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Writing Excuses 8.42: The Internal Heckler vs. The Internal Editor

Writing Excuses 8.42: The Internal Heckler vs. The Internal Editor


Key Points: Recognize the difference between the internal heckler (This is bad!) and the internal editor (You can make this better). Don't forget the internal cheerleader! When something goes wrong, see if you can figure out how to improve it. Asking "Why?" often helps identify how to improve it. To get from "something's wrong" to "here's how to fix it," takes practice. Learn to identify the problem, understand what needs fixing, and how to fix it. Symptoms, diagnoses, and prescriptions! In many cases, keep writing. Control your internal editor, don't just turn it off. To quiet the heckler, look at what you've already done, remind yourself of why you are excited about this, and go on. Get a cheerleader! 

[Mary] Season eight, episode 42.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, the internal heckler.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] I'm Howard.

[Brandon] We are talking about the internal heckler versus the internal editor, which is a podcast pitched by Mary.
[Mary] Yeah. I've heard a lot of people talk about how you need to silence your internal editor. I'm like I have a really good relationship with my real editor. I realized that I think that there are two different internal voices that go on. One is what I call the internal heckler, and that's the one that tells you, "You suck. You can't write at all. This is terrible." That's the one you really have to silence. The internal editor is the one that is trying to help you make it a better story. So one of the things that I think that you have to learn to do is to recognize the difference between those and when it is okay to let the internal editor out of the box.

[Brandon] Okay. This will be a good podcast, I think, because "turn off your internal editor" is such a staple piece of advice. But as we've talked about so often on the podcast, any piece of advice can be bad advice in the wrong situation. I really feel that this internal editor one is advice that's pretty good some of the time. Even the actual editor, not the heckler, which does exist. But sometimes it's wrong advice. So maybe if we can dig into this deeply, we can identify when which is which. But I do have one question for you. What do you do with that voice that is constantly saying, "You're awesome?" What do you call that?
[Brandon] Doesn't everybody have one of those?
[Mary] Yeah. That's your internal cheerleader.
[Brandon] Okay. Okay. That voice...
[Howard] Howard, you should start a web comic. I love that voice.
[Dan] The internal prankster.
[Howard] Yeah. If the internal heckler had existed for me back then, if I had a shred of actual humility...
[Howard] I never would have thought to launch a web comic.
[Mary] You did say if it existed back then, as if you've acquired now...

[Brandon] Now, see... I have... This is actually serious. When I first started writing, I was a teenage kid, and the world resolved... Revolved around me. It was this... It's this weird sort of mixture of arrogance and complete and utter fear that every teenager has. Like I would never show my work to anyone in case they hated it, because that would destroy the illusion that I had created for myself that everything I did was awesome. So I didn't show anything to anyone, but I didn't read it and think, "This is terrible." Everything I read, I thought, "This is the best thing ever written."
[Brandon] It was awful. But I didn't start to get that internal heckler until I went to college and I started to be able to learn to read critically and see the huge gap between my writing and the writing that I aspired to be. That took education. So I actually find that older writers tend to have the internal heckler much more than younger writers.

[Mary] Well, no, but see... This is the distinction that I want to draw, is that the internal heckler just tells you that it's bad. It is bad all by itself.
[Brandon] Right. But the voices came together with me.
[Mary] Gotcha.
[Brandon] Like I didn't... Early on, there was like the editor that said, "No, you need to do better," and the heckler that said, "You're terrible at this. Why are you even doing this? You'll never be good." Those two voices popped up...
[Howard] That's part of the lesson then, is the recognition that when your editor, when your internal editor weighs in and says, "This isn't your best work. You can do better than that. The story isn't working here, you need to do this," versus the heckler who is saying, "You can't really do any better than this, so you should just quit. Wow, this really is the best thing that you've done and it still sucks so just stop."

[Brandon] So how do you... Like... This... What's your process for distinguishing this?
[Mary] Well, one of them is that when the... This is kind of my... The way I've gone through life in general is that when someone is heckling you, or when something goes wrong, you try to figure out how you can improve it. So when the heckler says, "This is terrible," you say, "Well, why?" The internal heckler will just say, "Because it's terrible." If that's all you've got, then that's just insecurity going on. If you can look at it and identify what is wrong, then you can activate the internal editor. But usually just querying, "Why is this... Why am I having this reaction?" can get the internal editor to pop up and say, "Well, it is wrong because you're using the same word five times in this paragraph." Or you're in passive voice the entire time. Or whatever it is. Usually if you query it, then it will start to become a little clearer.
[Dan] Yeah. The editor, if it's actually the editor, it will be basing it on some kind of evidence, and it will be trying to improve it. Whereas the heckler's job is not to get you to improve your writing, but to just give up or stop.

