Reconciling the Writer and Critic Within

Writing is process: generating ideas; researching; percolating and marinating information through reflection – letting ideas sit and gel in the brain to allow unconscious synthesis and integration- as well as actually putting words on paper or screen and working through the arduous sequence of editing and revising, often repeatedly. So why not write and edit at the same time? Isn’t that a timesaver?

An infographic on the blog http://www.copyblogger.com/creative-rut/ takes a “Mythbusters” approach to claims it says can discourage or misdirect writers. Some advocate a simultaneous edit-as-you-go practice, but successful writers as well as creativity coaches claim the opposite: combined creating and editing blocks the flow of creative ideas by continuously interrupting right-brain activity with the left-brain critic’s objections.

Henriette Anne Klauser’s book Writing on Both Sides of the Brain explains in detail why the reverse is true: creative composition and editing are incompatible processes; any writer trying to do both simultaneously is bound to be frustrated. Writing while catching typos or verb form errors may be doable in a short letter or essay. When the words really need to keep flowing, however, particularly for longer nonfiction, fiction, memoir, or drama, stopping to correct errors prevents the brain from finishing a complex segment of plot, character development, or dialogue sequence.

Any writer who has ever had a wonderful idea but didn’t immediately write it down knows that retrieving it later is often impossible. Stopping to edit can snuff out the creative spark when what’s really needed is fanning that flame. It will cool off on its own when the idea moves out of the brain. Then, edit away.

But don’t be afraid to suspend editing if another creative spark restimulates new composition.  Composing should usually take precedence unless an editing deadline requires specified changes.  On the other hand, writers who will find any excuse to avoid editing and revision need to let their inner critic put its foot down and tackle a no-holds-barred editing session.

As important as creative composition is, editing is also essential. A real infant is beautiful at birth, but to take his or her place in the world, that child must grow and change. Writers, like parents, can err through attachment to their “baby.” Some revise forever, never allowing their work to try its wings in the world. Others refuse to cut or revise. No writer’s “baby” should be sent out immature and unprepared. Jesus entered the world as an infant who later “increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men” (Lk 2:52 NKJV). God demonstrates the process and careful nurture of development in stages, which writers do well to emulate.

  1. I agree with the “reflection” concept. I learned the hard way about sending off aomething too quickly to a publisher.
    It pays off every time to allow whatever I am working on to “stew” awhile before I edit. Even then, if I wait a little while longer and edit again I always have more improvements.
    If I had edited my work immediately after writing it, I don’t think I would have been as sensitive to needed adjustments. Thanks Debbie!

  2. I am a terrible proof reader… and probably a terrible critic of my own work many days. I get very excited about getting a story down on paper. But then, the real work begins. I am learning more an more that editing and revising can be just as much fun as the birthing of the idea!

    Good article!!

    • Debbie DeCiantis says:

      A colleague shared with me a follow-up assignment she gives to students after she returns their graded essays. Called a “reflection,” the assignment asks students to re-read their paper and answer specific questions telling what they liked about their paper, what they now realize they could have done better, what they learned through the process of completing the research and writing, and what they will do differently next time they have a writing assignment. I recently used this technique with two of my classes, and the results have been amazing. Students’ clarity and ability to see the strengths and weaknesses of their own work is so much greater now that they are no longer composing. Their responses show real insights into their own habits, practices, and thought processes both in composing and later analyzing their work. The real challenge is for them to plan enough time to do both effectively, a pretty tall order for many students. But I am struck by just how apt the distinction is between composing and editing as I read these responses – I will definitely keep using this technique, as it enables the students to recognize what they need to improve. Because they can’t simply put away the paper with those red marks but have to take another look, they are finally free to notice what those comments really mean and how they apply to the students’ own written product. They comment on their own research, style, focus, and awareness (or lack of awareness) of purpose – as if these features have suddently become crystal clear to them. Writer vs. Critic? Both, but definitely not at the same time!

  3. I think I used to be better at just writing than I am now. I’ve become to critical of myself and have to be really intentional about letting go. But it really does work, every time!

    Thank you again for the reminder!

  4. IF it all possible, write, write, write–and then go back and revise. It’s hard to do, but if I can turn off my inner critic, my work is stronger as a result.

  5. Linda Andersen says:

    Debbie,
    This is very helpful. Thanks! Sometimes the “teacher” in me writes with a red pen. I will try to remember to give the teacher the day off when I write.

  6. write2ignite says:

    OUCH! It only took me 7 plus years to learn this truth for myself! Those “perfectionist” tendencies I have kept interfering with my creativity, alright.

    Thanks for this explanation as to why, Debbie.

    Blessings,
    Jean

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