Writing as the Art of Thinking Clear

Writing as the Art of Thinking Clearly: 6 Steps

Writing as the Art of Thinking ClearlyAs an infamously vivid dreamer, I often find myself waking up with this surging certainty that my subconscious just gave me the best story ever.

One of my most memorable dreams featured an end-of-the-world plot. Aliens were coming! Asteroids were coming! Klaxons were blaring. People were running around madly. I think the theme from Armageddon might even have been playing.

Time was running out, and there was only one way to save the world. So our brave heroine did what no one else had the brains or the guts to do in this last minute of need. She ran up to the very top of the space observatory, which the aliens would be bombing any minute.

And… she grabbed a container of sour cream and started carefully spreading it over every inch of the floor. It was the only way, after all.


My “sour cream” dream has become my single favorite example of how insane my sleeping mind can get. It’s also a perfect example of why the garblings of our subconscious brains—however vivid and emotionally charged—do not by themselves create good stories, much less good writing.

If I had a donut for every time I floated back to consciousness with the emotional certainty that I had a great story idea, only to have my logical brain come back online and snort at me—I’d never have to make breakfast again.

Our macro journeys as writers often aren’t so different. When we first start writing, all we have is a vivid idea that charges us on some emotional level. We throw it onto the page and have a ball doing so. And then… our logical brains come back online and snort at it.

We start out believing writing is nothing but creativity, glorious creativity. And we end by learning that, in fact, historian David McCullough (in one of my all-time favorite quotes) nailed it:

Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard.

Writing Mastery: When the Subconscious Becomes Conscious

Why do we care about story theory? Grammar? Optimized writing processes?

If writing was nothing but the rainbow-vomiting of creativity, we wouldn’t need any of those things. We’d need no systems, no structures, no processes.

Fierce on the Page Sage CohenBut, of course, we do. In her inspirational book Fierce on the Page, Sage Cohen writes:

I have long considered [writing] to be the art of repair through language. In my own literary cosmology, it seems to me that we restore ourselves and our world by arranging the fragments of experience, memory, invention, and emotion into a mosaic of meaning through which we transcend the parts and move into unexpected wholeness.

Many of us start out as writers and storytellers with at least some modicum of talent. Talent is a gift from the subconscious. We don’t think about it. We don’t earn it. We just get to cash it in, like an inheritance from a great-uncle we barely remember.

But turning that gift into a resource requires work. Mastery is the place where subconscious talent rises into conscious intelligence. It’s that magic place where “you know what you know.”

As McCullough warned, getting the subconscious and the conscious to play nice is work. But it’s some of the most gratifying work in the world. That place within you where you start to see and understand your own mind is beyond rewarding. Who needs donuts anymore?

6 Ways for Writers to Begin Thinking Clearly

It should come as no surprise that the art of linear, logical thinking is itself very linear and logical. Indeed, thinking clearly is a conscious mastery all its own. Today, let’s take a look at six steps you, as a writer, can take to specifically optimize your ability to share vivid and coherent dreams with your readers.

1. Inhale Information

Here’s where it all starts. You can’t think clearly if you don’t have something to think about. This is true of logical premises, and it is true of creative premises. I’ve talked previously about stuffing your brain with images. You also need to stuff your brain with stories.

The entire concept of story theory is based on recognizing and interpreting the patterns that show up universally in good stories. The more stories you’ve ingested, across multiple mediums, the more accurate your pattern recognition will be.

More than that, as a writer, there is no information of any sort that cannot be utilized to create facsimiles of and conjectures about life. Become an information vacuum. The more you know, the better you think, the better you write.

2. Begin With an Emotional Premise

Just as the subconscious is the foundation for the conscious, feeling begets thinking. (I differentiate between feeling and emotion, with feeling being deeper-seated and more fundamentally primal and individualistic, while emotion is a product that arises from feeling but is also influenced by other forces, including physical well-being.)

