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NaNoWriMo writers and their inner editors…


NaNoWriMo Logo

(Note: This is the third of a five-part series about NaNoWriMo’s Young Writers Program.  Click the following links to read Part 1Part 2Part 4, and Part 5 of the series.)

If you ask one of the young participants in our elementary school NaNoWriMo group what an “inner editor” is, they will tell you, “It’s the voice inside your head that says your writing stinks. It shouts, ‘You can’t write a book!’, and it shakes its finger at you, telling you your commas are all messed up and your spelling is wrong.”

To write a complete first draft of a novel in a month, an author needs to push forward, fast and hard. There’s no time to fret over the details or mechanics of storytelling. So, on the first meeting with our group of twenty writers, my teaching partner and I had the kids draw a picture of their inner editors.

Then, before they began writing their books on November 1st, we shoved their bossy inner editors into a book-shaped box . . .

. . . and we closed it up and put it high on a shelf . . .

. . . where it will stay locked up until December 1st.

But how do you write without stopping to edit yourself?

I came across one solution when I attended a conference put on by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Donna Jo Napoli, the brilliant and award-winning author of many books including The King of Mulberry Street and Alligator Bayou, gave a workshop on writing fast drafts. She said that when you are zooming along with your story and suddenly you realize that for a particular scene you need a dog, but in the earlier chapters there was no dog, you just go ahead and write the dog into the scene and leave a note reminding yourself to introduce a dog in the earlier part of the book. Because, as Ms. Napoli said, this fast draft is your first draft. It’s okay if it’s sloppy and cruddy. In fact, it is supposed to be cruddy. That’s why we have revisions.

So, there you go, writers. You have Donna Jo Napoli’s permission to get messy with your writing!

Another trick I’ve learned is that when you can’t think of the perfect word you want to use to describe something, skip it, keep rolling forward, and think about it while you’re riding in the car, or eating your dinner, or brushing your teeth. Then, when the word you want pops into your head, write it down in that notebook you always keep in your pocket (you do have a little notebook and a pen in your pocket, don’t you?) and then insert it into your manuscript the next time you sit down to write.

The other day, when I was writing with our youngest authors who are five and six years old, we realized we had used a descriptive word twice in the same sentence. I believe the word was “sticky.” The kids didn’t want to use it twice, but they couldn’t think of another adjective. So, we put a big circle around the word and decided to think about it and come back to it later.

For the older kids who are writing their stories independently on the computer, when they get stuck they can write in a code word, like, maybe the name of their dog. Then, when they think of the word they want, they can do a search for “Rover,” or whatever their dog’s name is, and add the new idea.

I know there are a lot of NaNoWriMo participants out there. Tell us your secrets. How do you keep your inner editor from squeezing out of the locked box and slowing down your writing?

Jennifer Duddy Gill has the privilege of working with truly amazing kids in an elementary school in Denver.



  1. Sydney Salter  •  Nov 11, 2010 @12:24 pm

    Great post! I credit NaNoWriMo for killing my internal editor. I learned I could write anywhere, anytime, and keep going despite flaws. Yes, I have post-its on top of post-its about little fixes, but it’s easier to fix something that exists, rather than a story you WISH would exist.

  2. Laurie Schneider  •  Nov 11, 2010 @1:31 pm

    Rover. That’s way better than the XXX I currently use. Go, kids, go!

  3. Thomas North  •  Nov 11, 2010 @7:45 pm

    I have a symbiotic relationship with my inner editor during NaNoWriMo. I let her fix my spelling and grammar when she sees it’s messed up, and as a result, I don’t feel so bad about my novel. This means I’m more motivated to write, which is exactly what I do. I have more than double what I need to at this point, and it’s really thanks to my inner editor. Because I let her pick over the minutiae and surface features, she’s satisfied and doesn’t try to twist the plot back on itself like she’d like to. Occasionally, she gets in my way while I’m doing word sprints – ‘Oi, oi! Go back and change that! That whole paragraph doesn’t fit with what you said about Joseph earlier!’ – but on the whole she stays quiet enough. Then on December 1, I let her off the leash. She gives me a big hug and dives in headfirst, relishing in the prospect of tearing such a rubbishy manuscript to bits.

    Oh dear, that metaphor went on for too long. You can tell I’m a WriMo. XD

  4. Pat Marinelli  •  Nov 11, 2010 @7:53 pm

    When I come to something that needs to be researched, (a date, a place, an event in history, etc.) I put the question in call caps and highlight it in yellow and then keep writing.

