The self editing trap


In Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life,* she starts with a chapter outlining how to write. How to start, and how to finish. Where ideas come from ideas, and when you know when you are done.

Of course, you have to have a general idea of what you are writing about, but don’t get too worked up about the potential of it. Just get started writing. And to do that, you have to deal with the idea of ‘Shitty First Drafts‘ (one of her most frequently quoted phrases).

In other words, you have to be prepared to write crap, if that’s what it takes, to get the words down, and to get past the mentally that impacts many of us that the writing has to be great first time around.  After you’ve written this first draft – not before – you can then start to edit. As if to emphasise the point, she follows it up with a section on ‘Perfectionism‘ – described by Anne somewhat dramatically as ‘the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people‘.

How do I know this about ‘Bird by Bird’? Because, when I decided I wanted to do some more writing, I read and talked to people, took a couple of short courses and joined a weekly writing group. I prepared, quite a lot, because that’s what I tend to do. And one of the first books everyone seemed to recommend was ‘Bird by Bird’. So I bought it, and read it, and also really recommend it (if you’re thinking of writing, you should read it, too  – go on!)

One thing I didn’t do a lot of, though, was actually write very much. Because writing is uncomfortable. It feels a bit self indulgent, it can feel like others have done it better (for instance, if you really want to know what it is like to struggle to write, read Anne’s book. After all, I’ve already told you it’s great, and so have so many others), plus – what is actually the benefit, to anyone else, from my writing? Of course, there are lots of good reasons for writing, which you can look up. I even wrote something myself, which you can see here.

Yes, clearly since then, I’ve broken through, to a degree, on the writing front. I have a blog, and I am tentatively trying to writing a longer thing, which may or may not turn into a book. We’ll see.


Now I’ve trapped myself a bit into the editing as I go trap. So my writing takes a long time (yes, even these short blog pieces), I back them up with other sources (to validate my view, because it might not be enough on its own), and I try to steer away from anything that is too uncomfortable to discuss, to tease open, to look into. While this last one might be ok on a blog, which other people can read, it is not great when writing for myself, because it backs me into a corner, avoiding things I don’t want to deal with.

This morning, as I was thinking about what I had planned ahead – for the rest of today, for the week, and in terms of the goals I have tentatively set for this year and beyond – I realised I do this in a lot of areas of life. I edit myself. Sometimes as I go, but often in advance.
I pre-empt risks, dangers, and I research before committing. A lot. I keep copies of said research for the pithy quotes within them, and then I think. A lot. Sometimes I follow through, but often I think about doing things, but never – quite – get to do them.

Because. Taking action involves risk. And risk is, well, risky.

What if these things that I think of doing – which can be as simple as changing my morning routine, or as complex as changing the orientation of my career – go wrong? Or worse – what if by taking action, a whole lot of other issues that, until now were safely contained, also have to be addressed?

What if my life, which often only just seems to be able to contain itself as it is, spins out of control? I hate a lack of control. I hate mess. I hate the impact on my kids, my husband, on those that I know. But to be honest, I hate the impact most of all on me. Because I don’t know where it might take me, and what I might lose as a result.

I’m starting to realise just how constraining this attitude is. It acts as a straight-jacket,  preventing me from being true to myself, generating resentment towards others – either because they don’t seemed trapped (of course, I am projecting, but still), or because they have forced me to be cautious (which also isn’t true, either, but it can sometimes be easier to blame others, even subconsciously, than admit to your own choices).

So I am currently in an awkward space. The space between stories**, I heard it expressed today. I know, finally, not just in my mind but in my heart, that I need to make changes. I have not been happy for a while and things need to change. Fortunately (before anyone who knows me and my family gets worried), something that doesn’t need to change is my love for my husband and kids. Even though there may be some changes in that part of my life, they won’t be that dramatic (phew!)

And who knows? Maybe things will be better as a result. Anne again talks about the idea of needing to ‘make messes in order  to find out who we are and why we are here‘ – allowing ‘inventiveness and playfulness and life force‘. 

So change. I am ready to embrace you. I think. Still cautiously. Step by step. Or, as Anne Lamott would say, ‘Bird by Bird’.


How about you? How ready are you to embrace change, or do you self-edit, like I do?






* Incidentally, it wasn’t until I wrote this that I realised the full title of Bird by Bird points to the fact that her book isn’t just about writing. Its sub-title is ‘Some Instructions on Writing and Life’. Clever lady. You should read her book. 

** Attributed to Charles Eisenstein, and described as ‘the time when the old story of who I am, what is real, and how to navigate life has broken down. It is the time when my familiar ways of making meaning are no longer relevant. What had seemed so permanent, reliable, understandable and real is revealed as an illusion’. Hmm.





12 thoughts on “The self editing trap

  1. I so relate to this! Thanks for making the effort to write it down, tease it out, and share your thoughts. I hope to use your post as inspiration to take some action in areas of my own writing and life.


    1. Thank you Anna – that is so lovely to hear! I hope it does work as a great motivation – I’d love to see what you write as a result!


  2. Yes! I identify with all of this. I have realised recently that I really want to write, but I’m struggling to commit to doing so, partly because it would involve big changes to routines and habits. Definitely going to look for a copy of Bird by Bird, thanks for sharing this post x


    1. It is hard to make change, isn’t it, but I am realising that not making changes isn’t the answer either. Best wishes with your writing! x


  3. I’ve got Bird By Bird on CD and have listened to it twice now as I drive. A very very good book which so many others also refer to in their works.. Brene Brown does & Elizabeth Gilbert interviews Anne Lamott on her podcast series based on Big Magic – Magic Lessons.
    I also now follow Anne on Twitter – she is very interesting! By the way I didn’t get Bird by Bird because of writing but I was curious to hear why so many people recommend It.


    1. That’s right – so many people do refer to her, don’t they? I haven’t followed Anne on twitter, but I do receive her facebook feeds. Always something to really relish (although sometimes there is a lot to get through to find it. She is not a succinct writer – maybe that’s partly why I identify with her!)


    2. Denyse, I just saw, courtesy of Brain Pickings, that today (10 April) is Anne Lamott’s birthday. Impressed I wrote about her book on the same day – I love finding coincidences like that!


  4. I tend to fall into the “doesn’t edit enough” bracket on my blog. Perhaps because I edit so much in my work life as an editor and writer and my blog is meant to be where I let it all hang out. But, a filter would so often be a good idea! I do get into trouble…


    1. You’re such a great writer, you don’t need to edit! As for filter in life – it’s a balancing act, I guess (you probably have a lot of fun, too!) x


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