Feelings tell us what is important to us. They tell us what we care about enough to think about. Or write about.

You know you’ve found the idea you should write about when you can feel it in your gut. You’re passionate about it. You love it. Or, on the flipside, maybe it scares the winkies out of you. Whatever the case, it’s eliciting strong feelings, and that’s a muscular thing.

It’s true feelings can get cluttered up along the way. What they initially seem to be telling you may not, in fact, be true. But there’s always a truth at their core. Dig deep enough and honestly enough, and you’ll find that truth.

3.  Identify Your Purpose at Every Level of the Story

What are you trying to say with this story?

What are you trying to say with this scene?

What are you trying to say with this sentence?

These are the logical  questions you should be asking at every step of the process. If you don’t know the answers, who does?

Purpose is the guiding light of intelligible writing. When McCullough says writing well is thinking clearly, what he’s really saying is that the process of clear thinking will enable you to identify your purpose and then choose only scenes, sentences, and words that support that purpose.

It’s like sculpting a statue. You won’t know which bits of clay to scrape away until you know what must remain in order to form something that looks like Julius Caesar or Napoleon.

It’s totally possible to do this retroactively. Maybe when you first sit down, you have idea who you’re going find in that hunk of clay. You start poking and scraping and voila!—a nose. But at some point, your conscious brain will need to narrow its focus and choose its unifying purpose.

4. Asking the Right Questions

Once you’ve come up with a powerful story idea and narrowed it to a conscious mission statement, you’re ready to start drilling for oil. At this point, you’re not so much looking for the right answers but rather the right questions. Find the right question, you’ll find the right answer.

There are several different techniques you can use at this stage:

1. Brain Dump

Empty your brain. Throw it all out there. Root around in the dark cobwebby corners and see what you find.

When I’m outlining a story, I like to do this on paper. I toss everything I know or suspect about a story—thematic ideas, visual scenes, logical assumptions, characters, subplots, titles, everything—so I can start to see the shape of what’s there (and therefore the shape of what’s not there).

Freewriting is a great way to do this. Cohen again:

Freewriting is a practice of nonattachment. You write words on a page, for a set period of time, without stopping. The point is to generate without forethought, to move beyond your judging and editing mind, to simply move freely across a page. For the pleasure of it. For the momentum of it. To witness yourself in motion, and to discover the knowing beneath your thinking that pours out of your body when you let it.

2. Posit Truths But Don’t Hold Them

At this point, you’re trying to discover what you know about this story. So make definitive statements (“this is a story about children affected by divorce” or “this character is an amnesiac spy”), but don’t lock them into your brain yet.

Get inside these ideas and live in them for a little while. Ask questions about them. Look at them from every angle. But if something isn’t working out—if it doesn’t feel right or make sense—don’t be afraid to abandon it.

Clear thinking is largely a process of elimination.

3. Listen to Your Instincts

However important it is to consciously master your stories, you will never have a greater or more accurate crystal ball than your subconscious. Listen to your gut instincts. If you feel good about a choice, it’s probably the right one. However, if you’ve come to what you think is a sensible conclusion, and yet there’s some little niggle that doesn’t quite sit right, listen to that. Take a closer look. That feeling is a red flag signaling a weak spot that needs further investigation.

5. Recognize Patterns and Use Them as Shortcuts

There’s one simple reason writers find comfort in such ideas as story structure. Story structure (and other theories based upon acknowledged patterns of logic) provide us a bumper lane in which to practice our own critical thinking skills.

This is not to say you should take these patterns for granted or that you should never try to think your way beyond them. Probably you’ll think yourself right back into them because there is a reason they’re looked to as authoritative. But you will have gained a personal understanding of the inside and outside of the posited formula. There’s a great quote I love from mathematician and statistician George E.P. Box:

All models are wrong; some models are useful.

