Why Writers Need to Trust Their Intuition

In my last two posts in the Writing for Life section of my blog I shared a number of quotes from famous authors on writing. These were quotes I came across that I disagreed with. Some I felt were just plain bad advice, and I gave my reasons. But so as not to sound utterly haughty, I am happy to admit there is a lot of great writing advice out there. Only you can decide what is “truth” for you. My aim at sharing my thoughts like this is to help writers listen more intuitively to suggestions or critiques.

Elizabeth George, in her writing craft book Write Away, writes about listening to our bodies, paying attention to how a scene feels to us. I relate to this intuitive method strongly. Here are some things she says:

“You must develop your instincts for storytelling. I advise my students to trust their bodies when they’re writing because their bodies will never lie to them about the story, the pacing, the characters, or anything else. Their minds, on the other hand, will lie to them all the time, telling them something is good when that sinking feeling in their guts . . . tells them irrefutably that that something is bad. Or vice versa. . . . Your body . . . is the most effective tool you have.”

Learn to Trust Your Intuition

When you write a scene, you should be able to sense if something is wrong or missing, not quite hitting the mark. And if you nailed the scene just right, you should be able to feel that as well. Maybe this is a little touchy-feely for some of you (men especially). But I think there is great wisdom here that is rarely talked about.

I have learned over the years of writing novels to tune in to and trust that bodily response to my writing. However, to be able to do this well, you need to be very honest with yourself. You have to be willing to listen to that subjective voice that says “this isn’t working” and, in a sense, be objective enough to act on that realization.

As the saying goes, we have to be ready to kill our darlings. If those darlings are just messing up our story, we will sense that. (BTW, some say that expression originated with Stephen King or William Faulkner, but the original quote was actually coined by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. In his 1916 publication On the Art of Writing, he said: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—wholeheartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscripts to press. Murder your darlings.”)

Your intuition may not be finely tuned at this point. If you are a novice writer, you may not have the training and experience (or expertise) to be able to honestly evaluate if what you just spent two hours writing is really any good or working well. You may need professional insights to help you learn how to spot weaknesses in your writing, or plot holes in your scenes.

Hopefully, with years of practice and experience you will know enough to rely mostly on your own intuitive sense about your writing. But it does take a bit of humility and honesty to evaluate your writing.

Getting a Fresh Take on Your Writing

Once you get into the habit of listening to your body’s reactions, which you can almost feel in your gut, you will realize that intuition will rarely be wrong.

When I write what I feel is a great scene, one that accomplishes exactly what I’d hope and is written well (even if a bit rough at the first draft stage), I know it without a doubt. It’s a kind of “yes!” moment. And the more I reread it, the more that feeling is confirmed.

The converse is also true. If a scene just isn’t working, or something feels off about the dialog or narrative, I know it. And the more I try to justify keeping the troubling passage, the stronger that feeling of “wrong!” grows.

Sometimes you will need to get away from your material for a while to get a fresh perspective. That’s when, to me, intuition speaks the loudest.

After picking up those chapters you wrote a couple of weeks ago and rereading them, those little (or big) irritations (that you tried to rationalize should stay) will pop their heads up. But if the pages you wrote feel just right, they probably are.

That doesn’t mean you won’t need some editing, or won’t have to add or take away some lines to tighten things up or tweak the pacing. Revision and editing fine-tune the material you have already vetted with your intuition.

Take the Time to Listen Quietly

All the above is why I tell my clients to let my critique sink in for a few days before diving in and rewriting (or reacting in horror). My observations of their stories is subjective, and although I may give a load of suggestions on how to make their book a better, stronger read, I remind them they need to trust their feelings and intuition. The more they mull over the comments given, the more certain concepts and suggestions make sense and feel right. And some of those suggestions may feel wrong.

I tell clients, “It’s your book, your story. Go with what feels right to you.”

If you’re not much of a “feely” person, you may want to take a little time to “get in touch with your emotions.” I don’t mean to sound corny here, but as Elizabeth George says, your body really is the most effective (and underrated) tool you have.

If you really have no clue what I’m taking about, read something you recently wrote. Then sit quietly and observe how you feel about what you wrote. Turn off the critic and try to be an observer to how your body feels about what you wrote. Overlook the little things that can be tweaked through revision. Pay attention to the overall effect, style, pace, and plot development of the scene. This may take some time and practice, but it is well worth it.

I hope this is one piece of writing advice you will embrace and agree with. If not, that’s okay. Find whatever works for you. But whatever that is, I hope you will trust your feelings about it.

Featured Photo Credit: Mara ~earth light~ via Compfight cc

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  1. This is the one piece of advice I follow. Some people will tell me to never use said, or to never use adverbs; they’ll say to not use flowery language or passive voice. But if it works in the context, then I’ll break their rules.

    One thing I’ve come across, though, especially when it comes to critique groups, is that sometimes just trusting feelings isn’t enough. If something feels off, it doesn’t help to simply say, “This scene feels wrong.” Because of this (and my attention to detail), I’ve managed to go from “This scene doesn’t feel right” to “This scene doesn’t feel fast enough.” It’s a great help to figure out why something feels right or wrong. Intuition followed by a close analysis, I suppose!

