by Pari

When does thinking get in the way of writing? It’s not a trick question. I often wonder about the intrusion or benefit of analysis at each step of literary creation — from the initial idea to writing, editing, revision, all the way to publication.

I ask because I’ve seen applied brain power work and, sometimes, destroy writing careers during the years I’ve paid attention to such things. Of the dozens of writers whose creative trajectories I have watched with interest, not all have been published or have earned a living in their chosen field. The publishing industry is much too capricious to judge their success in those terms. What intrigues me is the end product in relation to those writers’ personal satisfaction AND ability to translate their ideas into pieces that evoke the intended responses in readers.

In the creative phase
I know writers who approach every word and scene with a director’s clarity of vision before even typing the first letter of the first “The.” Other writers agonize over every sentence to the point of utter creative constipation. In these cases, their analyses are debilitating. Some acquaintances write with ease and speed, never stopping to question their impulses. Some are satisfied with their disjointed — and often sloppy — results. Some don’t need to edit. Some can see the flaws in their works, without self-flagellation, and know how to fix them.

In the editing process
I know writers who, like great brain surgeons, work with a skill and attention to detail that slices away every errant adverb and cauterizes every poignant scene at the perfect moment. I also know writers who bleed criticism on their pages with such abandon  — and lack of self-confidence — I fear they’ll hemorrhage each time they take to analyzing the effectiveness of their creations.

So what’s right?
Hell if I know.

My own process has gone through many changes. I used to be delighted with everything I wrote and didn’t think I needed any editing at all. Then came the self-doubt. Then came the obsessive editing. Then came the creative constipation. Then came the fury at the lack of joy in the writing and the total rejection of editing while in the creative process. And now? Well, I’m still stuck in that last phase, but am starting to feel the urge to publish again. BUT I haven’t any idea what my editing approach will be.

I do, however, remain curious about others . . .

My questions today are

For readers:  Are there any books/stories you’ve read where you’re aware of the writer’s thinkiness? Of his or her plans, editing etc? Can thinkiness intrude?

For writers: Is there such a thing as overthinking, overediting? Or . . . have your processes changed since you started writing?

23 thoughts on “Thinkiness

  1. Linda Poitevin

    LOL — I'm a writer and I am convinced you wrote this piece just for me! I am SO in the overthinking stage right now. So much so that I've been stuck at the first chapter stage for WEEKS, trying to figure out the best place to begin. I recognized the error of my ways last week and set everything aside for a short while so I could learn to breathe again…all best in getting back your own creativity!

  2. Cara Bristol

    I'd call this a thoughful post, but I don't want to overthink it! LOL. The answer is yes, it is definitely possible to overthink a manuscript and over edit. To try to get a chapter perfect before moving on is a sure way to dam up the creative flow. But I've also learned that "writing" for me is half writing and half rewriting/editing. I've found that when I "power through" a story and don't stop to edit at all during the first draft, there's a daunting editing clean-up job that must be done. Not fun. LIke most other things in life, I guess it comes down to balance.

  3. Gordon Harries

    I haven’t felt the urge to read him for a long time, but James Ellroy was one of my earliest loves in the crime fiction field. Ellroy is, obviously, famous for writing synopsis’ that are so detailed they’re tantamount to a first draft, on top of which he then lays character details and scenes and dialogue. In that instance, the novel feels –to me—like it’s coalescing, rather than being forced into life.

    So, I guess in that instance I’m aware of it and, certainly, in something like ‘American Tabloid’ (my favourite of his works) you know this is the first of a trilogy and that pipe is being laid because of that, but it doesn’t feel intrusive. Again, at least to me.

  4. Sarah W

    There are a couple of writers I love whose later works seem more relaxed and confident than their first ones, where you can see anxiety peeking through in a few places or the occasional pause for approval.

    And then there are the writers whose earlier works I love who seem to get Centipede's Dilemma — they've had some positive feedback (sometimes a great deal of it) and start worrying about what they did before and how they might repeat it, to the point where they seize up and can never get their feet under them again.

    As for writing . . . constipation is a very good word right now.

