Are You Over-Thinking Your First Draft?

Are You Over-Thinking Your First Draft?

First drafts are our agony and our ecstasy. This where our glistening ideas spill onto the page. This is where we get to play around with our ideas, see our characters grow and our themes mature. First drafts are fun. They’re our creative playground.

But they’re also tough. Our words on paper rarely measure up to the sparkling perfection of the ideas in our heads. We run into plot holes, creative blocks, stubborn characters, and personal doubts. We want so badly to get our first drafts right—both on the general principle of wanting to do our story justice and to spare ourselves the work of intensive edits later on.

And this is where we can run into problems. We can start getting all obsessive-compulsive about creating a perfect first draft—and we end by totally psyching ourselves out. It’s not a  pretty picture.

Hi, my name is K.M. Weiland, and I was a first draft over-thinker

I admit it: I’m just a tad obsessive. And compulsive. And perfectionistic. Bad combo. Up until my first book, A Man Called Outlaw, was published, this wasn’t such a problem. I just wrote for myself, so I was putting way less pressure on the process of that first draft. But after I came to that always shocking realization that Real Live Readers were actually reading my words, something painful started happening.

By the time of Outlaw’s publication, Behold the Dawn’s first draft was already completed, so it didn’t suffer the wrath of what I like to call First Draft Fallout. But Dreamlander and my not-yet-published historical novel The Deepest Breath sure did.

What was happening to me? Mostly, it all boiled down to one fear-inducing word: over-thinking. Instead of letting my words just pour out of me whenever I sat down to write these first drafts, I instead sat there and thought. And thought and thought.  Write a paragraph. Read it. Think about it. Obsess about word choice. Obsess about how the characters are coming across. Fuss about thematic implications. Drive self crazy. Rewrite paragraph. Sit and stare at screen. Write a new paragraph.

The problem with over-thinking your first draft

Sound painful? It is. I’ll bet it also sounds super familiar to a lot of you. Authors are under a ton of pressure to get it right. And instead of being mitigated once you have a reading public, it only gets worse (à la the sophomore novel problem). Not only do we have to write something that’s good enough to compete in an increasingly competitive marketplace, we also have to write something that will optimally keep us from gathering too many scathing reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.

Instead of sitting at our desks and thinking about our stories, we sit there and think about How to Be an Awesome Writer. I’ll let you in on a little secret: this is not a good plan. How to Be an Awesome Writer is a great way to instead discover How to Write a Pompous, Lousy, Unfun, Totally Difficult First Draft.

Fiction is an amalgam of art and craft. We can think about craft. We should think about craft. Craft is an analytic, left-brain exercise. Art, on the hand, is a deeply subconscious, emotional journey. We shouldn’t think too hard about that—at least, not while we’re in the act. Thinking too hard dries up the creative side of the brain and dams up that subconscious flow of ideas, words, and images.

The result? A miserable writer and a tough (and probably bad) first draft.

The remedy for over-thinking in the first draft

How do we fix this all too prevalent problem? The answer is simple. The implementation, however, isn’t always so easy. The great Richard Bach, in his short story and essay anthology A Gift of Wings, spells it out:

It took time to learn that the hard thing about writing is to let the story write itself, while one sits at the typewriter and does as little thinking as possible. It happened over and over again, and the beginner learned—when you start puzzling over an idea, and slowing down on the keys, the writing gets worse and worse.

For me, the cure came when I started in on a major rewrite of Dreamlander. I was closing in on a deadline, and, quite frankly, I just didn’t have the time to sit and think about every paragraph. I sat down, and I wrote. My fingers flew across those keys. It felt like a miracle, after those two pulling-teeth first drafts I’d just finished, and it made me realize two things:

1. My writing was fun again.

2. My writing was better again.

As soon as I stopped over-thinking my process, my infernal internal editor shut up, my characters started talking to me again, and my writing improved vastly. Turned out the very thing I thought was helping me be a good writer was holding me back.

Stop over-thinking your first draft, start editing your second draft

Will resisting the urge to over-think produce a better first draft? Yes. Will it produce a perfect first draft? No. But that’s what editing is for.

