I get questions about intuitive writing all the time, and one of the questions I get most often is, ‘Is it possible to use Intuitive Writing in the editing process?’ The short answer is: yes. The longer answer is: most writers have no idea how to do this so things in this area can get sticky, very quickly.
Contrary to popular belief, using an intuitive approach to writing or editing does not mean that you have no structure, no plan, and that you just let yourself run wild and write what amounts to pure stream-of-consciousness. Using intuition—in the writing AND the editing process—means that you FEEL your way through the text, adjusting as you go according to what feels right. Usually, writers have an easier time doing this in writing than in editing because once they get to editing they tend to get into a problem-solving mindset of things needing to be fixed. Rather than looking at it as things needing to be fixed, I prefer to think of it as things being made clear.
When we shift into the viewpoint of making things clear (instead of fixing problems) we begin to see the story as a whole picture that we are slowly revealing, bit by bit. As we work with the editing process, the picture begins to come into sharper focus, so that the vision we originally saw inside of our own imagination is able to be shared with others, and they can see it as clearly as we do.
So, it IS possible to use intuitive writing in the editing process, once we make this mindset shift. However, what I see most often happening with intuitive writers who are really struggling is that it’s almost impossible to make this mindset shift because of one very basic thing they’re doing that ends up being a huge mistake.
They’re trying to edit the story from outside of the text.
Editing a story from outside of the text is just what it sounds like, you move outside of the manuscript and the story to work on making adjustments to it. So, some writers might be working primarily from notes they’ve made, skipping around in the manuscript as they try to “fix” all the holes. Other writers might not even be looking at the manuscript at all, they’re going about their day as usual but devoting a whole lot of time to overthinking how to solve problems in the story in their head. Whatever the case, the writer is at a distance from the story and the manuscript and doing their best to think as hard as they can about how to solve problems within it.
This doesn’t usually get intuitive writers very far in the editing process.
What’s happened is that the writer has moved right back into thinking about the story, instead of feeling their way through the story. The more we think and try to problem-solve, brainstorm, and troubleshoot places we believe need to be “fixed” in the manuscript, the farther away we get from the story itself, and the truth of that story.
So, how we do begin to do things differently?
The answer is that you get yourself back INSIDE the story.
This means that when you use intuitive writing in the editing process, you do ALL your editing from inside the manuscript. The method I use for myself and all my clients is to start at the very first sentence of your rough first draft and take it line-by-line. You begin with that first sentence and you ask yourself, “Is this clear?” “Is this sentence conveying what the reader needs to know right here, right now, at this point in the story?” If it’s not, then we do the work we need to do on that sentence to make it as clear as it can be. Then we move on to the next sentence.
Now, please notice that I did NOT say that we make the sentence perfect, and then we move on. At this stage of the game, when we are in the first few rounds of revisions and we’re still using an intuitive approach to bringing the whole picture of the story into sharper focus, we are not at all concerned with making things perfect. If we try to make things perfect, we will get stuck and we will get stuck fast. When we try to make things perfect, we are right back to looking for flaws (problems to be “fixed”) and we lose our handle on making things clear. Rest assured, there will come a time when making things polished and perfect is your priority, but that time will come much later down the road and that phase of editing is known as proofreading. In the early stages of editing, when you are still feeling your way through the text, proofreading is not necessary, and it can also hold you back because it moves you back into the problem-solving mindset.
As you move through your rough draft, taking things sentence by sentence, a very interesting thing will happen. You will see all the “problems” you saw before, but this time, you will also get intuitive nudges about how to untangle each one of these knots. In fact, that’s another mindset shift that can be very helpful. If you imagine each “problem” in your story as being a knot that needs to be untangled, you then also realize that pulling on it harder (trying to solve it through force of thinking) only makes the knot tighter and more difficult to unravel. So, instead of pulling, we sit down with the knot in our lap. We examine it and we find a thread that feels like it has the potential to loosen. We gently work with that thread and wiggle it free, and slowly, we begin to untangle the entire knot.
