The internal editor: When to listen to that doubting voice in your head and when to ignore it

If you describe yourself as a professional writer, chances are good that, at one time or another, you have taken part in a workshop. Perhaps you’ve even earned an MFA and lived to tell about it. Either way, you’re familiar with the process of in-person manuscript critiques. You know that they often begin with everyone in the room praising what is working well in the piece before transitioning into constructive criticism. We’ve all heard the phrase “writing is rewriting,” and many of our most beloved authors, including F. Scott Fitzgerald and Vladimir Nabokov, are known for their relentless and sometimes borderline unhealthy devotion to revision. Ernest Hemingway once claimed he rewrote the ending to A Farewell to Arms 39 times before he was satisfied. Elmore Leonard has said, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”
Revision and rewriting are undoubtedly and without question an important part of the composition process, as is being a part of a community of writers, even if only for a short time. The workshops you’ve attended and the criticism you’ve received from friends, family, colleagues, and mentors have most likely given you a deep and diverse supply of tools you can whip out when it comes time to rework a chapter, story, or scene. Such tools play a big part in creating what is often referred to as “the internal editor,” the voice in your head that questions what you’ve committed to the page. Imagine it not necessarily as the devil on your shoulder, but perhaps a miniaturized version of your favorite English teacher, complete with red pen and wagging finger. The internal editor can at times be your best friend. It’s there to correct not only grammatical errors, but missteps in plot, dialogue, characterization, and chronology. It’s invaluable, but it can also be your worst enemy. The challenge is, of course, knowing when to embrace your editor and when to banish that doubting voice to the hinterlands.Like many aspects of the writing life, deciding when to embrace and when to banish your internal editor is a matter of individual choice and is dependent on what best serves the manuscript at a particular moment in time. Why not try this exercise to test your internal editor’s flexibility: Write a scene you’ve been avoiding writing because your internal editor doubts its believability. Turn the editor off – send it packing! – and write the scene with as many fantastical and improbable elements you can muster. Put the scene in a drawer (or hide it in a folder on your desktop) for a few days or even a week. Then, turn your editor back on and return to the scene. Read it over and see if your editor has any issues with what you’ve created. My guess is that you’ll end up with a scene that finds the right balance between believability and invention. Right on? Write on.