Hi Story Nurse!
I started off writing fanfiction in a community with a lot of group and dyad critique. When I got into pro fiction I discovered I had built a great critique toolbox that I used to further myself into an excellent developmental editor.
I can do hard, deep critique for folks where I immediately see the bones of a story and how it is or isn’t fitting together. Structure and content problems are breeze to see and fix. I quickly come up with a fix or offer a variety of options (“You make it the uncle, not the dad, and what if he’s a veterinarian who specializes in rare tropical fish? Or give both tasks to the aunt and make her a world-renowned biologist?” “Hey that improves everything and allows X, Y, and Z, to happen more organically. Thanks, Ajax!”).
When I sit down to work on my own stories I rely heavily on friends, beta readers, and most especially my editor to help fix the broken and disconnected bones of my own story. Often I know something is wrong with my work, but I just can’t see what it is until someone else points it out. If someone shoots me a good fix idea I can run with it and make shine, but I can’t come up with it alone.
How can I turn those good editor eyes on my own work?
—Ajax Bell (they/them)
Dear Ajax Bell,
You’re not at all alone in this. Many, many editors have run into similar issues when they’re writing. (Editor and author Jessica Strawzer just wrote an op-ed for Publishers Weekly on her struggle to accept that all her editing expertise didn’t make it easier for her to write, or to get her fiction published.) Fortunately, that means there’s a known, tried-and-true answer to your question: you can’t.
You’re already doing exactly what you need to be doing, which is turning to people who aren’t you. Every writer needs an editor. Every writer needs beta readers. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
There are many helping/fixing professions where you’ll find similar dynamics. Therapists see therapists when it’s time to dig into their own heads. Teachers find other teachers to study with. Sports team coaches work out with the help of personal trainers. We all only know what we know, and to learn and grow, we have to get new information and perspectives from outside ourselves.
Your editor and writer selves aren’t distinct. You, an editor, are the same person as you, a writer. While you were writing, your editor-self was participating in that act of creation. You already made your work in the best way that you know how. Now you need editorial advice. That’s part of the process for any writer, and being an editor in no way exempts you from it.
If you need permission to let yourself off the hook, here it is: When you write, you are allowed to be just a writer, not an editor. You are allowed to create flawed work and not know how to fix those flaws, to make a mess and have no idea how to clean it up. You are allowed to seek and make use of the advice of others. You are allowed to enjoy and benefit from collaborative processes.
I often encounter the flip side of this question, which is “How do I turn off my inner editor while I’m writing?”, and the answer is the same: outsource the editing to others and let yourself wholly inhabit the role of the writer. It’s hard, no question. Editing is a nitpicky joy that can make the creation process seem terrifyingly disorganized by comparison. And when we edit, we enjoy a position of relative authority and power that can make it hard to humble ourselves as writers before the knowledge and wisdom of others. But we do our best writing when we permit and require ourselves simply to write.
I release you from all obligation to perfect your own work. Fly and be free. Happy writing!