    If I need a new charcter name, I put who the character is, i.e. hero’s cousin, heroine’s new best friend, etc., in brackets and worry about giving the person a name later.

    To do this with the youngest writers, the could print in all caps or use brackets or circles or even square boxes.

  5. Sassy  •  Nov 11, 2010 @7:57 pm

    When I am doing NaNo, I can never remember character names — and if I stop to find my notes to look them up, I’m done writing for the day (easily distracted) so I tend to use first initials or X or XX or XXX for characters until December. Saves Jeremy from becoming Joshua becoming Jon becoming Harry….

  6. WigMo  •  Nov 11, 2010 @8:26 pm

    One of our older writers who is using nothing more than pencil and paper adds a blank. Some of his writing looks like a test. When he has time to do the research…like how far is Earth from Mars, he’ll fill in the blanks.

  7. Andi  •  Nov 11, 2010 @8:33 pm

    I found that my son has a hard time ignoring his inner editor, even after putting it in a box. So… we torture it. We move it all around the house, yell at it when necessary, squash it under heavy phone books, or even under an old antique trunk. It’s been jumped on, sat on, walked on, farted on (yes, sad but true), relegated to the basement, hung out a window on a string, put in the fridge, and then the freezer, folded up really tiny, and in general, acknowleded and formally banished over and over again. Just the act of recognizing that it is your inner editor speaking to you and not reality can help a lot. And, in our experience at least, the sillier the torture you put your editor through in an effort to convince it to stop yelling at you, the better.

  8. Jennifer Duddy Gill  •  Nov 11, 2010 @8:37 pm

    Hey, WigMo! Thanks for dropping by!

    I’m enjoying hearing how everyone keeps their inner editors under control while writing. I like what Thomas North says about just keeping his editor “on a leash.” It’s a nice compromise for those who have editors too brutal to allow themselves to be stuffed into a box.

  9. Kathy Frost  •  Nov 11, 2010 @8:59 pm

    I turn off spellcheck and grammar check. I put double parens (( and )) at each end of a note to myself, usually on a separate line. If it’s really important, I put the text in red. I put two lines between scenes and I put the chapter/scene number (like “12/2″) on the line above the scene and it helps me note where to put the material later. (Also easy to delete when the book is done.)
    I keep a handwritten log with the chapter/scene number, who has the POV, the day/time of the scene and a few words of what’s in it so I can keep track of my time line and have an idea where to find things when I go back later for the revision. I have a hard time remembering the day something happened without this “cheat sheet.” If I introduce a new character that we’ll hear from again and put in a description, I put the character’s name in the log so John doesn’t have blue eyes in chapter 3 and green eyes in chapter 10.
    (Marking the POV helps in revisions because if a major supporting character has only 2 scenes in the whole book, I will revise those and have someone else relay the information to the reader so they don’t have to switch into that person’s thoughts a few times but not regularly.) It also helps me see what characters might need a story line in this book or a sequel.

  10. stuckinmypedals  •  Nov 11, 2010 @9:03 pm

    Love your ideas and the fact that you are helping children see themselves as writers. Bravo!

  11. Amie Borst  •  Nov 11, 2010 @9:54 pm

    i have to disagree here, sorry jennifer! this is my first time with NaNo and my brain feels like it’s going to explode. to me, i’d rather fuss with my words until i’m happy with them and then go foward. because ultimately, if i don’t like my words, i’m less motivated to stick with the story. and honestly, i’d rather have a manuscript that’s 80% there after a first draft, than a big mess that needs tons of work.

    so with my NaNo i’ve edited as i write, i just track my changes in red. it helps me see where i’ve been and where i’m headed. and after just one afternoon of revisiing my first chapter, i was able to write 2600 new words in no time! unlike the days of non-editing and struggling to word vomit 1600 a day.

    but i know lots and lots of people that are total NaNo die hards – and it works for them!

    i do agree with something here though – the inner editor that tells us our writing sucks can take a hike – permanently!!

  12. sheelachari  •  Nov 11, 2010 @10:57 pm

    I keep my inner editor happy by feeding it lots of chocolates and cookies. Wait, I didn’t just say that, did I? *hides the candy bar wrappers*

  13. JoshuaRR  •  Nov 12, 2010 @12:46 am

    Great topic! I write everything longhand in a notebook, and whenever I realize something important is missing from earlier pages I write a note to myself in the space at the top of the page I’m on, in parentheses: (Remember to make her like lattes) or (oh, his mother made pies).

