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On Thinking About Writing

I wrote a bit about this last year, when I talked about how Overthinking is Toxic[1]. Let’s revisit that, but with some more concreteness to it.

My day job is as a software developer, and while I never talk about my work, I find parallels between software development processes & good writing processes often. Which is only natural, since that’s my paradigm[2]. I’m in front of the keyboard between seven & eight hours a day, roughly, coding. But I’m not only thinking about work at those times. I’d say that around two hours beyond that, my mind’s chewing through work — during my commute[3], while grabbing lunch, taking a pipe break, etc.

So, on the top end, that’s ten hours that I’m chewing on work. My mind can’t not think about something, and since I’m partly geared as a puzzle-solver, I chew on things. It turns out that that time I’m away from the keyboard but still thinking is vital — that’s when I end up getting a different form of work done, where I’m reviewing in my head what I’ve just been doing because I am physically incapable of just rolling on. I have walked away from my desk for a few minutes of starring out into the bay, only to come back to a smart idea that I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t given myself space to revisit mentally.

How does that relate to writing? Two points:

  • My ratio of “thinking about writing code”-“actually writing code” is roughly 1:4.
  • The fruitful time is when I’m reflecting on what I’ve done and how to proceed, not when I’m starting with a blank file.

Applying that to writing:

  • How much time am I spending before I’m writing? Am I doing serious, productive thinking? Or am I really just expecting magical writing fairies to deliver me the goods before the pen hits the paper?
  • What’s my ratio of time thinking versus time writing? When it hits around 1:1 or worse, I start considering “Well, guess I’m not really a writer if I’m not actually, you know, writing.”

The sharpest people I know in writerland seem to hit around what I do in softwareland above. They write, they take breaks — sometimes forced thanks to biology & life — and reflect on what they just did and what’s coming next, and they get back to writing.

What are you doing? What’s your “thinking:actually doing” ratio? Do you feel like you’re honestly a writer when you look at that?

– Ryan

[1] Interesting-to-me side note: the original title was “Overthinking is Masturbation,” which is actually how I remember the post. Then I’m all “right, I sanitized that.”

[2] Admittedly, there’s a little Mage: the Ascension fanboyism whenever I think about the word “paradigm”.

[3] Which is where public transit is way handy. Plus, working in San Francisco and all. Traffic is nuts here.

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13 Responses to On Thinking About Writing

  1. When I was doing my English degree, my mentor told me once, “Writing, sitting down at the keyboard, is only 10% of the process.” The proportions can vary but the core idea is the same: most of what we call Writing happens in our minds as we chew on ideas, concepts, expressions, arguments; then the result gets dumped onto the page. Still very much true for me.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Daniel,

      I’m not sure I really agree with that. That said, 10% of the process doesn’t mean 10% of the time spent. Seems like people hear it wrong and think of it as an excuse to be okay not writing.

      Which is okay if you’re just dabbling, but then you shouldn’t fool yourself into thinking you’re serious.

      – Ryan

    • When I say the “process” I mean the activity of Writing, encompassing from the formation of the idea through the final period typed. I also underscore where I got this nugget: academia; very different writing environment there than in freelance authorship. As I continue doing academic writing, I find that for me, yeah, the ratio holds, not really 90/10 thinking/writing, but yeah 75-85/25-15. Which matches your own ratio, in the end.

      Thinking is no excuse for not writing. It gets *used* as one (I know I use it sometimes), but it *is* a vital component of the process of Writing (as defined above).

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Daniel,

      It sounds like you’re talking about the inverse of mine. Heh, only in academia…

      – Ryan

    • Re-reading, yes, we are talking about the same thing, but in inverted ratios. :-)

      It’s not surprising for academia, really. There there’s far more concern with the idea as central core and the text being only the output medium. Not that this isn’t the case in freelance writing, but in academia I never had to worry that a blown deadline would not net me more papers to write in the future, just some docked points.