  5. billie

    I have read mss that had been, in my opinion, "workshopped to death." If a piece is edited to conform to what a variety of readers think is good or even acceptable it can easily lose the magic of the author's original, singular voice, and I hate reading work that doesn't have that still intact.

  6. Shizuka

    I go through a "writer's remorse" kind of process. I have to write blindly and straight through with little editing to even get through a first draft. And then spend tons of time fixing things. In the first draft, anything goes — I allow characters that were women to become men if that seems better partway through. The remorse/editing part of the process is long, but fun. Because I get to redo so much, which doesn't happen in real life.

  7. Pari Noskin

    I love that this post struck a chord with you . . . and that you've taken the time to breathe. I think creativity can be fragile when not nurtured with love.

    I'm the powering through type, because I want to find the story. It's not efficient, but it works all right for me. I agree that balance is key, and finding what makes you happiest while writing/creating.

    Beautiful example. There's a case of tremendous thought resulting in a wonderful read. Thanks for bringing Ellroy up.

  8. Pari Noskin

    I know what you're talking about . . . the seizing up and/or the insecurities obvious in the writing. But I'm more interested in that creative constipation. May I suggest that you give yourself permission to play? Just play with a story and words w/o worrying about outcome? It might help. At least it does for me.

    I agree. One of my children — an adolescent — wanted me to read the beginning of a story she was writing. I told her I'd only read it when it was done. "I have too much respect for your creative process to want to intrude," I told her. She looked at me as if I was crazy 😉

    I think we're of the same school. And . . . it's probably why I haven't edited anything in more than a year!

  9. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I'd say overthinking is a given in writing. What I learned early on was that I had to override my censor (we all have one) and bash through those first five minutes (again, five minutes) or on bad days, a half hour) until abandon kicks in. Coffee was a godsend in the early days and still is – it gets my mind racing faster then the censor can keep up.

    Overediting? Hah! You should see the first draft I'm editing right now -there's more scribble than type on the page. But I write really rough first drafts so in my case, no, there's not such a thing. I have to do three passes at least through a first draft just to have something readable, and then the fun fine tuning work can start.

  10. Richard Maguire

    Pari, I've just finished reading a real door-stopper of a novel. A big fatty book you could use to bash a burglar on the head. Great story, which is why I stayed reading for 600 plus pages. But it could easily have been told in far, far less. Too much thinkiness going on, everything described. So I skipped all the boring bits. Of course maybe the author, like Dickens, was being paid by the word.

    While reading, I thought about David's recent post on a writer's voice. It occurred to me that novelists with a great voice, like Elmore Leonard – like David himself – don't need to ramble. Their books leave you with a satisfied feeling that they are always in control of whatever story they choose to tell.

  11. Tammy Cravit

    I agree with the opinion that there's definitely such a thing as too much thinking and too much editing in a story — and it's a damned shame to read a book that started out with a great story, but had all the life sucked out of it through excessive re-thinking and re-editing. I can't think of a published example of this, but goodness knows I've seen it often enough in writing groups I've belonged to. I've called it the spiral of "revise endlessly unto death", and that seems to be what happens.

    For me, I started out my writing career as a dyed-in-the-wool pantser, but had enough books die at page 35 (or, more depressingly, at page 300) to realize that going into a story with NO plan was a recipe for frustration. I still don't "outline" in the way that some writers do, but I try to get pretty clear about at least the overall structure of the story before I start writing. I self-pubbed my first novel last winter, and am working on the second, so this process must be working for me. 🙂

    One technique I learned as a newspaper writer lo those many years ago has helped me in my fiction, too. When I couldn't think of a good lead-in paragraph for an article, I'd write something like "** catchy lead-in goes here" and keep going. Then, when I finished my draft, I'd go back and usually by then the missing lede came easily.

  12. David Corbett

    First: Thank you Richard, for the kind words. They mean a lot, and I'm not "just saying that."

    In my case thinkiness comes out as a feeling that I need to justify everything I write. This used to lead to a lot of explaining, which is death. I now feel much more free top simply let the drama present itself. but this requires a great deal more front-loading in terms of nailing the characters and the story down. Once I feel that's "in my bones," the writing itself is just getting the music right, which is fun, unless it's not.

