7 Steps to Stop Overthinking Your Writing

It’s a question I’ve received countless times from readers over the years—and one I’ve found myself asking of late as well: How do you stop overthinking your writing?

Writers are often known as thinkers. Indeed, we’re often proud of the connotation. We spend a lot of time in our heads. We love to read. We research like we love it (because we do). And we know a lot (though usually not quite as much as we think we do).

However, thinking and writing—especially creative writing such as storytelling—can sometimes seem strangely out of balance. As much as writers may identify as thinkers, we usually prefer the actual act of writing to be less about thinking and more about flowing.

What we’re talking about is “thinking” in the sense of active and logical thinking. Naturally, we are thinking when the words are flowing, but in those moments it often seems less that we are thinking the thoughts and more that the thoughts are thinking us. When we take too much control, it ceases to work that way.

And that’s a problem—because the more a writer learns about how to write and how stories work, the more conscious our thinking becomes. Sometimes this reaches the crisis where writing becomes a lot of work simply because we are doing all the work. We’re the ones doing all the thinking, rather than just being the conduit and letting the thoughts think us.

Susan Geiger recently messaged me on Patreon about this all-too-common conundrum:

I have a problem, a serious one: I am too serious. I love writing and stories in general. However, I have thought so much about plot development, character arcs, theme, story structure, etc., that I’m a bit uptight when I write. I have effectively zapped the joy out of it. I am so tense when I write and put so much pressure on myself that my serious attitude has leaked into the writing itself, leaving the story utterly humorless. If you have any advice on how to relax and lighten up in writing again, I would greatly appreciate it.

Not long after, I received a similar email from David Fraser:

Have noticed my tendency to over-complicate. Overthink. Maybe you would consider writing a post…

I figured I better write the post! If nothing else, maybe I’ll learn a thing or two myself. 😉

7 Important Transformations to Stop Overthinking Your Writing

I love thinking. I love it just as much in its own right as writing. But it does have a tendency to run away with itself and become overthinking. One my favorite ditties, gleaned from a Facebook meme years ago:

If you’re happy and you know it, overthink.

If you’re happy and you know it, overthink.

If you’re happy and you know it, then your brain will surely blow it—overthink!

We can easily find many tips and tricks for seeking inspiration and powering through writer’s block. Most, however, are quick prescriptions aimed to overcome the symptoms rather than the ailment itself. In reality, the problems of overthinking your writing are both the result of and a contribution to the larger challenge of living a creative life—particularly in what is an adamantly head-oriented culture.

I have given much thought to this over the years (the irony of which is not lost…). As I’ve written about elsewhere, I know I have a lot of journey left on this road. But in response to Susan and David’s query, here are some things I’m learning about how you can stop overthinking your writing.

1. Slay the Perfectionist

The logical brain wants things to be… logical. Logic, taken it its furthest extent, demands perfection. But perfection is only theoretical and therefore logically unobtainable. Still, we strive. Indeed, perfectionism is ingrained in the writing culture, stemming understandably from the desire to get a story “right” so it can be successfully published.

There is a balance here to be sure. We need our rational brains turned on in order to write, and certainly we need them in order to learn how to write well (see #5 below). But somehow the parasitic perfectionistic part of ourselves always figures out a way to burrow so deeply into our “logic” that we have a hard time thinking rationally without also striving for perfection.

The perfectionist—the inner critic—is in fact a great enemy of the creative storyteller. After all, stories themselves are tales of our imperfections. Our words and our pages are where we capture all the messiness of our lives. Only in embracing that messiness can we be truly creative.

2. Resurrect the Child

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been saying “stories are my language.” But that’s not strictly true. Stories were the language of my child self. But, no, even that is not quite true. Stories were the lived experience of my child life. I didn’t tell stories. I lived them. I was always inside a story.

I only started writing because at some point in my early teens, I wanted to record some of my favorites so I wouldn’t forget them. The irony is I have forgotten my stories—my true stories—precisely because I started writing them down and then became obsessed (albeit joyfully obsessed) with understanding the principles of storytelling and writing.

The child self doesn’t care about rules, doesn’t care about impressing others, certainly doesn’t care about being a commercial success. In stark contrast to the perfectionist’s mentality of scarcity, the child creates from an endless well of personal abundance.

Creating back then wasn’t about “making writing a job” or laboring at sentence structure or striving for original ideas. Creating in childhood was about having fun. When you start overthinking your writing, the fun slips away. And when the fun comes back? The overthinking stops.

3. Reprogram the Ego

I think the ego gets a bad rap. We need it. It’s our interface with the world. It helps us survive, helps us communicate with others, helps us fit in or stand out, helps us get stuff done. But I daresay all of us have gotten some bad code in there somewhere. And the ego is single-minded. It’s going to run that code all day every day and twice on Sundays—if we let it.

I like to envision my ego as the little cleaner robot “Mo” in Pixar’s Wall-E. Like Mo, it valiantly and obsessively pursues the job it’s been given—and gets very frustrated when it’s knocked off course. But at some point its very durability causes it to become outmoded. That’s when I have to stop letting it run on autopilot, take it into the shop, and update its programs beyond 1.0.

In this Age of the Internet, writers have been given the incredible opportunity to become successful entrepreneurs. But when we plug this opportunity (along with our perfectionism) into the ego, it has a tendency to whir right into workaholicism and/or paralysis. Once again, this is often driven by a scarcity/fear mentality.

Ego work is deep work, but learning to find and reprogram outdated or corrupted code can free us up from the fear that often prompts overthinking.

