Don’t mess up your novel by overthinking it

I am really thinking about words at the moment. This week I spent over two hours on a 100 word paragraph in my second first draft. Deliberating over which words to choose – ‘expanding’ or ‘stretching’? Which is better? I wanted to get it right. But if I keep this up, my novel will never be finished. For a 90,000 word novel, that’s about 2.5 months without sleeping.

Last year, I took an art class where the subject was drawing a tree. The tutor explained how to draw the tree in detail – how the roots curve into the ground, how the branches expand (stretch?) out, how to give the impression of leaves rather than draw each individual leaf. Then to add detail – where the light falls, maybe add a tree hollow or background features like a bird or a cute rock. She drew an example on the flip board and handed out instructions.

My first attempt at trying to copy the tree on the flip board was not good. It looked a bit like Carla Delgado – an octopus-like monster from Monsters University. My second attempt was only fractionally better and I still wasn’t feeling it. Frustrated, I thought: ‘I’ve just got to get this right!’



On my third attempt, I tried something different. I kept in mind the tutor’s instructions about how to draw the tree, but let the pencil flow without thinking too hard about what I was doing. This tree, Tree Number Three, turned out okay. I mean, they’re not about to hang it in the National Art Gallery but it looks like a tree and not a CGI octopus, which is a big deal.

Tree Number Three


Then I thought: ‘Is this a thing? Do I work better when I’m not thinking too hard about it?’ Turns out the answer is YES. And also, I’m a genius – because it is totally a thing. Based in SCIENCE.

The Scientific American wrote about a study where an associate professor at Stanford University Institute of Design and a behavioural scientist at Stanford’s School of Medicine designed an experiment based on Pictionary. Students were hooked up to a machine measuring brain activity and other technical science things, and given 30 seconds to draw a picture based on an action word. They indicated which word pictures they found more difficult to draw, while researchers decided which of their artistic efforts were the most creative. Turns out the participants’ left brains worked harder for the difficult word pictures and that they scored points for creativity when their right brain was more active.

Essentially, the less the participants thought about what they were drawing, the more creative their drawings were. Manish Saggar, a psychiatrist at Stanford and the study’s lead author, summarized the findings: “The more you think about it, the more you mess it up.”

I was messing up my tree because I was overthinking it. When I kept the tutor’s instructions about how to draw the tree in the back of my mind but didn’t overthink them, it actually became easier to draw. The same can apply to my writing. I know the process. The plot needs structure and turning points, and my settings need to be anchored, etc. – but when I write, I need to stop overthinking things and trust my right brain to pull the magic out of my subconscious.

This is summed up perfectly by K.M. Weiland on her blog, Helping Writers Become Authors:

Fiction is an amalgam of art and craft. We can think about craft. We should think about craft. Craft is an analytic, left-brain exercise. Art, on the hand, is a deeply subconscious, emotional journey. We shouldn’t think too hard about that—at least, not while we’re in the act. Thinking too hard dries up the creative side of the brain and dams up that subconscious flow of ideas, words, and images.

The left brain may still try to take over. Even when Tree Number Three was looking particularly tree-like, I used the eraser a few times when something wasn’t working, just like the way I might delete a sentence or paragraph.

And I was also compelled to keep adding to my illustration. What about a bit more shading here? Or another cute rock? The art tutor told me to stop – it was enough. So when you’re in your obsessive, creative right-brain state, you may add too many adjectives to describe the way your main character raises their eyebrows. It’s your first draft, and it’s not going to be perfect. But that’s okay.

As Robert Graham says in his book How to Write Fiction (And Think About It):

Each finished work will always in the end fall far short of the form you imagined it taking when you first conceived it. So it’s worth bearing in mind that there’s only so much you ought to do in the way of perfecting each piece of fiction you write; you might as well recognise that each new work you begin offers you a further opportunity to develop your craft, complete your masterpiece. There comes a point in the redrafting of everything you write when you will benefit from stopping and moving on to your next story or novel.

But redrafting is a blog post for another day, when we make friends with our left-brains again! Until then, I’ll keep my writing processes deeply rooted while I plant seeds of creativity and watch my novel grow as I think (but not overthink) about other terrible tree idioms.

7 thoughts on “Don’t mess up your novel by overthinking it

  1. I’m impressed with your third attempt at drawing a tree. I never imagined myself ever being able to draw anything beyond the first attempt you showed, but what you had to say about trying too hard and overthinking while being creative makes sense.
    I am terrible at trying to get the words perfect in an early draft, only to have them made useless by changes in plot as the story develops. Great advice in this post. Thanks 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for reading my post and for your comments, Marie. My current WIP looks a lot like the octopus tree … just like all first drafts should, right?
    It sounds like you’re talking about the ‘word uncount’ there – when the words you’ve written have to be deleted or rewritten because your story is evolving and changing. I’m sure your manuscript is going swimmingly!


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