The Mind Game of Writing

The Mind Game of Writing  by Leslie Watts at

I’m a history buff who loves to study battles, and though I’m a fairly peaceful person, I find military strategy (and its application to nonmilitary problems) fascinating. I was listening to a podcast the other day about the Blitzkrieg during World War II and flashed on something true about the mind game of writing. (You can find the History Extra podcast episode here.)

Blitzkrieg is the German term for "lightning war," and describes a strategy the army employed during World War II to invade France and the Low Countries in 1940. To avoid a war of attrition, which had proved fatal during World War I, the army needed to change their approach. Different levels of command adopted a collection of tactics that took the Germans farther in six weeks than their predecessors had in four years.  

Amateur and professional historians tend to treat the results of this strategy as inevitable. But according to Professor Lloyd Clark of the University of Buckingham (whose talk you can hear in the podcast episode linked above), it was anything but: The French and British had opportunities to stop the advance that could have changed the outcome of the German offensive and the war in substantial ways.  

Fair warning: This is a criminally brief and simplistic discussion of complex historical events. Although I was a history major in college, I’m in no way an expert on these events or military strategy.* Hindsight and time allow a view of events and consequences that people couldn’t access then. Still, there is plenty that we writers can learn and apply to our work.  


Attitude is Critical

Many factors led to German success in this 1940 campaign, including a fair bit of disobeying orders (by generals and sergeants alike). But the important point to remember, and one that is often lost, is that the attitude you bring to the battle is critical and often determines who wins and loses.  

The French and British planned joint actions to stop the invasion, but the French never showed up. When it was time to take action, according to Clark, "They’ve lost their will. They’re dislocated. They believe they've lost the battle, maybe even lost the war. ... And that’s what war fighting is all about. It’s not about how many men you kill. It’s about whether the enemy are still willing to fight."

Superior numbers, advanced weaponry, plentiful resources, and even ample intelligence, do not always win the day. History provides plenty of ancient, medieval, and modern examples. The mindset of the people who plan and fight the battle is as important.  


Doing Battle with Resistance

You can probably see where I’m going with this, and no doubt you’ve read and heard this before. Still it bears repeating. You must be willing to do battle with the enemy, that is resistance, every day. (Read The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield if this is new to you. Better still, get the audio version too so you can hear Pressfield’s voice in your head.) 

This is not new, but what I know from experience is that I need to hear certain truths regularly, from different people, in different contexts, and in alternate forms for them to stick. The thing that worked last year, last month, or last week doesn’t necessarily work today.

There is no "one and done" when it comes to resistance for me. When I get complacent, I find myself terrified to sit and write. It’s embarrassing. It feels utterly ridiculous. What the hell is wrong with me? Nothing. But the need to do battle is an everyday thing.

On the off chance that you experience this too, I didn’t want to leave it unsaid.  


It’s A Mind Game

The mind game of writing (and editing) is as important as possessing the resources, tools, and knowledge to get the job done. With the proper attitude, you can obtain or make unnecessary what you lack and solve the problems that arise. Without the willingness to do battle, though, nothing else matters, not for the long haul.

Writing, revising, finding your blind spots, receiving criticism, journeying into the unknown, learning new things and applying them—all of this takes time and effort. You can’t rely on luck or innate talent or inspiration. 

Most writers I know, whether they’ve sold thousands of books or none, deal with the crappy thoughts that flow from resistance. Nothing on earth is guaranteed to relieve you of this burden. Resistance shows up regularly unless the goals you’ve set for yourself don’t challenge or excite you. (If you’re here and reading this post, then it’s unlikely this applies to you.)  


Show Up and Be Willing

Resistance never goes away. As a practical matter, what can you do with this information? Analogies of military tactics only work if you can apply them in your personal battle, so this is what you do: Understand that the practice of showing up with the willingness to do battle makes it easier to show up and do the work.

