“Leave Me Alone–I Know What I’m Doing”

how to write and revise

“Leave Me Alone–I Know What I’m Doing”

Fans of Formula 1 racing, as I have unexpectedly become thanks to my F1-obsessed husband, may recognize this quote from driver Kimi Raikkonen, who famously (or infamously) said it over the radio to his engineer during a 2012 race, which was broadcast on international television (and lives perpetually on in endless internet memes).

Anyone who’s ever felt overwhelmed by too much input will relate to Raikkonen’s outburst. In the midst of driving a high-pressure race, he had a relentless voice in his ear constantly advising him on what to do.

His engineer wasn’t wrong to be coaching Kimi—the man is an expert and a key part of Raikkonen’s team. He’s doing his job and probably doing it well, and his knowledge, objective perspective, and counsel are part of what allows Raikkonen to do his job well.

But Raikkonen was the one in the driver’s seat. He knew the car, he knew the track, he knew his specific job. And at a certain point he had to just drive.

Knowing When “Help” Is Helpful

In recent years publishing has seen an unbelievable expansion of services and professionals once reserved fairly exclusively to big-name authors with big-name publishers.

In many ways this is a huge advantage for authors who now have direct access to expertise that can vastly improve their skill, craft, and professionalism: guidance to improve their craft as writers; help with motivation to write; assistance with their story and structure; objective input on how well it’s coming across on the page. All that help can be invaluable.

But ultimately you are the one who has to write the story.

Years ago I was part of a critique group where we offered one another intensive feedback chapter by chapter as we drafted.

But despite the skill and excellent insights of my crit partners, I soon realized that our sessions were counterproductive for me. Hearing detailed feedback as I was still drafting and finding the story flipped me into analytical “editor brain,” rather than creative “writer brain,” and made me start questioning everything I’d done and how I wanted to move forward. Too often it stalled out my drafting.

Read more about how to most effectively use critique:

How to Handle Critique of Your Work

How to Utilize Critique and Incorporate It Into Your Story

As soon as you get in your head about your story, you’re judging it–and that’s a surefire way to get wrapped around the axle and shut your creativity down. And trying to consider or incorporate too much input while you’re still finding what the story wants to be organically can dilute it. Too many cooks spoil the broth.

The Risks of Too Much Feedback

Despite the many advantages outside input can offer you—whether a coach, a crit partner, an editor, or beta readers—leaning on it too soon or too heavily comes with risks:

  • Authors can “get in their own head” and shut down, or lose sight of their own story.
  • Authors can get too dependent on outside input.
  • Authors can subscribe to the erroneous idea that they can’t complete or sell a story without hiring an expert.
  • Authors can orient themselves so closely with what they’ve been told is the right way to create their story that they strip it of their individuality and the spark that makes it their own.

I’ve worked on manuscripts that technically subscribed perfectly to every tenet of storytelling or a particular school of thought or dogma, and yet lie flat on the page, stripped of voice, stripped of originality, stripped of excitement. Others may be so stuffed with “key storytelling elements” or ideas authors have heard from an editor or coach or beta reader that the story is muddied or overwhelmed, unsure what it actually wants to be.

With my own writing, I quickly learned that the most useful way for me to receive feedback was on a finished draft–when I needed to transition into “editor brain” to effectively tackle revisions, and my crit partners’ feedback was invaluable in helping me do that, helping me see what I may have been blind to in my own work.

More on writing and editing your work:

The Three Perspectives of Effective Storytelling

Write Like a Writer; Edit Like an Editor

How Do You Know When Your Story Is “Finished”? A Final Check

Even as an editor, when working with in-house editors at publishing houses who often send me their feedback as I am working on edits of an author’s manuscript, I don’t usually look at it until at least after my first cold read of the story. Later I incorporate the in-house editor’s feedback, but getting their observations in my head as I’m orienting myself to the story may color my impressions of it, when I need to come at it with my own fresh perspective.

Too many voices in your head dilute yours. Too many opinions dilute your story. Too many instructions can get you in your head and freeze up your creative impulse.

You can’t drive by committee, and you can’t write by committee either.

