The Number One Enemy Of The Writer

enemy of the writer

Unclear thinking is an enemy of the writer, and it’s most often about being lazy and not fully imagining your story. Write with clarity of purpose, and your writing comes alive.

What is the biggest hurdle for any writer? A lack of time? The blank page? Writer’s block? Having your ideas stolen? The absence of an agent or publisher?

Probably not.

You’ll make the time if you really want to, writer’s block will pass once you fill up again on ideas, and if your ideas are worth stealing, you’ll quickly get another better one. And today, you can self-publish easier than ever.

So, could the worst thing be poor grammar or an inability to spell? What about technophobia that makes dealing with computers a nightmare? Is it a fear of business and the social-media savvy required to promote and sell books? Is it the fierce competition of the book market?


If you have a great story but just need help tidying up the mechanics, hire an editor, copy-editor, or proof-reader. Heck, you can even easily hire a ghost writer these days. If you are a technophobe, write long-hand. It worked for centuries. And while selling books is great, you took on this writing gig for personal satisfaction, right? So who cares about promotion and competition?

So, what is the number one enemy of the writer? Unclear thinking.

Have you ever had the joy of hearing an incredibly clear thinker speak? Thoughts flow in perfect order. It’s so easy to follow. They must be remembering 20 things in their minds at once. Mozart wrote out entire works from memory; he was just dictating. Asimov only wrote two drafts: a first draft and a second to publish. Mozart and Asimov are paradigms of clear thinking. Each thought – whether note or word – has its place. Not one can be dropped, added, or replaced.

The rest of us need help to achieve this kind of clarity of thought. Some use outlines. Some make mind maps, index cards, fill walls with post-it notes, or notebooks with pages of character, setting, and plot developments. Whatever you do, however you do it, it needs to be there.

Clarity of thought is a key reason pantsing and dumping work for some people. Since it’s all one train of thought, not a mash-up of edits done at different times and different moods, it is more cohesive. Others obtain this cohesion through successive rounds of editing.

Clear thinking is a straight path from A to Z.

Unclear thinking makes messes. Unclear thinking yields clumsy, ineffective, wandering trails of words that leave readers in the thickets, cut and bruised, or in the desert, hot and begging for nourishment.

These messes are hard to clean up, and at worst, are unfixable. Editors and beta readers can point out where things go out of focus, but they can’t offer solutions. That is up to you.

So, how to improve clarity of thought? Look at the higher structure of your writing. Sentences need clear logic, but so do paragraphs and larger chunks of text. Chapters need to flow and the longest sections of a book – beginning, middle and end – need to make sense.

Unclear thinking is most often about being lazy and not fully imagining your story. Get your discipline on and think it out completely. Most of all, recognize in your own writing when you’ve insufficiently imagined your story. Write with clarity of purpose, and your writing comes alive.




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  1. Thanks, Dawn.

    “So, how to improve clarity of thought?”

    I recommend critiquing the works of others via online writers’ groups. When we see the mistakes of friends or strangers, our eyes open to the flaws in our own words.

    • I agree! is a great website for just this purpose! I find that critiquing others works gets me in the mood to edit/write my own stuff. Also, when I know I will have readers I am more likely to focus more on my writing and get done chapters so I can post my own work for critique.

  2. Great point but if only the article had followed its own advice.

    ‘Clarity of thought is a key reason pantsing and dumping work for some people. Since it’s all one train of thought, not a mash-up of edits done at different times and different moods, it is more cohesive. Others obtain this cohesion through successive rounds of editing.’

    What does that even mean?

    • Indeed! Pantsing is when someone has their pants pulled down unexpectedly and in public. How does that make for cohesive writing?
      However, I do agree that clear thinking is vital and I find that testing a work by asking people to read it once and once only is an excellent way of getting feedback.

      • My understanding, in this context, ‘pantsing’ refers to a writing approach that is ‘seat of the pants’; as opposed to creating an outline and working to it.

    • If I may, “pantsing” is a term (used many times before on this blog) to describe a writer who “writes by the seat of his pants,” which is to say, doesn’t outline or plan the narrative before writing. He lets the story take him wherever it is going to go. So the author’s point here is to say that some people gain clarity in the spontaneity of their writing, as it isn’t the product of multiple sessions of writing done over the course of many days or weeks with edits and changes done along the way.

    • I, too, was lost in that pantsing sentence. Kinda ironic, and inspiring in a weird sort of way, that such an unclear sentence was right in the middle of this article.

  3. Writing a novel is far from a linear process for most of us. I think part of the issue is that we often focus on words per day of output,* when the more important effort lies in designing the story, taking time to mull over the plot-line under a tree somewhere, with notebook and pen. Mulling lets our brain enter non-linear mode, which is almost impossible while facing a computer screen.

    * NaNoNeNeNuNuWriMo emphasizes this tendency, and I avoid it.

