On Listening to Your Gut Instinct When Editing Your Work

By Chelene Knight

gut feeling

First, there’s that twisty churny feeling that crawls across your skin when something doesn't feel right. It’s similar to the feeling that can arise when you are walking home late at night and you can just sense someone following a little too close behind you. Instinctively, you whip your head around to inspect. Seconds before that happens, it’s that feeling that alerts you. Your gut is speaking to you. 

I listen to my gut all the time: should I take on this project, eat that bacon covered donut, buy another book after surpassing my book buying budget, go to that event, take a day off, work on my novel—the list goes on and on. But as writers, how can this gut tingly feeling help us edit our work? I put this very question out there on social media, and many of the responses connected to how we approach incorporating feedback into writing, and how it can challenge the gut instinct.

Ten years ago I participated in my first ever workshop group. At the end of our biweekly sessions I recall running out of the building at 9:30 at night, vibrating from the possibilities for revision. I curled up on the Skytrain with a large drip coffee balanced on my knee and I devoured the handwritten feedback from my workshop group and mentor. When I think back to what this process looked like for me, there was a lot of skimming because I couldn’t get the information into my bloodstream fast enough. I was so eager. I was searching for that gut punch reaction to any part of the feedback. I was on the lookout for something that would make me shout “oh my gosh why didn’t I think of that?” And I will tell you, it happened a lot.

I could not wait to start revising. I’d arrive home an hour later, I’d tuck my then eight year old into bed and I would sit down at that desk and begin to incorporate the changes based on the feedback. When I look back at this process, I realize now that I skipped the very important step of allowing breathing room. I didn’t allow the adrenaline to leave my body. I edited with a full, fast beating heart, and the results always left me feeling uninspired when I later revisited the piece. I couldn’t figure it out! How could my gut have steered me wrong? But it wasn’t my gut that was getting in the way, it was simply the lack of space and time in between the workshop and revision. I didn’t have a formula. 

Over the years, I got to learn my gut very well. I spoke to it as often as it spoke to me. Today I leave lots of room to sit and reflect on feedback before I incorporate changes, and I even have a formula that I use to revise:

workshop/editor feedback + breathing room + non-negotiables + gut instinct = solid revision.

For me, the gut instinct part of the formula will always carry the most weight. I believe that as writers, and maybe even creators in general, there's always this pull to listen to someone else, anyone else other than ourselves (we can't possibly know what we are doing, right?). We have editors, mentors, and teachers to guide us and show us the possibilities, but what does it mean to defer to our gut? I have been thinking about this intently with the final edits to my novel on the horizon. I know my process, I know how skeletal my drafts are, and I am very aware of how long it will take for the flesh to arrive, and that it will arrive in thin layers. I appreciate—and am often in awe—of the fabulous suggestions from my editor, but I always turn up the volume on my gut instinct. I say “hey gut, let’s go get a coffee and hash this out. What if I totally restructured this book? What if I allowed myself to veer away from the traditional, knowing that that’s what I usually need to do anyway? Hmmm.” My gut sometimes sits in silence. Sometimes my gut doesn’t want to help me, and it’s that silence that we have to pay attention to as well. Sometimes my gut says “figure it out yourself, you know the answer dammit.”

Looking back at my formula for revision, I am confident I have a solid plan and that I don't have to rely on myself, but that listening to me and my voice is a massive part of the revision process. Editors are so important because they help us see things from the outside. It’s perspective. We are so inside of our stories, we cannot always see over the edge (I’ve tried!). So having someone to say “hey things are looking a bit blurry from this angle” helps immensely. It also helps to note everything you see, hear, smell, and taste from inside the story because there is no one that can write that perspective but you.

So when I sit down to work on those revisions, I think about that formula. I sit with it. I figure out what to incorporate based on my gut instinct and by exploring the possibilities that my gut says no to. If something doesn’t work, that is ok, I can go back. I can easily go back to the beginning and try again.

I know that the real writing happens with revision, so I may as well get used to it! My gut may sometimes scream nonsense at me, but I humour it. I never know where my gut will steer me and my story, but hopefully it’s in a direction that I never thought of before. I eagerly watch the layers of my book unfold as I write, and if someone is following too closely, I let them know that I sense them and that I’m listening. 

The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Chelene Knight is the author of the poetry collection Braided Skin and the memoir Dear Current Occupant, winner of the 2018 Vancouver Book Award. Her essays have appeared in multiple Canadian and American literary journals, plus the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star. Her work is anthologized in Making RoomLove Me TrueSustenanceThe Summer Book, and Black Writers Matter.

The Toronto Star called Knight, “one of the storytellers we need most right now.” In addition to her work as a writer, Knight is managing editor at Room, programming director for the Growing Room Festival, and CEO of #LearnWritingEssentials. She often gives talks about home, belonging and belief, inclusivity, and community building through authentic storytelling. 

Knight is currently working on Junie, a novel set in Vancouver’s Hogan’s Alley, forthcoming in 2020.