A race-car driver may lean on all the training and input and expertise of their team, but every car is different, every track is different, every race is different, every driver is different. In the moment, as the race is happening, he or she is the one behind the wheel.

You can’t drive by committee, and you can’t write by committee either.

Driving Your Own Car

Your job is to develop your skills as a writer, which since time immemorial have encompassed most of the functions you may hire or solicit outside input for: understanding of story and structure, knowledge of craft, motivation to write, the ability to assess and revise what you’ve written.

You may need or want to bring in outside help with any or all of these functions at certain times—and when you do, make sure to get the best help you can get.

Read more about getting feedback and hiring professionals:

Please Don’t Revise Your Manuscript

Three Things to Know When Hiring a Pro

Editors, Coaches, and Beta Readers: What’s the Difference, and What Do You Need?

But remember what the core of this creative pursuit is: The writer telling her story. Input can be a wonderful resource, but you are the one in the driver’s seat. And you are there for a reason—this is your story.

When you are running the race you need to get into the zone. Like Raikkonen’s engineer, experts in skill and strategy may offer big-picture perspective at the right time. But you know how the vehicle is actually handling.

Even if you are still honing your skills—and we are all hopefully always honing our skills, regardless of how long or broad our experience—at a certain point writing, like auto racing, is simply one butt in one seat doing one job.

Get out of your head and write. Have the courage and faith and trust in yourself to know that you do know what you’re doing—even if you seek out feedback when the time is right.

A fun coda on the Kimi Raikkonen story: When he retired, for his final race his crew painted on his car the words, “Dear Kimi, we will leave you alone now.”

Over to you, author friends. Are you able to receive critique or input while you’re drafting and still maintain your vision and creative impetus? Have you found what works for you in keeping you in “writer brain” while you write? When do you solicit outside opinions or input?

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30 Comments. Leave new

  • Hah! This is all SO true! I don’t join crit groups probably for this basic reason – I want to complete a draft, and possibly a re-write, before I show even pieces to anyone, let alone the entire manuscript. And I hate writing by a chapter-a-week deadline, or whatever criteria the group decides upon. I outline the entire ‘book’, then work on whatever scene happens to call me. Hence, I have bits and bobs from the beginning, the end, and middle. In a crit group, those would all be taken out of context, which makes commenting on them without knowing the whole almost irrelevant.

    Reply
    • Yes! I feel the same way–I have to “find” the story first, and I’ll get derailed if I get too much input swimming around in my head. It’s just counterproductive for me to get feedback too soon. Years ago a handful of like minds in my larger crit group broke off into our own small one, and it was great to be able to each work the way that was best for us, and structure the group in whatever way was most effective for each writer (I turned in only when I had a full draft). Have you tried “customizing” a crit group that way?

      Funny you work in random order. I’ve tried that, but my logical brain doesn’t like it very much. Even with my nonfiction, I have to write it in the order that it builds in the overall structure. Editors. We’re so damn literal sometimes. 🙂 Love hearing about your process, Linda–thanks for sharing it!

      Reply
  • Marielena Zuniga
    April 21, 2022 12:01 pm

    Thank you, thank you, thank you, Tiffany! I had this unfortunate experience in which I had so much input, my creativity froze in its tracks. I’m an intuitive writer, but I am also realistic enough to know that any creative effort needs the input of critiques and editors. But only after I’ve told my story. I’m on the 8th revision of my current WIP right now. Soon, I’ll be ready to give my novel to an editor (so many choices) for pacing, plot flaws, etc., and then to beta readers. There’s a great line in a children’s book (I forget which one) that says: “Sometimes too much help is no help at all.” Truth! Thanks for normalizing one creative/intuitive writer’s experience!

    Reply
    • Eighth revision! Lady, you may be my soul sister. 🙂 I absolutely LOVE that you do all that before looking to hire an editor. Sometimes I think authors get the impression that you finish a draft and send it off right away for an editor to edit–but to me that’s not giving yourself the most bang for your buck. I always suggest authors do what you seem to do–make it absolutely as airtight as you can on your own, and then if you still feel it’s not quite there yet, that’s the time to consider hiring a pro.

