Twelve Posts on Writing, Day Two: Avoiding the overdone

Posted on

Oh, the wonders of the human brain.

Did you know there are about 100 billion neurons in your brain? That’s the same number as there are stars in our galaxy.

Did you know your brain generates more electrical impulses in one day than by all the telephones in the world?

Did you know that on an average day, your brain generates 70,000 thoughts?


Also awesome: These three-pound masses of grey matter are efficient machines, firing off synapses to conjure up in a nanosecond a word for your Scrabble game, the phone number of the friend you need to call, the next scene in your novel.

This efficiency can work against us, though, as writers.

While you write, your brain supplies you with ideas, words and images. But being the efficient machine it is, your brain uses the synaptic pathways of least resistance. It selects the images and words it’s seen and used many times. Like reaching into the front of a filing cabinet, your brain reaches for the easiest, most familiar thing first.

Need a bank robber in your scene? I bet your first thought involves a ski mask and a note slipping across a teller’s counter.

How about a businessman? Did you think clean-shaven, dark suit, power tie, carrying a briefcase and a medium latte?

Or perhaps a high school cheerleader. Is she blonde with perfect hair, legs and teeth? Is she in love with the quarterback of the football team?

This idea applies not just to character, but to plot, setting, dialogue, diction…pretty much every aspect of your work. If you’re not careful, your brain will lead you to write the book you (and everyone else) have read a million times.

What can you do to avoid writing the overdone? Examine each image, detail, plot point your brain offers. In other words, filter your ideas. Reject your ideas.

When you need a bank robber and your brain gives you ski mask with gun in pocket, you must stop and consider. Is that image too familiar? If yes, reject and go to the next image. If the next idea is also too familiar, reject again and go for the third idea. The fourth. The fifth. And so on.

If you run with the first idea that comes to mind, you’ll end up writing what you already know, what readers have already read, what agents and editors see too often. You’ll write the overdone, the tired, the familiar, the stereotype, the cliche.

Instead, train your brain to reach further back into the filing cabinet of your subconscious until you find a fresh idea. Sometimes you’ll succeed at this while writing your first draft; sometimes you’ll catch them on the rewrites. If you do this — if you reject the first, second, third, even fourth ideas that come to mind — you will write unique stories. Interesting stories. Stories that capture readers. Stories that get published.


5 thoughts on “Twelve Posts on Writing, Day Two: Avoiding the overdone

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Chuck Wendig, Amy K. Nichols. Amy K. Nichols said: New blog post: Avoiding the Overdone in Your Writing […]

    Josh Covington said:
    December 7, 2009 at 5:08 pm

    Awesome post, Amy. Writing the overdone is one of the biggest mistakes that new writers make. Once you’re conscious of it, though, it’s much easier to catch in rewrites. Well done.

    amyknichols said:
    December 7, 2009 at 11:05 pm

    Even when you are conscious of it, it’s easy to get lazy, to not really see your character (setting, etc.), and just write whatever “central casting” sends over. That’s true for me, at least.

    Thank you for reading, Josh, and for your comment! 🙂

    Amy McLane said:
    December 15, 2009 at 11:34 am

    For me, it’s all about taking a pause and really seeing that character with my mind’s eye. I only get a hackneyed blond cheerleader if I’m not stopping to take a look at her. It seems counter intuitive but when I’m writing, I often have to stop and just let my fingers hover over the keys until I can see what I’m talking about. It’s almost like my brain is working backwards.

    Amy K.Nichols said:
    December 17, 2009 at 9:06 am

    I like how you phrased that, Amy: “My brain is working backwards.” It’s so true. Sometimes it’s difficult to slow down enough to really see the scene. Thank you for reading and commenting!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s