    1. You bring up a great point. We start with the feeling something is “off,” but then need to explore it further and play with what it really implies. Often by just kicking it around (and reading it out loud or having the computer read it to you), you get what is off. Another way is to read around that passage–the chapter before and after. Sometimes it’s a pacing issue. Sometimes putting it away for a few days and reading it fresh makes it clear what the problem is.

  2. This is such good advice. I’ve learned, largely through a long time working with a great writer’s group (all published writers now) to listen to my gut feeling.
    If I’ve written what feels like a slightly klunky passage, or put in an idea that feels contrived, those will invariably be the bits that the other members of the group will pick out. Nowadays I can minimise those bits by getting to them first, before the group sees them!

  3. Listening to my gut has been a cornerstone of my life. I use it when I’m grocery shopping or making all other decisions. My intuition speaks loud and clear; well, most of the time. There are times when I’m being stubborn and my ego seems to have the power to sidetrack my gut’s messages. In my writing, I’ve had to delete several pages after I finally acknowledged the truth that what I had written the previous day was trash. I should have known at the time I was on the wrong track – feeling sluggish and frustrated with the lack of meaningful inspiration. When I’m tuned in to my intuition, the writing flows almost magically. Thank you for your wonderful posts. Feather

    1. You’re welcome! You make a good point about ego. Our ego gets in the way to our listening to our intuition, but it’s our ego ultimately that is telling us to listen!

  4. The message of this post really resonates with me! I get that “yes!” feeling, too, when I know that I’ve written a really good scene.
    The only problem I can see is that in my experience, writers start to hate their novel right around the time when they’re writing the middle. They’re tired of the idea, and the end is nowhere in sight. Should they “trust their gut” and stop? No! The story is probably way better than they feel it is right then, and they should push on.
    So, should we trust our feelings wholeheartedly? Maybe not always.

    1. I’ve never heard or known of writers who start hating their novel in the middle. I know some get stuck because they didn’t plot their story well, or haven’t studied and learned novel structure, or haven’t really thought through their ideas, characters, plot arc, and themes. I think that has little to do with intuition. Feeling like giving up because you’re stuck or unsure how to proceed, or just feel the writing is bad, is something every writer faces at some points along the way. It is not an intuitive thing. The intuition I’m talking about is when you do write something but you sense it is “off” and needs fixing.

  5. Now isn’t that timely? I reluctantly opened some writing which has been on the boil for some time. I’ve even had a critique on the first chapter and treatment, where the agent said to edit, edit and edit some more. Rather than start at the beginning I started editing the last chapter and that gut feeling kicked in from the first sentence. Boy did I have a lovely slash and burn! Thanks for this post, as helpful as always.

    1. Glad it helps. I not only have to get heavy into my intuition for my own novels, I also have to do it every single day as I do critiques for clients. I do about 200 critiques a year, and people pay me for my “expertise” to help them tighten up their novel on dozens of levels. But it’s not like copyediting, where a grammar rule is clear. It’s very intuitive, and sometimes I start with a feeling about a scene that is just a sense something isn’t right, then I have to search deeper into what is bothering me to tap into clarity. Since I do this 40-50 hours a week, I’ve learned a lot about what that intuition is saying and how to then act on it. But for most writers, it’s a new concept and something that needs honing–a type of discernment that is subtle.

  6. I agree with the intuition. I know I get an uncomfortable, nagging feeling when something’s “wrong.” Figuring out what is often a problem. Sometimes it’s clear.

  7. You make a really helpful distinction here. I’ll call it “Gut vs. Gray Matter.” Sometimes I stubbornly hold onto “darling” words that are like bad guests at a party, spoiling the scene for others in attendance. I will now have to start paying attention to what my gut is telling me about a passage.

    The same service that you perform for your clients can sometimes (perhaps rarely) be performed by a trusted friend or colleague. To give my right brain some exercise after editing course materials for many years, I started writing humorous fictional letters and mailing them to my best friend from grad-school days. She gave me honest feedback on where the humor worked and where it didn’t, helping me to create a believable naive narrator who I put in bizarre situations. Of course I had to swallow my ego and send some unruly words packing in the process!

    After 10 years, this “hobby” produced 42 letters, enough for my self-published book (now in its 2nd edition): More Later: Lyle’s Letters from the University.

    Also, blog readers will give helpful feedback through their comments and by voting with the “Like” button. Every weekday since Nov. 1, 2010, I have posted on my photoblog one of my own photos with a humorous title and caption. There’s nothing like a daily deadline to cure Writer’s Block!

    Thanks for a most-insightful post. –John

  8. I’ve written two books. One was nominated for a Pushcart. I’m working on my third book now. Writing isn’t the problem. The business of writing is the problem. My publisher is small. Marketing is up to me. Help!!!!!

    S. Thomas Summers (Scott)

  9. I have written prose, poetry, and short stories based on real life. My first try at a novella was dismal to be kind to myself. Once I got past my outline it was no longer my voice, or anything I would read myself. I think this what you’re talking about. My gut told me I was more concerned with context than content. I have a great American Lit professor speaking to me about structure in writing. I argue with him in my head to the point that I can’t stand the deconstruction of the work.

    So, my gut tells me to limit myself to a blog and write something that compels the reader to comment and begin a discussion about the topic of the day. So now I’m asking questions on how to start stage one? It feels better and exciting to learn. Now I feel better. Thank you so much.

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