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:
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:
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.
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:
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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