Listening to My Inner Editor

I’ve read over and over that writers are to turn off their inner editor. That advice comes from seasoned authors, novices, and instruction books. And I think it’s wrong.

Not entirely, mind you, but I think it’s a great advantage to develop an ear for what works, and I don’t think a writer does that by ignoring the nagging voice that says, This part isn’t right.

I’ll add another caveat: I don’t think an author should listen to any editor or critic when working on the rough draft of a story. An author must accept that a rough draft will be … rough. Plot points may not quite fit. Characters won’t always be adequately motivated, and their personalities probably need to be fleshed out more completely. Setting may need to be envisioned afresh.

And language! Repetition will need to be annihilated. Wordiness, cut. Weak verbs will need to be replaced, and so on.

But those are all things to do in the rewrite, not in the first draft.

When rewrite time comes, however, I think it’s important for an author to reach a point where he trusts his inner editor.

I remember when I first went to the Mount Hermon Christian Writers’ Conference in Northern California and met some of the writers I’d first encountered on blogs and online writing communities. I remember asking one—Brandilyn Collins, I think, who co-taught the fiction track that year with Randy Ingermanson—if she was in a critique group.

No, she said. And I thought, How in the world does she do it? I had just found an online group that was changing my writing. I was learning so much and growing as a writer.

But the interesting thing I discovered later on is this: When I suspected something in my manuscript wasn’t quite right, those in my crit group who gave me feedback almost always overwhelmingly pointed out those spots as needing work.

In the end, I realized that when I thought something wasn’t right, it probably wasn’t right.

Perhaps that editing skill is something I acquired over years of grading papers. I know it developed exponentially as I critiqued others in my group and even more when I began editing professionally.

But in the back of my head I keep thinking, Writers are smart people, plus they are readers. They know what they like in the books they pick up, so why can’t we apply the same sense to our own work?

Usually, I think the answer is, we’re too close to it. We were visualizing a scene, hearing dialogue in our head, and we think what we wrote is what we were seeing, hearing. But if we set the work aside for a time, then come back to it, we have a much better idea if the words on the page conjure up those same images, that same dialogue, as we first imagined.

Critique groups are great. First readers are great. Editors are great. But I’m beginning to think we authors, who ought to have the most invested in our work, should own a lot more of the rewriting and revising.


  1. “Turn off your inner editor” is advice for writers, like me, who are prone to blockage. For some people, that voice can cause hesitation that is akin to stage fright. If you get stuck, turn it off … until you get a first draft. Then you can turn it back on.

    Before I learned that trick, I felt this “need” to be brilliant with first drip of the pen. Now, I allow myself to be an average writer, but I try to be a “brilliant” editor.


  2. Great thoughts.

    I, like you, have found that when I think something is off, my crit group will jump on that point.

    But, as you say, I am close to the work. So I’ve found this: Always, along with finding the stuff I knew as off, my group also finds stuff when I had no idea it was off. I can’t see how I would survive without a crit group reading my stuff. I guess if I had an editor he could take the place of a crit group. But for now, I really need those fresh eyes telling me about stuff that I am completely blind to.

    I hate to say it, but I need the outer editor because I’ve never had much of an innner editor. heh heh, as anyone who has ever read my blogs can attest.


  3. In my case I need to turn off my inner editor because he’s Adolf Hitler. If I start to think about what I’m doing, I become paralyzed by the badness of it all, and quit. Months later when I read the story-fragment I abandoned, I usually find that not only was my work acceptable for a first draft, it’s unusually polished for a work at that stage— but at that point it’s never been possible for me to resume work on it.

    But the problem with any writing advice is that writers are so different from one another that what is good advice for one type of writer is bad advice for another.


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