Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Internal Editor

by Ashley Lister

It’s been suggested that, inside every writer, there are two conflicting personalities. One is the creative free spirit – the facet of our minds that creates the wild new ideas and explores the limitless possibilities of inspiration and imagination. The creative free spirit stretches boundaries, builds unimagined worlds, and has scant regard for the realities of what’s possible, permissible or practical in reality.

The other personality inside a writer is the internal editor. The internal editor criticises and censors ideas, invariably dismissing innovations as illogical, impractical, uninteresting or poorly written.

On the majority of occasions this symbiotic processes works well.

The creative free spirit suggests ideas, expands on them and explores their potential. Sometimes these explorations end in cul-de-sacs, but quite often they involve flights of imagination that encounter undiscovered countries. Fantastic solutions are forged, exciting new worlds are realised and an imperfect first draft is ready for the internal editor.

With the imperfect first draft, the internal editor is able to take over and shape the work into something more accessible. Continuity errors are addressed and repaired. Logical flaws are identified and either discarded or amended. It goes without saying that the internal editor picks up on all the typing problems, grammatical errors and clumsy phrasing that is in need of elegant variation.

But there are occasions when the internal editor tries to interfere with the free spirit’s creative process. This seems to happen to a lot of new writers, as the internal editor laughs at the free spirit’s outrageous ideas and insists that no one would want to read such fanciful garbage, and the whole concept is too preposterous to sustain any reader interest.

For some new writers, this damning self-criticism can be enough to make them quit before they’ve properly begun. The first draft doesn’t get completed because the internal editor is perpetually telling the wannabe author: you can’t do it, you’re wasting your time, no one will want to read this anyway. This sort of criticism is harsh enough when it comes from an external voice. When it’s one inside your head it can be crippling. Consequently, many potential writers simply give up before they’ve properly begun.

Then there are others who allow the internal editor to do too much work. Removing metaphors: because the real world is literal – not figurative. Editing dialogue so that it excises the humanity from a character’s voice. Parsing a narrative until there are only the raw elements of the story, with none of the fine detail that makes the telling so enjoyable.

Usually, what’s left in these instances is letter-perfect: and not worth the effort of reading.

And then there are times when the internal editor simply objects to the work that the writer’s free spirit is creating. Character A wouldn’t spank Character B because people don’t spank each other in the real world. Every reaction to this criticism is invariably countered by the alternate argument: Character A and Character B might get nasty in the dark, with the lights off, but that’s boring and staid and no one would want to read it.

Which is why, this week, when we’re each writing to editors, I wanted to write a letter to my personal ‘internal editor.’ It’s a heartfelt letter intended only for my personal ‘internal editor’ although, if you think it’s applicable to your own internal editor, please feel free to forward the message.

Dear Internal Editor,

STFU. I’m trying to write.


Creative Free Spirit


  1. What a great twist on the topic, Ash!

    I know exactly what you mean. Lately my internal editor has been more of a pain than usual, making me feel like it isn't worth the effort even trying to write.

    So I think I'm going to take a page from your playbook and tell her to STFU.



  2. Lisabet,

    You have a FEMALE internal editor? My free spirit always strikes me as female but my internal editor is 100% male, complete with domineering attitude and dismissive sarcasm.

    Or, perhaps, I've been spending too long trying to personify the voices in my head?



  3. Great post.

    My internal editor doesn't clobber my stories like the interfering one that you describe, but he often slows the writing down significantly. This is largely because the time to mentally review and critique what I've written is more available than basic writing time. I find that actually writing words requires paper or a computer handy, whereas thinking "hmmm, would she really do that?" can be done on the drive to the office.

    As a result, it's often a struggle to push on through the "Crappy First Draft." Even though the following editing passes are quicker, the overall time to create a story has increased.

    The internal editor doesn't stop me from finishing usually, but man can it be a struggle.

  4. Ash,

    LOL Fantastic post. : )

    My internal editor gets stuck on "academic" mode and stifles my inner creative spirit. I'm sure you know how that one goes.

    Tak ecare hon, and definitly tell your bossy internal editor to go stuff it! At least from time to time.


  5. Ed,

    You're lucky to have the thinking time. I find that's one of the key areas I'm lacking at the moment as I try to balance teaching and writing with a couple of other projects.

    And you're absolutely right about struggling to get through the first version of that crappy first draft. I sometimes think that takes such an heroic effort we should be awarding medals :-)



  6. Michelle,

    That academic voice deserves its own place in hell when I'm trying to write fiction.

    If it was just the academic vocabulary, I know I could deal with it in the revision stage.

    But, it's also the academic mindset of, 'who originally said this? what evidence do we have to support this opinion? are there any conflicting opinions to this one that are sufficiently germane to require mention...?

    Consequently, the academic voice can really slow things down.


  7. Ashley,

    I would never say such a thing to my internal editor. I would simply tell my internal editor to "blow me, fan boy."

    Seems to work.

    Lovely post, BTW!


  8. Helen,

    I'm going to have to save that remark and use it at an appropriate moment.



  9. Hi Ashley!

    Yes, it is a good twist on the topic. Well chosen. The internal editor is something each wanna be has to come to terms with somehow. Especially in the beginning when a person's confidence can be so fragile. I read this article about Chuck Jones, who was the director of all the warner Brothers cartoons in the 50's and 60's (Bugs Bunny etc). He told his art students "You have some really excellent cartoons inside you, but they're buried under a bigger pile of bad cartoons. The only way to get to them is to start digging your way down." I think when a writer or artist accepts that idea and gets comfortable with it coming up with dumb stuff doesn;t seem so frightening. Its just what you have to do to get to the good stuff.

    When I write an early draft of something I like to imagine myself as a musician in a rock band in Abbey Road studios. After the last paragraph, I shout up "How was that?" and then George Martin leans out of the control room door at the top of the stairs "A little better; still sounds like shit. Do it again!"

    "Okay George."

    Take number fifty, guys.
    Aw one . . Aw two . .


  10. Garce,

    Cool analogy: and I love the idea of working at Abbey Road.

    I'm now imagining your comments being read aloud over a background of 'paperback writer.'




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