The battle is not with the passive voice, dialogue, or weak scenes, though they are important. Your battle is with the voice that says your work sucks and don’t bother because, even though you’ve heard the advice a million times, you see the same problems in your writing.  

The practice is the practice no matter what your personal writing challenge: Show up with the willingness to do battle—no matter what.  

When it’s time to write, according to the commitment you’ve made to yourself, prepare for battle. Your armor in this engagement is your will that must be stronger than your enemy. Whatever negative thought comes up, talk back to it, ignore it, imagine it’s a person you send on vacation, or call it a neuronal glitch.

Do whatever works for you to keep going and complete the commitment.


Don’t Be Constantly At War

As someone who has overdone it a lot over the last year, I need to be clear about what I’m not saying: Do not give up sleep, exercise, or healthy food. Don’t ignore the important people in your life. I’ll have more to say about this soon, but though I want you to put your armor on when it’s time to write, I don’t want you to be constantly at war in your life.  

I know this analogy won’t work for everyone or every time. We all have different needs and they can change from day to day. If this is not your jam and military strategy turns you off, then find what works for you. That is your quest for the moment. You will find your way if you keep looking and doing the work.

Because we’re all in this battle together, I’d love for you to share what works for you. What helps you to show up and face resistance? You never know when what you have to share will be the right words at the right time for a fellow writer.


*To learn more about the events I mention here, I suggest Lloyd Clark’s book on the subject: Blitzkrieg: Myth, Reality, and Hitler’s Lightning War: France 1940. If you want to hear about military strategy generally, you might enjoy listening to History’s Great Military Blunders and the Lessons They Teach. Finally, check out Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast episode "Saigon, 1965" (season 1, episode 2) to explore the limits of military intelligence.  


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The Trouble with Self-Editing

The Trouble with Self-Editing   by Leslie Watts at

Last week, I wrote about why I think self-editing is important. Judging from the comments and emails we received, it touched a nerve! Some people relish this part of the process and believe that true writing starts here, while others would rather turn it over to someone else. 

I enjoy editing and helping authors find the best way to convey what’s in their minds and hearts. But I find it difficult to edit my writing. If you struggle with this, I understand where you’re coming from. You are not alone. 

I like to know how things work, so I unpacked why self-editing can be challenging. You’ve probably heard much of this before. It’s not new, but sorting out the difficulties helped me understand the challenges and myself better, and it may help you too.

I see three main categories of challenges: know-how, point of view, and resistance, and these challenges apply whether we’re talking about the whole story, a scene, or sentences. When you understand the underlying problem, you are well on your way to finding a solution. 


Like writing, editing requires knowledge and skills. Where do you start? What do you look for? How do you decide what to cut and keep? No surprise there. Some people possess native strengths that make the tasks easier than for others. This is true of nearly everything we do in life. The point is we’re not talking about mystical powers. What you need to know to self-edit is learnable, though in my experience it’s not taught in school. (Memories can be faulty, but it seems as if I received only vague instructions about proofreading.) 

I developed a taste for the craft of editing by stumbling upon it working on my college newspaper and heading up my law journal. I followed my interest from there: asked questions, read what other people had to say about it. One of the most helpful things was an English professor’s advice to take notes on everything I read: a summary of the work on one page of a notebook and a critique on the facing page to record what I liked and didn’t and why. I used this process for books assigned in class and the ones I read in my book club years later. 

This is a system that worked for me. Chances are you have a sense for what works for you. If you’re not sure how you work, try experimenting with different approaches.

If you want to learn new skills, it helps to model people who already know how to do it and experiment with what their techniques. It’s one of the reasons we perform edits on the Writership Podcast because we want to demystify the process for writers. In your exploration, you may discover conflicting opinions. Understand that different people have different styles and you need to test ideas for yourself. Don’t take anyone’s word (including mine) for anything. 

