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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

How Do You Revise Without Letting the Saboteur Attack?

Revision requires that we see our writing for what it is: an approximation of our intended meaning and effect.

We’re trying to recreate the same ideas and emotions in the reader that we experienced, to induce the same neurological state of consciousness, and we can’t do more than approximate that.

The page will never hold all of the writer’s vision, but revision brings us closer and closer.

Revision Requires Discernment Not Judgment

What we need is discernment. What we too often use is judgment.

Judgment has an existential finality to it – the writing is what it is and there’s no room for considering how it might change. Judgment compares the writing to what it SHOULD be.

Discernment, on the other hand, compares the writing to what it COULD be. A discerning evaluation preserves the possibility of change. Discernment has an existential openness – this is what the writing is now, how could it be different?

Judgment is polarized either/or thinking: good or bad, right or wrong, creative or cliché. Your writing and you as a writer are one or the other. If there is any imperfection, the whole thing is bad.

Discernment is both/and thinking: a good draft and at the same time a shitty first draft, effective in places and in need of improvement.

Discernment allows us to see how we can bring the approximation (i.e. the draft) closer to our intended meaning and effect.

Why Positive Judgment Isn’t Any Better Than Negative Judgment

When judgment is negative — This is terrible. The dialogue is awkward, the plot is contrived, the whole idea of this essay/poem/article is overworked — we are so dismayed and overwhelmed by the flaws that we can’t see the possibility of improving the work.

We make half-heart efforts at revision that quickly devolve into copyediting or abandon the work altogether.

Where negative judgment denies the possibility of improvement, positive judgment denies the need for improvement —Ooohhh, this is great. Perfect. I don’t need to change a thing.

The writer may be happier, but now ignores the possibility of improvement.


Negative judgment is to the Saboteur is what chum in the water is to a shark. When you start judging the work, you invite the Saboteur to attack the work and you.

It’s so easy to go from “This sucks” to “I suck” or from “This is clichéd and stale” to “I’m a bad writer.”

And the since the Saboteur deals in lies, any claim that judgment is a necessary part of revision quickly dissolves.

With all that blood in the water (yours and your writing’s), it’s nearly impossible to see the truth: that just because this is an imperfect approximation of your intended meaning doesn’t mean it’s fatally flawed.

At least it wasn’t fatally flawed until you invited the Saboteur to tear it and you to shreds.

Con Man (aka Shark in a Suit and a Smile)!

Positive judgment may be less painful, but it’s just as ineffective. Positive judgment sets you up as the mark for the Saboteur’s con man routine.

The Saboteur always lies, but sometimes the lies it tells are sweet reassurances that you that everything is okay and your goals will just magically be fulfilled without needing to face challenges or exert real effort.

In this form, the Saboteur deals in fantasy and lulls you into inaction. If the work is already all that it should be, there’s no need to even consider how to improve it.

Not only does the Saboteur swindle you out of the opportunity to develop a particular piece of writing, it cheats you out of the opportunity to develop your craft and grow as a writer.

Discernment to the Rescue!

We’ll explore how discernment aids your revision and how to develop that discernment in the next post.

Until then, just observe how often you evaluate your writing, yourself and the people and things around you. And without judging yourself for it, observe how often your evaluations are judgments (some variation on “That’s good or bad”) and how often your evaluations are discerning (“That’s different, I wonder why…”).

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  1. Is Your Saboteur Blocking Your Revision? | Bane of Your Resistance - December 2, 2015

    […] We’ll explore the distinction between judgment and discernment and why it’s vital in keeping the Saboteur at bay in the next post. […]


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