(This was originally posted on the Apex Magazine blog in early 2011.)
This is your brain: “I’m going to write that story I’ve had on my mind all weekend! It’ll be so fun!”
This is your brain on “inner editor”: “Wow, this is terrible. Is that even a word? There’s too much description, here. This is probably the worst thing I’ve ever written. The dialogue is clunky, the characters are flat, and nothing’s happening in the plot—why do I even bother? I should probably just give up.”
I’ve always been told that the inner editor in my head—described by so many how-to-write books as the arch nemesis of the writer—is an evil thing, best removed either entirely from the writing process, or at least compartmentalized into post-rough draft work. It’s a voice like Honest John’s, quietly whispering negativity into your ear, trying to make you slip off track and lose sight of your end goal. “Throw it away!” folks have told me; “Drown it out!” others have said. The overarching impression is that the inner editor is a no-good, washed-up, has-been jerk whose only real interest is to undermine your confidence and make you give up.
But I’ve always rebelled against the idea of completely shutting out the inner editor. I admit, I’m a bit of a contrarian. For me, re-reading a passage and deciding to rewrite it on the spot is part of my process, a guilty pleasure I rarely admitted to other writers for fear of being told—yet again—“You just have to tune that voice out or you’ll never finish.” The thing is, I know how to finish. I can complete a draft. What I struggle with is returning to a draft I’ve rushed myself through without respecting that slow, sinking dread I feel in my stomach when a scene or a character’s actions or passage of dialogue just doesn’t feel quite right.
Not everyone writes like this, and I’ll be the first to admit it’s slow and sometimes painful to edit as you go. Other writers I know are much more comfortable returning to edit a story they whipped out in a single go, and do a great job of working out the snarled knots they find to make a finished, polished draft. There are many ways to approach writing, I’ve found, and many authors who support different processes. I couldn’t deny that folks had a point about that quiet little voice that only comes out when I write: the inner voice also gives me a lot of crap, and can be very discouraging. So how should I think about the inner editor? Force for good? Or force for evil? Does the inner editor have any place in a rough draft?
This past weekend, I picked up a copy of Samuel R. Delany’s book about writing (subsequently titled, About Writing). While I was reading, I came across this statement:
If you’re going to say it, you must build up calluses against criticism—criticism from readers, from other writers, from reviewers, from editors, and from critics. Yes, praise is fine and fun. […] But the day-to-day diet, from others and, more important, from the little critic we all carry on our own shoulder, is a grim one. And it has to be so. (Delany, 108)
Prior to reading that statement, I had never thought of myself as having an inner critic. I knew I had an inner editor, but who was the inner critic? Both make me doubt myself, but are they different? Or are they the same?
I had also just finished reading his essay “On Doubts and Dreams,” included in About Writing, in which Delany had described that doubts are a good thing to have while writing. Doubts make you think, make you evaluate, make you question—sometimes rightly—parts of your work that aren’t really doing what they need to do. Or, in his words, (with the physical examples trimmed out): “Indeed, whenever you find yourself writing a cluttered, thin, or cliché sentence, you should doubt, and doubt seriously. […] What does this doubting mean? It means that a writer may just let any one of them stand. […] It means you don’t give any one of them the benefit of the doubt” (Delany, 98).
These contrasting reflections, tied together, opened up a perspective that works for me by dividing the two inner voices. The inner editor, as I’ve experienced her, is more like the editors I’ve met in real life, the ones who are well read, thoughtful, and offer encouragement as often as criticism. There’s no doubt that they question what you’ve put down, but they also don’t insist that you change something you want to keep. They respect you as the creative mind behind the work, and see themselves as a lens through which you can re-approach your writing with fresh eyes, to doubt some of those things you had left for granted, and ultimately consider their job to be making you—the writer—look better on the page. It’s a collaborative effort, not a combative one.
But then, I realized that my inner critic isn’t wholly my enemy either. Don’t get me wrong; she is a bitch. But she’s a bitch for my benefit. Her nasty little cut-downs, her eye-rolls, her snorts of disgust—they build up the calluses I need to survive getting my writing out of the desk drawer in public hands. Likewise, she reminds me with her outrageously false memories of a story being “brilliant” that even praise can be misleading. As a writer, it can be nearly impossible to know at first if a story is good or bad; the inner critic makes her snap judgments—“This is going to win a Nebula!” or “You should probably just stick this in the shredder now before anyone sees it…”—and it will be up to me and the inner editor later to determine if those statements have any merit.
Just thinking like that, I’ve started learning how to listen to the inner editor during a writing session—for my benefit—and tune out the inner critic, whose job is mostly to teach me to tune her out. Take the example I started with:
“Wow, this is terrible. Is that even a word? There’s too much description, here. This is probably the worst thing I’ve ever written. The dialogue is clunky, the characters are flat, and nothing’s happening in the plot—why do I even bother? I should probably just give up.”
I now see two voices in it, not one. One—the editor—is useful if only because she asks the questions I need to consider, though whether her questions should be acted upon is left to my judgment. The other one—the critic (in bold)—is a distraction I need to ignore. It’s left me much calmer in approaching my writing, because I can see both as good forces, if for different reasons.
Of course, this interpretation is my own, and probably doesn’t fit for everyone. What about you? Do you have an inner editor and an inner critic? Is there a difference? What’s your perspective?