      Love the line you quote. I have to remind myself of that in my personal life, when I am always a bit too quick to want to help…even when it’s probably “no help at all.” 🙂 Thanks for sharing your process, Marielena! I always love hearing how authors work.

      Reply
  • Rochelle Weinstein
    April 21, 2022 12:09 pm

    Love this. And I love being edited and hearing another’s vision for my work. Then I decide to take it or leave it. In fact, YOU gave me some crucial advice on WWLG, and you were spot on. I think when it comes to writing, we have to trust our guts and be able to accept and reject with some level of both objectivity and humility.

    Reply
    • It’s a balance, isn’t it? And like so much else in this business, so subjective. I think one of the hardest elements of feedback is what you mention–knowing when a suggestion or input may help you get your vision on the page more effectively, and knowing when to trust your gut. Ask Allison Winn Scotch about the time she was dead right and I was dead wrong, and she had the wisdom and vision to stand her ground on a key story element. 🙂 But sometimes objective feedback can open up levels you didn’t quite see yet. It’s so “squishy”! I love the way you put it–objectivity mixed with humility. As always, you say it so eloquently. Thanks, friend.

      Reply
  • Maryann Kovalski
    April 21, 2022 1:16 pm

    Another great post!

    I was part of a critique group consisting of six alum from a novel writing program. I’d long wanted to adapt into a novel a flawed screenplay I wrote which got quite close to being bought by a big LA producer but who passed at the eleventh hour, saying there was a thread missing. The premise was great, the gags funny but the ‘drive shaft’ of story was not there. So right.

    Years passed but the story haunted me. I thought the group would be a helpful guide. Nice people, no help, nobody’s fault, except my own.

    Every six weeks I shared ten pages. I listened to and acted on every suggestion. No member had read the draft in its entirely as, I believe, a novel must be to be properly assessed to see how it is working as a whole.

    After eighteen months and many confused drafts, I hired a pro who told me I had a huge mess: some charm, some good writing on the line level, some very funny moments, but a mess nonetheless.

    Two years and many drafts later, I have something cohesive. Who knows what the world will say? I know I have something.

    Lesson learned, but I am so grateful for todays reminders (and adding a few from others):

    Embrace the scary, unknown world of the story for many drafts before seeking feedback from anyone.

    Make hard copies! I am always astounded by typos and awkward phrasing I miss, only noticed when I read the printed word.

    Another good tip: transfer the novel to iPad, in a font other than Times Roman. This prevents me from tinkering, which I can do obsessively.

    And finally this from Margot Livesy (I paraphrase):

    “If you get bored with your own writing, it is not because you’ve read it a hundred times. It is because it’s boring. If the work is good, you will delight in reading your words and will read them with pride and wonder.”

    Thanks for another wonderful post!

    Reply
    • And another great comment, Maryann…! You illustrate how different each writer’s process is, and how important it is to find what works best for you and your writing–and also one of the biggest dangers of groupthink in writing–it can homogenize an author’s work, or diffuse her intentions or vision so much it loses its spark and originality.

      Your additional tips are so helpful too. I think it’s absolutely key for authors to get the story as strong as they can make it on their own before hiring a pro, as I’ve talked about in some of the articles linked in the post, and to balance incorporating input with trusting their gut. Love your tips on gaining objectivity too–good ones. Thanks for sharing this–and I’m so sorry about your near miss! Those hurt extra hard. 🙁 But what an accomplishment to have gotten so far with the story.

      Reply
  • Absolutely correct! As a first time novelist, there’s a lot to learn, but, just like the Information Age we live in, you can get overwhelmed with recommendations and ideas. Being a newbie, I read a ton of books on writing, but sooner or later, you just have to sit down and write that story that’s bouncing around in your head. I learned midway through that you have to outline, or else, as Yogi Berra put it, “If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.” Eighteen (yes! eighteen!) drafts later I put it through an online software editing service. Slavishly following every recommended change, I got an extremely high score, but the story no longer flowed. It sat there flat. I learned you have to edit the edit. I went through it again and breathed life back into it. I now limit the number of beta readers to those who offer constructive criticism and not try to rewrite my book from scratch. And there’s no substitute for an editor who understands your vision. It’s now going through the copy edit. Book two is going through the read-through after the software edit and will be given over to the beta readers soon.

