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BS Writing Advice: Silence Your Internal Editor

When I write these posts about "BS Writing Advice," I'm being a bit unfair. The original advice, or the idea behind it, is not usually BS on its own. It becomes BS because of the way it's interpreted.

For example, when someone somewhere advised, "Don't use adverbs," they really meant "Don't rely on adverbs to dress up flimsy writing. Write strong in the first place." But people took it to mean, "Every writer must search for and replace all words that end in 'ly'." And then they passed this extreme version on to impressionable young writers and editors like a decades-long game of telephone until it became a "rule."

Today's misunderstood piece of advice is "silence your internal editor." When someone somewhere said, "Silence your internal editor," they meant to say, "Don't fret over every minor detail during your first draft. Concentrate on laying the groundwork, and then you can polish later."

But what people take it to mean is, "Thinking is the enemy of creativity! I must write write write and never look back! If I don't tie my internal editor to the bedpost and gag her with a sock, I'll just obsess over the first chapter for ten years and never get anywhere!"

If you're bogged down by a compulsion to rewrite a single chapter endlessly, your problem isn't your internal editor. Your problem is your internal perfectionist. By all means, you can shut her up. In fact, I'd recommend she take a dip in the Atlantic wearing cement shoes. As long as she lives, her shrill voice will entice you down the treacherous path of the can't-see-the-forest-for-the-trees.

But your editor and your perfectionist are not one and the same. Extreme self-criticism is bad, but that doesn't mean all self-criticism is. Evaluating your work as you go doesn't mean you have to perfect every single word of the first draft.

Writing a novel is like making a layered cake. Everybody wants to make the type of cake that people will "ooh" and "ahh" over—a cake with beautiful marbled fondant and intricate piping and delicate sugar roses. But when you begin your magnificent cake-making endeavor, you don't start with the decorating. First you need the cake.

Your internal perfectionist obsesses over the superficial. She messes with star-shaped piping tips and debates whether the roses should be pink or red before she even has the cake. Your internal editor, on the other hand, diligently researches recipes, checks the quality of your ingredients, and inspects the baked rounds to make sure they don't have any massive holes and won't won't completely collapse when gently bumped.

The reason many people say "silence your internal editor" is that they confuse "cake" with "icing." When they fiddle with the first chapter endlessly, they're usually fiddling with presentation.

  • word choice
  • sentence structure
  • tone
  • flow
  • literary devices

All of this is icing. Icing is easy to change and improve upon later. Instead, they really should be fiddling with structure.

  • story arc
  • themes
  • characters
  • organization

Separating the icing from the cake is difficult for many people. In my day job, I frequently bang against the wall of "but it's not perfect." If you present a mock-up of an application to a group of people and say, "This is just a rough sketch. Please don't worry about the details," they will immediately start worrying about the details. They will zero in on every element that isn't pretty yet, every feature that hasn't been constructed yet. They will veto an entire design because there are stripes in the background and they don't like stripes. They will spend twenty minutes arguing over whether the search button should have squared or slightly rounded corners. They will pick apart the placeholder images and ask, in perfect seriousness, "Will those kittens be replaced with more appropriate photos? Because I don't think kittens are really relevant to our services...."

Don't worry about the kittens. Repeat: Don't worry about the kittens. You have to see past the kittens to what's really important.

It takes trust to see past the kittens, or the icing, or whatever mixed metaphor I'm on at this point. People who complain about every little detail of a mock-up don't trust the developers. Writers who get caught up in endless revising before they reach chapter 2 don't trust their skills or themselves. It takes confidence to say, "This passage isn't perfect, but the underlying idea is good. I can improve the presentation later."

And writers who believe that "Thinking is the enemy of creativity!" trust themselves even less. They're afraid they can't handle story problems, so they close their eyes and rush through so they won't see them. Or they're afraid they can't control their own behavior, so they say things like, "If I don't shut off my brain and just write write write, I won't have the discipline to finish!"

Perfectionism is a cover for insecurity. Deliberate sloppiness is also a cover for insecurity. Every stated reason I've heard for writing with the blinders on is some variation of "But if I don't I can't..."

  • But if I don't I can't finish.
  • But if I don't I can't be creative.
  • But if I don't I can't write honestly.
  • But if I don't I can't shut out the critical voices sneering that I'll fail.


  • But I'm a flake.
  • But I'm stupid.
  • But I'm a coward.
  • But I'm insecure and easily swayed by my own auditory hallucinations.

You can't write well if you think like this. You can't. You need confidence in yourself to face and fix the problems in your writing. You need confidence to say what you think, even if you know people don't want to hear it. (As Stephen King wrote, "If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered.")

And you need confidence to kill your internal perfectionist and listen to your internal editor. I assure you that even if you open your eyes and, *gasp*, think as you write, you can finish, you can be creative, you can write honestly, and you can ignore the imaginary bullies hissing that you're a loser and you'll never make it.

The only thing you truly can't do with your eyes open is sneeze. And, for many people, sleep. Anything else you can do with your eyes closed, you'll do better with them open. Don't listen to the ghost of Obi Wan Kenobi jabbering about wiping the mind clean and being one with the Force or whatever. The Force is a fantasy. You can tell it's not real because it's a perfectly ordinary noun masquerading as a proper one.

(Pet Peeve #358: When fantasy writers capitalize random words. "We have to get the Crystal!" "By the Wizard, he has the Sword!" I may start doing the same to give weight and importance to my daily activities. "I'm going to drink the Tea." "It's time to make the Lunch.")

Don't trust the Force, or the Muse, or any other mystical entity that relieves you of the responsibility to work hard. Trust yourself. Trust your internal editor. Trust your doubts and address them, don't ignore them. You can handle it. Really.


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