Writers Club: The Evils of Self Editing

I’m not saying that self-editing is bad. It’s not. It’s just we often do it while writing and that’s when it’s evil. Sometimes we do it when we aren’t aware and that’s when it’s really awful.

When I first started out writing, I wrote for me and me alone. I was trying to entertain myself and so I didn’t worry about whether this would be offensive or that would be sappy or if readers would hate my characters. None of that entered my mind because it was all about the fun of telling myself the story and getting lost in it.

Then I published. This was a dream come true. But that’s when the evil self-editor started sneaking in to my creative zone. I’d write something and then delete it because it was too something: too off-color, too disgusting, too violent, and so on. That limited me in ways that I stopped noticing. I internalized those limits and made them an unacknowledged part of my writing process. It’s like a house. You don’t pay attention to where walls are or light switches because they just exist and are necessary and you’re glad they’re there doing their job.

Only really, the self-editor at this point in the process is really a saboteur. It’s a swarm of termites eating away your writing in secret and you have no idea it’s even happening.

Recently I accidentally started a . . . something. Since it’s well-over 45K by this writing, I guess it’s a novel. It started as just a fun thing I wanted to write down. My main character–Beck–is obnoxious and says things that are not polite and yet are very funny to me. I found myself writing on it constantly and racking up big word counts. I’d stay up late. I write through obligations. I’d forget time. At some point, however, I realized that I was losing her voice because I’d begun self-editing. I began to worry about what readers might think or how they might respond. So I slowed down. I started thinking more and being more careful about how I was telling the story, rather than focusing on actually telling the story and entertaining myself.

Not so coincidentally, I slowed down. I didn’t feel like writing on it as much. It took me a few days to figure out why and I wanted to smack myself for doing it. The thing is, the self-editor is important. Finding and questioning the issues of your story is very important, but not until you’ve written and know what it is and what it needs. I also don’t think your words and story should necessarily change because a reader my object or feel a little annoyed. You have to decide what’s good for the story. You don’t have to throw glitter on the ugly or soften all the rough edges. You have to tell a good story with powerful, compelling characters that engage your readers and carry them on a fun ride from beginning to end.

Writers Club rule: Revel in the creative, and chase the editor off with a pitchfork. Hunt it down, put it in a mayonnaise jar with holes in the lid until you’re ready to let it chew through your manuscript.


About Diana Pharaoh Francis

A recovering academic, Diana Pharaoh Francis writes books of a fantastical, adventurous, and often romantic nature. She's owned by two corgis, spends much of her time herding children, and likes rocks, geocaching, knotting up yarn, and has a thing for 1800s England, especially the Victorians. Check out samples of just about everything on her website: www.dianapfrancis.com


Writers Club: The Evils of Self Editing — 10 Comments

  1. Oh, so true. Giving oneself permission to let it rip on that first draft is so important for so many writers. There is a freedom in knowing that no one is looking over your shoulder, including yourself!

    All that can come later. This is the fun part.

  2. Right on! I always tell my students that in those early drafts, they should throw that self-critical internal editor into a sound-proof jar and screw the lid on tight. (Wasn’t it Anne Lamott who said we should shoot them? But of course that wouldn’t be polite….) Once you have a story, set it aside to cool, then allow that internal editor back onto your shoulder to whisper or yowl advice. Best of luck with your new project!

  3. I have heard this problem describes as a fashion issue. It is only proper to wear one hat at a time. When you’re wearing the Creative hat, you are writing. You are not allowed to pop the Editor hat on top. That hat comes later. When you are wearing it, you are fixing stuff. You are not trying to generate new fiction.
    Nor does the Secretary hat allow you to go and fix the characters in that ms you are mailing out. It is done, done, done, and the Secretary’s job is to get it into the mail before the deadline, purely clerical, nothing creative at all.

    • Want to know what’s funny? I actually have a hat I put on for writing and take it off when I do anything else. I don’t use it all the time, but when I’m struggling against that editor, I pull it out.

  4. eh, it varies. Sometimes I find it helps to go back and throw in the scene that I now realize is needed to foreshadow the next. Sometimes it’s vacuuming the cat.

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  6. Oh, BANG on! This is so easy a pit to trip and fall into, and the worst part is that it is EXPERIENCE that pitches you in – because when you (as you said) write for yourself alone it doesn’t matter, the story matters, and so the joy of it is paramount – but when the HOW rather than the WHY becomes important, when you have readers and start secondguessing yourself because of those potential readers and what they might think and how they might judge – bam there you are in the self-editing pit sifting the words that came so easily and so joyfully before and laboring over every phrase until every ounce of happiness is wrung from it and even you can’t like it any more… Yes, it’s kind of important to tell the story first. Write now, edit later. There is ALWAYS a later. The first draft might suck and that that’s OK, that’s what first drafts are for. But in order to make it not suck you need something to work with. Get the first draft down first. THEN make it better…