Are You Over-Thinking Your First Draft?

Are You Over-Thinking Your First Draft?

First drafts are our agony and our ecstasy. This is 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 IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and 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. Joe Dougan says:

    I needed this so badly. Thanks so much. This is exactly what has been holding me back.

    I only wish I had an externally imposed deadline. So far the only things that work for me are Write-or-Die (a program which makes me write too fast to worry about editing), or simply getting excited about an idea, and sometimes music can get me into a artistic mood.

  2. Michael King says:

    This has given me the courage to just go for it and not give an f. I just really love fine tuning a scene. Gotta let it go!

  3. Probably the most important lesson for new writers and you’ve covered it very well.

  4. What if you share your rough draft with a friend and they say uh, it’s very clunky, there’s lots of ideas but no story, it’s just a sketch, what you’re trying to write has way more complex scenes and characters than your writing ability. You take a break before going further and try writing something else for a week?

    What do you do then? Just keep it up or does that totally deflate you and trigger a writers block? That’s what is happening with me right now.

  5. Sarah Gabor says:

    Hi K.M. Weiland! It’s nearly the end of NaNoWriMo, and I still haven’t been able to get my first draft of my first-ever novel to just come to me, so to speak. I read your post and listened to the podcast probably 3 times, and have decided I am over-thinking my writing. Unfortunately, my mom said over-thinking is common and I just need to write. Any ideas on how to just buckle down and just let the words come pouring out? I just can’t seem to get going.
    –Sarah

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The thing that I’ve found most helpful when in that mindset is setting short time goals. For instance, what I’ve found works for me is writing 300 words every fifteen minutes. It’s doable, keeps me typing rather than overthinking, but also lets me take quick breaks, catch my breath, and check how I’m doing.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Are You Over-Thinking Your First Draft? – Helping Writers Become Authors […]

  2. […] be counterproductive, know that the looming threat is a great motivator if you need to sit down and churn out a lot of text without overthinking […]

  3. […] perfectionism is good. A big dose is radically counterproductive. As I’ve written about before, my perfectionism has dug me into way too many holes over the course of my writing career. It’s made me obsess over every little word choice in my […]

  4. […] 12. 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. K.M. Weiland, Are You Over-Thinking Your First Draft? […]

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