4. Enthrone Your Artist

When I first started writing down my childhood stories, the page was simply an extension of the stage upon which I played out my stories 24/7. But at some point, as my life became less and less embodied and more and more exclusively mental, I started playing less and thinking more. The more I enthroned my Thinker in all other areas of my life, the harder it became to switch modes when writing time rolled around.

Lately, I  have realized that to be able to bring that true flow of creativity to my time at the page, I must live in that flow. Indeed, however much I may identify as a writer and think of stories as my creative outlet, my creativity does not have to solely express through my writing.

My writing is not my art. My life is my art.

Every moment is an opportunity for creativity—if we let it flow. We must retrain ourselves—to get out of our heads, to get into our bodies, to experience our five senses, to push past the anxiety into joy. Our creativity contributes to every moment.

Jane Friedman had a great point in her e-letter a few months ago about how even making your bed is an act of creativity—because we do it to make our lives more beautiful. And yet how many of us really think of it that way? We tend to associate making the bed with chores or adulting or avoiding criticism. But is that really why we do it? It certainly doesn’t have to be why we do it.

5. Honor Your Logician

None of this is to suggest our rational, thinking, logical brains aren’t important—especially in our writing. Writing well is as much a craft as an art. Indeed, the craft of writing is a delight in itself. Most of us come to appreciate the glories of the theories and techniques we study. Indeed, part of the reason we end up overthinking may well be (*raises hand*) because we love thinking about writing. Certainly our inner logician has the ability to offer untold help in improving our communication skills on the page.

We must honor our inner logicians. But it’s best if we can also learn to keep them in the classroom. They are there to teach us, to bring consciousness to our rough skills. But by their very nature, they are thinkers not doers. The doing belongs to a different part of us. We must take the lessons our logicians teach us within our mental classrooms and then leave the classrooms to go play in the real world, to get our hands dirty, to see what we can create.

Just because we honor and love our logicians does not mean they get to follow us around, offering commentary on everything we do.

6. Reclaim Your Hunter

As I’ve struggled mightily these last few years with being, as Susan said at the beginning of the post, too serious in my writing, I’ve realized only recently that it’s because I’ve run out of material. My child self was a hunter and seeker of stories. She went on adventures every day and came back with more ideas than she could ever write. For a long time, my adult self has been living on the waning remnants of that childhood wealth.

I know enough about stories to think of good plots, characters, etc. But I miss the riches of natural inspiration. I don’t want to think up stories. I want to discover them. I want adventures like I used to have.

And yet the adventures that used to be so easy can somehow begin to seem perilous as time goes on—or at least like a lot of work. Indeed, I think that may be the crux of the dilemma: we think creativity should always be as effortless as it was in the beginning. Because it came so easily when we were young or just starting out with our writing, we don’t realize that creativity only emerges when we achieve and maintain certain balances in our lives. Balance requires discipline. And the further out of balance we are—the more our thinking brains have tyrannized over our creative selves—the more discipline it takes to recreate the circumstances we may once have taken for granted.

7. Listen to Your Heart

The head and the heart don’t always communicate with each other. The head talks such a good spiel that sometimes the heart gets convinced to take a backseat in spite of itself. This can look like many things—from writing to the market instead of the stories we’re truly passionate about, to simply doubting our favorite scenes in light of “proper” technique.

But the heart won’t be denied forever. If it doesn’t get to write what it wants, what it loves, how it wants to write, then it will leave you and your head to your own devices—and sooner or later that turns out to not be nearly as much fun.

Now, of course, the heart doesn’t always lead us to fun and joy. Sometimes what the heart most wants us to write about are stories that are far more difficult than those the head so rationally proposes. But the thing the heart brings that the head (bless it) does not is our life’s blood—purpose, meaning, passion. The head can have its say later during revisions. But when we sit down to write, it’s the heart we should be checking in with: “I’m ready. Are you?”

***

In summary: What I’m learning is that combating overthinking is less about turning the brain off and more about turning everything else on. It’s about leaving the desk, leaving the computer, leaving the Internet (God help us). It’s about seeing, hearing, touching, tasting—with both our outer and inner senses. It’s about remembering how to live every bit as fully as we used to, so we can dream every bit as fully as we used to.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Do you ever struggle to stop overthinking your writing? Why do you think this is? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in Apple Podcast or Amazon Music).

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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. Timely as ever 😉 You always seem to post about what I’m struggling with. Of course, now I’m going to go on an internet deep-dive to research how to reprogram my ego… lol

  2. Thank you for this! I am a dreadful over thinker, and I really appreciate the reminder, this morning, to get out of my head. I’ve been tying myself in knots today about everything I want to get done this week before Thanksgiving (my arbitrary, self-imposed deadline) as well as writing. It is nice to think that digging up the last of the potatoes and scrubbing the kitchen floor can be considered art, and maybe even valuable research. (After all, story people eat potatoes sometimes too…)

    • Louis Schlesinger says

      Great post, Katie. I think the “aha” revelation is about not deactivating our rationality but activating the other attributes that make us human.

      I used to design and start up mineral processing plants. It embodies many of the rational skills a writer employs – production goal & quality targets (premise), strategy (outlining), key unit operations (big moments/plot points), process control plan (character development), etc. And then troubleshooting (editing) when all components don’t mesh as planned. And more troubleshooting. And more. Then it finally all comes together and fills a need (payoff).

      I never designed a perfect plant, although each functioned more elegantly, with fewer hiccups, than the one which preceded it.
      Except, to your point, writing is harder. Much harder. Because a mineral processing plant doesn’t have to connect to a consumer’s brain and provide a vicarious, emotional experience like the stories we long to tell. It requires mind melding and empathy, combined with logic. No pump in any plant I helped build could outperform the heart in volume pumped per unit weight.