Once you’re comfortable operating within the relative accuracy of any particular model, you can then use its pre-established theories as shortcuts to bounce from logical question to logical question. For example, once you’ve gained a foundational knowledge of story structure, you can start using plot points as road markers to help you identify where you’re at in a story, what should be happening here, and where you may be going wrong.

6. Hack Your Brain

Thinking clearly is incredibly fun and empowering. But like any discipline, it requires focus and effort. If you can optimize little hacks along the way to make it easier to sink into a mental flow state, so much the better.

1. Organize Your Writing Process Into Chunks of Creativity and Logic

Writing a novel is a vastly complicated process that requires dozens, if not hundreds, of different skills. Most of these skills fit neatly under the either/or categories of creativity or logic.

Brainstorming is creative, outlining is logical, drafting is creative, revision is logical.

There is, of course, crossover. But by trying to optimize different parts of your brain at different parts of the process, you can get out of your own way and let your mind work at optimum capacity.

2. Manage Your Energy

Don’t fool yourself: mental work is exhausting. Sitting at the computer and thinking is not the same as just sitting. This is why it’s often so hard to sit and write for two hours after a hard go at the day job.

Life is always busy, and scheduling is always challenging. But wherever possible, focus on managing your mental energy.

Try to integrate writing into your life in a way that taps your best energy. This might mean:

  • Writing at the same time every day.
  • Writing in public places.
  • Writing to specific types of music.
  • Writing in bursts between other activities.
  • Dictating while jogging.

Don’t stop until you find the right system for you, and then don’t stop using it.

3. Get Out of Your Body

Speaking of jogging, make time not to think.

Remember, mastery is a harmony between conscious and subconscious. That means you must give your subconscious a chance to work. It needs downtime in order to process new information and churn out new ideas and conclusions.

If you find your energy consistently resistant to sitting down and writing, it could be because your subconscious needs some downtime. Find a “creative lollygagging” activity that will calm your mind and free up your energy.

  • Go running.
  • Take a nap.
  • Read.
  • Color in an adult coloring book.
  • Go the movies.
  • Weed the garden.
  • Wash the dishes.
4. Try Alpha Waves

Music that incorporates alpha waves or binaural beats is fantastic for calming your energy and focusing your mind. Whenever I find myself feeling stressed or distracted, I’ll type “alpha waves” into YouTube’s search. I’m still amazed by how instantaneously it settles my energy and focuses my mind.


One of the greatest joys of being a writer is crafting powerful scenes by putting together one coherent sentence after another. It’s a feeling of power and clarity that’s hard to match. In the early days of writing, it might seem like achieving this rarefied “in the zone” experience is a random gift. But it doesn’t have to be. Learning to hone your mind and organize your thoughts is the first step toward writing purposefully and clearly on the page.

And now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go figure out how to make that sour-cream sequence a little more logical.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Do you have any favorite tricks for thinking clearly when writing? Tell me in the comments!

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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.


  1. Nadia Syeda says

    I sometimes have amazing, vivid dreams that are actually stories. Like this one. In this world, everyone has an animal side and the Four Houses, four great animals—the white lion, the blue dragon, the black tortoise, and the red phoenix (Chinese mythology)—they become warriors that battle against monsters whose animal side has twisted them into terrible, insane creatures because of grief and madness. The descendants of these animals, they have to go through the Dome in order to prove that they’re ready to be transformed by the Ancestral Gems and become warriors, sworn to protect. They always triump, they always become the warriors, and they protect the lesser creatures who don’t have their mystical powers and awesomeness.

    And then there’s Nell. A girl who was originally an animal, but thanks to the magic of the Dome, she managed to cultivate a human form. Her kind of people are scorned by the rest, because they’re defined by their animal side and even more susceptible to becoming Mad Beasts. But when one of the warriors almost die during the trials, and she saves him, she’s chosen as a warrior by the Ancestral Gem, the blue dragon’s Sapphire, the leader of them all and supposedly the most powerful.

    Oh, and she’s a rat.

    I love the concept but I still have a long way to go until this is a story.

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