Friday, October 15, 2010

Shack on Silencing Your Internal Editor

Andy Shack provides some helpful hints on how to keep from breaking one's creative train of thought at Shack's Comings and Goings. Excerpts:
We all know that moment, we are typing merrily away, words tumbling from our fingers and flying on to the page, then it happens.

Maybe it is a word, not quite right, too long, too simple, too obscure. You don't know what exactly is wrong. However, its wrong and it's wrong on your page. ...

Time and time again I see the same sage advice telling us that when we are in full creative flow we should ignore spelling, grammar, style errors and instead concentrate on getting the story down, to let the words pour out of us. That the time to correct these things is later, not now. To do it when the fantastic creative rush is over, to correct when we are wearing a different hat, the hat of an editor.

Can I follow that advice? When I see red squiggles two lines up or maybe "the the" just above my cursor, can I leave them alone? What about the worse situation when the current word is just plain wrong, do I plough on and leave it alone? And what should I do when a plot hole opens up beneath my character, making nonsense of my entire scene?

Can I follow that advice? No I can't.
Read the whole thing. Darn it, Andy, quit reading the thoughts scrawled on the inside of my forehead! Seriously, though, anyone who doesn't struggle with an internal editor is either really into stream of consciousness or not writing much at all. And if you're the tiniest bit like me (a pathological perfectionist who wants everything to come out neatly and in order from the get-go), getting stuck on a single word can feel like plowing into a brick wall at warp factor nine. To get confessional, it's already happened to me once while writing this rather short blog post. But rather than go wash my hands a dozen times or count all the paperclips in my desk drawers, I'm taking a deep breath and giving Shack's suggestions a try. You know what? They may be working, because somehow against hope I've managed to reach the end.

(Picture: CC 2007 by
Trebor Scholz' Photos; Hat Tip: How Publishing Really Works)


C. N. Nevets said...

I think I would be a much worse writer if I tried to separate the two. It's just not how I function.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

The most useful realization was when I read an article about how Chandler edited (he circled the good phrases, then rewrote EVERYTHING else on the page.

When I write a first draft, I'm looking to unearth gold so that I can polish it in the final draft. If a word is misspelled, even a character's name, I ignore it. But if a phrase is not right, and I might miss it on revision, I take the time to get it right. Basically, I want my first-draft time to be spent getting the important stuff, and only the important stuff, down. But sometimes the important stuff is a single word, or phrase, or image that I need to spend a lot of time perfecting.

S.D. Smith said...

I heard the Shack was heretical.

Also, I agree with you, it's pretty dang hard to keep that advice but you know it's so true!

Unknown said...

Wait... editing interrupts the creative flow? This is news to me. As far as I'm concerned, constant revision and rewriting is part of the initial process. Maybe this is an artifact of my extreme "seat-of-the-pants" writing persona; I tend to get an idea, let it percolate in the back of my mind until a plot forms around it, and then dump it all out at once. You could call it a mental outline, I suppose, but it's not nearly so structured. Still, it does mean that when I'm "writing," in a lot of ways I'm almost just transcribing. Maybe that means that my first drafts are more like 1.5 drafts, with me revising my mental rough as I put it on the page for the first time.

Anyway, I will revise a sentence three or four times as I'm writing it, and sometimes just toss entire paragraphs or move whole chunks around while adding new story in around them. If I left my editing until later with hashmarks, I'd have forgotten what was wrong with it by the time I went back.

C. N. Nevets said...

As a writer of thrillers, I always go back to the way Robert Ludlum described his writing process. He would have a something (page, paragraph, sentence, chapter) that he wanted to write each day. He would sit down and write, edit, rewrite, and revise until he thought that something was just the way he wanted it.

And then he called it a good day.

AidanF said...

I believe there are all types of writers and the important thing is to find out who you are and be true to that. I'm more in the Scattercat/Nevets camp and need to edit as I write because that's part of my process.

I dictate all of my writing... so I'd have two problems: mis-dictations, and things that once on paper I've got a better idea. I must fix the mis-dictations because sometimes later I'd be unable to read it and remember what I'd intended. It's one thing if the errors come from you a truly different thing when they come from the evil computer. Secondly, I will use my version of hashes ([]) occasionally to leave me notes about things I don't want to deal with now... like research.

Loren Eaton said...


I wish I couldn't separate them, but if I don't then I end up paralyzed and self-loathing.

Loren Eaton said...


The most useful realization was when I read an article about how Chandler edited (he circled the good phrases, then rewrote EVERYTHING else on the page.)

That's what I try to do, only I'm attempting to keep the stuff that's merely decent. It's a start, right?

Loren Eaton said...


Only self-published books by that name are, not poor chaps who happen to share the moniker.

Loren Eaton said...


As far as I'm concerned, constant revision and rewriting is part of the initial process.

Yes, but this is because you are made out of 100% Pure Awesome and could write the proverbial pants off me any day of the week.

Loren Eaton said...


I dictate all of my writing... so I'd have two problems: mis-dictations, and things that once on paper I've got a better idea.

That is very interesting. I've only known one other person who's done that, and he did so because he had carpal tunnel and couldn't type easily.

C. N. Nevets said...

And that's why I hate universal writing advice. I would become a dribbling, drooling fool if I tried to go with with a passage unpolished. You would be paralyzed by self-loathing if you stopped to think twice about what you had just written. Clearly, there's not one answer... I only wish the poor saps in writing class and strong-willed crit groups understood as much.

AidanF said...

I'm borderline carpel tunnel. When I decided I was going to seriously write I realized that I could not add extra burden to my wrists and therefore started writing by dictation since I knew it would be a short-lived experiment otherwise. It took a while to become comfortable at that method but it works for me now.

Loren Eaton said...


Yes, there are a lot of exceptions to a lot of rules. I'm sure plenty of folks who find revising stalls them like it does me, but it's interesting how many people commenting here don't have that experience.

Loren Eaton said...


I would be interested in seeing how the drafting process differed from writing by hand. I know, pure writerly geekery on my part, but I find it really interesting.

AidanF said...

My approach to dictation drafting. I dictate into the microphone on my computer and watch the words recognized. I've configured it to be more accurate (with the trade-off that the computer waits longer before rendering the sentences... effectively improving it's ability to guess the correct word (it uses context in guessing words) so I tend to speak in fragments (when the writing is going slow) to multiple sentences (when the writing is going fast). I'll often write a paragraph and then re-read it.

I can easily select text (by saying "select [text I want to select]"; which results in my writing several sentences and reviewing the dictated text. I fix mis-dictations at this point and reword sentences as well; improve word choice, fix grammar. I won't make major revisions (i.e. move this section before this section) but rather indicate this using square brackets.

Some programs are better at learning new words than others. Dragon, which I use, learns new words quickly which is good, largely for place & character names; since I tend not to use common English names in my writing.

I revise on an iPad and use iAnnotate to highlight text, add underlining/cross out, attach typed notes (I use this for a word or two... but iPad typing is slow... better to identify passages that need editing and make the edits separately... and I'm going to dictate to make the final changes). I then use dictation to perform the editing.

Loren Eaton said...

Sounds like you have a good system there, Aidan. I particularly like the idea of using the iPad for some of the editing. I'd think pure dictation editing would be challenging.