Discovering problem areas gets better with practice and asking great questions. The ultimate question is, does this piece of writing do what I want it to do? Beyond that are smaller questions, like nested boxes. What is your intention? What is the point you’re trying to make? Who is your ideal reader? What do you want the reader to feel and do when they finish the book? Does the opening pull the reader into the story and make a promise that bears fruit at the end of the book? These answers help you find problems and decide how to solve them.

As you learn your new skills, remember that your work slows and it can feel awkward. It’s hard until it gets easier. Tim Grahl talked about learning to use the ergonomic Colemak keyboard layout in an episode of the Story Grid podcast. More recently writer and tribe leader Sebastian Marshall talked about the same concept in baseball the Unmistakable Creative podcast. You might imagine that are the protagonist of your own story—about writing your story—and that you’ve hit an obstacle that you can overcome.

Along those lines, remember that your technique gets rusty when you don’t use it, and it helps to think critically about the stories you read and watch. Once you start to look for story structure, for example, you’ll see it in other people’s work and can spot what works and doesn't in your own work. (People have asked me if being an editor ruins my enjoyment of stories. It doesn’t. In fact, I have a deeper appreciation for the work that goes into creating the final product.)

Point of View

The second category of difficulty with self-editing is one of the main reasons people seek professional editors and beta readers. We’re so close to our work and can’t see our own blind spots. This is a real problem, but again, we can improve our chances with exploration and effort.

You are so familiar with your work. That’s a good thing, but that familiarity makes it hard to see what’s missing and what to cut. You understand your vision for the project, and you can’t see the gap between what you see in your mind and what ended up on the page often because your mind has filled it in. Our stories can be personal if we explore difficult circumstances in our lives and the questions that haunt us. Even if you aim for less personal subjects, your manuscript represents time and effort. Lunches skipped. TV shows missed. Hours of sleep you could have had. You’ve invested a lot, and you care about your stories, your intellectual children. 

It’s hard to be objective, but it’s worth the effort to make progress here. You know the story better than anyone, so you are the best person to make critical decisions. Your editor can give you advice and reveal trouble spots, but you are responsible for what goes out in the world with your name on it.

You can find lots of advice about gaining distance and perspective that comes down to time and formatting. Leave days, weeks, or months between writing and revision, enough so that the story and sentences seem less familiar to you. The period varies for different writers. 

Changing the format of your manuscript is the other primary way to make a manuscript less familiar to you. Simple options include changing the font, spacing, and background. But you can also load it onto a Kindle and read it there. Some people like to read a hard copy, and I’m in this camp. You can use a tiny font to get a bird’s-eye view of the manuscript spread out on the floor (use different highlighters to identify scenes, sequences, point of view characters). I’ve also heard of hanging the pages on a clothes line. You can use the text to speech feature on a Kindle or use an app like Natural Reader to hear your words. Finally try, tools to analyze your work. Shawn Coyne’s book The Story Grid helps you analyze story components as data. For copyediting and proofreading, use editing software like ProWriting Aid, Hemingway Editor, or Grammarly. Though not a substitute for a professional editor, these programs do more than reveal your typos. You can discover the average length of your sentences, the reading level required to understand your story, and the words and phrases that are difficult to understand or that don’t add meaning. 


As a writer, you’re probably familiar with resistance. Steven Pressfield tells us that we trigger resistance when we perform, “any act that derives from our higher nature instead of our lower.” Improving your manuscript (and your skills to do so) falls squarely inside the boundaries. 

Resistance can show up in the beliefs about your abilities, but also as the fear of messing up your story. When you work on your skills and keep notes and the earlier versions of your work, you can ease the discomfort. But we defeat resistance by doing the work. Add editing to your schedule, and when it is time, sit down and do the work. You can’t defeat resistance forever, but you can undermine its ability to be successful when you commit to your practice and follow through. 

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Cast Your Net with Writership: 25 Exercises to Inspire Your Fiction  by Leslie Watts.


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