      I think many of us read your blog and share our thoughts because our quest to write *successfully* feels Tolkienesque. To not write is to die.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        @Louis: “Our quest to write *successfully* feels Tolkienesque. To not write is to die.”

        Oh wow. So true.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Honestly, the image that comes to mind in regard to digging up potatoes and scrubbing the floor is quite a lovely one. 🙂

  3. Guilty as charged. My lifetime career as an engineer predisposes me to overthinking. I try hard to be a mix first of a planner, and then a pantzer. My latest book has degenerated into excessive planning. This post gives me a kick in the pants butt to loosen up. Thanks.

    By the way, your profile shows you in Scottsbluff. I am a few miles west in Denver, Colorado. Hello neighbor.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I hear you. As I contemplate where I want to go with my fiction in the coming New Year, I am wondering if perhaps what I really *need* to do is not writing itself but a focus on refilling my inspiration well. On the one hand, that feels right and fun. On the other hand, the idea of not actively pursuing productivity is massively triggering! I suppose that probably means I should do it. 😉

      • A fellow writer in my writing group is a lawyer, and he often includes far too meticulous detail, leaving little for readers to create on their own. Then he invariably redeems himself with a closing paragraph or sentence that impels readers to continue – not necessarily a cliff-hanger, but still a distinct driving force. I can ignore the overwriting when I have such a model of closing to emulate.

  4. Eric Troyer says

    I really enjoy meditation because it gives you an opportunity to become more aware of your thinking and come to terms with it. I used to overthink things, but do that much less now. Besides writing, it also helps with music. Not to mention life in general.

  5. I love this post, but the main thing that gets in the way of my flow is thinking about the real world. I try to write every day, but some days the pandemic and other current events follow me into my writing world. I feel so much anxiety that I almost feel paralyzed.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I hear you. To the degree you’re able, I highly recommend limiting media consumption. The more rigorously I’ve done this in my life, the commensurately happier I am.

      • True dat on the media. I’ve eliminated TV from my apartment. All I have is ROKU and my DVD’s. I DO NOT miss the TV at all. I have had TV for close to a year now.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Same here. I only plug in the antennae for the Super Bowl. :p

          • I read news every morning. 🙁 I’m actually feeling much better today, but I think I’m going to try to have some news-free days. I have this weird social justice thing where I feel like I have to bear witness to horrible things, but I definitely need to back off.

  6. Karen Blakeley says

    Funny, I have been thinking about this theme all day (and all week). I have always been far too serious and this shows in the first novel I am writing. In fact I got this feedback and I was devastated – it’s so true, of me and my novel!!! So I have invented ‘Pixie’. Pixie lives inside me as a ‘guide’ or even a ‘sub-personality’. She is teaching me how to live more creatively and with greater spontaneity. I rewrote my first chapter, following a bit advice from Pixie, and the energy that came through was amazing. By the way, I may sound mad but I am boringly sane 🙂

  7. This post came at the right moment for me. I hit a bump in my WIP and I’ve been re-reading how-to books, making diagrams and puzzling over my outlines, but not writing. I need to unwind and now I know why.

  8. Oh, wow! I sometimes fall into this, and then realize I need to step back and let the Muse iron out the wrinkles (letting the thoughts think me, as you aptly put it). it doesn’t happen often, but I know we are all subject to it at one time or another. This post is a keeper, and I’ll be sharing it with my writing group.

  9. In addition, I think you are telling us that when dancing with our writing, to let our hearts lead, not our heads.

  10. When I’m overthinking I find that my work often becomes clever, too clever. To ground it, I get outside and revisit the places I’ve elected to write about in my stories. If that requires a road trip, so much the better! Thanks for your post.

  11. It’s about balance.

    I use my right brain to develop the story. I use my left brain to map it out (i.e., outline). I use my right brain to flesh out the outline. I use my left brain to review and edit my musings. Back and forth until I feel I’m done with it. At least that is how I think it is supposed to be…

    However, that being said, after reading all your blogs and buying your books (and others), I can say that I feel, as they say, I am over-egging the pudding. It’s good to have the understanding of the mechanics, but after a time I need to step back and look at the broader picture.

    I’m at a point where I am not sure if what I have been doing is good or bad and I need someone with a skilled set of eyes to review my efforts to see if I am on the right path or have I veered over the edge.

    That internal nagging voice sows nothing but doubt.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “I use my right brain to develop the story. I use my left brain to map it out (i.e., outline). I use my right brain to flesh out the outline. I use my left brain to review and edit my musings. Back and forth until I feel I’m done with it. At least that is how I think it is supposed to be…”

      This is exactly how I’ve always viewed it.

      Beta readers are great for offering that needed objectivity. Sometimes the nagging doubt isn’t accurate. It’s helpful if you can identify exactly *what* you’re doubting. If it’s something you can fix, then you can fix it. But if it *is* just a doubt, then realizing that can help you move on.

      • Thanks, I agree with beta readers helping with the writing.

        My doubt has less to do with prose and more to do with theme and structure. Many because my protagonist is no so much “living the lie”, but dragged into the stories conflict from the beginning. The complexity of her part in the plot (and its sequel) make it difficult to follow “the lie versus the need” arc—I think.

    • “That internal nagging voice sows nothing but doubt.”

      This. Exactly this.

      I know my story by heart, but when I sit down to write, I doubt that I can ever do it justice anywhere outside my head. Then I panic and don’t write. Or I avoid writing altogether. Overthinking just makes this problem worse.

      I need to get out of my own way and just write.

      • You will never do justice to a story you fail to write.

        Just do it. It won’t matter if it is not great. If it isn’t, do it again. It will be better.

        The more you write (and read), the better you get. Micheal Angelo’s first work of art wasn’t likely much. If he stopped there, the world would be deprived of something special. If you stop, so will you.

