One of the staunchest enemies of great writing masquerades as an overzealous helper. It must be conquered, but not killed. You might be surprised to learn who it is.
To unmask this enemy and give us strategies for domination, I interviewed James L. Rubart. Jim is my former co-host for the Novel Marketing show. He’s a bestselling author and a member of the Christie Hall of Fame. Today, he’s our writing guru on the mountain.
Thomas Umstattd, Jr.: For a book to succeed, good writing must come first. It’s what we emphasize throughout The Five-Year Plan.
Many authors think their book isn’t selling well because they don’t have great marketing. But often, it’s the weak writing that keeps the book from selling well. Since good marketing helps a bad book fail faster, writers need to improve their craft before they improve their marketing strategy.
One enemy of good writing is the inner editor.
Why do authors struggle to overcome their inner editor?
Why is the inner editor a problem? Isn’t it helpful to have an internal editor whispering in your ear the whole time you’re writing?
James L. Rubart (Jim): The inner editor’s voice can be helpful, but the problem comes when a writer listens to it “the whole time.”
Every author knows the inner editor slows down production, and production is key to having a successful career as an author. Authors must figure out how to produce more books if they want to have a career in writing.
We’ve referred to our books as a 300-page brochure. In a sense, your book is an ad for your next book. If that brochure is captivating, it’s going to sell the next book. So how do we produce more brochures? We must deal with our inner editor.
Thomas: The more books you write, the more books you sell. Many authors struggle to produce books fast enough. It might take a hobbyist several years to write a book, and that’s fine. But for the author who wants to make writing a career, they must write a book every few months. And to do that, authors must bind and gag the inner editor. At least temporarily.
Why is the inner editor so hard to deal with?
Jim: Ursula K. Le Guin authored speculative fiction for nearly 60 years, and she said, “As a writer, you are free. You’re about the freest person that ever was. Your freedom is what you bought with your solitude.”
When I’m writing, I wrap myself in that solitude and hole-up in this little world than only I know. I sacrifice to get there. Maybe I sacrifice my social life, some family time, or my TV show. But when we are in that little cabin of our minds, there is tremendous freedom to write whatever we want. We can let our imaginations run wild to explore, create, and dream with abandon.
I love that part of being a writer. Sometimes I feel like I’m at the center of the universe when I’m writing, and as the author, that’s where I should be. No one is looking over my shoulder to evaluate my writing. There are no judges, readers, agents, editors, or critique partners.
But that inner editor often enters my writing universe at the wrong time.
Throughout my career, it has slowed my writing so much that I wanted to address the issue for other writers who might be struggling with it.
I was consulting a client last fall, and I told her, “You have to learn to shut up the editor.” Her book idea, her craft, and her desire to publish were all strong. But her internal editor had a stranglehold on her output because it was telling her everything had to be perfect right off the bat.
She participated in NaNoWriMo last year, and she had everything lined up to crank out 50,000 words. But at the end of the month, she had only written 15,000 words.
I read those 15,000 words, and they were outstanding. The talent was there, but this writer could not quiet that editor. So, we started brainstorming ways to help her be more productive.
How is the inner editor different for nonfiction writers?
Thomas: For nonfiction writers, the inner editor problem manifests itself in a slightly different way. It clogs the writing with too many qualifying statements and hesitant wording. The writing sounds watered down and bland because the inner editor requires the author to be overly cautious.
Often this means writers try to account for every extreme in a very complex world, and what should have been a 200-page book ends up becoming a 300-page book, and it’s worse for it.
So how do we handle that inner editor?
8 Tips to Quiet Your Inner Editor
Tip 1: Sprint with other writers.
Jim: Sprint with other writers. In 2011, two friends and I had the same writing deadline for separate projects. So, we started a friendly competition. For four hours each day, we competed to see who could write the most words in an hour. Every hour we messaged each other to see who had the most words in the previous 60 minutes.
Because I’m a competitive person, my output was strong. I concentrated on winning more than the particular words I wrote. That freed me to write a lot of words that I could go back and polish later.
At the end of those four competitive hours, I produced more words than I typically wrote in four hours.
Tip 2: Compete for a prize.
If you get together with a few friends for a competition, you could each contribute $5 to the prize pot. Whoever writes the most words wins the cash.
Thomas: It’s easier than it used to be to write quickly. Back in the day, paper and ink were expensive, so writers were slow and careful with words. Now, we have these magical things called word processors. Now the hard part is putting words on the page so you can edit.
