Monday, July 9, 2012

How to Stop Dithering

Dithering - I have a positive talent for it that only became obvious when I started writing seriously. In school, I plunged into homework assignments without hesitation. On the job, I worked my way through the day's to-do list without hesitation. With my writing?
  • I had a great dream. Maybe I should get that on paper.
  • Should I go back to that suspense story? Maybe I've let that character problem sit long enough.
  • Ooh! That reminds me. I've got notes for a great new SF premise.
  • etc.
It's great to have a lot of ideas and to be eager to get to work on something. But no one I know has mastered typing on more story at once (though there is an apocryphal story of Napoleon writing a letter with each hand while engaging in a conversation). A writing career caught between two or more projects will starve.

Making a decision is the answer. My practice is to decide the day before, and I usually like to do this at the end of the day, when my body is reminding me of how much work writing is. I am much too ambitious in the morning. If I can't decide, I go to my criteria - due dates, my passion for a project, how clear the job is, whether I have a breakthrough idea, and so on. I have even been known to score out or force rank the next day's work. I'll do anything to get a specific writing task at the top of the next day's to-do list. Because otherwise I know that I am at risk of dithering.

And, if I had any doubts about my talent for dithering, they were resolved a few years ago when I discovered the phenomenon of micro-dithering. Here's what happened:

I was well into writing a novel, so there was no question of which novel I'd work on. I had a big scene coming up, so I dutifully wrote down my task, finishing that scene, for the next day. I even knew how the scene was supposed to end. But the next day when I sat down to write, my brain started generating questions. About the character, about the setting, and about what I'd already written three chapters before. Notes were made. Web searches were done. Minutes ticked by. The day was -- unproductive.

This happened several times before I realized what was going on. The cure for me was to schedule the next day even more tightly and to turn off the wi-fi before I even started my writing. On reflection, the reason I fell into micro-dithering that first time was because of fear. I was drafting a scene that was painful and emotional for my character -- and for me. Inside, I knew that the experience would be unpleasant and the execution would be difficult and liable to fail. No wonder I couldn't commit. Dithering can be a "kid in a candy store"phenomenon, where it is difficult to choose between attractive alternatives, but it is more likely to happen because you don't want to put your hand on a hot stove.

How do you stop dithering (and micro-dithering)? I commit to the task, specifically, the day before. I don't want my brain to have any wiggle room. Another good practice is to enable yourself by anticipating what you will need the next day -- in terms of research, review of a previously written chapter, character descriptions, etc. -- and have it all prepared and at hand. But the most important way to avoid dithering may be understanding its root cause for you and countering that cause. You may need to write down what you fear and put it into perspective. You may need to talk yourself into torturing a character you love. You may need to gird your loins for a battle with your personal demons. 

“Whatever you do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius and power and magic in it.”
-  Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Does your work suffer because of dithering? How do you fight back?


  1. Peter,
    I'm an expert ditherer when it comes to writing. But I didn't really have a name or description for it before now.
    I like your advice of commitment and preparation. I do that in so many other areas of my life - financial, meals, workouts - and I'm very successful in those areas.
    It only makes sense to handle writing under the same set of rules.
    Thanks - much to work on!

  2. Hi, Debi
    We are not alone. :)
    Let me know how you new regimen works, and thanks for commenting!