  12. I like this statement best: The head can have its say later during revisions. But when we sit down to write, it’s the heart we should be checking in with: Ken

  13. Yesssssss!!!!! It’s nice to know I am in such great company. Love to study, research and read about storycrafting, but it is definitely hard to turn off that critic when you want the creativity to flow.

    Great post, as usual!
    Kris

  14. I can so identify with listening to the critical voices in my life (especially my own :)). I long to go back to my days of improv in college. We had such a blast. Sure, we had seeds of ideas from current events and audience members but the fun came from storytelling in the moment.

    So, today my word picture is that writing is like fudge not concrete. Concrete requires all the forms and shapes to be in place before you pour the wet material into place. You scrape around the edges a bit to clean it up but then you let it sit there, trusting that the forms give you the desired final result.

    Ah, but fudge! Have you ever been to one of those fancy fudge shops where you can watch them making the stuff right there in front of you? They cook the butter and milk and sugar and flavors in a giant copper pot, stirring and stirring until the whole place smells of chocolate or cinnamon or peanut butter. When it reaches the proper consistency, they pour the thick liquid out onto a huge marble-top table that slowly leeches away the heat from the sauce. They walk around the table with big, wide paddles, keeping the fudge from oozing over the edge, folding it back in on itself as it thickens and begins to take its final form.

    All through the process of cooling and shaping you could take a taste of the fudge and get that delightful sweet sensation on your tongue. But at the end, the rich brick, thick enough to hold its shape, can be sliced and squared and enjoyed in small chunks because the flavor and texture are so intense and so smooth that just a little bit goes a long, long way.

    I have come to realize that my WIP has the basic story that I want to tell. It needs some reshaping, providing a little more context and foreshadowing to draw the reader into one of the two major story arcs. There are little tweaks in dialogue and description as I work my way through my revisions going from version 1.0 to 2.0. I’m learning about the kind of structure that helps my story as opposed to what would just turn it into a cookie cutter version of someone else’s idea. I’m also learning that I am still a very young writer.

    So, Happy Thanksgiving, all. Katie, you and your blog are one of the things that I am thankful for this year. I have learned some wonderful things here and there are more to come! Journey on, young warrior. The paths through the storyverse are many and varied and beautiful and intense. And I’m pretty sure they have places for some really good food along the way. 😀

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Of course, the problem with fudge is that you might get tempted into eating it all before you finish shaping it. 😉

      Thanks for the kind words! I am certainly thankful for you and all the other Wordplayers out there too!

      • Well, in the writing/fudge analogy, eating would correspond to reading the story. Sounds like you might still be struggling with the scarcity mindset there. Fudge for everyone! 😛

  15. So true. Turn everything else back on, or maybe turn on what wasn’t turned on before. I always go back to 2008-10 when one major event after another shattered my life. It culminated in my having an appointment with death and being pulled back in the ER hours short of making that appointment. Years of recovery followed.

    In the aftermath, my creative self has flourished. Yes, it’s as if in the midst of all the changes and gasping for air that wasn’t there, that all my “off” switches were turned to “on.” I have to barricade my door to keep story ideas out. If I allowed them in I’d be reduced to creative paralysis. Me, the woman who dreaded the mere thought of revising, now launches into revising with a smile. Each moment is relishing every step in the process. Some of it might be because I’m older, and certainly some of it is because I was given a second chance, but with each passing week writing is becoming more fun.

    Because of my lung damage I’ve been in lockdown since March 18th. I’ve watched little video, consumed more books, and been productive beyond my wildest imaginings. This is what rediscovering (or discovering for the first time) the fun in writing looks like. Your post captured it and only made me more grateful for each moment. Thank you.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This is an amazing story! Very sorry about your health struggles, but what a triumphant return. 🙂

  16. Theresa Aikens says

    I am always overthinking. :/ Overthinking is my biggest weakness I do believe.

  17. KM, WOW! It’s like you wrote this article/blog TO ME, for everybody else’s benefit. Because of the way I lived my childhood, of course I’d end up a perfectionist. I must learn to turn off that perfectionism in my writing. I’m guilty of all your seven points at one time or the other. I have rewritten my opening five times because if I’ve learned one thing, I’ve learned that the opening is the most important part of the book. But it has been at a fairly high cost – time. As a perfectionist, it is extremely hard to write something that isn’t perfect. Many times I’ve had to literally quit writing and holler, “STOP it!” You ought to see a page of writing. It looks like a road map, what with all the margin side notes, arrows, cross-outs, additions, and, and, and, and ad infinitum. Many times times I get lost in the arrows. LOL. So thanks for this post. It is uncanny that whatever I seem to be struggling with, I head for your site and “BAM,” there’s a post that speaks to the problem. You and Jerry Jenkins are my go-to help. I’ve gone through his Novel Blue Blueprint Course and learned a lot. It is where I learned of you and your site. I have a number of your books on writing and structure. Anyway, I like how Jerry has the capacity to write one day and edit the next. I am trying hard to follow that regimen, but I am getting better at it. One final comment, I take my writing seriously, NOT THAT OTHERS DON’T, believe me. So I join others herein who take their writing seriously as well. (Pro Writing Aid doesn’t like the two words “as well either.” But I think I’ll leave them in, this time. Sorry, for the long comment but I’m a writer, what can I say.” LOL. God bless.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I think there’s a high percentage of perfectionists among writers. For whatever reason, it seems to go with the territory. But the good news is we’re all in good company and can learn from each other’s experience. 🙂

  18. Thank God for this post! I haven’t been commenting on any of your posts, K.M., since I’ve been going crazy about this short story contest I’m entering for 2021. I’ve been super panicked when I try writing and I end up just scratching off every single idea. I know my stories aren’t that bad, but I want it to be perfect so so so much that I’m just going nuts!

