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Silencing Your Internal Editor

Search the blogosphere and you’ll find lots of posts about befriending your internal editor – that voice (or voices) inside your head that never shuts up.  I’d like to go on record as saying I DO NOT support this ‘befriending’ theory.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m a friendly and very accommodating person.  You have two items and I have ten items at the grocery store?  I usually say, “You go first.  You have less.”  However, when it comes to my internal editor, I have no intention of letting her cut in front of me in line.  And I certainly don’t intend to add her to my holiday card list or “like” her comments on Facebook.

With NaNoWriMo just around the corner, it’s time that we reveal the truth about internal editors.  They suck!  May I introduce you to mine?  She doesn’t have a name, but she does have a face.  My internal editor is a snarky eighth grader who rears her flowing blond hair, annoyingly snippy voice and size 2 jeans every chance she gets. 

She’s been with me since I went to college, and in the eternal pursuit of published work, I’ve discovered a few ways to silence her.

Let’s start at the beginning.  Back in the days of my pre-college schooling, I was blissfully ignorant about my internal editor.  Maybe I was too worried about the real life girls with flowing blond hair and size 2 jeans to notice the one that lived in the right side of my brain.  Regardless, I wrote those Shakespearean knock-offs starring purple crayons and melodramatic (albeit, heartfelt) essays about a visit to the Vietnam wall, with nary a thought about what others might think of my writing.  

In my junior year of high school, I was trained to be a tutor in our school’s writing center.  I spent hours helping others rework, reword and rewrite papers about Yeats’ “Lake Isle of Innisfree” and the history of professional wrestling.  I suppose it was all that time carefully guiding others toward genius (or simply toward a halfway readable essay) that I realized the importance of editing.  And that’s when it all went terribly wrong.  That’s when the little twit took up residence in my mind.

Anytime, I put pen to paper (and later fingers to clunky word processor keyboard), I froze.  Masterpiece Barbie wouldn’t even let me get a full sentence out before I could hear her voice.  With a flippant hair toss and a curl of the lip that only Elvis or my best gay friends can pull off, she would say, “This is blather.  Do you really think that anyone will read this stuff?  Did you actually just write that?”  In the days of pen on paper, it wasn’t so bad.  I would simply cross out what I wrote and try something new.  And if you’ve ever seen an original Hemingway or Woolf manuscript, you know that even cross-outs can be deciphered if there’s genius to be found in those tossed-off phrases.  However, once the Brother 5000 word processor came into my life, the DELETE key became a deadly weapon of war.  Even so much as a sigh from Barbie would send me into a backspacing frenzy.

Once I graduated and began a life in corporate America, the internal editor hibernated for a while.  The only writing I was doing was brochure copy, press releases and radio ads.  When you’re writing about fly fishing rods or corn seeds, there’s only so much the internal editor can criticize.  A fast-action saltwater fly rod is what it is.  Barbie didn’t have much purple prose to criticize.

However, when I dove back into the world of subjective writing – things like theater and art that required a creative turn of phrase – the voices came back.  We all know that an internal editor is nothing more than the insecure psyche of a writer expressing self-doubt.  If I’m honest, that self-doubt can lead to some great self-soothing.  “If I never finish this, I won’t have to worry if it’s terrible.  If it never sees the light of day, no one can tell me it isn’t good.”  We’ve all been there.

But producing weekly columns is a tough job when Masterpiece Barbie is screaming in your ear.  I had to devise some coping mechanisms.  I don’t know about you, but I actually consider and respect the opinions of my friends. Consequently, befriending wasn’t working for me. All that did was give merit to the doubts swimming through my head. Barbie wasn’t a friend.  She was an insecure, jealous teenager who loved nothing more than sabotaging my writing.  This was no time for friends, it was time for enemies.

I tried everything.  I timed my writing – cranking out as many words as possible in a short amount of time.  Write or Die is a great program for this.  I shut off the internet.  Distractions like nail trimming, floor polishing and the latest post on Pink is the New Blog were so much more tempting when Barbie put doubt in my head.  I created playlists.  It’s been proven that the human brain can only focus on a finite amount of things at one time.  A cranked up iPod made it difficult to hear my internal editor when I could barely hear the words I was putting on the page.