[Brandon] Although I notice that for me, looking back at my process, the editor learned that things were wrong faster than it could learn to identify them. Like I would get a sense for something's wrong with this, but I didn't have enough experience yet to know what. So then the heckler takes over and it's like, "It's just bad because it's bad." But I knew there really was something that I needed to learn there. My question for the podcasters is like, "How do you take it from that step of "Wow, something's wrong here, I know my story just isn't working," to the step of "Oh, the editor says this. This is what I'm doing wrong. Now I fix it"
[Mary] Yeah. This is... This gets into the idea... To an idea that a lot of people talk about which... Or at least I talk about. Which is that the idea of... That talent is the ability to recognize a mistake, understand how to correct it, and then implement that correction. Part of what people need to recognize is that the process of learning to write is learning to acquire all of those steps. It is a practice thing. So the first time you try it, you look at something and you can't identify it. That is not unusual. That's something that comes with experience and practice. So some of the steps that you can take to do that are experimenting. You think, "So, let me try to first identify what the symptoms are. What are reactions that I am having as a reader? If this was someone else's work, what are the reactions that I'm having as a reader?" Then, once you've identified the symptoms, then you move on to diagnosis. "Well, if it's causing these symptoms, here are the possible diagnoses." I know this because I have read writing books, I have read other books that I liked and then they had this one thing that bothered me. Once you've got a possible diagnosis, then you can start thinking about possible prescriptions, possible ways to correct it. But the first thing is to just list the symptoms that it is causing you.

[Brandon] Now I do often suggest to new writers that when you're feeling one of these things, most of the time you want to keep on writing. You want to take note of it and you want to keep on writing. Because the issue with most of us, and again, every piece of advice is terrible advice at some point, but the issue for most of us is getting something done to then work with is so much more useful than getting something half done, then you go and you fiddle with it and you fiddle with it... That heckler can really take over, I find. Like, "Man, this is not working. This is not working. I should just give up on this story." Whereas if you push through it, you get to some more awesome parts of the story, you get really excited about it again, and then you go back. Fixing something never feels like as much of a task as writing it in the first place, even if I spend the same amount of time on both or even more on the editing, once I have something in hand to polish. I feel like I've done the majority of the work.
[Mary] Yeah. This gets back to the idea that I was talking about that it's an experience thing. The more experience you have, the faster your internal editor will get at recognizing, identifying, and offering a correction. A lot of times, you will recognize a problem even before you finish writing the sentence. That is training your internal editor to do its job. But as with anything that you're learning to do, when you're trying to learn to do more than one thing at once, it gets really difficult. That's why a lot of of... In pretty much any other discipline, you break things apart. So that's why for a new writer, the advice to hold off on the internal editor and wait on training, that is very good advice.
[Brandon] Right... It's less... Don't... The advice should not be turn off your internal editor. It should be wrangle the internal editor and channel the internal editor. Don't let the internal editor interfere, but do use the editor. If we didn't have internal editors, we would not be able to produce what we do. We have trained those editors to notice when something's wrong, to the point that right now there are times when I will stop a book and I will fix it before I go any further because I've learned to work with this editor so well that I know if I don't stop right now, it's actually going to be something... The problem's just going to snowball into something bigger. That happens more rarely than the I need to keep going so I get a sense of how I would have fixed... How I can fix this.

[Brandon] Let's stop for our book of the week. Mary, you have the book of the week, The Mad Scientists' Guide to World Domination.
[Mary] Yes. This is an anthology edited by John Joseph Adams. The idea behind the anthology is that mad scientists get a really bad rap. So this anthology, all of the main characters are mad scientists. They are trying to take over the world in varying forms. I have a short story in that, and also did some audiobook narration for it. I did some of the women, narrated stories. Some of them are just hilarious. A couple of them are deeply, deeply creepy. Some are very moving. So it's a wonderful mix of things. It's a nice way to get into that whole idea that we often talk about, that everybody's the hero of their own story. This is very much that case.
[Brandon] That sounds delightful. Howard, how can they get it?
[Howard] Oh. Start a 30-day trial membership and grab a copy of The Mad Scientists' Guide to World Domination.
[Brandon] Including a story by Mary and partially read by Mary.

