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 its knocked off course. But at some point it’s 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!