Writing

Write Commandments: 6 Steps to Turn Off Your Internal Editor

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Editor's Note:

Jill Santopolo received a BA in English literature from Columbia University and an MFA in writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She’s the author of three successful children’s and young-adult series and works as the editorial director of Philomel Books, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers group. An adjunct professor in The New School’s MFA program, Jill travels the world to speak about writing and storytelling. She lives in New York City.

I’m an author. And an editor. But never at the same time.

I’ve traveled a lot – all over North America and to Europe as well – to talk to writers about the craft of writing. I’ve given talks about plot, about character, about voice, about emotion, and have had wonderful conversations about stories with tons of booklovers. But inevitably, at some point in the conversation, someone asks me how my editorial brain coexists with my writer brain – whether I’m always editing what I write. And the answer, of course, is yes, I do edit what I write, but I don’t edit it – I couldn’t possibly edit it – in the same way I edit someone else’s work. And I never edit it until I’ve finished a complete first draft.

In the first book I wrote, The Nina, The Pinta, and the Vanishing Treasure, which is a mystery for elementary schoolers, I edited and edited the first chapter until I felt like it was as close to perfect as I could make it before I moved on. And then I did the same with the second chapter. And the third. The book – which is only about 20,000 words – took me nearly a year to draft, and then when I got to the end, I realized that I’d constructed the plot all wrong, and all of that painstaking editing was, while perhaps not a waste of time, extraordinarily inefficient, because now I had to rewrite half of those chapters and revise the rest so that they made sense with the new plot structure. So over the next couple of years, I devised a plan, a way to turn off my internal editor and write more efficiently. These are my writing commandments.

1) Thou Shalt Outline
Before I start writing, I go through the entire story, chapter by chapter, and decide what important plot and emotional events will happen in each one. That way, I always know where the story’s going and will feel compelled to move forward instead of working on the same chapter for months.

2) Thou Shalt Not Re-read Earlier Sections
With my first book, I would start every writing session by rereading everything I’d already written, revising all of that, and only then start on new material. That meant that the longer the book got, the more time I needed to set aside each day to write. I realized afterward that this made no sense, so now I don’t read over what I’ve written until I have a whole draft done.

3) Thou Shalt Have Goals
I break down my writing goals into manageable tasks that I must complete. When I’m drafting, my goals are all quantity based: 1,000 words today, 1,500 words this weekend, etc. And then once I have a draft done, I give myself chapter goals: Revise four chapters this weekend, one chapter after dinner. When I have that target in my mind, I push through to get things done.

4) Thou Shalt Not Share Your Work Until It’s Complete
I have an amazingly generous, perceptive writing group, but I try not to share pages with them while I’m mid-draft. I want their thoughts on the whole book at once, otherwise it’s quite likely I’d begin inputting their edits into early pages and work so hard on those that it would take me forever to get through a complete draft.

5) Thou Shalt Accept That Some Things Can Be Filled in Later
Sometimes I’ll be going along and a thought will strike me about a section I’ve already written. Instead of going back and revising that scene right then, I scroll back to that scene and make myself a note that says something like [REMEMBER TO ADD IN THE THING ABOUT THE PASTA POT]. And then when I’m up to the revising stage, I add that part in.

6) Thou Shalt Remember That This Manuscript Is Not Written in Stone
I think the true key to turning off any internal editing is to remember that every book goes through multiple revisions in its lifetime. The words and phrases and sentences don’t have to be perfect right away – I spent four years writing and revising The Light We Lost. Some lines are the same as they were in the first draft, but many are not. In the end, understanding that I’d eventually be letting go of so much that I’d written is what made it easiest for me to turn off that internal editor and enjoy the act of creation inherent in writing.

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