Befriending the Internal Editor

Befriending the Internal Editor 

by Beth Adele Long

©2001, Beth Adele Long

There's a good chance that you and your internal editor need to sit down for a serious talk. 

No, I'm not going to tell you to bop him (or her) in the nose and shout, "Leave me alone, you big lout!"  Though I've heard many discussions that suggest a lot of writers would like to do this, I think a more diplomatic approach is necessary, for the very simple reason that your internal editor should be your closest friend. 

Let's talk about why you might want to squelch the internal editor.  (Let's call him "Ed.")  Ed is the person who sits on your shoulder while you write and says, "What?  You're writing that??"  He criticizes your phrasing,  ridicules your characters, laughs at your plot structure, and holds his nose when you indulge in descriptive passages.  He makes you feel inferior as a writer --- and on bad days, inferior as a person --- and sometimes the thought of facing him makes you avoid writing altogether. 

So far, Ed sounds eminently squelchable. 

An Important Ally

If Ed just makes your life miserable, why bother to make friends with him?  There's one very good reason to start with:  because so much of the time, the annoying little guy is right.  Your phrasing needs improvement, your characters could be better developed, your storylines are weak, and so on. 

The proof is in the pudding; unless you are consistently publishing your work in pro markets, there's probably good reason to suspect that those external editors (you know, the ones who send out rejection slips) are being at least as critical as Ed.  And even if you are publishing, you know that your fiction isn't perfect.  There's always room for improvement. 

"But wait," you say.  "If I listened to Ed all the time, I'd never get anything written, much less submit it!" 

I know.  But Ed can make some very important contributions to your writing.  If you're willing to give Ed his due and recognize that a lot of his criticism is accurate, then we can go to the next step:  the negotiating table. 

Negotiating the Truce 

Here's the situation.  You know your writing needs improvement, but in order to improve, you need to be able to sit down and write without interruption.  You need Ed to shut up for a while and let you get through a complete story.  Though it doesn't seem so at first, the worst thing you could do to yourself at this point is to find a way to get rid of Ed completely. 

Why?  Because Ed has a high standard.  He doesn't just want you to write your best, he wants you to write better than your best.  He's the one who's going to push you to aim higher, work harder, do better.  He makes it hard for you to write those first drafts, true, but he yells at you for a reason.  He recognizes bad writing.  You want him around. 

The solution is to negotiate a truce in which both sides compromise. 

First, Ed has to agree to keep quiet while you do first-draft work.  He can't holler every time your writing doesn't measure up, particularly when it has to do with phrasing or syntax or other things that are easily changed during revision.  If something really bugs him, he's allowed to make a note of it, but he has to wait until after the first draft before he can bug you about it.  That's his side of the bargain. 

You, for your part, have to agree to hear him out once you have the first draft on paper.  You have to sit back, look at the manuscript, and tell Ed, "It's all yours."  When he tells you to change something, listen.  Don't tell him, "Well. . . You're probably right, but I'll see what everyone else says."  He held up his part of the bargain, right?  You have a rough draft in hand.  Now you have to come through.  Hand him the red pen and let him turn the manuscript scarlet. 

This doesn't mean you shouldn't also incorporate feedback from one or two reliable first-draft readers.  After all, Ed may be picky, but he's not infallible.  You do need other points of view.  But usually, Ed is a lot closer to the truth than we'd like to admit.  Nine times out of ten, second-guessing him is just going to hurt you. 

All right, so we've started to build a new way of relating to Ed.  First we set aside our egos long enough to recognize that, despite his bad manners, the little guy has good instincts.  Then we set up the terms for a truce so that we're able to get work done without rejecting Ed's advice outright.  So far it sounds more like international diplomacy than making friends. 

That brings us to a couple key factors in the relationship: time and experience. 

Learning to Work Together 

Any good friendship takes time.  Comfortable patterns don't pop up overnight, especially when you're in a working relationship where the emotional stakes are as high as they are for fiction writers.  It will take a while before you and your internal editor get to the point where you're able to work together enthusiastically, instead of glaring at each other over the top of your manuscript. 