Editing, as a left-brain aspect of the process, is supposed to be thought about. The first draft isn’t. The first draft is the place to smear your raw creativity onto the page. Don’t worry about being awesome. Don’t worry about being perfect. Just have fun. Live your story; find your awe. Don’t think too hard about what you’re doing until after you’ve done it.

Tell me your opinion: Do you ever struggle with over-thinking your first draft?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. This was EXACTLY what I needed to hear today. I have a novel I am about to start (planning, outlining and so on all done) but I have been procrastinating because every time I start I end up throwing out what I wrote. It’s paralyzing! I hope I can move on now and just enjoy the story.

  2. This couldn’t have come at a better time. I am currently working on a fun piece after putting to bed( sending to the publisher my manuscript) a very trying piece usually editing and sending my things out to be published are trying for me esp because I’m still a babe learning the ropes. But now I wanted to do something fun and exciting and did I say Fun? But as I started this new story, my editor who hadn’t hushed yet began interfering and the fun had more restrictions.

    I need to work more on the fun creative flow and stop hitting backspace / delete and just write like no ones watching….

    Debi

  3. Hm, sometimes I tend to over-think my first drafts, but what is even worse is that I often reread them after having written thinking “This is shit” and I often wish I had put MORE thinking into that first draft instead of just drifting off… So I don’t know what to do…

  4. Oh, I bet that’s what’s wrong with me right now. I’ve always said that novel writing was so much easier before I learned how to do it, now I fret over just about everything. Now, if I could only figure a way to implement your suggestions on how to make it stop…

  5. @Cristy: One of the reasons I like outlining my stories longhand, instead of on the computer, is that doing so allows me to be as sloppy as I want to be. It’s much more difficult to delete stuff and even less easy to just go back and scan through what you’ve written. It lets me have a little more freedom to be less critical about what what and how I’m writing.

    @Connecting: The WIP I’m working on right now is something I really wanted to have fun with, after finishing a comparatively dark story a few years ago. And it has been – as much because I’ve stuffed a sock in my internal editor during this first draft as because of the material itself.

    @Kati: There’s a balance, definitely. We don’t want to rush through our first drafts, unthinking, to the point that the editing ends up being a ridiculous amount of work. We want to strive to write quality with every sentence – but, I find, that the key is writing those sentences *quickly*. Once they’re down on the paper, don’t give yourself the chance to fuss about them too much right away. Go back and fix them up in your pass the next day.

  6. @Linda: Yep, definitely easier. I think we go through several stages in our growth as writers. We start in blissful oblivion, having fun and writing junk. Then we start learning the ropes, and that period is more stressful and less fun as we try to assimilate all this knowledge and wangle it into our stories. Then, finally, we reach a (semi-)stage of mastery, in which we know enough to actually make the process *easier* as well as making our work better.

    And, then, I suspect, we rinse and repeat the learning and mastery stages ad infinitum.

  7. Thank you, Kathryn!
    You pegged me on this one. I’ve been told the same thing, even by employers. I’ve had those moments when my writing simply flows but I have an innate tendency to not let it go. Good tips!

  8. It’s tough to let go of that obsessive-compulsive need for perfection. But it’s definitely worth the battle.

    • I so much right now as I am typing, I have a dead line before midnight, and it is terrifying feeling, I hate it! Well I suppose all will be good, and I will just go by with what I have now.
      Have a blessed evening….

      • K.M. Weiland says:

        Deadlines can be scary! I always like to try to get projects done as far ahead of their deadlines as possible. That doesn’t always work, of course, but it does make life a little less stressful sometimes.

  9. This could not have come at a better time. It’s as though you’re psychic and knew I needed to read this :).

    I started the first draft of book 2 in my trilogy 3 weeks ago (book 1 is in my editor’s hands right now, and I thought I’d get a jump start on the sequel while I was waiting for her feedback–I needed something to keep me busy, right? :)), and confession time: I thought I would fly through this draft.

