Well, I’ll tell you: she’s taking up space in your head that could be put to better use.

And thanks to Robert Dugoni, I learned to tell my inner critic to pack her bags and move.

Just a month ago I sat in on Robert Dugoni’s presentation on editing at the Surrey International Writers Conference. Dugoni is the best-selling author of several political/legal thrillers featuring attorney David Sloane (Murder One is the most recent in the series.)

While outlining his approach to editing, Dugoni said this about the first draft:

decide it is just for you, don’t let anyone read it.

Why? Because if you think someone will read your first draft, that person will sit on your shoulder as you write. Watching, and commenting on, every word you put on the page.

Most writers have inner critics and try to find ways to deal with them. Some use outlines to quiet the critic’s snide comments that the plot sucks, some listen to loud music to drown out the critic’s noise, some meditate or medicate the critic away.

Others resign themselves to sharing their writing space with the critic. I am one of those. Or I was, until Dugoni made me realize why I shared that space with the critic in the first place. I invited her in! And she’s an aggressive sort, who promptly unpacked her bags and raided the fridge.

But if I decide that my first draft is just for me, and that I will not allow anyone to read it, Dugoni says, it frees me to:

  • figure out who my characters are when no one’s looking,
  • write crappy exploratory scenes, and
  • of course, get the first draft onto the page.

The comment about writing crappy exploratory scenes reminded me about Anne Lamott’s chapter titled “Shitty First Drafts” in her book Bird by Bird, and prompted me to re-read it. Lamott states that almost all good writing begins as a terrible first draft. She describes a first draft as a child, which you allow to romp around, knowing that later you can guide it, calm it, mold it.

Lamott’s statement about good writing beginning its life as a piece of garbage gives me hope. I can write stinky first drafts. Without a doubt.  My problem is that, if I’m not in the groove, getting the first draft onto the page is like waiting for water to boil when the burner is set at simmer.

And that’s because I edit as I write. I’ll write a paragraph, back up and delete parts, or move sections, change words. My internal editor makes me do it.

In “Shitty First Drafts” Lamott mentions that no one will see the first draft. For some reason, I didn’t see it as a solution when I first read that chapter. Perhaps because I had accepted my inner critic as a fact of life. She was there. I was being punished for some failing.

But at the Surrey conference, when Robert Dugoni advised us to decide not to allow anyone to see the first draft, and thus keep the critic off our shoulder, I had an “aha” moment.  I was in control, I was not being punished, my critic would have to find another roommate.

Now, the titles of my first drafts include “FIRST DRAFT, MY EYES ONLY”. And I have produced some terrible first drafts quickly.

My inner critic reappears daily, bags in hand, waiting for me to weaken. I invite her in when I get to the second draft of a piece, when she can do me some good. But even so, I make her park her bags outside the door.