Another idea would be to have a circulating trophy. It’s not expensive, and it only grants bragging rights. But it’s a fun strategy.
My grandfather was in a tennis group with four other guys who played together several times each week. For years and they had a rotating trophy they awarded to the champion of the night. If the champion lost that next week, he had to pass the trophy to the next guy.
It might be a silly reward, but it’s also a fun incentive.
Jim: I was reading about a pro football player who plays golf. He’s got millions of dollars, but he and his friends still place a $2 bet on their golf game because it amps them up when something is on the line.
Tip 3: Attach pain to the competition.
Jim: We are motivated in life by pleasure and pain. If it’s more motivating for you, attach pain to your goal.
Tell a friend how many words you’ll write in the next week. If you do not hit your goal, you have to send them a $100 Amazon gift card. That’s motivating.
Thomas: It doesn’t have to be financial pain. Each month writers in the Novel Marketing Mastermind groups set goals, and the next month I check in with them during our group meeting.
There’s no money attached. But knowing they have to report back on those goals causes some authors to hit their monthly wordcount an hour before the meeting. It’s incredibly motivating. I don’t chastise them. I just ask how it went.
The pain of reporting back, as well as the pleasure of having your peers cheer when you succeed, helps to manage that internal editor.
Jim: If you want to make that brutal, you could post on social media who did and didn’t hit their goals. But that’s not very friendly.
Thomas: How can we attach pleasure, instead of pain, as a way of managing that internal editor?
Jim: Let’s pretend I’m going to write you a check for $2.5 million if you can write 4,000 words in the next four hours. Could you do it? Of course, you could. Anybody could.
The ability is there. What we need to change is the mindset.
Since I don’t have that kind of money, ask yourself what you can reward yourself with. What is the pleasure element you can attach to your goals?
Here are a few ideas:
- Buy new clothes.
- Plan a weekend getaway.
- Attend a writing conference or workshop like the Rubart Writing Academy.
- Purchase that new camera you want.
- Buy that new computer, software, or office chair.
- Watch the newest movie in the theatre that weekend
Find the prize or pleasure that is motivating for you. Where have you been hoping to travel? What people have you been longing to gather with? Make a screensaver for your desktop or phone as a reminder. Print a picture of that new camera or that movie you want to go to pin it where you’ll see it.
Tip 4: Attach pleasure to small accomplishments.
Thomas: Another strategy is to attach pleasure to a smaller accomplishment. You can celebrate by going out to eat when you finish your rough draft or the final round of edits. But you could also celebrate on a smaller scale if you finish chapter two.
After you write 500 words, you reward yourself with something small and inexpensive.
- Go out to eat with the family.
- Brew fresh coffee or tea.
- Watch one episode of your current Netflix show.
- Check the score of a big game.
- Treat yourself to a snack you’ve been craving.
- Check “Write 500 words” off your list.
Small rewards don’t cost much. But it’s super motivating to know that if I finish a whole chapter, I’m going to the theatre to see the new Marvel movie.
Jim: Our brains are wired for more immediate rewards. If your reward is coming in six months, it’s easier to forget. In James Clear’s book Atomic Habits (affiliate link), he says to make the reward small, specific, and timely.
I did this last year to motivate myself to work out. Every time I worked out, I put $5 in my camera fund, because I wanted to buy a new camera. With every workout, I thought of buying that new camera. I had the visceral feeling of anticipation in my brain, and that was a huge motivator. Rewarding yourself with something small for every chapter completed is super effective.
Tip 5: Have a conversation with your inner editor.
Thomas: What are some other ways to deal with the inner editor?
Jim: Talk to your inner editor. Have a conversation. Authors are used to writing dialogue, so write the dialogue you want to have.
“Thank you so much for what you do, Internal Editor. You are a critical part of my novel. I need you. I really do. But not right now. For the moment, I need you to walk out the door and stay out until I invite you back,” he said as he pointed toward the exit.
“I don’t want to go out,” the editor replied.
“Sorry,” said the author, “This is not optional. You’re not in charge right now. I am.”
“But you need me.”
“Yes, I do. But not right now.” He opened the door and she stepped out. “See you in a few months,” he said as he locked the door.
Write that out and address the voice that is slowing you down. If you’re into sketching, you might draw a portrait of the inner editor. Pin that sketch in a closet or a crawlspace far away from your writing space. Physically move the person away and say you’ll invite them back in a couple of months.
