The inner editor vs. the inner critic, and how to ignore them

After I posted last week about my writing process, Najela asked how to turn off the inner editor, and I have been thinking about the answer to that ever since. First, I want to distinguish between an "inner editor" and an "inner critic." I see the inner editor as a potentially constructive thing. This is the voice you hear in your head that says, "This character arc needs sharpening," or "This scene might work better three chapters later." These are things you need to listen to — but not at the beginning of a project.

At the beginning, I do believe the inner editor should be turned off. You, the writer, should be allowed to write as much dreck as you need to, in the interest of getting a rough draft down on paper. It's only after that draft is completed that you turn on the inner editor, and look at your work with an eye toward revision.

The inner critic, however, is a totally different persona and one that should, I believe, be banished forever.

The inner critic whispers things like "You are an awful writer" and "You will never finish this book" in your ear. She is mean and condescending, and does not offer any constructive advice like the inner editor does. These things are disheartening and if you hear them often enough, you might start to believe them.

Although I've done my best to banish my inner critic, she sometimes still appears. This is because the inner critic is notoriously hard to kill and speaks in a very, very loud voice that is almost impossible to ignore, or even muffle. I think there are a few ways to banish the inner critic, though.

1. Face the inner critic directly. The inner critic is basically a collection of all your fears as a writer. You may fear that you really do suck, that nobody will ever want to read anything you write, and that you're an idiot for even attempting to be a writer because you'll never make enough money to pay your rent. You have to face these fears head-on. I suggest writing them down in black and white. Write them down by hand, so that they come out of a pen held by your own fingers. Look at them there on the page.

2. Acknowledge that some of these fears are realistic. It's true: writing is an idiotic profession to aspire to. It typically pays very poorly; there's no health insurance; and the only guarantee is that people are going to have a hard time believing you when you tell them you're a writer. These are things you have to accept, and you have to realistically assess whether (and how) you can deal with the low pay, long hours, and lack of respect associated with this kind of work. Not everybody can, and that's the truth.

3. Remember that the fears about your own skill as a writer — the idea that you may suck; the terror that you may never finish your book — are only opinions, and they are opinions held by the inner critic, who never believes in anyone, much less you. The only way to deal with these kinds of opinions is to say, "That's what you think, inner critic, but I believe in myself." You might have to say this over and over to yourself, and you might feel like you're behaving like an idiot, sitting at your desk and repeating "I believe in myself," but face it: writers are eccentric. Talking to ourselves is the least of our problems.

The best way to banish that inner critic who says you're never going to succeed, though, is to prove her wrong. Every day that you put your butt in that chair and write, you are thumbing your nose at the inner critic. If you do it enough, she starts to get worn down, and her voice does become quieter. Every once in a while she rears up with a giant, loud "YOU SUCK!" but if you've been writing regularly and ignoring her regularly, you will be able to face her and you will be able to win.

It's important that you learn to distinguish between the inner critic and her much more kindly associate, the inner editor. The inner editor wants to help, and her main issue is that she often wants to help much too soon. She'll start giving you suggestions before you've even gotten that first sentence down on the page, and it can be very hard to write with her looking over your shoulder.

One of the best ways to put the inner editor aside is to keep a notebook nearby, and every time the inner editor offers up a helpful suggestion, write it down. Then, leave it for later. Once you've finished the first draft, you can go through all those editorial suggestions and think about which ones work and which ones don't.

A suggestion that might have seemed great when you were in the middle of writing Chapter 3 may turn out to not work at all once you've finished the draft. You need to have the whole story down on paper before you start to fix it. That's why the inner editor needs to wait until the rough draft is done before she gets to work.

Of course, the inner editor can be sneaky, saying things like, "You really need to fix this part before you move on to the next chapter; otherwise the plot will be all messed up." She can be very convincing! And you might be persuaded to follow her advice. The problem is, the inner editor means well but doesn't have a crystal ball. She does not know for sure whether what you're writing is going to work out in the long run or not. The only way to know that is to finish the entire draft first. Once you've come to the end, you will then be able to see much more clearly what works and what doesn't.

Remember that. Listen to what the inner editor says; write it down; and move on. When the draft is finished, then you can consider her suggestions.

A lot of this is easier said than done. If you're a new writer, or are working on your very first novel, these things are particularly difficult to do. But it's not because you can't do them — it's because you haven't done them before. However, the more you do it, the easier it becomes. I guarantee that.