Behind the scenes of the Don’t Overthink It writing process

Behind the scenes of the Don’t Overthink It writing process

My new book Don’t Overthink It: Make Easier Decisions, Stop Second-Guessing, and Bring More Joy to Your Life came out last week, and today I’m taking you behind the scenes of the writing process, complete with lots and lots of pictures.

When I began tossing this idea around, I knew that some helpful information existed on this topic, but I quickly discovered that books about overthinking focused on rumination. I wanted to focus on all the ways I knew overthinking infiltrated our lives: how did that happen, what could we do about it, and why did it even matter?

That last question became increasingly important to me as I continued to write: my primary purpose in writing this book wasn’t to focus on the overthinking itself, but instead on how to put it aside in order to bring more peace, love, and joy into our lives.

When I started playing around with this idea, I brainstormed in a spiral-bound notebook, and then a Google Drive document. As my document grew longer, and the book’s contents became clearer, it was time to create a loose structure.

What would I do without index cards and sticky notes? They were once again invaluable here. I took the information I’d gathered and transferred every topic I wanted to cover and every story I wanted to tell onto index cards, and then I sorted them into possible chapters. The middle chapters looked like this:

The next photo shows what the outline of the whole book looked like at this stage. (As you can see, some chapters were PACKED with content, and some needed fleshing out.) At this early stage, the book consisted of twenty short chapters, divided into two main sections, which I thought about as “the bad stuff” we want to get rid of (rumination, worry, perfectionism) and “the good stuff” we want more of (rituals, simple abundance, splurges).

That structure was never going to work, but I didn’t know that yet.

If you saw the below photo on Instagram, you should know there are 20 chapters represented in that stack of index cards. The final book has 14, but only five of those chapters were ones I originally planned on writing.

The content of this book shifted dramatically as I wrote it. I thought I knew what a book about overthinking needed to address. But as I learned more and more about overthinking, I grew more and more surprised by just how many facets of our lives overthinking touches. And I realized that the first structure I’d created—positive vs negative—made it impossible to effectively address those complexities.

The below photo shows an early version of Chapter 2, including a story I was certain needed to be in the book. (This story is not in the book.) And that program is Scrivener, which is what I use to write my books.

I spent the next six months in the “messy middle”—that stage between first draft and third draft where I wrote and wrote, moved things around, did more research, made TONS of cuts, and moved things around some more.

As I worked, I began to see that in addition to the two sections I’d initially envisioned, this book needed a third section—one dedicated to showing readers how they can lay the foundation for a satisfying thought life.

In the above photo, you can see how I wrote all my working chapters down on index cards, then laid them down on my kitchen island and shuffled them around until I found the structure that made the most sense at the time. If you can read my points, you’ll see that at this point I envisioned the content in four sections:

  • “essential” strategies to lay a solid foundation
  • “overcoming” strategies to stop overthinking in the moment it happens
  • “freeing” strategies to lighten your mental load
  • “abundant” strategies to purposefully bring more peace, joy, and love into your life

At this point, I felt like I had 90% of the information I needed to create an interesting, useful book—but it still wasn’t in the right order.

There comes a time when I need to get out of my own head and get some external feedback on what I’ve written. When I’m writing, be it a blog post or a book, my biggest question is: Does the page say what I think it says?

Several months before my initial deadline, and before I obsessed any further on nailing the structure, I sent the current draft of my book to three trusted readers. They weren’t professional book people; instead, they were readers who know me well, and who read a lot of books. I wanted to get their take on my book: what did they find most interesting? Where did their attention lag? What did they find confusing? How did the book help them? Did it feel like anything was missing?

Their notes were invaluable. I printed them off, made a bunch of highlights, and dug back into my manuscript, chapter by chapter. I most strongly differentiated two chapters, combined two chapters, and did some moving around. (See below.) If I hadn’t had these genius giant sticky notes, I would have resorted to writing on my walls!

Then I sent my revised version to another handful of readers I trusted and followed the same process: print, highlight, revise. And then I did it again.

Last March, I sent my manuscript to my editor. When I got my edits back, her first comments were about the structure. (I wasn’t kidding when I said that the structure is always the hardest part for me!)

I did more kitchen counter shuffling, and more rearranging with my giant sticky notes, and we finally landed on the final structure, the one that appears in the published book. The chapters had been rearranged so many times at this point that I had to write the final order on an index card to carry around with me so I didn’t forget! It looked like this:

When the structure changes, the content changes—and now that we’d finalized the structure, I turned my attention to making the content the best it could be. This looked like evaluating the flow of every chapter, doing further research to fill in a few perceived gaps, and sometimes, like a little Ben & Jerry’s.