This is how you fill in impossible plot holes, create seamless transitions, and suddenly know what needs to stay and what goes in your story. This is how you start to knit the messiest, craziest rough first draft into something comprehensible and even enjoyable for others to read. You take things once sentence at a time, and you take things slowly, gently untangling each of these knots as you come across them.
Now, this method does assume that you are working with a finished rough draft. That means that you have a rough beginning, middle, and end, and you’re fairly certain that you’re not going to be adding substantial new material to the story. Beyond that, it can be extremely messy and you can still use this process. However, there are a few rules to follow, and if you follow these rules, the whole thing will go much more smoothly and your chances of derailing will dramatically decrease.
The first rule is that you don’t skip around. You take things sentence by sentence, the whole way through. Even when you hit the really hard parts, the “impossible plot holes” that I mentioned above, you stick with those knots and you don’t let your impatience take over and convince you to skip ahead and work on something easier. This might mean that you spend a week or two on one knot, which might translate into one page, or even one paragraph. But if that’s what needs to happen, then that’s what needs to happen. You stick with each knot until it’s untangled. And again, it doesn’t need to be perfect, but it does need to be relatively clear.
The second rule relates to the first rule, and it’s that you don’t get attached to the time this process takes. When you are working with an intuitive approach in editing, it’s going to be slow. This is not a fast process, although you will have some days that move much more quickly than others. It’s cool if you have a day where you easily get through five pages and you feel like you’re really on a roll. However, do NOT get attached to that being the way that things are just going to be from now on with your story. Because you will also have days where you spend your entire writing session trying to pick loose just one thread on a big gnarly knot on your story and you will feel nothing but tired and frustrated and confused. That’s also pretty normal.
The best attitude you can have is that doing a big first edit (or a big second or third edit) on your manuscript is just going to take time, and you have no way of knowing how long that time will take. And when you’re not editing (i.e., when you’re not actually sitting down and working with the manuscript sentence-by-sentence) you’re not thinking too hard about it. Feel free to bring your story to mind and let yourself lightly consider different possibilities, but don’t get into a place where you’re trying to make hard decisions about what to do next or how to fix the knot you’re currently trying to untangle. Trust that when you come back to the text—when you actually next sit down with the manuscript and get into it—you will be able to look at that knot and a way to untangle it will be revealed to you.
While working with an intuitive editing approach it’s also important to keep your inner critic at bay. If you let your mind run the show, chances are that you will hear all sorts of unhelpful nonsense from your inner critic, like, you’re too slow, everything’s taking way too long, there’s no way out of this corner your protagonist is painted into, things like that. If you can remind yourself (and your inner critic) that you’ll be able to get much more work done if you’re surrounded by kindness, rather than criticism, this can go a long way toward quieting that inner, critical voice.
The last piece of advice I have is to keep calm. The editing process can be very difficult, but I believe what is most difficult of all is dealing with the anxiety that can come up during the process, and not letting it take over. Almost all of the problems I see writers dealing with in the writing and the editing process come back to anxiety. Usually, there is no “problem” there at all, the writer is just freaking out and is convinced that their slower pace, or some unknown aspect of the story, is a disaster and they need to change it or fix it. If the writer would just let go and chill out and let the story do its thing and take the time it needs to come into being, everything would be much easier and take care of itself.
That’s the intuitive editing method in its most basic form: Slow down, keep calm, gently untangle each knot as you go. Once you get the hang of it, it’s easier than you think. And it’s a much more enjoyable way to edit.
Lauren Sapala is the author of The INFJ Writer, The INFJ Revolution, and the creator of Understanding Yourself as an INFJ Writer, an online video course for INFJ writers who struggle with traditional writing methods. You can get a free copy of her book on creative marketing for writers by signing up for her newsletter HERE.