  13. Allison Davis

    I am thinking the difference between my very first manuscript, which Kimberly Cameron said was "Ok" and the one I amediting now, which is so much better for precisely the issue that you raised. It has so much less anquish (and lots more work). Learning the craft with the first book made it feel like an overworked quilt looks, constantly reworking but there were "scars" left. Now, I let myself write with abandon (picture wind through my hair) with no judgment, then comb back over it to add the structure, and one more edit to polish, then let it sit and then the fine tooth comb. I find that process helps me get to that point where I am sure of what to do, hard to explain. Maybe the "in your bones" that David says or Stephen sometimes talks about research on your feet so you are living in that space. Oh, and Alex giving me tools to stay on the manuscript daily — (and many more hints from the Murderati) have made me get to a point where it is easier. What I have learned though, it's a muscle, exercise it and it gets easier.

  14. Lisa Alber

    I remember sending my first novel out to agents (hah!), and I remember the agent who stated that my prose was too "self-conscious." At the time, I didn't have enough craft under my belt to know what this meant. Now I know. I was overthinking by way of trying to be too fancy. Lesson: less is more less is more less is more.

    Okay, that lesson learned. However, now I've run into a new kind of overthinking. I used to write the shite out of my first drafts with very little censor. Now, I tend to get stuck in the planning stage because I know something about story structure and character arcs and subplots, and all that good stuff. My censor is louder now than it used to be–for sure–but not at the sentence level, more like at the story level.

    Alot of this stems from self-doubt because I've got so many rejections under my belt–starts to work on me, you know?

    I agree about workshopping a piece to death. There's a reason the "too many cooks spoil the broth" adage is still alive and kicking.

  15. Ronald Tierney

    For me, my books work best when they are allowed to flow naturally. I know what I want to do before I sit down and do it. Not specifically, but generally. This can be problematic if you have deadlines. When I feel pushed to solve a problem or get words down, I think it shows. I am a by-the-seat-of-your-pants writer. I write with a general idea of the problem or mystery to be solved when I start. Then I start and stop when it stops flowing, usually when words fail me or when i feel I'm being dishonest, or a problem has been presented I don't have an immediate solution to. I trust that it will come. And it usually does. Even in this process, there is editing to do to smooth out the edges, the transitions, etc. With regard to over editing. At some point, the writer has to let go. The last process is to have a few trusted folks read it. I ask those who read the manuscript before submission to tell me where they lost interest, where they were confused. I do not ask for suggestions about plot or character. To address another issue brought up in the comments: I'm rarely criticized for writing too long. On the contrary. Thanks for your great blog.

  16. Pari Noskin

    Holy cow! work for a day and there are all of these wonderful comments!

    Yes, that censor can be quite intimidating, can't she? Caffeine works for you. Beating her back with a taser works for me <g>. I also know what you mean about the editing . .. though your books are so seamless I can't believe they don't just flow right out of you and onto the page with that wonderful energy.

    True about the long books. I've had that experience more than once. And also true about voice and control. I'm reading several Muriel Sparks' books right now and she fits the same bill as Leonard and David . . . the sense that you're in the hands of a true master.

    Great trick to keep yourself on track in the creative process. I use those kinds of techniques — "Sasha angry here" — or whatever when I'm stuck. I know you've been a devoted pantser in the past and am interested to hear that the newer technique is working for you. I'll have to see what's going on with my work when I finally have the time/energy to read it.

  17. Pari Noskin

    Beautiful description of the process. I love the music in it and in your work.

    Very true. I think the word "anguish" is really accurate too for some of the books and manuscripts I've read. I very much like that image of your hair in the wind. It says freedom and joy. That's such a glorious feeling, isn't it? When it flows? And the editing can be wonderful too, but not when it's borne of frustration or extreme self-doubt.

