Most writers have better instincts than we may think we do. We just have to learn to trust them.
Now, I’m a developmental editor. My ability to do my job is grounded in my faith in my instincts when it comes to analyzing and discovering the issues in other authors’ manuscripts. I know I have the ability to understand when something is working and when it’s not, and why, and my trust in that ability is why I can be very good at what I do.
But when I put on my writer’s hat,* I’m no different from any other writer as I try to teach myself to listen to that nagging little feeling.
You know the one—the one that tells you you’re not quite as done with your manuscript as you think you are.
The Joys of Rationalization
Somewhere around September or October of 2013, I finally finished the first draft of the screenplay I’ve been working on since 2011. Completing the screenplay, a cryptozoological dramedy, was due in no small part to putting a lot more time into it (go figure), largely on account of my new writer’s group. But also, it’s not unusual for me to take a long time with the first draft. The editor in my head never really shuts up, so I edit as I go. The first draft takes longer, but it usually winds up more polished than your average first draft, so I was quite confident my screenplay was pretty much finished.
Why wouldn’t it be? I’m a good writer. I made several major revisions along the way, addressing issues I had successfully resolved. I even nailed the ending. I discovered the perfect ending a short while before writing it, and I was pretty sure I got it right.
I let the screenplay rest for a week, then I read through it. The pacing was right, and I liked the dialogue. It was good. But it wasn’t feeling great. It wasn’t feeling like the two-years-in-the-making triumph I wanted it to be. During the scenes I knew I intended to be emotionally moving, I wasn’t feeling moved.
But then again, I had been living with the screenplay for a while. I knew every moment of it. How could I expect to be moved in the way of somebody reading it for the first time? Just because I wasn’t really getting into it didn’t mean it wasn’t great.
What Happens When Writers Ignore Their Gut Feelings
This, friends, is called rationalization. It’s what we do when we ignore our gut feelings. Much of the time, we know when something we wrote is not working. We may not know exactly why—that’s why editors like me exist—but we know in our hearts that this manuscript we spent so much time on is not done yet. And we only reach our full potential as writers when we learn to trust that instinct and improve our work.
It took me a little longer than I’d care to admit. I showed the screenplay to a trusted editor and publisher and former employer who didn’t have anything particularly negative to say, but clearly wasn’t wowed by it either. And only a few days later, when I was sitting one morning in the bathtub (where all the great thinking is accomplished), did I truly understand there was more work to be done.
Trusting Your Gut Feelings
Of course, my instincts had known it from the start. I could feel it wasn’t just some paranoid instinct to keep tweaking (which is a different problem). I wasn’t affected by what I had created, and that meant that I had to make it better.
Since then, I’ve tried to listen more readily to my instincts. I finished the screenplay again, and it was better, but it still wasn’t there. This time, I’ve trusted my instincts. I think I’m almost done again, but once I finish, I’ll read through my screenplay again, and if it doesn’t make me feel the way I know it’s capable of making readers (and eventual viewers) feel, I will hopefully trust my instincts once more and dive back in.
The Secret Power of Gut Feelings
The reason having faith in your instincts is so important in this sort of situation is that, when you’re a good writer, very likely nothing will be obviously wrong. You know how to define a character. You know how to write dialogue. You know how to construct a story. Sometimes the issues are subtler than that. There weren’t any bad scenes in that first draft of the screenplay, or the second. There weren’t any stiff lines of dialogue. And I know my screenplay structure very well. But all of that just makes it a lot easier to rationalize the idea that nothing is wrong.
We know what great writing is. We’ve all experienced it. Maybe we haven’t written it yet, but we’ve read wonderful novels from brilliant authors, and we remember how those novels made us feel. We’re not all capable of being Salman Rushdie (or, in my case, Charlie Kaufman), but chances are we’re capable of better than what we’ve done. That nagging little feeling—that instinct—is our brain’s way of trying to convince us of that.
In our hearts, we all know what we’re really capable of. There is no reason in the world to fall short of that. If we learn to trust our gut feelings, we won’t.