Banish Your (Inner) Editor

Not permanently—just while you’re writing the first draft of your project.  Yes, I realize that’s strange advice coming from an editor, but think of it this way: You wouldn’t want an actual editor hovering over your shoulder and correcting every sentence as you’re writing it would you? No?  I didn’t think so.  I don’t want my inner editor hanging around, either, when I’m writing.  Don’t get me wrong—there is a place for inviting your inner editor to apply her discerning eye and feedback to what you’ve written but it is later, rather than earlier, in the process.  Having her peeking over your shoulder and questioning every word or comma placement just as you’re trying to get your ideas onto the page is generally not a happy arrangement: It leads to frustrations about the amount of time spent fixing rather than writing your composition, writer’s block, and a burning desire to tell your inner editor, in no uncertain terms, to take a one way trip to a most unpleasant location.

Why is it that our inner editors jump in and launch into “correction” mode as soon as we start to write?  The best explanation I’ve come across so far is by Henriette Anne Klauser, author of Writing on both sides of the brain.  According to her, the reason we try to write and edit at the same time has to do with how we learned to write. Klauser points out that:

“When you first began to write, you had someone standing over you, correcting your form, and your grammar and your spelling. …Today when you sit down to write, chances are that your teacher is still with you, standing over your … shoulder, correcting, critiquing, circling upper case letters with her red pencil, and in other subtle and not so subtle ways discouraging you from writing, generally stemming the flow of words.”  (1987, p. 10)

The good news, as Klauser points out, is that the actual process of writing—getting the words on the page—is a learned skill.  The habit of trying to edit and write at the same time can be unlearned and in its place we can learn about and practice strategies that keep the editing function separate from the writing process (1987, p.13).

As writers, we need to find and use techniques for getting the internal editor out of the way.  We can learn how to capture the creative mind’s ideas and images as they surface and just get them down on the page–minus the second guessing. I’ve drawn from a few different resources, including Natalie Goldberg’s and Julia Cameron’s books on the writing and creative processes, to provide some strategies for banishing your inner editor when you write.

Outrun or outsmart your inner editor!

One strategy that seems to have an established track record (pun intended) for getting past the inner editor is to simply outrun him through regular (daily) writing sessions in which you write (preferably by hand) at a fast and furious pace for a designated amount of time or number of pages.  The point is that when you continuously move your hand across the page as quickly as possible, without going back to make any corrections, your inner editor cannot keep up with what is actually going onto the page. You could try using short, timed writing practices as a warm up for working on your project.  Switch immediately from the practice to the project and apply the same principles (keep writing and don’t stop to correct the text).  You may well succeed in getting a lot of writing done before your inner editor catches up with you.

Klauser suggests using “invisible ink” to outsmart your inner editor.  Place a piece of carbon copy paper between two sheets of paper, and use a pen that no longer works to write on the top piece of paper. Your inner editor cannot do his job if there is nothing on the page for him to see or critique.  If you use a computer for your writing practice, the equivalent of “invisible ink” would be to change the colour of the font to white so you won’t be able to read what you’re typing.  Once you’ve finished writing, return the font colour to black and then read the piece.  Don’t worry about the typos—and there will probably be a lot of them–most of them can be fixed with spell check.  What spell check doesn’t find, your inner editor most likely will find and correct.

Send your inner editor out for afternoon tea

It’s tempting to rudely tell Ms. Inner Editor to get lost if she is really persistent and disruptive but, depending on your inner editor’s personality, she or he may or may not respond well to this approach.  Keeping in mind that you do want your editor’s input at a later stage of the process, you want to establish a mutually respectful and cordial relationship with her, if possible. It might be wiser to pretend that she is like a house guest who is getting under your feet and you would both benefit through firmly ushering her out the door for a pleasant excursion while you’re writing.   If you are familiar with Julia Cameron’s “Artist’s Dates”, you can think of this strategy as a kind of imaginary “inner editor’s date”.

If your inner editor is a tea granny, you could give her $20, make sure she has her handbag, glasses, and keys and send her across town to enjoy a leisurely afternoon tea. Just don’t give her a cell phone, or she’ll be phoning you every few minutes to ask how you’re doing with the writing.  Send her to a quaint, classy little tea shop where the service is excellent and there are lots of things for her to read and keep her occupied until you’re ready to bring her back home. (I don’t think imaginary calories “count”,  so allow her to go wild with extra jam and clotted cream for her scones.)  If your inner editor would be happier doing some other activity that keeps her or him distracted while you write, by all means tailor the “imaginary excursions” to her or his personal preferences.