Isn’t talking to yourself hokey?
Thomas: That may sound hokey, but I’ve worked with many bestselling authors over the years, and most of them do silly things like this.
It’s similar to the ritual you see pro baseball players do right before they step up to the plate. They tap the bat on their cleats or twirl the bat. Every time they do the same ritual to get into the zone. It doesn’t matter what the ritual is, because it’s the ritual itself that gets their mind and body ready to hit the baseball.
If you think about it, it’s really hard to hit a baseball. It’s almost a miracle every time it happens. And yet, writing a good novel is also difficult. In fact, there are more professional baseball players than there are professional novelists who earn a living writing. In some ways, it’s easier to hit a baseball than to make a living writing good books.
That’ stat isn’t doesn’t hold if you include indie authors. A lot of indie authors make a living with their writing. But don’t knock the corny ritual until you try it.
Jim: A couple of years ago, I was at a writing conference, and this guy came up to me with a real, sharp machete with the words “Kill the editor” written on it. I traded him a signed book for his machete, and I hung it in my office for years.
It was funny, but I don’t think we can kill the editor entirely. We need to learn to live with him or her because there is a time to listen to the editor.
Thomas: During the second and third drafts, the editor is useful. But not during that first draft.
For some authors, it’s just crippling. They’ll write a sentence or a paragraph and immediately go back and start editing that paragraph. It may feel like an efficient way to write a great book, but it’s not. It’s better to write the next paragraph and then the next. When you’re done with the manuscript, go back and edit. That way you can separate the editing time from the writing time.
Tip 6: Write for two minutes.
Jim: Another strategy from James Clear is to simply do the thing for two minutes. Then quit.
If you want to get in shape, commit to working out for two minutes. You get dressed, go to the gym, get on the treadmill for two minutes, and then you physically stop.
But logic is going to remind you that you’ve gotten this far, and you might as well go for a few more minutes. Thirty minutes later, you’re done with your workout.
I suggest doing the same thing for writing. Write for two minutes and quit writing. Anyone can commit to two minutes. But once you’ve begun, you’ll feel yourself getting into a rhythm. When it’s time to stop, you may feel like you want to keep going.
You’ll soon realize it’s not as hard to get started as you thought it was.
Tip 7: Write for ten minutes, and then delete it all.
An adapted strategy might be to write for ten minutes, then completely delete what you’ve written.
I haven’t tried it, but I’m guessing you’ll experience a little pain deleting that ten minutes of writing, which means there really is some good stuff in there.
That will subdue the critical internal editor because he or she can’t edit if it’s deleted. Plus, I’ll bet you’ll experience a mental shift, and you won’t want to delete your writing because it’s not that bad.
After you do that a few times, you’ll realize there are pieces you can use, and you don’t want to delete it.
Thomas: When I was in college, I wrote a brilliant essay at a coffee shop, but something happened, and I thought I had deleted it. I was heartbroken, and I had to start over from scratch.
I rewrote the essay faster than I wrote it the first time because I’d already done the foundational work. When I saved it for the second time, I found my first essay in a different folder. When I compared the two essays, I realized the second one was much better. It was the same material, but the second try was simplified and clearer.
Tip 8: Insert place-holders.
Placeholders for Fiction
Thomas: What are some other ways that we can handle our editor?
Jim: Give yourself permission to write, “yeah, yeah, yeah.”
If you can’t come up with the exact word you need, and you’ve spent too much time in the thesaurus, and you’re starting to stall, just write “yeah, yeah, yeah” instead.
If you continue to search for the word, you’ll get more frustrated. Suddenly your anxiety is elevated and you feel stressed. You lose your objectivity and your writing comes to a screeching halt. You’re out of the flow.
Instead, write, “yeah, yeah, yeah” and go on. Figure out what your place-holder will be. Maybe it’s a line or a highlighted space. Make it easy to find, and then return to it later.
This has freed me up with sentences or scenes I’ve struggled with. I might be stuck in the middle of a scene, but I know what happens next. I’ll add my place holder, “yeah yeah yeah,” and begin the next scene.
It has helped me.
Placeholders for Nonfiction
Thomas: The nonfiction version of this is research. You’re writing come across a fact you need to cite. You know the research exists, and so you leave your document and plunge headlong into the world wide web and get lost in a research hole for the rest of the afternoon.
To avoid switching gears like that, I started adding the place holder “look up such and such” right inside my document.