    • You’re right. I think the process of writing a good novel is similar to the scientific process of creating and developing an interesting theory. My husband, a physicist, told me what a Russian scientist told him, that good scientific research is “the ability to think lazily and deeply.” It’s not the kind of laziness that leads to sloppy writing and careless errors, but the laziness of slowly spinning thoughts together and following where they lead, rather than trying to force everything into a pre-existing pattern. It leads to discovery and novelty. Of course, you also need an obsessive concern for getting the details right and telling the story as well as possible for the finished product.

    • NaNoWriMo’s words per day goal are a way to focus on just writing and not get too caught up in writing every word perfectly — just write! Editing can happen later. You can write fewer words per day as long as you end up with 50k at the end of the month… unless it’s camp nano and you can choose your own word count goal.

      NaNoWrMo has forums and articles to help plan your novel before the writing month and advocates both outlining and pantsing techniques. A lot of novels wouldn’t happen without Nano.

      I do agree with the non-linear writing… A great tool (also Nanowrimo winners often get a discount code for…) is Scrivener. This program facilitates non-linear writing and organizing snippets of writing and offers outlining as well.

    • I’m not sure it’s true that NaNoWriMo ’emphasizes this tendency’. Yes, NaNo is a ‘contest’ based on word count. And they do offer a guideline on how many words per day will meet the standard. But they’re not pushing word count versus quality.

      I’m not fond of people who ‘look down their nose’ at NaNo. Besides being something of a ‘social even’ and a lot of fun, NaNo gave me the understanding that I could compose a novel length story–and I’ve been producing a manuscript a year since first participating…

  4. SO true, but when we’re not Mozart or Asimov, its a daily slogging, revising a piece – honing, sharpening. All the while wondering if the world even cares about the sharpness, if books are even read anymore.

    If you want to write it has to be because you NEED to write.
    Otherwise it’s just self-punishment.

    Oh, wait, it’s self-punishment if you write, too…so…?

    My thinking isn’t clear at the moment.

    • Nothing I’ve ever sweated over in session after session, tinkering here and fiddling there, has turned out well. Clarity of thought succumbs to a desperate, pathetic hope. Thanks for an article that talks truth.

  5. Sorry, but I have to call BS on this article.

    “Unclear thinking” does not equal being lazy. For some writers, such as myself, part of the joy of writing is the process of discovery, chasing rabbits, getting lost in the woods, and finding the way out again. The whole thing can be edited and revised later. If I know where a story is going before I start writing, then what’s the point?

    Just because Dr. Field prefers a more linear, connect the dots approach to writing doesn’t mean it’s the only way to approach writing. This works for her (and other writers) and that’s fine. However, you don’t get to disparage other writers’ approach because it’s different from yours.

  6. Bertrand Russell wrote that he dictated his books. Letter perfect after punctuation.
    In youth, I did the same. Everything I wrote was published. Or got personal letters of encouragement from ATLANTIC and PLAYBOY.

    And then, I got fevers and meningitis.

    Now, neverending editing and rewriting is needed to make sense.
    Advice and instruction do not repair organic damage.
    Whether you know your damage or not.

    Good writing is simply easy to read.

  7. I had no trouble understanding any of this article. That some commenters did, and did not know what ‘pantsing’ means, reminds us that we all vary in our knowledge and reading comprehension, as well as our tastes. No doubt those baffled commenters know and understand other things better than I do. But we can’t win ’em all and satisfy everybody, an important point to bear in my mind with beta-readers, editors, and others.

  8. A good writer will
    Take all the suggestions and teaching they receive. And then be themselves in what they produce. It is a truism that we are ourselves for this reason. Be true to one’s self with a strong support system getting your back.

  9. Thanks, Dawn for this post.
    I ‘m challenged by the example of the masters such as Mozart and Asimov .I am fired up to write with clarity and purpose now.

    However,I did not understand that one sentence: “clarity of thought is a key reason pantsing and dumping work for people” even though I know perfectly what pantsing is.

    Once more, thank you for this post.

  10. I don’t know anything about pantsing and dumping, perhaps because I’ve never read much about the art and craft of writing itself, probably because of presuming it to be some sort of instinctive thing or nothing. That said, I’m wondering now what percentage of writers approach writing the way I do. As a novelist, mainly detective/murder mysteries, I’m careful never to overthink a prospective project going in. I just cast about until a plot idea hits me that feels, intuitively, like it has possibilities, and start writing, no outlines or anything like that. The result tends to be a heavily character-driven plot dynamic. My characters, mostly based upon people I’ve known, begin spontaneously generating from under cabbage leaves in the deep dark child’s garden lurking somewhere way back in my head, and start doing stuff, which ultimately leads to other characters cropping up on cue and starting doing stuff, like watching some kind of evolving movie, until it’s finally the characters getting hallucinatorily stronger and beginning to write their own material, more or less reducing me to just taking dictation. Needless to say, the first draft can be fairly rough, and it’s really all in the rewriting rather than the writing. I’m just wondering, though, does anybody else experience writing this way?


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