Become friends with your inner editor

My friend Karl, over at Work Happy Now, wrote a blog post about dealing with fear.  Rather than being mean to his fears, he befriends them and treats them with compassion.  If the technique works with fear-—another part of our psyche that we tend to beat up on and try to conquer—then my guess is that it would work just as well with our inner editors.

In her book on writing with both sides of the brain, Henriette Klauser recommends getting to know your inner editor through a series of interviews and meetings (conducted as meditations).  The purpose is to find out about your inner editor’s personality and motives in order to train them to back off when you are writing.  I’d like to suggest putting a slightly different twist on the strategy.  What if you took the time to get to know your inner editor with the intent of genuinely establishing a friendship with him?   I’m willing to bet that by making friends with our inner editor and assuring her that we appreciate her for what she contributes to the revision process, eventually she might happily give up trying to help you when you are in writing mode.

Four ways to free your writer from your inner editor

To summarize, here are a few ways to get your inner editor out of the way while writing.

  1. Outrun your inner editor: Get into the habit of writing on a regular basis.  Incorporate a practice in which you must write quickly and continuously, and not take your pen from the page for a set amount of time or pages.  This helps you to tap into your ideas and get them on the page faster than your inner editor can keep up with your hand, and is a strategy recommended by authors and writing teachers such as Natalie Goldberg and Henriette Klauser.  A variation on this, suggested by Klauser, is to outsmart your inner editor by using invisible ink when you write.
  2. Set up imaginary “inner editor’s dates”: This is a twist on Julia Cameron’s weekly “Artist’s Dates” that she recommends as a means of nourishing your creativity.  An “inner editor’s date” is an imaginary fun excursion that gets your inner editor out of your head and hair while you’re writing.  I’ve found this approach has led to a friendlier and more productive relationship with my inner editor than rudely yelling at her to get lost for a few hours.
  3. Befriend your inner editor: You can befriend your inner editor and develop a more productive and mutually respectful relationship with him. Gently explain to him that as much as he is appreciated at later stages in the process, his presence is distracting while writing a first draft.  Then send him out for an excursion for several hours while you write.
  4. Co-opt your inner editor: If your editor really must get herself into the picture somewhere at the beginning of a writing project, ask her to help you find and evaluate the information that you want to use in your writing project.  If she’s reluctant to leave when you sit down to write, choose a topic that she would love critique and let her rip for ten minutes, on the strict understanding that at the end of the timed writing, she leaves and you get to write in peace.

Have fun with these strategies, and please do share any strategies that work for you.

July 12, 2010 · Susan · 4 Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Uncategorized, Writing process

4 Responses

  1. Karl Staib - Work Happy Now - July 13, 2010

    I love the idea of outrunning your inner editor. I take this approach without realizing it. I just kept writing until I came to the finish line.

    Now once I was at the end I gave myself a break. There is no need to edit right after we are done writing. Let your brain process then after an hour or two or maybe a day or two, go back and fix that writing up.

    It’s amazing how writing and editing are so different. I definitely need to find more ways to enjoy editing.

  2. Susan - July 13, 2010

    Hi Karl,

    Thanks for the comment. I think a lot of us probably use some of these various strategies without consciously realizing it. I definitely agree that we shouldn’t edit right after we’ve finished writing. It’s good to take a break for a while before going back in to the work to start editing.

    I wonder if asking yourself what would help to make the editing process more enjoyable before a meditation and then writing about it might help you get some clarity?

  3. how do you get over your ex - September 3, 2010

    This is one of the most compelling words I ever learned in a long time, I’m uttering about this component of your article “… so far is by Henriette Anne Klauser, author of Writing on both sides of the brain.? According to her, the reason we …” it causes me to look more knowledgable after understanding it.

  4. Susan - September 3, 2010

    Hi Omar,

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting on the article. I’m glad you found the article useful. At some point we forget that when we first learned to write we had a teacher hovering over us. If we were lucky, they were encouraging and inspired a love of writing by focusing on what was right with our writing.

Leave a Reply