The writer and the editor duke it out

It takes a certain kind of person to care about comma placement: detail-oriented, logical, willing to follow rules. These are not the same qualities a writer needs.

Writers can’t get bogged down by grammar. Linear thinking chokes our creativity. We have to be willing to make an unholy mess, to venture into unknown country and write our way through uncertainty.

As an editor—one who works mostly with academic texts—I’ve sharpened my skills at improving precision and clarity. I often work under a deadline, so I’ve learned to edit quickly. I edit automatically: billboards, menus, the newspaper, my own thoughts.

Predictably, when I write I edit myself incessantly. On paper, I rarely reach a stop without vandalizing my sentence with strikethroughs and inserted “improvements.” It’s no better when I write at the computer. According to my WordPress dashboard, I made 31 revisions to my first commatology post before I hit the Publish button.

Commas may save lives, but perfectionism is a silent killer.

Writers have to edit themselves, of course. No one produces brilliant prose on the first draft. But an overactive inner critic—and, let’s be honest, that’s what our self-editor is—is the leading cause of writer’s block. I have no scientific evidence to back that statement up, but I’ve been writing for a long time and I know it’s the leading cause of my writer’s block!

Henriette Anne Klauser is the author of Writing on Both Sides of the Brain: Breakthrough Techniques for People Who Write (HarperCollins, 1987). Klauser understands that writing involves two separate and completely different processes: writing and editing. Her book is full of useful strategies for engaging each side of the brain at different times to accomplish both tasks and achieve the goal of producing a piece of writing fit to send out into the world. And by “fit” I mean Self-Editor is willing to let it go.

I’ve owned Klauser’s book for 15 years. My bookshelf holds other volumes on writing. Lovely, engaging books with clever techniques that writers—other writers—apparently use to silence their inner critic.

Anne Lamott, in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (Pantheon Books, 1994), calls her self-editor radio station KFKD. She describes, in an entertaining fashion, how she lets the radio play while she works.

I can’t do that.

Lamott suggests rituals to “quiet the racket”: votive candles, sage smudges, small-animal sacrifices. None of these rituals work for me.

Okay, I haven’t actually tried small-animal sacrifice. But I’m pretty sure it doesn’t work for me.

photo of hamster

All of the most influential writers on the topic of breaking through writer’s block recommend a variation on a strategy Dorothea Brande pioneered in 1934: “harnessing the unconscious.” Klauser calls it rapidwriting. She advises setting a timer for 10 minutes, writing like stink until the timer goes off, and then pushing through for another 10 minutes. Natalie Goldberg, in Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Shambahala, 1986), calls it writing practice: keep the hand moving across the page. Julia Cameron, in The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity (Tarcher/Putnam, 1992), calls it morning pages. Countless writers have taken her advice to write three pages nonstop every morning.

I own all of these books. I love these books. They’ve helped me become a better writer. They’ve helped me fall in love with writing. But they haven’t helped me silence Self-Editor.

I know it’s because my livelihood depends on her skills.

I think I’ve turned a corner, though, in my relationship with Self-Editor. (By the way, Self-Editor is her formal name. I call her Leona.) I finally realized Leona is only trying to help. She’s helpful by nature—that’s how she got into the editing business. (That and her anal retentiveness.) Leona loves me. She’s trying to protect me. She doesn’t want me to embarrass myself in public.

SARK helped me figure out how to handle Leona so I can write. I wouldn’t have expected it. When I first clicked through to her website a couple of months ago, my impression was of cheesy cheerfulness. And who takes advice on creativity from someone who goes by an acronym? Still, Susan Ariel Rainbow Kennedy came highly recommended by an artist whose chutzpah I admire, so I watched a series of videos SARK produced. Not only did she make a lot of sense and offer splendid ideas, I found her likeable and surprisingly grounded.

Her solution was simple: find Leona another job. A job that requires a lot of her time, that lets her unleash her skills and feel valuable. A job that keeps her out of my hair so I can write.

I found Leona’s ideal job: proofreading the internet. She loves it! Of course, she worried about me at first. How would I manage without her? She insisted on running home to check in on me every few minutes, but every time she showed up, I gently reminded her she had an important job to do and lots of people were counting on her to clean up the worldwide web. Now she’s so engaged in the task she hardly bothers me at all.

So thank you, SARK. And thank you, Leona, for your many years of faithful service.

I highly recommend that other blocked writers find similar jobs for their inner critics.

If that doesn’t help you unblock, you can always try small-animal sacrifice.




8 Responses to “The writer and the editor duke it out”

  1. Judith

    An enjoyable and informative read. Thanks for this timely post Leslie.

    I read it during the procrastination cycle of my writing life. Since the beginning of December I’ve written one paragraph. A short one. Three sentences. Do I have to move through procrastination to enter stage one of writer’s block? If so, do you have any hints on that process? Should I eschew clicking on the comma placement link and delegate that task to Bertha?

    Bertha drives me bonkers. I think as well as being my inner editor, she’s in charge of the Procrastination Department.

    Does Leona need an assistant for editing the WWW? Bertha has no knowledge, none, but she does have years of experience.

  2. commatologist

    Judith, if Bertha lacks editing knowledge but excels at procrastination, she might have just the right skill set for manually sorting through all the YouTube videos ever posted and categorizing them according to various criteria, such as how many people and/or dogs appear in the video, colour of the dogs’ fur, etc.

    Or if she’s more outdoorsy, she might relish the job of eradicating Scotch broom from Vancouver Island.

    Think big.


  3. Diana

    Love this post! I have a similar problem in that I’m also paid to edit, which I find sucks the creativity out of my own writing because I’m constantly self-checking as I go. The funny part is, the more I let my self-editor do her thing, the worse my text reads the next day when I go back! Ha!

    I totally have to give her a name! Thanks for sharing.

    PS – Your writing is a pleasure to read!


  4. commatologist

    A name and a job, Diana. Maybe polishing the Golden Gate Bridge.

    And thanks!


  5. Margaret

    I love this idea. First I have to separate my critic from myself; perhaps a name will help.

    I don’t know if I can express how much I hated The Artist’s Way. My dad bought it for me when it as first published and I tried so hard to use it successfully. There’s just something about the way Julia Cameron writes that enrages me: I want to reach through the page, grab her by the hair, and smack her a few times. She rubs me the wrong way.

    I love Natalie Goldberg and Anne Lamott, though!

  6. commatologist

    Margaret, I was laughing so hard about the image of you smacking Julia Cameron (with Jim Croce’s “Roller Derby Queen” as soundtrack) that I missed the import of your dad giving you a copy of The Artist’s Way. Even though you hated the book, it’s pretty awesome that he encouraged you like that. Hurray for your dad.


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