Reading time: About 5 minutes
The inner editor — that voice inside your own head — may seem like your best, most concerned friend but, in fact, he or she is your worst enemy. Let me help you save yourself from your inner editor…
I have written two books, and each time I worked on them, I experienced a time where I wallowed. That’s the only word for it. I looked at what I’d written, and I hated it. I felt inept, unskilled and inadequate.
Here’s my analysis of the problem: I write and edit 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 and edit 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.)
Perfectionism doesn’t help
I’m also a raging perfectionist. In my kitchen, for example, I’m not happy unless the spice rack remains alphabetized. (Obsessive, I know!) The photo adjacent is my real-spice drawer in which I take great pleasure. 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 likes to itemize what you’re doing wrong.
What your inner editor is saying
I’m a lousy writer, it enjoys saying. 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.
Keeping your inner editor at bay
Here are seven tips for keeping your inner editor at bay while you’re writing or editing:
1-Don’t look at your 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 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. (I used it when writing my second book, Your Happy First Draft, and the system worked like a dream.)
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. After that, you can edit them.
I like the way word maven Patricia O’Conner puts it: “Write a first draft 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 (this is the one time you’ll get encouragement from me on procrastinating!) and put off editing. Instead, focus all your attention on getting that crappy first draft out of your system so 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 inner 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 third person. I’ve written about this topic before.
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 your own name (rather than the first-person pronoun “I”) 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
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 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-But also, 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 ask him or her to give you a detailed critique on your next article? I know this sounds like looking 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.
How to keep your inner editor in check
I started this column by referring to my writing habits, so let me finish the story by telling you how I write now. I acknowledge my inner editor, but I don’t allow her to rule the roost.
Instead of accepting what she says, I quietly make note of her potentially helpful comments (so I can consider them when I edit), and I ignore her nasty or cruel remarks, telling her to back off.
I work to separate the act of writing from the act of editing (trying to do both at the same time only leads to multitasking — always a mistake). And, most of all, I try to ignore the act of publishing — which is to say, worrying about what other people are going to think about my work — until the editing is finished.
When you write, write. Don’t let your internal editor be your boss. When you edit, edit. At that point, you might want to pay attention to some of what your internal editor has to say. But just remember: she isn’t the boss of you.
This is a blog I posted originally on Sept. 15/15 and have revised significantly.
Need some help developing a sustainable writing routine? Learn more about my Get It Done program. There is turn-over each month, and priority will go to those who have applied first. You can go directly to the application form and you’ll hear back from me within 24 hours.
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. And congratulations to Urban Wronksi, the winner of this month’s book prize, for a comment on my Sept. 26/23 blog. (Please send me your email address, Urban!) Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Oct. 31/23 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. To leave your own comment, please, scroll down to the section, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!