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

Mary pitched this subject to us — it’s a discussion of the difference between that voice that says “this will make your story better” and the voice that says “nothing can save this story because you’re awful and should quit forever.”

You’ve probably heard the staple bit of sage advice that which says, in essence, “silence your internal editor.” Some of us need that internal editor, though, and the distinction between the editor and the heckler is critically important. And some of us need to train up those voices in our heads so that they say something useful.


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?

The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination, an anthology edited by John Joseph Adams, narrated by Stefan Rudnicki, Mary Robinette Kowal, Justine Eyre

20 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 8.42: The Internal Heckler vs. The Internal Editor”

  1. I found this episode particularly helpful (especially since I just gave up on a novel draft at 20,000 words.) It’s making me think I should give my draft another chance. Thank you!

  2. Your podcast has been a continual training session for my internal editor. I went through this one short story at least three separate times, and one particular podcast would come to mind and I would add description or whatever seems to be packing.

  3. One thing that helps me deal with the internal heckler is recognizing it’s also trying to do something helpful. What’s the payoff for you to tell yourself that you suck? What do you stand to gain by quitting? Usually, it’s your brain trying to insulate you from the potential criticism of others.

    Writing is emotionally risky business. My inner heckler sounds like an overprotective mom. “Are you sure you want to put that out there? What will people think? What if people say mean things to you?”

    That voice wants me to play small, avoid honest writing, or better yet, forget this whole silly fiction writing thing altogether. It gets louder whenever I’m out of my comfort zone, or writing about difficult subjects, or doing work that I’m most deeply invested in. I often find that if I take a little break, deal with whatever fear is prompting it, the inner heckler pipes down.


  4. I like what was said about gaining talent is when you can realize something is wrong and then diagnose what it is and take steps to fix it. I have learned to work on my internal editor and to tell when it’s giving me bad advice from an unlikely place. I read the Gift of Fear by Gavin deBecker and while this book is about how your unconscious mind gives you warning signs about dangerous situations/people and it helps you understand and translate just a feeling of blanket fear into what you are actually processing it bleeds over into this by just learning to work on and decipher all the infodumps your unconscious is constantly taking on your conscious brain. My guess is that the internal editor is an unconscious force that notices all of your errors and just lazily gives you a “you suck, stupid” and doesn’t bother to tell you why. When you can parse those feelings into constructive feedback and fix those nebulous worries you graduate to having a working relationship with your internal editor.

  5. And, at the intersection of the id, ego, and superego (or the child, parent, and adult?), we find our intrepid podcasters examining their entrails for signs of the internal heckler, editor, cheerleader, and even the prankster. What are these voices crying in the wilderness, and should we listen to their wailing or ignore them?

    Here’s the transcript!


  6. I just wanted to say thank you for doing these.

    I was lucky enough to meet Brandon in Austin, TX and talk about comic books for a little bit, and through his work (and Tim Drake) found this site, and it’s blown my mind. Simply amazing podcast that’s going to help me leaps and bounds as I move from just creating comic books into doing novels as well. Thank you guys for taking the time to do this for us.

    -Chris Garrett
    Overtime Comics

  7. I have a question, I used to listen to this podcast quite regularly. However, I went to resubscribe today and for some reason cannot find it on iTunes. Is it still being published there as a subscription?

  8. I tend to have more of the internal heckler, than the internal editor then. I usually get them around the 2,000 word mark.

    The good news, is I actually got 3,000 words on my present draft.

    Also there really is nothing better than going back to read some of your older work, just to see how far you have improved as well. Just my two cents.

  9. I can’t believe I never thought about the difference before. Normally, I tend to ignore the voice that tells me my agent will loath and despise this book when she sees it and then my career will be over. But sometimes I have to show part of it to a friend for immediate positive feedback!

  10. I have a question. What if you are just starting out, and what you write IS crap, and friends/writing groups/ your mom tell you it’s crap? Your Internal editor isn’t strong enough to help either?
    Personally I am also highly self hating so my heckler is super powered. How is that dealt with?

  11. You don’t just write a masterpiece in the first draft. Find one specific area of improvement in a thing you wrote, and rewrite to improve that. Repeat as necessary.

  12. I’m a bit late to the game, but one of the things that I’ve found particularly useful in dealing with my internal heckler is adjusting my own goals. If my goal is to be the best writer in the world, then that gives my internal heckler a foothold. But if my goal is to simply write, then as long as I am writing, it’s much harder for the heckler to sling insults.

    I find this comparable to a recent study (http://nymag.com/news/features/27840/) on the effects of praise on children: if we praise a child for being smart, they start to guard that status and avoid doing things where their smartness might be called into question. But if we instead praise a child for trying hard, they are more likely to work even harder in the future and thus do better. So with my writing, if I praise myself (or other people praise me) for being a good writer, that gives the heckler a way to attack my confidence. But if I praise myself for being a consistent, hardworking writer, then the only way for the heckler to really insult me is if I am not as consistent or hardworking as I could be.

    Thus, because I am still a relatively inexperienced writer (only now starting my third book), when my heckler tells me that I am sucky, I can just agree with it without hurting my motivation. The goal isn’t to be good, but to work hard (which will hopefully make me good, eventually, but don’t tell the heckler that).

  13. This goes without saying though, but I can get a far more constructive critique by reading a good how to write book on your specific weakness. How to write books don’t include the foul language and curse worse I usually encounter online whenever I present my second draft. Yea my characters are wood, that’s why I’m asking how to make them not blocks of wood.

  14. One distinction between the heckler and the editor, at least in experience, is that the heckler wants you to stop writing and the editor wants you to continue. The heckler is an obstacle. The editor is an ally.

    For me, the heckler is what usually keeps me away from writing at all. I’ll sit down at the computer and try to get some words down, and the heckler is continually murmuring about how I’ll never write as good as the greats, my prose is stilted and boring, and I might as well just load up YouTube instead.

  15. I’m a bit late to the game, but one of the things that I’ve found particularly useful in dealing with my internal heckler is adjusting my own goals. If my goal is to be the best writer in the world, then that gives my internal heckler a foothold. But if my goal is to simply write, then as long as I am writing, it’s much harder for the heckler to sling insults.

  16. I really needed this today. I’m behind on the podcast because I spent October outlining and November NaNo-ing, and although I won NaNo, I’m still finishing up the novel. In fact, I just reached my Showdown (so a little past three quarters, but I think close enough for this to be Act 3 jitters/malaise), and I just had to stop writing last night because it was so awful. But thanks to this podcast, I have identified my symptoms: prose feels thin, no sense of place. Diagnosed the illness: lack of necessary description in my haste to move the Showdown forward and not lose momentum. Prescribed treatment: make a note of the problem, perhaps even consider adding descriptive section before the Showdown so as not to lose momentum here, but for now, finish the frakking novel and recognize a revision issue for what it is and handle it during revision.


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