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 is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. 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 🙂

  2. 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?

  3. “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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

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

  7. 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.

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

  9. 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!

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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 🙂

  14. 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.

  15. venkatasu says

    Hi Weiland Is it a typo in your article?

    First drafts are our agony and our ecstasy. This where our glistening ideas spill onto the page.

    “This is where our glistening ideas spill onto the page. ” Why “is” is missing?
    Is it a typo error or correct usage?

  16. Yup, exactly. I’m a great reader and a great editor – which is why I’m having trouble moving into author mode. I start correcting before I’ve even finished the sentence!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I find it helpful to remember that different parts of my brain are necessary for different parts of the story. Conception is right-brained (creative); outlining is left-brained (logical); writing is right-brained; editing is left-brained.

  17. You are right. The thought of publishing the novel just makes us over think. It happens to me quite often, like these days, even after having an opening I am satisfied of and a clear ending in my mind. I can’t seem to muddle with middle. Even though it is in outlining process. Everything I think of is suddenly rejected by my left brain. 🙁
    But now, slowly and painfully, I am learning and trying to reject that part of me.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Just write for you. Don’t worry about what other people think (plenty of time for that when they start *telling* you what they think). Just enjoy this process.

      • Yeah! In this particular field, the process is more rewarding than actual rewards. (although haven’t got to the point of actual rewards; but you know, gut feeling)
        Otherwise, why would established writers still be agonizing over a blank sheet of paper every now and than. They would simply go to Bahamas and drink Pina Colada (still at awe why that drink is so famous, but…)

  18. I came googling for help with my first draft. It’s my second project. After a short, an outline and a treatment I thought I was all set to fly through my first perfect draft. It’s been massively demoralising to experience the opposite. I feel I’m just typing up the treatment but then realising it’s not feeling right. Fortunately I realised much of what you’ve spoken about. Allowing myself more freedom and to stop fussing and reworking over and over. After all the story isn’t weitten until it’s written. Now I’m careening towards a first draft and letting my planing guide me and not worrying about using the best words unless they want to come out. And guess what the freer I am the better the writing!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Crazy how that works, isn’t it? You’d think the looser we write, the worse the writing. But it’s definitely been my experience that the opposite is true.

  19. Thanks for this advice Katie. This very thing is my achiles heal. I must write this next book without overthinking. I’m challenging myself right now to JUST WRITE! (It seems impossible to me…)

  20. YoungAuthor says

    Great post! Now, I’m a lot more confident in writing my very first first draft. Thanks so much!

Trackbacks

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  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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