    Reply
    • Eighteen! And today’s Revision Medal goes to…Ken Kunkel. 🙂 You make such an excellent point about how dedication to writing “rules” or dogma can hamstring an author and neuter a story. That’s the whole basis of my approach in my book Intuitive Editing, actually–learn, learn, learn…always be learning…but draw from whatever works for you at a certain time, with a certain story, rather than, as you put it so well, slavishly trying to follow someone else’s system or “rules.” Thanks for weighing in, Ken.

      Reply
  • Nicole Brooks
    April 21, 2022 2:08 pm

    Thank you for another insightful post, Tiffany! I recently did this. Last year I was drowning in craft books, editors advice, podcasts, critique groups. And for other personal reasons, my anxiety was out of control. It was all too much and in the summer I stopped everything. Put down the craft books, stopped listening to the writing podcasts (which are very ‘do this/don’t do this’) and chose one editor to work with deeply. And then in January, a story rushed out of me. It’s the story I’ve always wanted to tell. Now that I’m working on a second draft, I’ve gone back to the craft books and podcasts, reading similar books to glean insight into how to make mine better (staying away from critique groups as I’ve decided they are not for me, just a critique partner that I trust is good enough). And of course I’ll be working with my wonderful editor again. The sticky thing is that you have to still keep learning and working forward, but then I believe you have to know when to stop and trust that everything you’ve taken in will work subconsciously when needed. It’s a balance that’s taken several years and many stories to get right (for me, anyway). Thank you!

    Reply
    • A great way to put it, Nicole: “you have to still keep learning and working forward, but then I believe you have to know when to stop and trust that everything you’ve taken in will work subconsciously when needed.” It really is a balance, and learning how to weigh it, I think, is among an author’s most useful skills to develop. And so often it’s just practice, experience, and failure that help you figure it out (like so much of life…sigh). I love craft books, posts, podcasts, and classes too–but I’ve learned how to put them all in my toolbox as tools and use them as needed for my work, rather than trying to follow dogmatic systems or “rules.” That kind of sucks the joy from writing, too, doesn’t it? Thanks for stopping by!

      Reply
  • Maggie Smith
    April 21, 2022 2:56 pm

    Loved the post but also all the comments. Obviously this struck a nerve with lots of writers out there, me included. I love the camaraderie of writing groups but they are no help at all to me in critiquing a novel which, in my opinion, has to be read in total for any feedback to be really useful.

    Reply
    • I am 100 percent on board with that–and once I figured that out for myself too, it made a world of difference in my writing–and revising. Yes, I didn’t know this topic would spark such discussion! I love that–sometimes I think we don’t talk about this enough, especially in the recent explosion of professional services offered to authors. It can be easy to get the message that they’re a required part of the process, and forget that the heart of writing is the writer. Thanks for the comment, Maggie.

      Reply
  • Ok, ok, ok, you nailed it AGAIN! Yes, getting too much input strips the joy out of writing, or at least coming up with a final piece. I’m in the midst of this right now, as I write this. I need to stop looking for the magic bullet, or dream beta reader and just finish what I want to finish, the way I want to finish it, with the emphasis I want to have. Amen! Hallelujah! As Chevy Chase would say.

    Reply
    • Finish that puppy, Ken! 🙂 There’s a time for editing and other outside input–but I do think that constantly getting critiques while drafting can be a way of derailing actually finishing a story…like the college kid who keeps taking classes but never actually graduates. The work–the writing–is the heart of it all. Obviously I am a big believer in the transformative power of good objective input–as long as it’s positive, constructive, and used at the most effective time. Thanks for being here, as always!

      Reply
  • Maryann Kovalski
    April 21, 2022 5:43 pm

    I’ve often been given the advice to ‘trust my gut’. Am I the only one with a gut that is the penultimate unreliable narrator?