When I shared my drafts with my beta readers and research team, sometimes they would look up a Bible verse or citation for me. It allowed me to keep writing.
Finding an academic journal article doesn’t require the same kind of mental energy as writing a paragraph. I tried to save my creative energy for the writing and attend to the “lookup” items in the evenings.
It’s about putting the right kind of activity in the right space. Writing is often the most emotionally strenuous work a writer does. It’s more emotionally strenuous than editing and research.
What are some specific roadblocks to our work that we should watch out for?
Tip 9: Stop justifying yourself.
Jim: It’s easy for me to make excuses and justify why I need the editor to come in and work on this before it’s actually time. It’s easy for me to justify why I shouldn’t start writing.
Marketing experts say we buy with emotion, and we back it up with logic. It’s the way we pick political candidates. We choose with emotion, and we back these things up with logic.
Watch out for that when you are making emotional arguments that stop you from writing.
Maybe you’re telling yourself, “I’m not going to write today because I can’t deal with the internal editor.”
Or maybe you’re saying, “I’m not done with this scene, but the editor needs to come in and have a long editing session even though it’s not time yet.”
Tip 10: Press through the struggle.
If you press through and continue writing for 30 or 45 minutes, you’ll discover you feel great when you’re finished. Same with working out. After a workout, no one wishes they hadn’t started.
When you have pressed through, take two more minutes and write yourself a note that says, “You did not feel like starting to write at the beginning of this, did you? But how do you feel now? You feel fantastic. You pressed through. You did it. You feel great.”
Write something to remind you of this tomorrow so that when you sit down, you can read a message from your stronger self that says, “You’re going to feel great when you’re done.”
Bonus Tip: Be the kind of writer you were made to be.
Thomas: What did you learn the hard way that you’d like to help us learn the easy way?
Jim: Everyone is designed to write their own way. It’s probably a combination of being a “pantser” and being an “outliner.” You must figure out your path.
For one of my novels, I used Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method. I saw the brilliance of it, and when I tried to use his method, it shut me down for three months.
My editor was going all the time. I finally permitted myself to be a discovery writer, and that made all the difference.
In other words, don’t try to be the type of writer you’re not made to be. I talked to Randy about it, and he said it doesn’t work for everybody. It was freeing to hear that from the guy who wrote a book about a brilliant method.
Be the type of writer you are.
Thomas: In the first year of the Five-Year Plan, we have people read a book on discovery writing, a book on outlining, and Ingermanson’s book The Snowflake Method, which is like a hybrid. In that first year, writers discover what method is best for them.
We’re all different. Occasionally someone will insist that outlining is the only way, or discovery writing is the only way to write a novel. What they mean is, it’s the only way for them. If they say it’s the only way for everyone, then they’re entirely wrong.
Do you have any final tips or encouragement?
Jim: Experiment with these tips. Have those conversations.
You’ll likely need to have that conversation with your internal editor more than once. Seek out other authors who you can ask, “How are you subduing your internal editor?”
Thomas: Participating in a critique group or mastermind group is helpful because we do better in community.
Debra B. Diaz, author of Woman of Sin.
Alysia of Athens is sold into slavery during the turbulent reign of Tiberius Caesar. When she runs away, she finds herself in the battle-torn land of Palestine, where her life is forever changed.
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Encouragement & Update
Thomas: Jim, what have you been doing post podcast hosting? Have you been on a beach sipping margaritas?
Jim: Well, I bought that camera. I’ve continued the pruning process of my life trying to pare things down to just the “big rocks.” I’ve concentrated on establishing the Rubart Writing Academy, and I’ve created a free video to help writers who badly want to make an impression at a writing conference. In the video, I teach writers how to market themselves to agents and editors when they attend a conference. It’s called Make an Impression Badly.
I’ve also spent a lot of time doing audiobook narration. I’ve always loved acting, and I took acting classes in college. Now I’m getting to act behind a microphone. I have two more books on a current contract, and then I’ll be looking for more books.
Finally, Susan May Warren and I are smack dab in the middle of writing a six-book series about a detective named Rembrandt Stone. He solves cold cases by traveling back in time. I’m doing the audio version of those books, and that’s been a lot of fun, too.
Thomas: You’re creating a special dual pen name for those, aren’t you?
Jim: Yes. Susie and I are also working with her son David. We call him our time lord because he’s a guy who can connect all the dots. He’s brilliant. The three of us are in partnership, and so the name of the author will be David James Warren. Those books will start coming out in 2021.