Every creative person, including authors, deals with an internal critic. Children's book writer and editor Heidi Fiedler shares five ways we can continue being creative even when our inner editor is trying to get the upper hand.
We all have that voice in our heads, the one that says, “Careful now. That probably won’t work. We need to get it perfect. Perfect means no one can criticize you. Perfect means safe. So maybe you should just wait to write until you know you can get it perfect. Maybe you’ll be ready in twenty years? Maybe then you’ll finally be able to get it right.”
Our inner editors can be incredibly harsh.
And they know exactly how to get us to slow down, play it safe, and generally get in our own way.
Five years ago, I was working as an editor in a publishing house, rushing to add to the hundreds of books I had already worked on. The end goal was always the same: publishing perfection. It was unrealistic corporate nonsense, but that was the goal.
And as an editor, I didn’t just hear the voice, I was the voice. I rushed writers, nagged them to clarify their thoughts before they were ready, and made sure we cleaned up any messiness that developed in the creative process.
Today I’m happy to report I’m an independent writer and editor. I work from home. I decide what’s successful. And I try to be a generous boss to myself.
I've traded in the culture of perfectionism for a process that allows me to experiment, make and mend mistakes, and create something original. The work I do is more playful. It's more creative. And it's more personal. I pour my heart into it.
Along the way, I’ve developed a few practices that help me get creative and quiet my inner editor. I’m sharing them here today with the hope that they will help you too!
1. Dance Around the Document
When you start a new project, try working outside the document as long as you can. That might mean making loose notes in a notebook devoted to the project. I like to call my pre-writing notebook a Nebula Notebook, because it reminds me to stay dreamy and open to drifting through a field of ideas.
You might dictate notes into a voice recording app. You could even make thumbnail sketches to remind you what happens in each scene.
If you’ve already written a draft, try printing out the manuscript and only making notes at the end of each chapter, rather than making notes line by line or in the margins. It will help you stay focused on the big-picture elements. And when you review your notes, jumping from section to section, you’ll make connections you wouldn’t have made if you were treating the margins of your manuscript as a to-do list.
The point is to wait as long as possible to start typing, because once you’re in the document, it’s too tempting to start cutting and pasting, tinkering with a word, and generally letting your inner editor get bossy.
If you’re feeling stuck, try journaling about what you want your book to be about. Imagine writing a letter to a sympathetic friend, or write about what you hope readers will love about your book one day.
Your inner editor will feel content knowing you’re making progress and organizing your thoughts, but you will still feel free to try different directions and experiment with loose ideas.
Try doing your writing work in one place, and saving your revising for another location. When you need to read through a draft or work on a tricky passage, try working in your car or somewhere that feels casual and fresh.
Don’t try to do your most creative work in the same place that you do your tightening and polishing. It’s too easy for your brain to think it’s time to go into editor mode.
4. Track Something New
If your inner editor is convinced you need to write 500 words every day or you’re not making progress, try tracking how much time you spend writing rather than how many words you put down on the page.
Or if you’ve been tracking time, try tracking milestones like finishing a draft, submitting to your agent, or getting a critique.
You could even keep it super simple and just track how many days in a row you think about the piece you’re working on. Make yourself a little calendar or a worksheet, so you can fill in some bubbles or give yourself some gold-star stickers. The trick is to help your inner editor visualize all the progress that’s being made.
5. Give Yourself Permission Not to Know
Inner editors love to act like if you would just listen to them, the next draft would be complete, and you could check this enormous task off your list.
Remind yourself that everyone struggles with writing, even editors! Don’t feel like you have to make all the revisions in one draft.
[Note from Joanna: For more on dealing with your internal critic and getting your writing out into the world, check out my book The Successful Author Mindset.]
Give yourself permission to not know how to fix a problem. Let it take time. Expect to meander. You can totally confuse your inner editor by challenging yourself to write something weird and unproductive. You just might surprise yourself with a poetic little gem. And like everyone else, inner editors tend to relax if you remind them the goal is “progress not perfection.”
How do you quiet the voice of your inner editor? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Writer and editor Heidi Fiedler has worked on more than 300 books. Whether it’s a poetic picture book, a zippy chapter book, or a kid-friendly take on the physics of time travel, her books are quirky, playful, highly visual, and often philosophical. Learn more about Heidi, her books, and the classes she teaches at helloheidifiedler.com or say hello on Instagram @heidifiedler.