[Brandon] Let me then ask, since this podcast should really be focusing on the heckler more than the editor, we have talked about editing and things like that. Do you have strategies when that heckler is just bearing you down, where you just can't get them to shut up? Do you have things you do to just quiet them?
[Howard] More pills, and a nap.
[Brandon] Okay. That's a good way to make the voices go away, Howard.
[Howard] I... What I'm... If I'm legitimately suffering from the internal heckler, the feeling that I'm no good, I can't accomplish anything, I... There is cognitive behavioral treatment for this that essentially involves stepping back, spectating the problem, and realizing... It's like what we've talked about with regard to the specifics of the work, realizing that the complaint that the heckler is issuing is unfounded. I don't really suck. I haven't done anything wrong. Life is not really a horrible, miserable thing. Therefore the conclusion that the heckler is drawing is invalid. Now I just need to figure out what to do about it. For me, many times, the thing to do about it is to get some more rest, get some of the right food, get some exercise, because there is in fact from time to time I have something wrong with my brain.
[Brandon] Okay. From time to time.
[Howard] From time to time. There are also times when my brain is awesome, and I love those times. The challenge that I face with this is that I really do... In order to finish a prose project, I need to turn off or turn down my internal editor, because when I'm writing a web comic, I have to go from rough to perfect in one sitting. So the... I mean, there's pass after pass after pass over the words. If I want to write 2000 words in a day, I need to reduce a whole bunch of those passes, and that's not the heckler. I can look at the words that are coming out and say, "Oh, I can do better than that. Yeah, that needs to be fixed. You know what, I'll just do that now." No! I need to be able to dial that back. That's a problem that's specific to the way I've spent the last 13 years learning to write, because of the form I'm in. I don't know that this is going to be helpful to our readers, but it's something that I think they should now exists.

[Dan] I see... Or rather, I use two main ways of telling the internal heckler to shut up. One of them is reminding myself how good I. Which is easy, because I'm an arrogant jerk. But... We do that...
[Brandon] [garbled – You are still lying, you...] arrogant jerk.
[Dan] Ha, ha. I told you how good I was. So anyway, the way you do that is you look back at your own stuff, you remember nice things that your friends or your writing group has said about your work, you remember all the things, and you're like, "You know what, I am better than the heckler thinks I am." The other one is reminding yourself about how much other people... It's just the opposite of that. How much some people can hate really good writing. If you're really feeling that heckler strong and you feel like you can never write anything good, get on GoodReads, look up your favorite book, and read all the one star reviews.
[Brandon] No, I've done this for Hamlet.
[Dan] You watch people just like excoriating Pride and Prejudice or something and you're like, "You know what? That's a brilliant book, and if they hate it, they're obviously dumb. Maybe my heckler's dumb, too."

[Brandon] For me, on your first point, what I'll actually do is I'll go get something that I know is pretty good, like a scene, previous scene from the book, and... Normally I don't revising the middle of writing something. But occasionally, I'll go back and I'll remind myself why I love this book. I'll go back and I'll read a scene. I'll just start reading it... The thing about it is, and hopefully... This is maybe just me, but I like what I write. I write what I like. So while there are scenes that are not working, that are bad, the majority of what I'm writing, there's something about it it's really exciting to me. So even if I pick a random scene and go back and start reading through it and start doing just the prose level edit where I'm tweaking small things, I will be reminded, "Wow, I really do like this book. Wow, I'm excited about this book again. Wow, my writing right here. This isn't too shabby. This all came together." That just pushes right through anything that the internal heckler might be saying. Which usually the internal heckler pops up for me nowadays right at this three quarters mark where a book is just a slog, or when a bad review comes out that I can't ignore, a big one. When Kirkus gets snarky or something like that.
[Mary] Yeah. I have a similar thing. The only time that I've had really, really bad internal heckler, which is when I started thinking about this, was... I have a book that I was working on and for a variety of reasons wasn't doing my usual process of showing it to people as I was going. This is why I learned that I absolutely have to do that. Because it's the first time that I have been writing having that, "I am a terrible writer. This is awful." So what I did was I started showing it to people and I realized that by very carefully picking the people I was showing it to and saying, "I just need to know if this is generally working. I don't need to know about the prose or anything. I just want to know if it is playing and having the effect that I want it to have. I am nervous, and this book is making me freak out a little bit." Letting them know that what I really needed was a cheerleader, and having them read it and go, "Yeah, this is..."
[Brandon] Spouses can be great for this.
[Mary] Spouses can be great if you tell them that you are going to them because you need a cheerleader.
[Brandon] Right. I have writer friends whose spouse is only for cheerleading. That they understand... You can be an actual reader, I understand that you're wonderful, but from you, I just need thumbs up. I'll get everything else from other people.
[Mary] With my husband, I tell him which mode I need him to be in. The other thing to know, I think, is that closely allied with the internal heckler is imposter syndrome. I think that both internal heckler and imposter syndrome are basically a misfiring of the desire to level up. That you recognize that you are not where you want to be, and that your brain is overplaying that.
[Brandon] Okay. Well, thank you guys. Now you are out of excuses, now go write.

[No writing prompt? Luckily, Howard included one on the website. While it was not actually part of the podcast, I'm including it here for anyone who is interested:

Writing Prompt: Oh no! we forgot to give you a writing prompt! Fine… Your internal heckler turns out to be a real person/entity/being/whatever. Not everybody’s internal heckler — YOURS. Why?

Now you really are out of excuses, go write.]
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