    I had a detailed outline, a detailed synopsis, I knew this world and its people much, much better than I did when I first sat down to write book 1, and yet… It’s slow going. Now part of it is because I struggle with beginnings–I struggled with it in book 1, too–but I think there’s also a large portion of my writing paralysis that is due to everything you described here. And the pressure isn’t even coming from readers, it’s coming from myself. I haven’t released book 1 yet, so I don’t have a built-in audience to potentially let down (although I have already begun my pre-launch marketing, so I’m starting to feel a little bit of pressure from the anticipation people already have–a great problem to have, but it is still a form of pressure :)).

    I love your advice here, though. I have to keep reminding myself over and over and over (and over) that first drafts are supposed to be messy and don’t always make sense or fit together properly. And they certainly don’t look or sound pretty. But it is where your story finally comes to life from the bones of the outline. That’s easy to forget, especially when you’ve been heads down in revision mode for several weeks/months.

    Time to gently urge my inner critic back into her little room and leave her some jigsaw puzzles to play with while I write this darn thing :).

  10. The inner critic is ultimately a *good* thing. It helps us grow and it keeps us from settling for less than great. But all things in moderation! Comes a point where too much criticism is just too much, no matter the source. Writing is hard work, but if we’re not having more fun than not, we need to stop and ask ourselves, “Why?”

  11. Wise words :). I totally agree, at some point, there is such a thing as too much criticism, and if it does tip the scales towards dread vs. fun, it’s gone too far. Pushing ourselves to excel is a worthy endeavor, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of your passion for the thing you love in the first place.

  12. This is exactly where I have stalled recently with my ms. I couldn’t articulate what was happening, but now that I’ve read this, it’s clear. I need to get out of my head. I miss talking to my characters, and that was when I had fun with my story. Now all that runs through my head is – am I really going in the right direction? Are my characters true? Is the plot clear and subtle enough? Ugh. So many questions. They’re getting in the way. Time to blast through this block and finish the draft. Thank you for posting!

  13. @Jennifer: Most of the time I feel incredibly blessed to be able to do what I love for a living. But there are days when I wake up and wonder if I’m killing my love for a buck. It’s a valuable question to consider periodically. Always know why you’re doing what you’re doing.

    @Heart: A writer’s gut is rarely wrong about a story. The trick is getting in tune with our subconscious enough to decipher what it’s telling us. If there’s too much chatter going on upstairs, it can be difficult to hear through the static.

  14. I guess sometimes it is just not so easy to let it flow, but i my experience you are right: that´s what editing is for. If we´re stopping at each word we´re never goign to read the goal (those fabulous words “the end”).

    Thanks for the great post!

    M.

  15. The only reason (thus far) that I overthink my first drafts is because I haven’t given enough thought to them in the first place (i.e., no working outline). When I start backing myself into plot holes that need fixing, I start thinking too much. I really need to learn to outline better….

  16. Question for you: How do you see this advice in light of the process you describe in your outlining book? There, you advocate for plotting over pantsing, so does a Rough Draft have as much “discovery” for you as it might for the pantser?

    The reason I ask is that I just took a class where the professor had use the following process:
    First, light plotting (general idea of plot points, nothing too firm)
    Second, NaNoWriMo-esque pantsing draft, beginning to end, no going backwards to revise. The story usually decides it has a mind of its own and the end looks nothing like the beginning.
    Third, Hard-core plotting using the pantsing draft, culminating in a long synopsis.
    From there, Draft 2 and so on.

    The NaNoWriMo style pantsing helped me discover the story I actually want to write, but it’s not the story I wrote. I figured out who my protagonist actually *was* at the 45K out of 50K word mark, which meant that I spent the few weeks I had to work out my synopsis for class doing some intense plotting for a story that I hadn’t actually written.

    Not that I regret the 50K words – they were good to write. But it doesn’t seem to me like this is what your first drafts look like. Am I right?