    This helped so much. You have no idea. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Good luck in the contest! I’m sure whatever you write–whether it wins or not–will offer the rewards of new experiences and lessons learned.

  19. Wow, K.M. You really struck a chord with this post today!

  20. Wonderful, as always, KM. I relate, as I suspect most of us do, to the problem. I love the childhood analogy…which spoke to my heart. Section #3 on Ego? I have no idea what that means. I read it several times. I watched Wall-e. Still no light coming on in that regards and now… help me!… I am positive I can’t ‘get it’ because I am ‘overthinking’ it! LOL.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’m talking about the ego in the more classical sense (and I’m certainly no expert). These days, when we talk about “ego,” we often use it, rather incorrectly, as a reference to arrogance. Really, the ego is a (theorized) part of our psychological makeup which is often the most surface or personality-oriented. It’s the part of us that interacts with the world and, as such, often gets out of touch with other, deeper parts. It’s a fascinating study!

  21. Cindy OBanion says

    I feel like I overthink all the time because I just took my first writing class this year and my brain is overwhelmed by learning the craft. It’s hard to stay in creative mode when I worry if I’m making any progress with all the do’s and dont’s of storytelling.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The logical, thinking side *is* important to writing. Just take it slow and be kind to yourself. It can be overwhelming in the beginning, but it all starts to fall into place with time and experience.

  22. Wow! Thank you, Katie, for that link. I gobble that up now (pun intended). 🙂

  23. Hi KMW
    You got that in one!
    My ‘constipation’ (aka overthinking) comes in the editing phase where I read my flowing, creative stuff and begin overthinking structure etc.etc. I know there are whole sections that I should sacrifice but I get caught up in the small details. I sit there wondering whether if I just add a new sentence here, take that paragraph out, rewrite it – the list goes on. Even though Iove them, I really need to kill my darlings and get it over with.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I recommend a “graveyard file”–a document where you can stick your darlings, so you can try the story without them, but easily retrieve them if you change your mind.

  24. Having read a few of your books and others before setting out on my own path, I can’t help but think that you are toying with the idea that there is a trade off between focusing on the plan, the outline, and the plot and letting the story flow out of you without a fixed idea or intention of where it’s going and how it’s going to get there. When you tap into the flow do you trust where it takes you? Perhaps, after all these years of focusing on the plan and on the technique, you have realized that it reduces your capacity to tap into the flow of your stories that are waiting to be told.

  25. Though I haven’t left a comment in some time, I’m still listening to these diligently 🙂
    I just had to pop in to say this one really strikes a chord. You frame the problem so well here and I’m pretty sure it’s a struggle every creative faces in their journey, regardless of craft.
    Thanks for taking the time to both think and share about it with us!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Thanks for chiming in! 🙂 Yes, I rather tend to think that the creative life is a constant spiral revolving around an evermore integrated relationship between order and chaos/creativity, planning and flowing, logic and inspiration.

  26. In reading this I was struck by two things. First, some types of overthinking bare a striking resemblance to multi-tasking, which many people try to do, but doesn’t work very well and is a major contributor to workplace stress. It’s not a perfect comparison, frankly I find I need a little bit of my editor voice while I’m drafting lest the first draft be so mushy that it’s useless. Really, what I think I should strive for for is to make my different voices an orchestra, each pitching in when needed, and harmonizing, but not fighting for the spotlight. Theme voice, plot voice, structure voice, line-editor voice, drafting voice, all of these are valuable every step of the way. The quandary is how to find the conductor voice which makes the activity both fun and productive. You definitely have good thoughts about searching for the baton.

    Now that I’ve written that, my second observation seems less interesting – avoiding perfectionism comes down to accepting ourselves as imperfect children of God (or whatever mystical force brings you comfort).

    Thanks again Katie. I’m still not sure I have Curly engaged, and somewhat fearful he’s who has my conductor’s baton.

  27. Jim Lawrence says

    Thank you Katie, very helpful. I have a similar problem to Max in his comment, just above. I can sit down without even a character or much of a plot and just start blasting out words. And have been a writer for 30 years for magazines and am learning fiction’s a different pair of rollerblades altogether. I’ve written fiction along the way but the problem I have with free-flowing and just blasting words onto the page is that when I go back into the editing mode the left brain really goes nuts.
    I find this gets me to a point where I don’t trust my original instincts anymore, or I end up throwing so much out that I’m in danger of la-hoo za-hing the original heart and drive of the story, and my joy in writing it. It’s like my critic/editor becomes a little too or a lot too fine pointed about making it just “right”.
    I like the suggestion you made about a garbage file. Or whatever you called it. I use Scrivener which is an excellent program. And it has a snapshot feature where you can save different phases of your editing and re-examine and recall them at any time too. They’re always there in the corpus of the program.
    Still, and I really enjoyed your piece here today, it’s a dilemma for me to detect when I’m going over the exhaustion line and my brain is just spinning its wheels but I keep making changes and making changes and making changes. I don’t know whether to be more deliberate in the beginning, in other words to some degree have a loose working plot, or to just live with it and quit punishing myself for endlessly rewriting until I feel like I’ve got it right.
    I look back at stories or books I wrote in the 1980s for example and I see all kinds of “mistakes”. And I remember how hard I worked on them back then. Of course there is a lot to be said for seasoning as a human being and as a writer. But the hyper editing/perfectionism for me is the one trait that really savages my enthusiasm to keep going back at it day after day. It’s almost like never being able to be satisfied. I think that’s the biggest challenge I have in my writing.
    Now I’m gonna go back and edit this so it’s clear, ha ha!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I think you’ve highlighted why overthinking is such an endemic struggle for writers. At some point, we all end up in the throes of doubt and hyper-criticism of our own work. And that experience stinks. And we totally want to avoid it the next time around. So the overthinking in the editing phase may then turn into overthinking in the outlining or drafting stages.

