How to Stop Sabotaging Your Writing
Last week I went to see Top Gun: Maverick with my husband and some friends. Because the movie was delayed for over a year due to the pandemic, it was a long-awaited event.
Seriously . . . if you don’t love Top Gun, are you even for real? I admit that as a writer, there are moments of predictable, emotionally manipulative writing that grate on my nerves just a little.
But the characters are so great that I’m willing to forgive all of that. We watched the original Top Gun the night before Maverick, and I had forgotten how traumatic that one part of the movie is.
I’m being deliberately vague because I know that somehow, there are people in this world who still haven’t seen Top Gun. If you are one of those people, please stop doing this to yourself. The movie is on Prime right now. No excuses.
And then go see Maverick because, man, it’s epic.
Anyway. In Maverick, Captain Pete Mitchell has returned to Top Gun to train some new, fresh-faced grads for a mission that is not just dangerous, but borderline impossible (the Mission: Impossible reference in that sentence is entirely unintentional).
He tells them that because of the nature of this mission and the unpredictable nature of flying in general, their actions must be quick and intuitive. “You don’t have time to think,” he tells them. “You think up there, you’re dead. Don’t think. Just do.”
Throughout the movie, “Don’t think. Just do,” becomes a mantra for the characters every time they’re in a tough spot.
I won’t spoil the movie for you (even though it’s kind of predictable, there are some BIG surprises), but that “Don’t think. Just do” thing has been floating around in my head for a few days now because it has some great creative applications.
No, writers aren’t engaged in dangerous work that could have fatal consequences.
No, we aren’t dogfighting (although it might feel like it sometimes).
But we often get preoccupied with a lot of thinking when we need to be doing.
Let me show you what I mean.
“Thinking about writing” isn’t writing
I was catching up one time with a grad school colleague, and we were talking about what we were working on.
“Ya know,” my friend said. “I haven’t been doing a lot of writing lately, but I have been doing a lot of thinking about writing.” He proceeded to outline how his thinking gave him a better perspective on his work for when he finally sits down to write.
I’m not here to say anyone’s writing process is wrong. However, I do know from experience that it’s dangerous to believe that thinking about writing is equal to doing the thing.
Yet, I think many of us let ourselves believe that is true, even though we know it isn’t.
It’s because even though we want to write in theory, we don’t actually want to do it . . . because it’s hard, it requires us to be vulnerable, and vulnerability and hard things are scary.
So instead of putting your butt on a chair and writing the words, you spend a lot of time going through your ideas in your head, then letting yourself get preoccupied with other things, and you never actually write them down.
There are a lot of writing memes that would call this procrastination.
I call it self-sabotage.
You won’t accomplish anything with your writing if all you do is think about it for a while, then move on to other things.
So why do we do this? Why do we say we want to write, but not actually take the time to do the thing, justifying “thinking about it” instead.
Why do we self-sabotage?
I have a few ideas.
Fear of failure
What if you can’t stop thinking and start doing because you’re afraid your work won’t be good? I’ve been in this trap many times, and I can tell you that staying on the ground doesn’t help. Sooner or later, you have to get in the air.
What are you afraid of, exactly? That writing is like diffusing a bomb and your computer will explode if you type the wrong work? That no one will like it? That you’ll read it later and be embarrassed?
None of that stuff is worth being afraid of. Especially that first one. Trust me, I’ve typed plenty of wrong words and my computer is still intact.
Plus—and here’s the best news I can possibly give you—even if what you write is horrible (it won’t be), you can always revise it.
Writing isn’t a one-shot deal. You can always make it better.
Maverick says that thinking in the air can get you killed. I say that thinking too hard about what you’re writing can kill your creativity.
Have you ever typed the same sentence repeatedly, varying the sentence structure, emphasizing different details, changing the color of the character’s hair, changing the setting, etc.?
And then, worse yet, an hour later, you’re still stuck on the same sentence?
Don’t let yourself get in that position. Opening lines are hard. I know. But it’s better to keep the writing moving than get stuck in one spot.
You’ll never let the rest of the story come into being if you can’t get past the first sentence.
Just do it—Nike swoosh. Don’t think. Just do.
So just type the thing. If it’s fiction, write down what you see in your mind as it happens. If it’s nonfiction, tell your personal story. If it’s instructional writing, imagine that you’re teaching your grandma about the topic.
Just keep writing until you feel like you’re ready to quit. Then, set the thing aside for a while. Once you get some distance from it, you’ll be prepared to come back and revise.
You honestly don’t know what you’re doing
Last week I talked about how everyone learns differently and we won’t all acquire knowledge about writing in the same way.
However, you can’t just take off without flying lessons, or you’ll end up going in circles and not understanding how stories or the writing process work.
For me, this problem is the easiest one to solve: you get the education you need to know what to do next.
Get a copy of Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird. It’s one of the texts I always used when I taught beginning writers at the college level, and it’s filled with encouragement about the writing process that fits with the Captain Pete Mitchell “Don’t think. Just do” philosophy of writing.
Then, get a book about your chosen genre. Craft books abound, and there is certainly something out there that will help you understand the mechanics of your writing. If you aren’t sure what to read, shoot me an email and I’ll be glad to help.
There’s another thing you can do, too, and that’s schedule a complimentary, one on one Zoom call with me.
I like to call it a Virtual Meetup.
It’s a 30-minute conversation where we’ll talk about your work in progress, answer any burning questions about writing, and deal with the hang-ups that keep you from moving forward with your project.
If you’re really serious about reaching your full creative potential so you can impact and inspire your readers—and you’re reading this blog post, so I’m pretty sure you are—this is the easiest way to get started.
Click here to learn more and grab some time on my calendar.