  2. Matthew D. Gandy says:

    This concretizes some of my thinking about thinking about writing: I’m doing it wrong. I think my ratio tends to go the other way, and I’ve always justified this as the “I have to chew it over for a while, but then the writing goes reasonably fast.” This is patent bullshit. The way to better writing is to write and then make it better. Continuing to behave like a goose deluded that it’s going to lay golden eggs is, to mix metaphors, for the birds.

    Which is to say, thanks for this.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Matthew,

      I was doing wrong for years as well. Today, I know that’s out of fear of the actual writing, as what was in my head was flawless. I no longer fear what’s fact — at least, most of the time. :)

      – Ryan

  3. Leonard Balsera says:

    For me, it tends to vary. When I’m in “work mode”, I tend not to think about what I’m writing much at all, especially if I have a good outline to show me the milestones on the path. (I think, in fact, that outlining is how I tend to overcome the overthinking problem.)

    But, sometimes I do have to take a significant amount of hours and just let my mind drift around, pondering, before I can sit down and get to work mode. Sometimes, rarely, that’s a whole day. But I don’t really begrudge myself the time – it’s as much a part of the process as fingers to keys.

    Usually, I know when I’ve gone too far with that when I allow other tasks unrelated to the writing or the thinking to slip into the gap. Like X-Box.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Lenny,

      I hear you. I wouldn’t say it’s entirely linear. I think of the collective activity in terms of weeks rather than days.

      – Ryan

  4. Paul Tevis says:

    This year my approach has been that if I’m at the keyboard, I’m writing. Almost all of my thinking about writing happens at other times: running, doing the dishes, doing other stuff. This means that I write slowly and steadily; slowly because I’m only writing in thirty-minute chunks, steadily because I get those chunks every day. I’m giving myself time to think, and I’m always moving forward.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Paul,

      Totally. I often grab a shower or a swim (weather permitting) for that as well.

      There’s also the idea that “continued forward motion is good,” which you’re obviously keying in to.

      – Ryan

  5. Brand Robins says:

    When I’m at work these days my thinking to writing ration is often 0:1. I’m writing so much so fast that there is no time for thought or evaluation, reflection or process.

    The result is uniformly bad.

    When I was at my worst as a freelancer I think I’d get to a thinking:writing ratio of about 7:1. This produced some very fine material, but not enough of it to pay for dinner every night. Also, not enough of it to produce a longer fiction work in more than a year. And in the end I lost the thread because much as it was well developed it simply took too long to get out and the moment when I was capable of writing that thing in that way passed by.

    For me I’d say my best and most productive t:w ratio is about 2:5. Daydreaming, speculating, tossing things out and having an experiential moment are all critical to producing well. But spending slightly more than two to one actually writing is fundamental to making it happen and doing so in a professional manner.

    Note, this all assumes we’re talking professional writing. If we aren’t then fuck anyone’s rules about “are you a writer” or not. Its like asking how many trains do you have to paint to consider yourself a train hobbiest. The question is not only meaningless, its dangerous and insulting.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Brand,

      This is me nodding. Naturally, each person’s formula is different — the main thrust here is “is your actually working for you?”

      Note, this all assumes we’re talking professional writing.

      Which, here, we are. Or aspiring professional. Or aspiring to complete a project akin to one. Or “I want to seriously explore this thing we do, yo.”

      If we aren’t then fuck anyone’s rules about “are you a writer” or not. Its like asking how many trains do you have to paint to consider yourself a train hobbiest. The question is not only meaningless, its dangerous and insulting.

      I don’t mind insulting those people, though that’s not the main objective there. I don’t care about someone’s writerly-identity. But I point the question because I care if people know what they actually are doing, if they feel like they’re on the path they want to be on or if they aren’t. Pointed questions are good for that, even if they happen to insult some people. If I end up insulting folks, then I do. It’s almost like this is on the Internet. :)

      Though, total tangent.

      – Ryan