  17. What I learned from NaNoWriMo (which I started doing in 2006) is to let my first drafts be bad. I keep to my outline only roughly or vaguely, throw various inspired things in, finish the draft, avoid it for a week at least, and straighten things out in the edit stage when I start correcting things, revising and reinstating the outline, and flinging scenes around. That put an end to over a decade of writer’s block, since before then I too overthought my first drafts to a debilitating degree. And so in the middle of JulNoWriMo 2010, the story I’d been stuck on since 1992 finally started coming out. And of course I learned the technique, long before I discovered NaNo, under the name “rapid writing”. It saved my sanity.

    Now back to pulling my hair out over the fifth draft… ;)

  18. I’ve been guilty of over-thinking! I’ve learned to write it out and don’t look back. That works for me!

  19. I know I’m over-thinking this second book but I’m between a rock and a hard place. The book was essentially written, and then I decided to turf half of it out and write an additional two sub-plots instead. So I’m having to be creative and analytical at the same time. I’m getting there, but… it’s so much harder than book 1.

  20. @Meryl: It’s hard to edit words that aren’t there. If we can just get them onto the page, then at least we’ll have something to work with.

    @Liberty: Definitely such a thing as under-thinking too. :p If we’ve done the groundwork with an outline, then we have that much more freedom to dive into that first draft without needing to slow down every other paragraph to make sure we’re on the right track. Write the outline, then trust it.

    @Rhonda: I enter my first drafts with a very detailed outline (as per what you’re seeing me describe in Outlining Your Novel). I know what’s going to happen in every scene, and I’m rarely surprised by “big” events in the story. Some people find this amount of planning crippling, but I find it freeing. Since I already know what’s supposed to happen, all I have to worry about in the first draft is bringing it to life through narration, description, and dialogue. If I *didn’t* have an outline, I would either have to treat my first draft as my outline (in the sense that it’s where I’m throwing ideas out there and discovering what the story is about), or I would have to slow down and put much more effort into thinking it through. So, in short, even though I’m writing my first drafts quickly and without too much obsessive thought, the first draft will still usually turn out very cohesive and close to the finished product (in terms of plot and character), thanks to the outline.

    @Dennis: Giving ourselves permission to write bad first drafts can be wonderfully liberating. However, I will note that just because we’re relinquishing “over-thought” in our first drafts doesn’t mean they *have* to be bad. The first draft I’m writing right now – which is the first I’ve written in a while without over-thinking my process – is also, I feel, one of the most solid first drafts I’ve written in a long time.

    @Julie: Finding sanity and success as a writer is all about identifying the processes that work best for each of us. There is no magic pill or “right” answer. There is only, “this works and this doesn’t.”

    @acflory: Yes, sometimes those intensive rewrites can be tougher even than the first draft. I find that if I can employ my analytic mind in planning (in essence, outlining) the necessary changes, I can then unleash my creative mind once again in actually writing them.

  21. Great article! I struggle with overthinking sometimes myself. Trying not to do that anymore or edit while I’m typing. lol

  22. Our subconscious is usually a better writer than out conscious anyway.

  23. You described one of my worst writing flaws down pat! I needed to hear this. I do have one more tip to add, though; If you find yourself stuck, without that bubbling creativity needed to just let go and write spontaneously, one of the best things you can do is read a really good book to get your creative juices going, and they will overflow so much that they will block out the voice of the inner editor for awhile (at least, I have found that to be true). :) I am SO in the mood to write, and guess what has just pulled me out of my recent slump? I just finished, for the first time, a fantastic book by the name of Dreamlander. :) :) :) :) REALLY pumped up my writing desires. :)

  24. Great tip! And I’m so glad you enjoyed Dreamlander! *insert Snoopy dance here*

  25. When I first started writing, I was an over-thinker, and ending up hating the first story I wrote because of it. However, now I’m much better at this. I’m not saying I never over-think now; some writing days are ruined because I can’t move past one little word or sentence or thought. For the most part, though, I’ve learned to put my head down and plow through, knowing I can worry about the mistakes and continuity later. I’ve also noticed that as I learn more about writing, and as I worry less about what’s coming out in the first draft, I write better – grammatically, thoughtfully, fluidly.
    My main thing I have had to train myself to do also is not think about it AFTER I’ve written it. I take a few days and then come back if I really want to fix something. Otherwise, I’ll feel discouraged and beat myself up about a “stupid story” when in fact I’ll just need to change a thought here or there to make everything flow again :)

  26. Time is such an important ingredient in a good story. We’re rarely objective enough to identify either the virtues or the flaws in a story right away. It takes time for us to be able to judge our stuff – so why put ourselves through the trauma of judging it too early anyway?