As you can see, I do most of my writing on Scrivener, but when I want to read what I’ve written, I prefer to read on paper.

My editor and I passed the book back and forth a lot at this stage, as we turned our attention from the question of Is all the right information here? to Is this book a pleasure to read?

As the process goes on, the editing gets more and more specific. We’re no longer focusing on which ideas belong; we’re evaluating the quality of the prose, individual word choice, and formatting questions.

As my final deadline drew near, I made myself A LOT of lists laying out what I still needed to do to finish the book. In the below photo you can see that my to do list includes a polish of each chapter.

In this book I also include a fun quote from literature (or in one case, from my friend’s email newsletter) to introduce each chapter. These were HARD to find! (I used the list on the left to track my quote progress.)

Finally, I got to the stage where I evaluated my word selection in the manuscript as a whole. This was the final step before I turned in my manuscript. How many times did I say magical, terrible, awesome, profound? I wanted every word to be exactly right.

And so I used my Scrivener tools to evaluate word frequency, and then I looked at every. single. instance. of words that I may have overused.

Once I turned in the book, I still had to go through copyedits, and then page proofs, where we make sure every word is perfect and every punctuation mark in its right place. I’m grateful for the copyediting stage, and yet I’ll spare you the screenshots on that, you’re welcome.

The book came out on March 3, and a few days before that, three boxes of finished copies showed up on my doorstep.

And the pretty finished copies look like this on bookstore shelves:

I hope you found this peek behind the scenes interesting. I don’t take the writing process lightly: my goal was to write a book that would be interesting, useful, a pleasure to read, and that ultimately would change people’s lives.

I hope you find it does just that.

Thanks for reading,

Anne

P.S. OF COURSE you can now buy your copy wherever new books are sold. Click here for details.

37 comments | Comment

37 comments

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  1. Pam says:

    Very interesting! I’m a process gal, and one who is (over)thinking about starting her own writing project, so love this kind of detail. I recognize that my next, post-retirement writing project will be very different from my previous, academic work. I borrowed your book from the public library yesterday. Looking forward to digging in soon! Congratulations on this BIG accomplishment.

  2. Diana says:

    Notecards! This is how I wrote all of my college papers. Hundreds of notecards as I researched and then the night before the paper was due I would lay them out in the order I wanted to write it.

  3. Heather says:

    This is EXACTLY what I needed today! Thank you for sharing this with us. I’m guessing your guest on yesterday’s episode of WSIRN will find this interesting too. For what it’s worth, that may be one of my favorite episodes to date!

  4. This is FABULOUS. I love reading about writing processes. Posts like this are always a reminder there’s no one way to approach our work.

    Your notecards spread over the floor remind me of the shrunken manuscript method, where, once a draft is written, you make the font tiny, print it up, then highlight whatever you’d like to work on: (I’m thinking fiction here) how much time a particular character is on a page, where subplots fit into the story, various key turning points, — the options are endless. Seeing it all spread out shows you visually what’s working and where there are holes.

    I’m looking forward to your book!

  5. Jamie says:

    I love it!! However, I now desperately want to know the story you originally put in the book … then had to take out. Any chance of sharing it on your blog? I’m on my way to buy the kindle version of your book – can’t wait to read it!! Congrats 🎊

  6. Sue Whitehead says:

    Ive just joined Hope*Writers. This dovetails so beautifully with the stage I’m at.
    I look forward to reading/ hearing? your book.

  7. Anne,
    I loved reading about and seeing the photos of your writing process. Fascinating. No wonder the structure and content of your  book “Don’t Overthink It”  is so wonderful! I love all your examples and quotes and questions. I have been taking notes like crazy. 
    So far, I am in the middle of part 2 and I can honestly say your book is “interesting, useful, a pleasure to read,” and has so far helped me make a dent in my “overthinking” about how to get rid of paperwork, always my downfall. 
    The questions in chapter 3 were perfect for me. “Where are you experiencing analysis paralysis right now?” “What factors are keeping you stuck?” What mini-experiments can you implement in order to move forward?” Answering those questions for myself, and tying them into the subject of values from chapter 4, sent me to my home office for two straight days.  I have finally been able to toss a lot of paper files, something I have long ruminated about, but just couldn’t “make” myself get started doing. I have now begun and that pleases me. I feel much more self-aware and inspired and can’t wait to discover where else your book will lead me. Thank you!