    I use the same trick when I realize something must happen LATER in the story. Recently one of my main characters, who we’ve already established never marries later in life, is discovering a growing attraction for a fellow student. So, of course, at the top of the page I have (Niall must die).

    Because those statements are in parentheses, when I type up the page I am reminded both that it’s NOT part of the story so don’t type it, and that I will need to either add info in later drafts or incorporate the idea sometime in the future.

  14. Katie Korucho  •  Nov 12, 2010 @2:51 am

    I killed my inner editor last year, when I did NaNoWriMo for the first time. Afterwards (in December) I tried to perform CPR on her, but she didn’t wake up. She’s dead. I’m trying to live with it.

  15. Joanie Dantica  •  Nov 12, 2010 @3:52 am

    That’s a good way of doing it. My solution: Type with your screen closed, that way you don’t see the mistakes and you can fool yourself into thinking that its awesome. ;p

  16. mantou  •  Nov 12, 2010 @4:23 am

    I type with my head down so i can’t see what i’m writing and just keep going. I spell check it later on Gmail and that’s as far as editing goes for me.

  17. Sherry Williams  •  Nov 12, 2010 @5:00 am

    And I changed the characters names so often I thought I should quit. but “WHF” finally came through with what his name really is “what’s his face”. thank you for making it ok.

  18. Amber Chuah  •  Nov 12, 2010 @5:45 am

    I’ve always believed that there was a way of me compromising with my inner editor, letting her shout at me a little but never letting her fully gain. Also, I have the support of my best friend, Julie, to keep pushing me when I even THINK of giving up. And if I can’t find the word I want, I usually substitute it or change the sentence. Anyway, good luck to you kids! I’m sure you’ll make it!

  19. Melissa Volny  •  Nov 12, 2010 @6:37 am

    What a great article and what a wonderful teacher you are!! These kids are lucky to have you.
    For my inner editor – I am still learning how to ignore it. My daughter, brother, niece and myself, Nano every year. They have really helped me with curbing and stifling my inner editor, just knowing I have someone to bounce stuff off and whine to helps tremendously.
    Keep up the good work, Jennifer.

  20. KittySparkes  •  Nov 12, 2010 @6:55 am

    I just told mine to shove off. Seriously, she’s really good at her job, and it came in handy when I was doing last-minute school papers*, but she’s the biggest reason I’ve never got more than 1000 words into a novel before. So I told her to get lost for a while. She took it hard… she cried in a corner for about three days, and I had to let her fix a few typos to get her over the hump, but I think she’s accepted it as a little vacation. I couldn’t actually get her to leave, but she’s staying pretty quiet unless there’s a HUGE story problem; even then, I just make a note and she seems OK with that… for now. God help me in December!

    *Which I NEVER did. *ahem*

  21. Catana  •  Nov 12, 2010 @8:03 am

    I really think it’s a shame that even children are swallowing the myths that the inner editor is a monster to be avoided, and that there’s no time during NaNo to do anything but write. The inner editor is an assistant that can help you smooth out and improve your writing as you go along. Shutting it into a box and fearing it, rather than learning to use it properly, handicaps writers rather than helps them.

  22. Adrian  •  Nov 12, 2010 @8:20 am

    I don’t completely ignore my inner editor–in fact, when it prompts me to go back and add something, I am all over that. That just boosts my daily word count. Also, my inner editor isn’t responsible for telling me that everything I write is just crap. That’s me. The one who wants to fix that crap and make it better–that’s my inner editor. And as long as it doesn’t involve cutting stuff out of the story, I’ll listen to it. Because the more I add in, the better my story gets, and the closer I get to reaching both my goal and the end.

  23. A Person  •  Nov 12, 2010 @8:45 am

    This was really fun to read! Thanks for sharing :D It’s nice to know that there are really young children out there doing NaNoWriMo as well.

    I keep my inner editor silent by constantly doing word wars either with other novelists or by myself. I’ll tell myself “Okay, in 15 minutes I need to write 800 words!” or something like that. With that pressure, you don’t really have time to think about your writing. So, your mind goes, “Whatever. It’s okay to mess up. You can go back later to fix the mistakes. So go on. Keep writing until you get to those 800 words at the 15 minute mark!”

    ^I do believe my inner editor gets done in by that remark.

