Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Voices in Your Head

We all have internal editors or critics. Writers seem to be prone to critics whose voices are especially loud – and good with words, of course. When you are writing, this critic often shows up, leans over your shoulder, and whispers mean things in your ears.

One of my voices I named Ed. He used to tie my fingers up in knots and breathe dry ice into my brain. He doesn't do this so much any more, because I found out that I could diminish Ed's power by simply writing – about him. Here is one paragraph I wrote about Ed:

Ed is a middle-aged man with a sunken chest and a long thin nose through which he sniffs and snorts. He squints his beady eyes whenever he looks at me, suspicious that I will again try to write something. If I do, he’ll tell me I have nothing original to say, so why waste my time? His voice is usually sharp and piercing but he is capable of hissing his words, especially when he spots a mistake – any mistake, even a misplaced comma or a typo such as “teh.” He notes all mistakes in a black accountant’s ledger notebook that he always keeps with him. He reads the entries to me out loud.

And so on. As I wrote more about Ed, it eventually dawned on me that Ed is not my friend. And the more I wrote, the more obvious it became that Ed was a nasty, mean-spirited, chickenshit bully who did not want me to be happy. So why was I listening to him?

Why indeed. Nowadays Ed just pouts in the background, waiting for me to notice him again. But I no longer have to. Writing about him took away all his power. I saw him for who he was.

I teach a writing workshop titled “Finding Your Voice.” One of the in-class exercises we do is to write about our internal critic. Give it or him or her a name. What gender is it? Is it human or animal or a black scary cloud, like the monster in Lost? What does it look like? Is it tall, short, fat, skinny, pock-marked? What does it wear? Is it sloppy or tidy? Does it speak in a loud booming voice, or hiss like a snake? Does it wear too much perfume, or sweat profusely? Is it older and wiser than you, or is it one of those know-it-all popular teenagers who used to inhabit your high school? You know your critic doesn't admire you, so who does it admire? Who does it hate? Finally, ask your critic — and write down its answer — why it says the things it says.

You’ll probably find out that you don’t much like this guy, and his reasons for abusing you are lame. When he shows up again (and he will), regard him with compassion and thank him for sharing. Then tune him out.
Kim Pearson is an author, ghostwriter, and owner of Primary Sources, a writing service that helps others become authors of professional and compelling books and articles. She has authored 6 books of her own, and ghostwritten more than 30 non-fiction books and memoirs. To learn more about her books or services, visit
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  1. What a brilliant article! I suspect my version of 'Ed' is one of those interfering old women who stares over the fence with her arms crossed, watches you do all the hard work and then says grudgingly "I suppose you know you've done that all wrong..."

  2. Wow! I give you credit for naming your voice. I just keep trying to push mine away. If I give it too much attention, I might have to run and hide under the covers...where no writing gets done.

  3. This is an interesting idea. Put a name and image to your inner demon and thus abolish him/her.

  4. Thanks for the great tip. I had never thought to name that pesky voice, but I have always pictured it belonging to a tight-lipped, gray-haired woman with a ruler in her hand, ready to smack my knuckles for the least mistake. I think I had a teacher like her once. LOL

  5. Dear Ed:
    Keep your vile snorting and hissing to yourself. We love Kim's posts, and don't want you getting in her way!

  6. Naming that voice makes him/her a tad less intimidating; not much, but every victory counts! Perhaps I'll name mine as well..hmmm...

  7. Not only do you cite the problem, but you suggest the cure. Very insightful . . . and very helpful!

    As writers, we are often our own worst enemies. Thank you for giving us the ammunition to send this particular foe packing.

  8. This is WONDERFUL!! I love it! That's what I need to do, instead of trying to ignore it (which doesn't seem to be working). Thank you.

  9. I know that guy. He criticizes my thoughts before I even have a chance to type them. Ed is not a nice man.

    This is a good approach, Kim. Thanks.

  10. It's fun reading how writers are dealing with that pesky Ed. We may all end up naming our internal editor Ed, and make him stay in the corner until we need him.

  11. Thanks everyone, for your comments. Fiona, I love the picture of the old woman staring over the fence - I bet her hair is in curlers! And Maryann, I wonder about that gray haired voice of yours - she sounds a lot like my 4th grade teacher.

    Liza & Heidi, I used to try to ignore or push Ed away too. Didn't work.

    Thanks Kathryn, for addressing Ed directly - he doesn't get much attention these days, poor snorting fool.

    Bob, you nailed it - Ed is not a nice man, and I've given up hope of changing him.

    Elspeth, to name your voice, just ask it "What's your name?" Then write down whatever it/he/she says.

    BTW, Ed is only one of my voices. After I semi-vanquished him, another one piped up. Her name is Cousin Irene. She is a bigger challenge than Ed, and I'm still working on her. Perhaps my next post will describe some of our skirmishes.

  12. Yes, it's great to put a name to that pesky voice over our shoulder. Name him/her and then boot her over that fence.
    .... or write him/her into your next story as the villan!
    I wrote a poem about two pesky, women gossiping over the fence about each passerby. It felt great to put it to print.

  13. Now, if only your technique works on the voice of a particular person I know...

    Excellent article. It gave me lots to think about. It also made me laugh--which is probably more important.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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