Why Writers Should Trust Their Intuition

Awhile back, 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.

Your thoughts? Does your body tell you when something you write is off? Or spot-on?

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  1. Excellent advice. I always go by the feel of something and if it feels mawkish or limp, out it goes or gets punched up by a different line for example, I was editing a work on the production line. The protagonist was confronted by someone speaking in what could only read as new-age drivel. So to give it a bite, the protagonist thinks something vulgar about what she is hearing. It worked. The confrontational waffler was seen as slightly absurd and the protagonist as someone with a mind of her own.

  2. Same here, I can always tell when something is off. I was just reading your post on how to write a premise sentence, and am realizing that mine needs work. Here it is:

    When an Irishman, a fierce supporter of the American Revolution, is taken captive aboard a British warship commanded by the cunning Captain Pierce, who has orders to destroy the “pirate” Paul Jones, he must escape, joining Jones and his ragtag crew as they challenge the power of the Royal Navy, while dodging Pierce, who has made it his personal goal to force him to submit to British rule.

    It just seems that this could be shorter, or more specific. I would greatly appreciate any suggestions for improvement. Thanks!

  3. Thank you for this article: it has come at just the right time for me. I knocked off the first draft of my novel as a NaNoWriMo challenge, last year; never having studied the craft of novel-writing. Only then did I settle down to read everything I could on the craft. Several edits later, I have a MS with which I’m happy; except that I am conflicted about some of the “rules” I have learned about. Those that I am comfortable with, I now obey: but others do not convince me, where following them results in stilted prose or unnatural constructions. Although this is my first novel, I have been writing in other genres for decades. I have already developed my own voice and my own style. I recently attended a writing seminar, during which I challenged the lecturer to show me the law which made the chapter I had written illegal. Naturally she could not, and agreed that, in its context, my draft worked.
    Yes, I agree that there are some basic rules that writers need to know: but some of them can be regarded as rules of thumb or guidelines, and not inviolable laws to be slavishly obeyed.
    Your words have given me the confidence that I needed to follow my own intuition.

  4. How do you reconcile that gut feeling of rightness with the advice to “kill your darlings”? To me, and maybe other writers, it reads as though if you think something you’ve written is really good, it has to go. Maybe that piece of advice needs a qualifier.

    1. Good question! I personally feel that if I consider others’ advice to change or delete something, but I truly feel it’s working and what I want, I will go with my gut. Maybe the best qualifier is time and experience. Beginning writers may not have enough knowledge under their belt to trust their intuition is guiding them well. It is something that should refine in time. Your thoughts?

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