Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Column: Turn Off That Editor! by Karen Albright Lin

I’ve got to get through it, that first attempt at getting my story down, living as my characters live, moving toward an inevitable yet unpredictable end. Those shitty first drafts, as Anne Lamott calls them in her brilliant book, Bird by Bird. All the workshops, all the books, all the talented and successful writers I know tell me to cage up the editor and whip through the sentences, to puke out the chapters, clean up the mess later. My brain, however, thinks more like an editor. I spit out a sentence, stop, fix that sentence, spit out more, notice that I didn’t backload a paragraph with the most powerful sentence, then the grammar checker is indicating I need to look at a word back where I wrote that clever reversal. Then there’s that pesky run-on sentence…

I’m not talking about scrolling back a few pages to edit and refresh my memory, then moving forward into my next chapter. I’m talking about scrolling back each paragraph and, on a particularly critical day, scrolling back each sentence. Yes, I’m an obsessive editor. I’ve always written that way. In fourth grade I did it. Back then I wrote mostly poetry, a very tight and disciplined form. That didn’t help. Next I graduated to a twelve-year-old version of erotica--wish I’d kept some of those scenes to compare to my adult notes. But I digress. Doesn’t it go figure, I’ve reinforced the early analyzing habit by becoming a professional editor.

Some tell me not to worry over it. I’m still prolific, having written almost a dozen screenplays, three novels, a literary cookbook, newspaper and magazine articles, and short stories (some of them erotica--hopefully different than my grade-school imaginings). I wrote all that while raising two boys. Sure, pat myself on the back, but get on with the writing, and slap that hand that continues to go back, go back, go back. As if I just can’t do my book justice without making every sentence perfect as I go. What's up with that?!

To make matters worse, I write my shitty first drafts long hand, scrawling my additions and corrections all over the yellow pad – yellow to boost creativity. Unfortunately, yellow also nourishes my editing fixation. To make matters doubly frustrating, I have the worst handwriting known to the literate world. So my crazy first drafts are often indecipherable. Even to me. I have only my sisters to turn to when I’m puzzled to the point of pop-eyed madness, for they know me so well that they often step in to save my shitty first draft by interpreting my Gs that look like Ss and my Rs that look like Is and my ups and downs and arrows and my bubbles with sentences that are absolutely necessary to the line above or below or up the side and let’s not forget the middle phrase in the run-on sentence near the bottom of the page. This is no exaggeration. It’s a joke between us.

But when I’m working away solo at a restaurant over lunch, it’s not a joke. Sometimes I wish I could ask my waitress just what it was I wrote half a page up. Ten minutes ago. But then they’d think I wouldn’t be able to read the menu and so would bring me the picture menu. If they had one. OK, now my train of thought has drifted from editing to first drafts to penmanship. I think I need to go back and consider giving this blog entry a work out. Yes, the above photo is of a typical shitty rough draft page of mine, taken by my sister Storm Petrel. Is there a 12-step program for this obnoxious inclination?

It’s no use for me to seek advice on what I can do to improve my penmanship; teachers have been trying to help me there since my early erotica days. But I do ask, dear blog visitor, if you have any hints about how I can turn off my editor.

(Originally posted at the Sisters of the Quill blog on February 17, 2011)

About the Writer:  Karen is an editor, ghostwriter, pitch coach, speaker and award-winning author of novels, cookbooks, and screenplays. She’s written over a dozen solo and collaborative scripts (with Janet Fogg, Christian Lyons and director Erich Toll); each has garnered international, national and regional recognition: Moondance Film Festival, BlueCat, All She Wrote, Lighthouse Writers, Boulder Asian Film Festival, SouthWest Writers Contest, and PPW Contest. Find out more at www.karenalbrightlin.com.


  1. The only way I can combat my internal editor is to wake up before she does.
    I get my best shitty writing done before 6am, before caffeine, before critical thinking sets in, and well before my internal editor wakes up.
    I have other friends who drink her away (perhaps not the healthiest option). And other friends who are able to stay up later than their internal editors, writing into the wee hours.
    I find that if I try to write mid-day, I'm in either marketing mode or editing mode - while both still produce shitty writing, it's painfully tedious and joyless for me. It leaves me frustrated and exhausted instead of supercharged.

  2. Sometimes visualization helps. March the editor persona down a hall and through a soundproof door into a small but humanely furnished room. (You'll need the editor later, after all.)Slam the door, including in your mind the big back-in-your-cells bang. Lock it.

    Go back to the ms.

  3. It's hard to turn off that editor, especially if you're going to run your sfd quality material past a critique group...whose members also have trouble turning off their editors. No matter how many times I say, "This is first draft stuff, so just look at story arc and pacing," they just can't do it.

  4. WHY do you feel you're this way (and you don't have to publically answer that)? Get Zen with your answers. But you have to find out the root cause to the behavior you want to modify, my good friend. Brainstorm the possibilities, and see which one best feels right. Control issues? Always worrying about the next dog grabbing your food? Or in your Louis IV life you were beaten if you didn't have your prose always just so? You need to have a session with yourself, dig deep, and take copious notes. Then take baby steps. Start out by not going back over the previous three words. Sentence. Paragraph. Take two and call me in the morning....

  5. I ask myself the same question. One way I've had success is to write in the dark. (Yes, it would magnify your handwriting issues!) But if I can't see it, I can't 'fix' it. You can also accomplish this on the computer by darkening your screen, or changing your font (temporarily) to the color of the page. Thanks for an amusing and thoughtful post!


  6. If you wrote by computer there is a program called Write or Die. There are different levels of evil in this program, but one of the milder ones is if you stop typing for a certain amount of time the program will start to delete what you wrote. There's another mode in which the program plays sounds of babies crying if you wait too long, or if you use backspace. Worth checking out! I conquered my inner editor by participating in NaNoWriMo. It taught me how to write a sh*tty first draft that can be fixed later. :)


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