Harnessing the Monster Within

Or, the Inner Editor, and how she can help you.

Almost from the first moment I decided to become a writer, I was told to banish my Inner Editor. It seems like sound advice: the Inner Editor, or Inner Critic, is the part of the writer that constantly aims for the highest quality while writing. It's the part of yourself that is constantly aware of the big filthy gap between your vision and what you've actually produced. And every book I've ever read about writing has included some kind of advice about banishing that part of yourself to the darkest recesses of your mind so she won't interfere with the all important task of writing your first draft.

This advice isn't wrong, but I've come to learn that it is incomplete. It's true that the never-ending quest for perfection can make it difficult to put words on the page; it's hard to open yourself up to creative genius when your ego is taking hit after hit from an enemy who has outposts in your head. The challenge is that by banishing our Inner Editor we are turning her into an enemy who needs to be defeated, which leads to a lot of emotional labor when it's time to let her do her job.

Think of the Inner Editor as a micro-manager who always has a lot of advice - they might be annoying, but that doesn't mean they're wrong.

Instead of evicting the editor during the drafting process we should focus on building a positive relationship with her. This takes time and work, but after a few chapters it starts to feel natural. She's a part of you, and she's just trying to help.

Resistance wants to keep everything the same, because the same is safe. The Inner Editor wants to make things better.

It's easy to conflate your Inner Editor with the voices of your childhood - maybe you had an overly critical sibling, parents who pressured you for greatness, a teacher who said you'd never amount to anything, or all three. These are the voices of Resistance.

Resistance, as defined by Steven Pressfield in The War of Art, is a universal force that is trying to maintain the status quo. Resistance is Self-sabotage.

There are many theories around Resistance in the creative world. I believe Resistance is a protective measure that has been misplaced. Whether it has its roots in emotional abuse, socialized belief systems, or evolution, it's the fear that once kept you from making bad decisions. It wants to maintain the status quo because all it cares about is survival. According to Resistance: you may not be happy with the current state of your life, but at least you're alive!

Resistance is often a sign that you're doing the right thing by moving forward. Overcoming Resistance is a personal journey that never ends; it could take years of therapy, but it's necessary. The Inner Editor is a sign that your effort could use a little more work. Harnessing your Inner Editor is like building a friendship; it will always take work, but a good friend gives support and love as well as honesty.

Learn to listen without letting it interrupt your concentration.

Think of your Inner Editor as a five year old talking about the birthday party they went to; the games they played, the cake they ate, the puppy they played with, all while you're trying to make dinner. Maybe you're the best parent in the world and you listen with intent and attention to everything your child says - good for you, but you're screwing up my analogy. If you're like me, you listen just enough to figure out when a followup question is required, versus when you can get away with a vague acknowledgement.

In writing you might have to ask yourself is this scene driving the story in the wrong direction? In which case you probably need to delete or edit right then. Or, if it's a matter of rephrasing a paragraph or editing an action scene to feel more immediate, you could acknowledge it with a simple word in parenthesis: (fix).

Don't take criticism personally.

Every book or blog about writing has an opinion on how to find your own voice, write the themes that terrify you, or write what you know. All of this advice is centered around the self - finding yourself, knowing yourself, being yourself. It all boils down to the core fact that writers put a lot of ourselves into our work, and that makes it hard not to take critical feedback personally.

Whether it comes from an external source, or your own inner editor, criticism of your work is not criticism of you. It might be your story, your thoughts, your vision, but your writing will be better if you remove your ego from the equation. A lot of people talk about needing a thick skin, but I think it's about being thoughtful and self-aware. Questioning your own work is the only thing that will make it better. Even an outsider's feedback has to be filtered through your own perception of your work.

Writing a first draft is a delicate balance: it requires enough confidence in an idea to know that it's worth the enormous effort just to create a first draft! Then there's the humility to recognize when something isn't working and needs to be changed. Sprinkle in a little self-delusion, a lot of self-discipline, and a great deal of optimism, and you have a chunky first draft that still requires a lot of work! Was it worth it? Only you can be the judge of that.

This next bit may seem contradictory, but bear with me.

No matter how surprising the process of writing may be, it is our experiences and thoughts that direct the words we put on the page. You are directing the story, even if it feels like there's an invisible hand inserting extra words, or a different tone than you were going for. It is yours to control, but it takes a great deal of self-control.

It takes some self-awareness as a writer to know when you need to correct something right away, or move on and go back to it at a later time. It also takes practice and self-discipline, but this little word can be the difference between reaching your daily word count goal, and throwing in the towel for weeks at a time because you have "writer's block."

Writers spend a lot of time examining the visions in our heads. We break them down into tiny parts and try to find a way to put them together in the real world. But reality has a lot more rules than the imagination, so the finished product doesn't always translate the way we want it to. Your Inner Editor thrives in the tension between reality and your perfect vision, but that disparity is uncomfortable and can be discouraging.

Discouragement is the absence of courage, not the absence of ability.

Related Posts

See All