      The key, as ever, is not to *avoid* thinking but to learn think accurately. I find that much of the angst in the editing phase is either because we don’t know what we’re doing or we don’t know that we *do* know what we’re doing. If we can get very clear about what is *actually* going on, it can be helpful in allowing our thinking to do its job without kicking unnecessarily into high gear.

      I talk about that some in this post: https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/thinking-clearly/

      • I find this argument fascinating…that when we revise, we don’t know what we’re doing, or we do.

        It brings to mind a story a docent at a museum related to us about a famed painter, Piet Mondrian, was it? who famously entered museums and retouched his paintings that were already hanging on display, and the curators would have to beg him to stop! But he knew what he was doing, constantly evolving his theme into a purity of line and balance, and he was never satisfied. Which reminds me of another story of a kindergarten art teacher whose students, all of them, turned out the most incredible pieces. She was interviewed on NPR years ago and the host asked her, what’s her secret? How did she get all of her students to create such magnificent work? She said, “I guess I just know when to take the paper and crayons away so they don’t wreck it.”

        I wonder if we employed a muse, like “Pixie” mentioned in a previous comment, if that would help us know when to stop revising/overthinking. We might let go before overthinking ruins the piece, or help us continue when we’ve barely started.

  28. How to restart the heart though? That’s what I’m struggling with. I’ve found lately (pre-COVID even) that writing hasn’t felt fun. I’ve been working hard to learn about structure, to polish and edit and try to publish – but doing that I think has led me away from the pure creativity (not to mention the fun of constant rejections). So I’ve slowly realized that my heart has left, like you said, and I’m not sure how to convince it to come back! Thanks for giving us a lot to think about!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Honestly, that’s what I’m working on too. Let me know when you figure it out. I’ll do the same! 😀

      For now though, the message that keeps coming through clearly to me is: Patience.

      I do not like this message, but there it is. :p

    • Hi Cecily, I hope it’s okay to jump in. A couple of years ago I had three really horrible reviews on GR. They were friends and I could see their ‘mean girl’ discussion as well as the reviews. It was humiliating and traumatic. I almost did something really stupid and I also stopped writing for about seven months. Then an author friend gave me a copy of Stephen Pressfield’s The War of Art. It’s excellent. It’ll get you back in the fight and doing what you love again. I hope this helps you. It literally saved my life.

  29. Reading your post leads me to look at the problem in a different way. I do agree that we can and do obsess to the point of stasis. A part of my brain always seems to be noodling over a question, subplot, or conversation in the story I’m working on. Sometimes it’s consciously, sometimes deeper. On the other hand, a number of your seven points seem to have some flavor of overthinking.

    It seems to me that a key to take advantage of overthinking is to use your suggestions to immerse ourselves into the world we are trying to expose. As you say, many of us put a lot of effort into outlines and world building. But so much more lives in our imagination than we can put down on paper. The detailed history of the universe we put together rolls around our subconscious.

    Story structure and craft are the physics and natural order that expose our story. But when I’m floundering, it helps to drop into my story and use those tools in kind of a virtual way to navigate the complexities around me. In other words, I try to watch what is happening and understand the underlying reasons.

    For example, it may be that the elderly Queen has a soft spot in her heart for the diplomat from a rival kingdom because he reminds her of a lover when she was young. That pushes her to a decision which leads to set of complications, and finally to war that destroys her realm. We may choose to include some of those incidents as beats in our story. But there are a complex set of dynamics behind each one that will never see the light of day.

    We, as authors, owe it to ourselves and our readers to delve into as many of those possibilities as we reasonably can. A masterful example is The Silmarillion by J. R. R. Tolkien (as well as his notes and unfinished works).

    I guess the point I’m trying to make is you are right on both points. Overthinking can become a big problem. It can also be a way to enhance our understanding of our work.

    By the way, this method might also be useful when we hit that mountain called writer’s block. Some random character or situation in our imaginary worlds may spur an idea to explore – maybe even unrelated to our current efforts. We might not choose to write it as a story, but I think that is where we can rediscover the fun.

    Be safe and Happy Holidays (as well as we can in these days of COVID).

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This is great, and I agree. I absolutely realize that in writing this post, it is a case of the blind trying to lead the blind. 😉

  30. Great post. I’m finding that the more I learn about the craft of writing, the more overthinking I’m doing: “Is this opening chapter good enough? Is there a great hook?” and on and on. Being an engineer, mathematician, and software geek, I’m predisposed to logic and overthinking. After self-publishing a historical fiction novel, I’m struggling to find the creativity need to launch a viable sequel. I’m thinking of turning to fantasy because as a former D&D dungeon master and RPG gamer, I find creating worlds to be a lot of fun. It’s where my heart is I guess. Am I overthinking again?!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I think (!) this is a very common experience among writers. We run on instinct for a bit, realize we need to learn some more, then become temporarily too dependent on our learnings, then balance out with the instinct again.

    • Tom

      From a fellow software, mathematics and engineering geek, its like when you really understand that a clean compile doesn’t mean that the program really works. Only after you have understood the goal of the program (and if you are smart, actually used your own code), then you are ready to improve the code. In writing terms, read your story and ask how you *as a reader* would feel about the story as written. I wouldn’t say that your concern for the effect on the reader is overthinking. Just engage your users for feedback early and often. And you qualify as a user in this scenario.

