. But I can’t seem to persuade myself to do anything more substantial.
Here’s my analysis of the problem: I live in a glass house. As a publication coach, I can’t consider publishing something that’s second rate. In fact, I don’t think I can consider publishing anything that’s only good. What I write has to be really good.
Furthermore, I was a born editor. I’ve always had a flair for taking a piece of text and making it better – more interesting, more logical, more persuasive, more readable. (This is quite different from copy editing, which I’m not particularly good at.)
I’m also a raging perfectionist. In my kitchen, for example, I’m not happy unless the spice rack remains alphabetized. (Obsessive, I know!) But what this means is that I have very high standards. And it shames me that I might not meet them with my own writing.
In short? My inner editor has me hobbled.
As you probably know — if you also suffer from fear or perfectionism or just plain old slow writing — your inner editor is the voice inside your brain that tells you what you’re doing wrong.
I’m a lousy writer, it says. Here are some of the other comments it might make:
No one is going to want to read this piece.
My boss is going to hate this article/report.
My readers are going to find my writing so boring.
People are going to think I’m stupid and inept for writing this.
The inner editor can really mess us up. It can make us late (we procrastinate because we’re afraid of the results of our writing) or even stop us from writing or editing altogether.
Here are 7 suggestions for how to keep your inner editor at bay while you’re working:
1 Don’t look at what you’re writing
When I wrote my first book 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better, I finally noticed that I had a fantastic first chapter and almost nothing else. Why? My inner editor insisted on finessing every freaking word. Thus, I spent hours polishing the first few pages and no time writing subsequent ones.
I finally realized that, at that pace, it would take me at least 15 years to finish my book. So, I developed a new system: Each day I wrote for 30 minutes and then I copied those words into the “Master” draft. Then, I took the last sentence I’d written and put it into a new document. That new document was the only thing I allowed myself to open the next day. I couldn’t edit my writing because I couldn’t see it. If your inner editor is driving you crazy, consider adopting a similar strategy.
2 Get it down first; get it right later
Also known as the crappy-first-draft plan, this strategy is based on the certain knowledge that you can’t fix a blank page. First drafts don’t have to be perfect! They just have to be written. I like the way word maven Patricia O’Conner puts it: “Write a first daft as though you were thinking aloud, not carving a monument.” I also find young adult novelist Katherine Paterson’s judgment persuasive: “I love revision,” she says. “Where else can you turn spilled milk into ice cream?” Procrastinate and put off editing and, instead, focus all your attention on getting that crappy first draft out of your system so that you have something to work with. If it helps you feel better about yourself you might want to call it draft 0 rather than a first draft. Anything that makes your draft seem “less permanent” is likely to help.
3 Acknowledge the existence of your inner editor
Many writers want to banish their inner editor. I’ve recently decided I don’t like that approach because I don’t think it’s wise to ignore our emotions. But — here’s the important part — don’t let them derail you. Your inner editor really wants to help. That’s a good thing. But he or she is likely a bit of a bossy-boots — like a dinner guest who shows up 15 minutes too early and proceeds to tell you how to cook. Instead of pretending this person doesn’t exist, say hello and politely acknowledge their suggestions. You can do this by making (very brief) notes about what they’re suggesting you do. If the editor tries to tell you a particular word isn’t quite right, for example, just add a note like this: [fix] or [find better word]. Doing so will reassure your inner editor and make him or her feel that you’re really listening. More importantly, it will reassure you, reminding you that you’re writing on paper, not chiseling in stone and that you have as many shots as you need to make things better. It should also help you recall strategy #2: Get it down first; get it right later.
4 Talk to yourself better
I don’t mean say only nice things. I mean talk to yourself in the 3rd person. I’ve written about this before. But today I can give you a link to the specific paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Pyschology. In plain English, researchers advise that we talk to ourselves the same way Olympic and professional athletes do.
I know I can do it. I should say,
C’mon Daphne, you can do it.
Using non-first-person pronouns and one’s own name (rather than first-person pronouns) increases self-distancing. Why is that a good thing? Because it reduces stress. People who refer to themselves in the third-person rather than the first person tend to see stress as something that’s challenging and interesting rather than threatening. As the researchers put it: “Small shifts in the language people use to refer to the self during introspection…influence their ability to regulate their thoughts, feelings, and behavior under social stress.” In other words, teach your inner editor to stop using “I” and start using “you” or your own first name when it talks to you.
5 Identify your fear
One of the big reasons your inner editor comes out to play is that it’s fearful of something. It can help you a great deal to identify specifically what that fear is. I suggest you mindmap it. Put the question, “What scares me about this piece of writing?” in the centre of the page and spend three to five minutes brainstorming with yourself. It doesn’t matter how foolish this fear might seem. What matters is that you identify it. Many of the fears we all suffer from are ridiculously unrealistic. But only by recognizing how silly they are can we cause the cold clammy feeling in the pits of our stomachs to retreat. For example, you may fear your readers are going to stop reading your story after the first sentence. “Go for it, _____ [your name],” you can tell yourself. “If that’s the worst thing that happens at least I’ll have written the story.”
6 Increase your pressure
Many people think that writing slowly and mindfully is going to improve the quality of their work. Paradoxically, this is usually untrue. We’re more creative and productive when we write as quickly as possible. In fact, I’m convinced this is why university students typically leave their papers until the night before they’re due. (The colossal downside of this strategy is that it fails to leave them enough time for incubating or self-editing, of course. But it’s a giant shot in the arm for productivity.) If your inner editor is driving you crazy, then try to out-write it. Write as fast as you possibly can. I use Write or Die whenever I want to force myself to work faster than my brain thinks it can manage. Let go of the notion that you might be wasting time (or creating more work for yourself later). Instead, focus on strategy #2, getting that crappy first draft down on paper as quickly as possible.
7 Decrease your pressure
Paradoxically, the opposite of a true statement is often just as true. So as you work to increase your pressure in terms of speed, see if there are other ways in which you can decrease the pressure on yourself. If you’re worried about your boss, for example, can you make a deal with him or her to give you a detailed critique about your next article? I know this sounds like asking for trouble but people are usually flattered to be asked for help and it may make your boss feel more secure (thus reducing your biggest fear.) If you’re worried about your grammar, hire a professional copy editor or, if you can’t afford one, see if a syntax-savvy friend can do the grammar check for you.
I started this column by referring to my book, so let me finish that story. I wrote the crappy first draft with little difficulty but have become stalled in the editing phase. Here’s how I decided to reduce the pressure on myself. I initially intended to write the book for my kids and that’s what I’m going to do now. I’m not going to publish it.
As soon as that decision floated to the top of my mind, whoosh, I felt an enormous sense of relief.
But guess what? This may not be where the story ends. Now that I’ve “decided” not to publish it, my inner editor has gone on holiday. The manuscript is looking a lot better and I’m way more enthusiastic about the project.
I love the way mind games work…
Does your inner editor drive you crazy? How do you handle him or her? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Sept. 30/15 will be put in a draw for a copy of Wildmind: Living the Writer’s Life, by Natalie Goldberg. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “more from my site” links, below.