    Reply
    • No, I think it’s a dance–balancing feedback with your vision. Good input should offer an objective view–meaning outside your own perspective–but it’s still a subjective craft. I’m not always right about what I might see as the author’s intention, or even the best way to achieve it. All a good editor–or anyone offering feedback–can do is hold up the mirror and reflect as fully as possible what’s on the page, and how well it’s fulfilling the author’s intentions, and offer her thoughts on ways to more effectively achieve it, but the ultimate authority is the author. (And any pro who tells you differently is maybe not the best fit.)

      Reply
  • Craig Lancaster
    April 21, 2022 6:21 pm

    Oh, man, does this resonate. I’ve taken to giving critique partners, editors, my agent, etc., specific ground rules:

    1. I want to hear what does and doesn’t work for you.

    2. I want to hear *why*, in all cases.

    3. I don’t want to hear word one about how you’d go about it if you were writing it.

    4. You’re not writing it.

    5. I am.

    6. The most elegant solution will come from me.

    7. Unless I really get stuck and ask specifically for a prescription.

    8. In that vanishingly rare instance, fire away.

    Reply
    • Well, all right! You have to admire an author who knows his process. 🙂 I think it’s so helpful to know what works best for your own writing–and how to yield the kind of input that will help you most. I actually created a downloadable guide for authors on exactly this–how to yield useful, actionable feedback from beta readers and crit partners (on the Editing Toolbox page of my website)

      Nice to see you on here, Craig.

      Reply
      • Craig Lancaster
        April 22, 2022 7:39 pm

        Thanks, Tiffany. In my stridency, I neglected to point out that Nos. 1 and 2 are absolutely ESSENTIAL to every story I undertake. I could miss dinner by going into every instance when a critique that told me plainly what didn’t work and why led to a solution I’d have never found left to my own devices. Hearing what did work is gratifying, of course. Hearing what didn’t makes me better.

        Reply
  • Thank you, Tiffany!

    Quite timely.

    Reply
  • This was super helpful insight about a process I think a lot of writers find confusion in. For me, it’s the fear I am not doing it right after hearing advice that you should have X number of beta readers or your book won’t be good. I have a few trusted CPs/beta readers, and am part of a small critique group that meets in person, and I feel that it’s enough. But it’s hard to know what advice to follow when you haven’t reached a certain goal, like finding an agent, because you want to do it all so you have a better chance. It can get so overwhelming. I am learning, like with drafting and revising, that finding your own process for evaluating feedback is the one that works best.

    Reply
    • This is something I think about a lot too, Cate–and for this exact reason. It’s hard to know “what resonates and what to disregard,” as I always say to authors I work with about my own feedback. And as you say, I think it’s especially challenging for newer authors–and even more so with “expert feedback.” Because the writer is less experienced or they perceive the commenter as the expert, they may take the input as gospel, even when it might not be on-target for their manuscript, or doesn’t resonate for them, or sometimes is even unskillful or unconstructive. And that can shut an author down. That’s one reason this is such a key skill to develop.

      In my regular How Writers Revise feature, a lot of authors address how they do this, which I hope is helpful to other writers. Love that you keep working to incorporate this skill into your own writing/critique more–we’re always learning, aren’t we? Thanks for being here, as always. 🙂

      Reply
  • Rebecca Warner
    April 25, 2022 10:24 pm

    When I conceptualize a story, I have an idea of where to begin, and I always know the ending. The process for me is then just crafting the story, putting the words down and building to that ending. It’s my journey, and it is a solitary one. I want no feedback during that creative process. After that, I’ll take all the help I can get in turning it into a clean and compelling read. I tend to overwrite, and sometimes I hate to give up 10,000 words; but your book, Intuitive Editing, has been a perfect guide in helping me do so. Then I give it to a professional who chops another 5,ooo words and fixes things I overlooked 100 times. I’m humbled and grateful. But the book is still all mine, only now the best version of itself.

    Reply
    • Love this process, Rebecca. It’s similar to how I work (right down to the tendency to overwrite…) and seems to work best for me as well. I don’t feel a lack of ownership of the work if I get outside help, but I agree that during a certain part of the process it’s essential that I give myself the mental space to just “vomit it up” and not judge it or get outside input. And I’m thrilled to hear Intuitive is useful to you. That was my best hope for it–that it would be an effective author resource for editing and revising. Thanks for sharing your process.

      Reply

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