  27. “Write a paragraph. Read it. Think about it. Obsess about word choice. Obsess about how the characters are coming across. Fuss about thematic implications. Drive self crazy. Rewrite paragraph. Sit and stare at screen.”

    That describes my former self to a tee. It has been a hard road to put my left brain editor out to lunch, and allow myself to just sit and write, to let words flow onto the page without stopping to change them or try to make them better as soon as they appear. However, it is doable and so rewarding.

    It wasn’t until I let my creative right brain go crazy and gave it ultimate freedom to write whatever it wanted, that I was able to finally get a complete first draft finished. Now I can finally let my left brain back out to play.

  28. It is absolutely doable. That’s the important thing to keep in mind. If we can discipline ourselves to sit down at the keyboard every day, then we have what it takes to shut off the uber-critical side of our brains for a few hours.

  29. Guilty as charged, lol. I’m finishing the outline for my first draft and I already feel myself over thinking. It’s been years since I’ve written, so it feels kind of clunky and weird. I put a lot of pressure on myself. I want it to be right, right away. My husband keeps telling me to stop thinking and write; that’s what editing is for.

  30. Husband is right. Don’t over-pressure yourself. It has just the opposite of the desired effect.

  31. Hi K.M.

    This has to be me as I over-think everything else in my life. But even though I probably do over-think to a certain degree, I don’t let it stop me from writing. If I’m really struggling I’ll just push on through the problem until things are resolved.

  32. Pushing through is the best (and, in some instances, only) solution. If can do that, the book will get written every single time.

  33. Wow, I really needed to read this right now. I’m falling into that trap too–after editing the heck out of my agented novel and making it all shiny and “perfect” (for now), I went back to my WIP and groaned. I also made the mistake of getting critiques before I was completely done with the novel; I’d never tried that before and won’t do it again. It makes me focus on the mistakes and flaws too much, and it’s discouraging.

    Anyway, thanks for the encouragement to get back to the right-brained joy and creativity of a first draft!

  34. Like you, I had to learn the hard way that I do not work well with criticism while the first draft is still under construction. I tried that only once – and it killed the project. Never again. I always finish and polish the first draft before letting anyone else look at it.

  35. I’m writing my first novel and haven’t finished the first draft. It’s been four years. I’m over-thinking it, I know. But it’s difficult to press on when you know your story currently sucks.

  36. The great thing about writing is that we can always edit. But we can’t edit it until we have something on paper. Finish the first draft, then give yourself all the time you need to go back and fix it.

  37. First drafts can be extremely difficult. It’s so hard to just turn off our internal editors and just write the book from beginning to end. Not to mention if you are a discovery writer and don’t really plan out what you are going to write exactly, it can be very hard to get into the groove and actually figure out exactly what’s going to happen. Sometimes I personally think up really good ideas and write awesome beginnings, but after 10,000 words I wonder where in the world I’m supposed to take it after that. But writers must press on!

    Check out my blog at writingoncreativewriting.com :)

  38. I’ll admit this is exactly why I love outlines so much. I waste so much time figuring out a story if I try to write it without knowing where I’m going. I’m able to be much less critical of my first drafts simply because the plot is mostly ironed out already.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Weiland’s thoughts on Are You Over-Thinking Your First Draft?, along with Margot’s characteristically insightful post Even the Best Fall Down Sometimes  are […]

  2. […] here I was, listening to a few of her podcasts one day and I came across Are You Over-Thinking Your First Draft? I know it was focused on actually writing, but it made me wonder. I remembered my first update when […]

  3. […] Since I can’t find the clay-analogy-article, here is an equally useful one about writing the first draft first. […]

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