Using Fear as an Editing Tool
Updated: Oct 6
From an evolutionary standpoint, fear is very useful. It was fear—increased heart rate, tense muscles—that allowed our ancestors to recognize and react to the dangers that were all around them. But as our lives have become increasingly convenient (and as nearly all of our natural predators have been hunted to extinction, or paraded in zoos, or transformed into plush toys little children carry in their arms for security), many of our fears have become useless. A lot of the time, fear does nothing but prevent us from achieving.
This goes double, I think, for writers, whose fears tend to manifest in loud, piercing voices that that aim to analyze and criticize everything we put on the page.
Last year, I attended a Hedgebrook writing conference, at which Karen Joy Fowler was the keynote speaker. After a long, luxurious day of writing and being surrounded by female and non-binary writers, Fowler offered us three strategies for becoming successful writers:
1. Write. 2. Finish. 3. Send it out.
Fear can affect the writer on all three of these steps, and when it does, it is debilitating. So what can we do?
The creative process is highly personal and, at times, elusive. It’s up to you to figure out how your brain works. Pay attention to it, then capitalize on its idiosyncrasies.
I can also tell you what works for me. One of the best things about reading other writers on writing or being in a community of writers, for me, is learning about the strategies other writers have concocted to get their brains into the writing groove. The following are three ways I meet and overcome fear at all three of Fowler’s steps:
Personally, I have a very loud, obnoxious inner editor. I’m guessing I’m not alone on that one. When I write, I have to kick her out of my head. Easier said than done, right? Try writing with your screen black, or at least tilted down so that you can’t quite make out the words, but can at least notice if your cursor moves off the page. I also like to write on my phone when writing a first draft; there is something informal about writing with thumbs that allows me to forget about perfection.
This is definitely the most challenging of the steps, for me. Steven King suggests writing a novel in no less than three months. While that piece of advice is clearly geared toward single people with no children, no full-time job, and a disposable income, at the core, it is good advice. I try to write fast, before the initial spark dies. Once it does die, it becomes much harder to go back to the work and finish it. So I write sloppily. I write out of order. But I finish a draft, no matter what. That first draft is the most important. Then I shelve it. For a long, long time. When I feel that spark of interest come back, I open that word doc and let my inner editor take over and run wild.
3. Send it out.
For the last of Fowler’s advice, amnesia serves me well. After sending work to as many places as I can stand, I (try to) forget all about the work. I don’t read it. I move on to something new, or, better yet, live outside of my head for a while, go to the mountains and let new things settle in.
Our inner critic, our fear, has its place in the editing phases of writing. She is a perfectionist and she likes to get sh*t done, but she has a bit of an ego problem. So if she pops up anywhere but in the editing process, especially during the writing phase, when ideas are both passionate and fragile, tell her, kindly but firmly, to leave.