  31. Brilliant, brilliant article. Thank you. I write in the midst of a hurricane. The ideas flow, the words pour. But later, when I come back to edit, I find that this word isn’t quite right, or that comma is in the wrong place, or this sentence is way too long and needs to be broken up because it breaks all the rules. And suddenly, the hurricane has stopped, the storm has abated and there was nothing to say after all. Damn! I over-thought it out of existence.

  32. Felicia R Johnson says

    I’m so glad you wrote this and that I read it! I’ve read so much about the “rules of the road” when it comes to writing fiction that it scared me out of my journey. Now I feel I can start again and worry about any signs I missed later during revision.

    Thank you so much!

  33. Struggling with this a lot lately–or rather, dropped writing for a bit because the struggle was getting exhausting and interfering too much with the rest of life. I’ve learned a TON about story structure, character arcs etc in recent years but haven’t actually written much prose in that time, so I feel like although I know exactly what I want to write, I forgot how to do it. So I’d spend a writing session staring at the page, knowing exactly which bits of emotion, action and information I need to put into words next but not finding the words.

    I like your conclusion that ‘combating overthinking is less about turning the brain off and more about turning everything else on’. I find the same approach can work nicely with changing habits: focus not on what I want to stop doing but what I want to do instead. I hope I can make it work for this too!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I think sometimes we have to take the time to let what we’ve learned process, percolate, and return to a more “habitual” level where it doesn’t require as much of our cognitive space upfront.

      • I think you’re right, I’ve noticed that happening before. I may also have had some other life stuff, stress, etc getting in the way. I’ll let the writing theory percolate a bit more, sort through the other stuff, and then see if my brain wants to do prose again!

    • Dear Anna, your website is brilliant! So creative. I love it! And the sketches for your kingdom of Mennistriam… “I’ve learned a TON about story structure, character arcs etc in recent years but haven’t actually written much prose in that time, so I feel like although I know exactly what I want to write, I forgot how to do it.” Oh goodness, get writing, girl! To hell with all those shoulds and shouldn’ts. Your characters are itching to stretch and play. You’ve created the setting, now let them free!

      • Thank you! That website is my perpetually unfinished design/coding playground, always lovely to hear that someone enjoys it!

        Oh, don’t worry, they’ve been playing… I’ve been experimenting with writing more overview-to-detail than front-to-back (like the snowflake method but different) and it seems to work great for the way my brain works. And the characters have a lot to say at every step of the process! I actually have a finished version of the shortest Mennistriam story that’s somewhat between an outline and a very ugly first draft; the point where I’m having trouble is turning that into reader-comprehensible prose. I can do it, as my writing group’s enthusiasm about the first scene shows, it’s just taking too much effort at the moment. That may have to do with other areas of life rather than writing, so I’m focusing on those. Hopefully the writing lessons and insights will use that time to process and percolate as Katie suggests above!

        • Polly Hansen says

          Ah, glad to hear you ARE writing. I thought you had stopped. I hope your creativity percolates, as you say. Good luck!

  34. Polly Hansen says

    I love this: “…stories themselves are tales of our imperfections. Our words and our pages are where we capture all the messiness of our lives.”

    Yes! I often find that the words in my journal leap of the page and I feel inspired by them, but when I take a closer look, my logician says, that’s a poorly constructed sentence.

    And, “We must honor our inner logicians. But it’s best if we can also learn to keep them in the classroom.”

    I agree, because the logician often destroys messy creativity, but does that mean we need to keep a bit of messiness in our work? When I edit, it’s a bit like having OCD. I want to make sure every dangling modifier and misplaced participle is removed, sure, but what if that destroys the tone, the easy breezy feel of the piece?

    Or are we just talking about letting the creative juices flow first, and then entering the classroom to clean up our work? That we must balance recess and playground time with classroom instruction? Never just all classroom or all recess? Because we need both?

    I guess when I’ve edited the life out of my work, then I need a bit a recess. I need to put that particular chapter away for a week (or longer?), give it a rest and come back to it with fresh eyes, like going on vacation and returning to work renewed.

    Wonderful article. Thank you, K.M.. And now, I shall go back and read all the other comments!

  35. Katie,

    When I met my husband more than 15 years ago, he used to say “Lighten up, Francis” to me. Oy. We were both lawyers then and, if I’m being perfectly honest, lightening up wasn’t a way to succeed in that field. I worked mainly on corporate/tax matters. Out of place commas could be a huge problem, so I was constantly in fear of making mistakes at work.

    When I had my son (who is now seven), I took time off from the law and all of a sudden I started hearing little snippets in my head. It took me a while to realize this was, my GOD could it be possible, my IMAGINATION working again after years of stifling my creativity with political science courses and then law school/bar exam/billing hours.

    I started writing a novel during my son’s naps. This was the same time I found your website and began soaking in all of the information I didn’t even know I didn’t know. And so my lawyer’s brain took over my creativity from a very early stage in my journey.

    I’ve been writing creatively off and on since 2014 (mostly off this year thanks to my kids being at home with me all day every day and sucking up all of my emotional lifeforce). This year has been difficult for me, BUT it’s taught me a huge lesson. One you so perfectly pointed out in your post when you said this:

    “Because it came so easily when we were young or just starting out with our writing, we don’t realize that creativity only emerges when we achieve and maintain certain balances in our lives. Balance requires discipline. And the further out of balance we are—the more our thinking brains have tyrannized over our creative selves—the more discipline it takes to recreate the circumstances we may once have taken for granted.”

    When I was feeling at my most creative, brimming with excitement about a story percolating in my head, it was when I was training for a marathon. I was moving my body constantly. I was healthy and fitter than I had been since I played volleyball in college. My kids were also in school a few days a week, so not only could I write in the morning before they woke up but I also had time to exercise and let my mind wander a bit while they were in the good care of nurturing teachers.