    • Anne says:

      Carolyn, I’m so glad to hear that! And I should have said: it was feedback from one of those smart early readers that convinced me to put those reflection questions in the book at the end of every chapter. I’m glad you’re finding them useful!

  8. Amy says:

    As a writer who is planning to write my first book within the next year-and-a-half or so, this post is fascinating to me and incredibly helpful. I love all the different ways you sorted your ideas to play with different structures, and it’s encouraging to me to know that I don’t need to nail the outline perfectly on the first try. One thing I’m glad to be reminded of is the value of index cards for organizing any written work. I didn’t really get into using index cards for my writing until I was near the end of my university degree, and it would have made the first half of my English degree SO MUCH EASIER if I had used them right from the start—especially when I started writing papers on topics I had covered before! Having all those sources and notes already on a card would have made it easier to recycle sources and quotes!

  9. Christine says:

    This was so interesting to read! I’ve always wondered about how authors write/structure their books. I knew it was a lot of work, but I realize that it’s even more than I thought! Can’t wait to read it! 🙂

  10. Jennifer Geisler says:

    This is a marvelous post! Thanks so much for taking the time to lift the veil on your process! I can’t imagine how you found the time to accomplish all this work while keeping all your other balls in the air!
    While I have your attention, a “thank you” for two very different books recently finished that were recommended in two of your posts. First was Picking Up by Robin Nagel; who would have imagined that I would enjoy every word describing the NYC garbage collection department? I’ve already recommended is highly for a number of friends and family. The other book; The Bromance Book Club, was the result of a quick search for something light. When I saw it on the library shelf, I immediately grabbed it and read it in record time. Thanks for the wonderful variety of books you recommend – and I appreciated that neither of them were “end of the world” books, which seem to be growing in favor with publishers but are so relentlessly depressing.

  11. Ioana says:

    That looks like A LOT of work, but I’m so grateful for people who take the time to fine tune their craft. You sending your drafts to two different groups of readers before sending it to your editor shows me I’m in for a treat when I’ll read the book. I hate typos and all-over-the-place-structure in my nonfiction books.
    This post has been fun to read! I appreciate you thinking ahead and snapping photos as you wrote. #dedication

    • Melissa Anthony says:

      Loved the post! Loved your book even more!!
      Really wanting to know the restaurant you and Will took the kids to in Chicago! Delightful story and several great take aways! Thanks Ann!!

  12. M says:

    Oh your book looks so pretty. Thank you so much for sharing your writing process! I love how much you do on paper rather than on the screen. It’s crazy how much perfectionism goes into writing a book… like it’s your baby. I love love love that.

    -M
    The Life of Little Me

  13. Anita Bondurant says:

    Half way thru the book and already it has helped me! Thanks for writing it. I have been waiting for the release date for months!

  14. Ruth O says:

    Thank you for sharing the process behind the book! I really enjoy behind-the-scenes information and this is fascinating to see the steps involved.
    Our local library has the book and I have it checked out and am eager to get comfy in ‘my chair’ and read it shortly.

  15. Sarah W says:

    This was super interesting! I love hearing about the creative process for any project: the journey that an idea goes on in order to become an actual finished thing (a book in this case) is fascinating… and rather complex! I’m currently in the very early stage of writing a fantasy novel that’s been gradually forming in my brain for the past couple of years, and I’ve picked up a few tips from this. I love the “overused words” list! I’d never thought about that but I think it would come in extremely handy.
    Also, I’d just like to add that I really enjoy your blog/podcast! I’ve been following for a while but this is my first time commenting. I’m eager to purchase a copy of Don’t Overthink It soon; every time I’ve found myself overthinking stuff this week I’ve reminded myself that I’ve gotta go get a copy of that book!

  16. Thank you so much for sharing this detailed post! I do find it remarkable that you can do all of this writing and stay focused with the busyness of 4 kids, a house, husband, career, and dog all around you! Your next book needs to help the rest of us with time management. 🙂 I just finished reading On Writing by Stephen King and his book was enlightening as well. It made me think of you. Congratulations, Anne – You are inspiring and a joy to read and listen to!

  17. Audra Kennedy says:

    Love the use of Post-It notes and notecards! And the book was wonderful. Bought my copy on the day it came out!

  18. Ruth says:

    I’ve yet to actually make a start on my copy (too much overthinking, perchance?), but enforced social distancing and/or social isolation will provide the time needed. Every cloud and all that …

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