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Thinking about writing ≠ writing


We’ve all pulled this excuse before: “I just need some more time to think this through before I start writing – you know, simmer, steep, marinate – then, I’ll be ready to write.”


We all do it. In fact, I just (right this very minute) pulled this excuse with myself! I was trying to come up with a blog post, so I went to sit in my comfy chair and “steep” for a few minutes. What did I wind up thinking about? My packing checklist for our trip this weekend, the phone calls I need to return, and how much I would really love a cheeseburger right now. Yeah, I was not thinking about blog topics.

But it sounds like such a legitimate excuse, right? Writing is hard, and it requires higher level thoughts, so of course we have to spend time thinking about writing.

The truth is that thinking is not writing, but writing is thinking.

When we attempt to only think, we immediately become aware of how much we lack control of our own thoughts. Buddhists refer to our “monkey mind,” and Buddha himself said that our minds are “filled with drunken monkeys, jumping around, screeching, chattering, carrying on endlessly.”

We say that we’re going to go think about our extremely complex and complicated topic, and we very diligently sequester ourselves in a dark room, perhaps with a strong cup of coffee or a big glass of wine, and we tell ourselves to think about the topic. That lasts all of 30 seconds before the monkeys get agitated, and we’re off thinking about who knows what. A couple of minutes later, we redirect our thoughts back to the topic, but it’s not long before we’re off track again.

You may try to convince yourself that you’re trying to think through the problem, but I promise that we’re not nearly as good at thinking as we think we are. In order to tame the monkey mind, Buddhists (and the monks of many other world religions) would advocate meditating. I’m a fan of meditating, but there’s another way to tame the monkey mind: writing.

Writing is a form of meditation, a process of deep thought.

You don’t have to know what you’re going to write before you start writing. The act of writing or typing words will bring clarity to your thoughts.

You may feel like you have a million ideas bouncing around in your head, and you just need half an hour of quiet time to think, but I promise you that half an hour of writing will provide multitudes more clarity.

You say you need to think about your topic a little more?

I say perhaps you need to write in order to think properly.

Give it a try. Fix your complex, complicated topic in your mind and then just start writing. Write it all out. Write about how you feel about the topic – your frustrations, your hopes, why you want to write about this in the first place. Write about what you’ve learned about the topic – go back to grade school if you have to and just lay out your basic knowledge. Write about what you hope will be true about your topic in the future.

Just write out every last monkey of a thought in your mind. Put it all on paper. Let it out. Let it become real. Put words to the mass of confusion.

Then rest.

Allow your body and mind to feel the lifted weight, for just a little while.

Come back later, review your mess of a writing, and I’ll bet you anything that you have a moment of pure Eureka.

Scientists use thought experiments when they can't physically set up an experiment to test their theories. Einstein was famous for his ability to conduct groundbreaking thought experiments, where he would imagine a complex problem and literally think his way through the consequences. His thought experiment of chasing a light beam lead to his Theory of Special Relativity.

“The whole of science is nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking” (from Out of My Later Years by Albert Einstein 1950).

Maybe Einstein could just think through his confusion, but we writers, we write through our confusion. You could say that the whole of good writing is nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking, and the best way to refine your everyday mess of thoughts is by writing.

What about you?

When was the last time you said, “I just need to think about this for a while?” Did you actually go think about it with productive results? (If so, what’s your secret!?) Have you ever tried this technique of writing through your confusion?

P.S. Are you ready to stop procrastinating and start writing?

I'm hosting a live webinar next week – “7 Mistakes Writers Make Before They Even Start Writing Their Book (And How You Can Avoid Them).” If you could use a boost to get you out of thinking mode and into writing mode, register here: I'll have a few minutes to answer your questions, so bring your writing questions!