Finally, I discovered the secret – an unwavering belief in the power of a first draft.  For many new writers, ‘first draft’ is a scary term.  “It takes enough effort to get the words down on paper.  Do I really need a second draft?  Not just a revision for typos, but an actual second draft?”  The short answer is, yes.  The longer answer is that a first draft gives you power over your internal editor.  When she says, “That’s awful.” You say, “I know, but there’s always the second draft.”  When she says, “You’ll never make it.”  You keep typing and say, “I just did.” Now instead of shivering at the thought that Masterpiece Barbie might speak up while I’m typing, I start each writing session with the equivalent of the writer’s serenity prayer.  I take a deep breath, utter these words:

Grant me the sanity
to know that my first draft will suck;
the courage to continue writing even when I cringe at my own words;
and wisdom to know that I’m not making magic – I’m just writing from “Once upon a time…” to “The End.”
The magic will come in the second (or tenth) draft. So screw you, internal editor!

And then I start typing.  Happy writing!

20 Comments Post a comment
  1. emmiemears #

    My second draft was a lot of re-typing the first, but a huge amount of cutting, editing, and just plain re-writing. I now have something that resembles a book, and I love it.

    I also adore the first draft — or as I say, the vomit draft. Get it out there. You can clean it up later. 🙂

    October 27, 2011
  2. Manuscript Barbie is a ho.

    Thanks for the encouragement, so glad you got freshly pressed, I’ve a feeling this is just the sort of blog I ought to follow.

    J xxxo

    October 28, 2011
    • Yep. You hit the nail on the head about that darned Manuscript Barbie. Thanks for visiting, jezzmindah. I’ll look forward to hearing from you again.

      October 28, 2011
  3. hndbff1999 #

    haha. funny, cute, and true

    October 28, 2011
  4. Craig R Scott #

    Internal editors are evil! I particularly like the fact that you see yours as the snarky trollop I always thought Barbie would be. Mine bears a curious resemblance to a gym teacher I had in junior high, for reasons best left to psychiatrists. 🙂

    Seriously though, great thoughts on using the Power of the First Draft to silence the evil editor within! Thanks!

    October 29, 2011
    • Yikes, those junior high gym teachers are better left as distant memories. Thanks for visiting, Craig. Have a great November.

      October 31, 2011
  5. Kristin #

    Great post, Sara.

    Just so you know, I gave you the Versatile Blogger award over my blog. Keep up the great work! 🙂

    October 29, 2011
  6. Love the visual. I so hate her! This is exactly why I am psyched to do NaNo despite my overwhelming life right now. I have been struggling with writing a memoir for 10 years. Every time I sit down to write I read it over AGAIN and cut and add and cut and add. I am excited to just write and write and write. (Okay and a little scared too.)

    October 29, 2011
    • You got it. Write and write and write. And make sure to sleep and eat every so often, too. Keep me posted on the NaNo progress.

      October 31, 2011
  7. “And I certainly don’t intend to add her to my holiday card list or “like” her comments on Facebook.”

    LOL that absolutely tickled me!

    I have such a hard time with my internal editor!! She drives me nuts. I’m trying to go into NaNoWriMo this year knowing it’s going to suck cause it is just a draft. Maybe I should convince myself to EXPECT it to suck so she’ll shut up… hm could be a plan!

    October 30, 2011
    • You just have to acknowledge the suckage and power through. It’s much better to have a finished product to rip apart or polish than to have nothing at all. 🙂

      October 31, 2011
  8. Thank you for this post! I am, as the saying goes, my own worst critic, and that has kept me from participating in NaNoWriMo for several years in a row. I now feel confident that I can overpower my internal editor this year and at least attempt to complete NaNoWriMo!


    October 30, 2011
    • Tell that internal editor to take a nap for the month and dive right in to NaNoWriMo. Good luck to you, Sarah. If I can make Barbie stop tapping on the inside of my head, there’s hope for us all.

      October 31, 2011
  9. a very different point of view from what people generally present. It was a pleasure reading it! 😀

    October 30, 2011
  10. Oh, my gosh. My IE is trying to kill me! I did so much rewriting yesterday, all thanks to her. The woman I TRIED to lock up. I thought she was locked away for the month. She isn’t. I love reading your blog, by the way. Very helpful, especially since it’s my first year of NaNo 🙂

    November 2, 2011
  11. webowers #

    My internal editor is much more like a cross between a pre-schooler and the little red gremlin looking monster from TMNT — the one that pretty much got the best of Raphael. It makes it nearly impossible most of the time and it is ALWAYS asking a million questions, as if shredding my self-confidence wasnt enough.

    November 5, 2012

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. NaNoWriMo Day #1: Has it always been this difficult? | Sara Toole Miller – Fiction & Non-Fiction Writer
  2. The Enermazing Weekly Ticker (15) 14th – 20th November 2011 | Create The World You Want
  3. When to dig up that dusty, old manuscript… and when to let it die | Sara Toole Miller – Fiction & Non-Fiction Writer

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