One way to improve your relationship with Ed is simply to keep writing.  Once you've made your truce and the two of you are getting along well enough that you can finish rough drafts, write as much as you can.  You'll both start to see patterns in your writing.  You'll see where you're improving, often because you listened to Ed during draft revisions, and you'll learn to trust him more.  He'll see where you have persistent problems, often because he didn't catch something, and he'll realize that he has things to learn too.  Mutual respect will develop when you both realize that the other one has something important to offer. 

Eventually, you want to get to the point where Ed can start participating in first draft work again.  Just as you need to learn from Ed when you do revisions, Ed needs to learn from you about the process of putting a story together.  Ed's good at sounding the alarm when there's a problem, but he needs to move beyond criticism and learn how to offer workable solutions to problems when he sees them. 

Once the two of you feel more comfortable with each other, it will be easier to bring Ed in during first drafts.  Instead of shouting "That stinks!" when he sees a problem, he'll be able to pull up a chair and offer practical suggestions.  "Jack would never do that.  Have him walk out instead."  "You're letting the tension dissipate.  The reader is going to lose interest right here unless you pick up the pace."  You might take the suggestions; you might not.  But you'll be more likely to fix a problem when it occurs instead of waiting until the second or third or fifth draft.  This is why some authors, as they gain experience, find that they write slower but do fewer revisions. 

All this is good and well, but what about writers that don't have an "Ed"? 

Internal Editor?  What Internal Editor?

Maybe all of this sounds like a foreign language to you.  Maybe when you sit down to write, you're pleased as punch with everything that shows up on the page, and you don't have any problems with voices in your head telling you what an awful job you've done.  If that's your situation, I can think of two possible reasons. 

You could be brilliant.  If this is the case, you're pleased with everything you write because everything you write is fantastic, and you'll start selling (and winning awards, I'd imagine) so fast that the rest of us will be crying into our keyboards with envy. 

The alternative is that you don't have an internal editor.  In order to figure out how to develop one, let me step back from this anthropomorphism for a moment and specify what I really mean when I talk about the internal editor. 

Stepping Back and Moving Forward 

Calling the internal editor "Ed" is convenient and a little cute, but we all know that there really isn't a separate entity hiding out in our heads.  Whenever I talk about Ed this or Ed that, you know I really mean you.  The human brain is an amazing thing, and sometimes it really does seem like we have multiple personalities (like Ed) who push and pull us in different directions. 

But here's fact of the matter: Ed is you.  Ed is your sense of what's good and what's bad in your fiction.  Ed represents your instincts about storytelling and language and motive and style.  The internal editor is the same part of you that gets annoyed with silly movies and badly written books, but it hurts so much when we see the same shortcomings in our own work that we try to distance ourselves a little from the criticism. 

If you want to develop your instincts --- whether you want them to be even better or whether you don't have them much to begin with --- there are lots of ways to go about it.  The best way is to read widely and continually.  Read all kinds of books and short stories: difficult, easy, exciting, boring, exhilarating, perplexing, old, new, popular, impenetrable.  There will certainly be some books you like better than others; spend time figuring out what you like and don't like in other people's work. 

Get involved in a critiquing circle and learn to take apart a story and understand its structure, its strengths, its weaknesses.  Learning to analyze other people's work will be invaluable when it comes to understanding your own fiction; make the most of this opportunity. 

Pay close attention when people talk about what they liked about a particular book or movie, and ask them lots of questions about their experience of a story.  Different people like different kinds of fiction; figure out why it is that a story thrills some people and bores others. 

The Positive Side of Negative Instincts 

The most important thing for you to take away is that your negative instincts can be one of your most valuable assets.  As long as you can keep your "internal editor" from paralyzing you, having a sense of what doesn't work (and, as you mature, knowing how to overhaul such problem areas) is what can move you from frustration to success. 

Trust your instincts, learn to sharpen them, and when that contract finally arrives in the mail, you and Ed will be able to congratulate each other on a job well done.