    I know that self-doubt well. Please, if you only take one thing away from this discussion today, remember that rejections aren't necessarily a reflection of your work or idea — they may have more to do with a publisher's read on what will sell enough to make a profit .. . . or an agent's personal preferences. IOW, you can't always deduce that it's the writing or story that has "failed."

    I've never been one to plan all the aspects of a story ahead of time, so I don't have advice there. Of course, I fought outlining as a kid and in college too.

  18. Pari Noskin

    Thank you.
    Of the wisdom in your post, the things I take away most are the idea of being dishonest and how that can stop you in the writing. I'm going to think about that one because I think the same thing happens to me, but I hadn't thought about it in that way.

    Also, the way you ask your readers to read is powerful. My critique group (which I've taken hiatus from for nearly six months) is comprised of people who do just that and it's tremendously helpful.

  19. Lisa Alber

    Thanks, Pari. It's such a crapshoot out there in the publishing business world! I'm trying not to give up on the dream of getting a traditional publishing deal, but — wow — I might have to self-publish.

    But as far as overthinking goes: I actually suck at outlining too–I'm better off doing character analyses and knowing just the broad strokes. Otherwise, I grow bored of my WIP before I've even started! 🙂

  20. KDJames

    Pari, apologies for chiming in so late. What can I say, it's Monday.

    This is a tough one for me to answer. My dad was a HS English teacher and I can't remember a time when everything I wrote was not edited. Usually it was AFTER I'd turned it in and gotten a grade, so, heh, thanks dad. But I grew up expecting editorial comment and (eventually) appreciating how it could make a piece of writing better or clearer. How it could make my thought process clearer and stronger. I freaking LOVE getting good editorial feedback.

    Because of that, I know I tend to ramble. For example, I will get distracted while writing about having company over for dinner and follow a tangent until I've squirmed my way under one of the guest beds and am analyzing the culinary preferences of a dust bunny while my friends are downstairs enjoying a glass of wine. So I know I need to set things aside for a while and then ask myself what I *meant* to say and whether I said it in the best way possible. And then delete the dust bunnies.

    The best antidote to that was the time I spent writing op/ed newspaper columns. They are not fucking kidding when they say you only have XX words to make your point. You either learn to "write tight" or you live with the consequences of someone else slashing the hell out of your writing to make it fit the space. Which is painful. (Obviously, I no longer apply that concept to my writing, especially when writing blog comments. Sigh.)

    So I think there's a difference between editing something for clarity and impact because you know what you meant to say, and editing something out of fear and self-doubt until it achieves sterile conformity and no longer has any voice or originality. It can be a very fine line. And yes, I think it's important to get (competent) editorial feedback. Just as I think it is imperative to ignore destructive editorial comments — they will shrivel your creative soul.

    When it comes down to it, honestly, I think practice is the answer to balancing creative flow and editing. Like mastering any skill, with practice comes confidence. You just have to do it. Over and over and over.

  21. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Pari
    Sorry to come late to this. A very apt post for me at the moment, as I'm in the final throes of a WIP and second-guessing every word while trying to just let go and GET TO THE END. I've always edited and polished as I've gone along, so this feels very wrong to me. At the moment I'm just trying to get the story across without the writing getting in the way.

  22. Pari Noskin

    I'm pretty good at outlining papers and articles, but doing it for fiction just isn't my bag.

    And to me the most important thing is to keep writing if it brings you joy . . . publication etc is a whole different thing.

    You crack me up with the long comments <g>. Never sigh. The blog is the place you DON'T have to worry about editing.

    Agree about good editorial feedback and the need to edit for many writers. Also agree about the impact of self-doubt.

    Balance is definitely a good goal, but I've seen so many people's pleasure in writing or their careers destroyed because they gave up before achieving anything close to it.

    Editing for what one means to say is sane. Editing because nothing is ever good enough is, well, neurotic.

  23. Pari Noskin

    I'm going to be thinking about that last sentence of yours for awhile. Is the writing getting in the way of the story or is your desire to craft each word/sentence to perfection? I guess I wonder because when I think if the writing, I think of flow. When I think of editing, I think of refining, polishing etc.

    I know we're different writers in style and prose, so it may just be a case of semantics?

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