Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Putting Your Internal Editor to Work

By Amy Butler Greenfield, @ab_greenfield

JH: Join me in welcoming Amy Butler Greenfield to the blog today to chat with us about our internal editors. We all have them, but do we control them or do they control us?

Amy was on her way to a history Ph.D. when she gave into temptation and became a writer. Among other honors, her books have won a PEN/Albrand Award, the Veolia Prix du Livre Environnement, and a Beacon of Freedom Award.

Born in Philadelphia, Amy grew up in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State. She studied at Williams College and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and she earned a graduate degree in history at Oxford University on a Marshall Scholarship. She now lives with her family on the edge of the Cotswolds in England, where she writes, reads, and bakes double-dark-chocolate cake.

She loves music, romantic adventure, history, quirky science, and suspense, which explains how she came to write her first YA novel, Chantress, from Simon & Schuster.

Take it away Amy...

Oh, the dreaded internal editor! If you’re a writer, you’ll know its insidious voice all too well. This chapter makes no sense, it whispers. Your plot is in pieces. You ought to quit now because you’ll never write anything good.

How do you keep writing in the face of this onslaught?

Some people advise you to laugh at your internal editor, or imagine escorting him or her out the door. Others recommend you probe your past to see where your internal editor came from. These approaches can be helpful, but I’m going to suggest something different:

Put your internal editor to work.

Start by giving your editor a sheet of paper. (A computer file works just fine, too, but I find paper tends to slow my editor down a bit, which can be handy.) Your editors will love this, trust me. The first time I did this, my own internal editor was only too happy to tell me how bad the chapter was, and what a terrible job I was doing.

Let your editors rant, but don’t take any of it too seriously. They just need to get it out of their systems. As soon as you can, ask them the key question:

“Do you have anything specific to tell me?”

If my internal editor falls silent, as she often does, I know that her criticisms mean nothing except that she’s afraid of this writing business. She fears that I won’t do a good job, that I’m going to make a fool of myself—and of her. I’ve learned I can safely ignore those kinds of worries. “It’s okay,” I tell her. “Pretty much every writer I know is afraid of that, too.” And then I get back to work.

Sometimes, however, my internal editor has something very specific to say:
  • “The pace has really slowed down in this chapter. Can’t you get rid of some of that backstory?”
  • “Why did the antagonist do that? What’s his motivation?”
  • “You’ve completely dropped the subplot. Either do something with it, or cut it out.”
These are comments I can use—and the more specific the criticism, the more worthwhile it is to look at it.

Not all of the comments are true, of course, and not all of them need to be dealt with right away. I may, for instance, decide that the chapter pacing is fine, as it is, or I might wait till the next draft to trim the backstory. But listening to my internal editor can save me a lot of trouble. When I’m stuck, she often has a good idea where the problem is. And when I’m done with my draft, I can use her list of issues and problems to help me revise.

Giving my internal editor her own sheet of paper has had other benefits, too. Now that she knows she’ll get a chance to speak, she’s eased up on me. Lots of time she just lets me write. When she does speak up, sometimes she’s still mean, but more often she’s simply in problem-solving mode.

There’s been a change in me as well. Instead of seeing my internal editor as an enemy, I’ve come to see her as an ally: cantankerous, sometimes snippy, but someone who can help me make my stories better. And that’s made the process of writing them easier.

About Chantress

Sing and the darkness will find you.

When Lucy hears tantalizing music in the air and sings it, she unlocks a terrible secret: She is a Chantress, a spell-singer, hidden from the world by a desperate enchantment.

Her song puts her within reach of England’s cruel Lord Protector and his mind-reading hunters, the Shadowgrims. The Protector has killed all Chantresses, for they alone can destroy him. Only Lucy has survived—so far.

In terrible danger, Lucy takes shelter with Nat, a spy who turns her heart upside-down. They want to overthrow the Protector, but Lucy is completely untrained, and Nat deeply distrusts her magic. If Lucy cannot master the song-spells, how long can she even stay alive?

Lyrical, dangerous and romantic, Chantress will capture readers in a spell they won’t want to break.


  1. You know what shut my internal guy up? I switched from reading Edith Wharton to Enid Blyton. I'm serious. Take time to read something that's maybe not so good once in a while. (Actually I'm even learning from Julian, George and Timmy the Dog...)

  2. Great idea. It makes sense, I'll try it out. Your book sounds great, too. I will check it out. :)

  3. What an excellent suggestion! I will implement that right now! Maybe for once I won't feel a sense of defeat. And I agree with V. N. Your book sounds fantastic.

  4. V. N. and LinWash, I hope this tactic works as well for you as it has for me! I'm thrilled the book sounds good to you.

    Tim, I agree that reading a variety of stuff can really help. It's also been good for me to see early drafts of manuscripts by writers I admire, and not just the finished books. Online you can find photos of Austen, Shelley, & Borges manuscripts - and they all revise and rework!

  5. Thanks for the good advice. Unfortunately, I don't have an inner editor, I have an entire staff of them. I think I have a new legal pad around somewhere.
    Maybe that will keep them busy.
    Truthfully though, I don't have any problem with my inner editor when I am writing. Revising is where I can't shut them up. They like to point out issues
    unrelated to the section I am revising or make suggestions that send me off on a tangent. Sometimes this works out for the better, sometimes worse.

  6. That's a tough one, Lynn! I can get a chorus of voices when revising, too, and it's easy for them to shoot down everything I've written (though I think I'm getting tougher as I keep writing). Go ahead and give them plenty of paper. I also find it helps to read out loud, in part because it keeps me focused on what's on the page and not on the comments from the peanut gallery. Wishing you lots of luck!

  7. Tim, that is an excellent idea. Kind of reminds you that there are all kinds of published works out there.

    I like the idea of the separate paper. I did a thing where I actually wrote mine a letter, telling her I was going on a long journey and would consult with her when I return from it. That journey is a first draft. That seemed to quiet her down.

    With regard to having that little voice at my disposal, I use Scrivener (love it) when I write and it has a feature to make side notes; I'll add the editor's more specific comments to my side notes so that I can pick them up on a rewrite.

    It's a silly mind game, true, but that voice can really freeze you in your tracks!

  8. Great tips! I even stopped part way through this post to go write done some editing issues that have been bugging me for a day or two.