    Happy Inner Editor Silencing!,
    A fellow NaNoer who knows the sadness of the inner editor, procrastination and failure

  24. Jennifer Duddy Gill  •  Nov 12, 2010 @9:04 am

    Catana, the students don’t regard the inner editor as a monster nor do they fear it. In fact, if you look at the drawings in the photo, the inner editors appear to be pretty friendly beings. We just want the kids to allow their own criticism and judgement to stand aside for now so the writing can flow more freely.

    The kids know that in December the inner editors will be released to help with the next important part of the process. Revision! :)

  25. RubyAlison  •  Nov 12, 2010 @9:23 am

    At the end of every writing session, or at the beginning of the next session, I’ll read through the last few pages of what I’ve written so see how it sounds. I often fix a few words as I do that (mostly typos) but nothing extensive. For most things, I keep a separate Word document open as I write and every time I think of something that needs to be dealt with (large and/or small) I just note it down in my editing checklist so I can keep writing. I find that knowing I have a good list of what I want to edit is enough to satisfy my inner editor for now. Plus I really feel like seeing how the rest of the novel plays out will determine what edits I make to earlier parts. So editing now would be pointless for me anyway.

  26. Myrkr_Far  •  Nov 12, 2010 @10:29 am

    Love the highlighting idea. Jumps right out. I was using ??? and XXX and SOMETHING HERE, then forgot what I was using, so I have different markers all over. Meh.

    I’m writing a fairly complex fantasy with lots of madeup characters and names. To keep track of them while I’m writing, and save lookup time later, I keep a second document open in my wordprocessor. It has a few tables, one for people, one for places, one for swearwords and customs. Short, one line per person or item. This satisfies my inner editor, keeps me moving forward without wondering “who the heck is that,” and only takes a second to switch back and forth.

    Wordprocessor’s review functions are great. Create notes to the side of the document, and “pin” those comments to what they reference. Friends of mine use “virtual” post-its or “stickynotes” which are exactly what they sound like. Software that creates movable notes that attach to the document, and you can hide or display them with a click or two. And some versions offer coloured notes, great for categorizing the type of editing. Without taking a lot of time.

  27. SJR  •  Nov 12, 2010 @12:02 pm

    I use the “comments” feature in word to remind me if I need a new word or to do some research. The first comment I have says “do they hand out programs at fashion shows?”

    I love the idea of drawing a picture of the inner editor and putting her away until Dec 1st. I might do it, too!

  28. Camo  •  Nov 12, 2010 @12:27 pm

    Ooh! I want you as my teacher!! That sounds like something I would LOVE to do in school! Very jealous 8th grader. :D

  29. Jeanne B.  •  Nov 12, 2010 @4:13 pm

    Farting on your inner editor, I love that! And oh, how I wish I’d had a teacher like you, Jennifer, when I was in school.

    I see Catana’s point. It is important to know how to edit oneself.

    However, some of us have been so victimized by our IE’s that we must take drastic measures before we can begin to write. In my case, I needed to go to the far extreme and force it into complete submission. I tortured it the way it’s been torturing me all these years, and I locked it away into solitary confinement.

    Once I’ve grown stronger and I’m able to stand up to the IE’s criticism, and once I’m sure that it has learned its lesson about interfering with me, I will let it out of its prison. I will allow it back into my life in a gradual manner, so that only the helpful aspects are active.

    I don’t want it dead, I just want it to behave and cooperate with me rather than work against me.

  30. Stephanie  •  Nov 12, 2010 @4:42 pm

    I encourage my students to throw something totally unexpected, weird, strange, or crazy into the middle of a chapter. It puts their mind in a different direction as they get to the halfway point and start wanting to go back and look at what they’ve written. One boy, taking my advice, decided to add a runaway horse galloping through the middle of football tryouts…he hasn’t decided how it will end.

  31. Davina  •  Nov 12, 2010 @7:12 pm

    Love this article! You sound like a fun teacher:-)

    This is my first year doing NaNoWriMo, and I found a lot of helpful tips in these comments, especially the one about keeping a separate Word document open for later edits. Thanks everyone!

  32. Hendiadys  •  Nov 12, 2010 @10:16 pm

    My usual reaction to my inner editor is to set off on a nice long written rant against my inner editor and any other negatives in my life, until retreat, shame-faced, into some place that is out of my way. For some reason, a writing tantrum like that has the handy side effect of firing up my creative juices so that I end up coming up with more and more ideas for the story as I am flaring. On the other hand, I would not recommend this as a particularly healthy approach for kids to engage in, I think . . .

    P.S. The idea for using code words as placeholders is brilliant! Thank you for sharing it; it will help immensely!