    This is why what you said about maintaining balance is so meaningful to me. I’ve been doing the willpower old boy thing to myself this year. When the pandemic hit I was about half way through my novel (the first one I’ve actually tried to finish). There’s never a good time for a global health crisis, but the timing was very complicated in terms of where I was in my writing journey. I was at a difficult point in my novel and pushing through the middle of a novel (so I’ve heard) is hard under the easiest of circumstances.

    The pandemic threw me way, way off balance. I basically chose to spend most of my free time writing rather than moving my body, because the urge to write is still there and the desire to finish my novel almost rising to an obsession. And I was clearly relying on depleted energy stores to, as you say, recreate the circumstances that worked for my creativity. The truth was (and remains, unfortunately, with the recent uptick in COVID cases), that it was not possible to recreate these circumstances. My reality has changed and there is nothing I can do about it. In order to nourish my creativity, I need time to move, I need time to write, I need time to let my mind wander, and I need external stimuli.

    I’ve *almost* let go of my novel completely because of how hard it’s been to drag myself to the page in the absence of the things I need to live creatively. But the desire to complete the project and to prove to myself I can finish a novel is stronger. I will say, though, that it’s been hard to fend off the feelings of anger, frustration and disappointment that come along with the feeling of loss of control over my creative pursuits. Especially when I had worked so hard to understand what my creativity actually required.

    I thought I had a specific question to ask you when I began to write this. It seems, though, simply an exercise of reflection for me. To any of you who read this, thank you. Perhaps reading the result of me spilling thoughts into the comments will lead to some clarity for you.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Thanks very much for sharing this. It’s actually helped me realize something for myself as well–and that is that the pandemic has had a greater effect on my creativity this year than I’ve let myself admit. It actually feels like a weight lifted to realize and say that. I’d struggled last year as well and have been chalking a lot of this year’s “non-writing” to the fallout from that. But undoubtedly the global circumstances have had their impact as well. I always find peace in being able to better understand the causes and motivations for things. Even if the realizations don’t change the outcome, they usually help me let go of self-flagellating explanations.

      2020 has been a tremendous year for lessons learned. In the end, I’m very thankful for that.

      • K-Denying our realities is certainly not benign.

        I often find I expect myself to work with the energy and ferocity that I had when I was a 25 year old lawyer even though I’m a 37 year old mother of two small children. On top of that, I am teaching myself to write fiction. Cobbling together a syllabus for my studies, practicing on my own without much feedback, working in the dark with no accountability whatsoever except to my own dreams, which are quiet when compared with the demands of my kids. Those are my realities when it comes to writing fiction, but still I beat myself up when I think about the old me, the one who was able to work 70 hours a week at a Big Law firm and do so quite successfully.

        I was struggling personally last year as well. Reading your blogs as you were uncovering the connection between your creativity and your life was so nourishing to me. It taught me so much about, once again, that elusive balance that, as the famous song goes, you don’t know that you have ’til it’s gone.

        Thank you, as always, for sharing on this blog. You help so many of us light up the dark parts with your wisdom.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Yes, I relate to this very much. I suppose we also tend to idealize our past selves. In re-reading old journals from ten years ago, I suddenly remembered that I’ve gone through similar creative dry spells over and over throughout my life. This latest one is more pronounced maybe, but it’s not new. Strangely, that’s encouraging. 😀

          • Somewhere, early on, I learned the unhealthy pattern that

            Caring about something = Controlling it = Working to exhaustion in the attempt to control it

            In my case, the pattern was reinforced by some of the effort coming naturally and by ignoring the truth that what I cared about might not be what was best for me to care about.

            The learning process is still going on. 😉

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            Hear, hear!

  36. Hi Sarah, just saying I once stopped working on a novel for at least four years, maybe even longer, before I went back to it. When I did, the passion was still there, the characters still breathing. For whatever reason, life, more pressing projects, overthinking, fear, had gotten in the way. Just saying never say never when it comes to a project you love, no matter how long it may lie dormant while life gets in the way.

    • Thank you, Polly 🙂 I’ve been clinging to it out of fear that I’d lose it. Hearing that it’s possible to go back after a long hiatus is encouraging.

  37. Boyan Petkov says

    I liked the part “My life is my art.” Not sure I understood it right, but deep down my inner child hugged the shared thought.

  38. Thank you for your writings and insights. You give me lots to think about. Over-thinking, to me, seems like thinking which leads one astray from one’s conscious goal. At the same time, I can see how such diversion can sometimes lead one to a better goal, and expose the original goal as merely a hand-hold on a climb toward a partially obscured truth. Perhaps the worst overthought is that which takes away without giving anything of value.

  39. Your article helped me make sense of something I’ve been living. I’m getting tired of writing. What I used to love is becoming a chore to me and I can’t get excited about it much. Your articled reminded me of when I loved writing what was my life like then. It was when my children were home and we were always outdoors in nature. I miss that connection with nature, since we seldom go out much anymore. I also miss music. I love certain music I used to play while I write. Why don’t I go outside or play music anymore? Since my husband’s retirement we don’t do the fun things we used to do. We seem so serious all the time. I know there’s a pandemic on but I could still get outside and listen to my music, but it just never seems to happen. Maybe I answered my own question of why isn’t writing fun anymore? I have to get back to the fun things I used to do that would spark ideas in my head. There’s no reason I can’t get outside and walk again or take my “boom box” up into the office and play “my” music while writing. I’m going to try it tomorrow and see if that’s what is missing. I’ll let you know if it works.

  40. Great insight – and encouragement to trust the writer inside the heart and soul.

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