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Do Your Fiction Drafts Suffer from Bikeshedding?

bikeshed +‎ -ing. The word originates in Berkeley Software Distribution culture and implies technical disputes over minor, marginal issues conducted while more serious ones are being overlooked. The implied image is of people arguing over what color to paint the bicycle shed while the house is not finished.
I’ve been working with some young writers in the past weeks, and have noticed that they typically worry about the appearance of their characters, not the defining traits; they worry about a scene that lacks intensity, but forget about the plot as a whole; they nitpick on grammar, but overlook errors in consistency.

A classic case of focusing too much on the trees, because they are known, within reach– and losing sight of the woods– because that is the big, bad unknown you can get lost in.

This becomes worse when you’re trying to write a longer work. Every once in a while,  I find myself stressing the small stuff, without first seeing the finished work as a whole.

The time to go into details is later, when the infrastructure is steady, and ready to take on some heat. 

But I sometimes forget the above basic principle in my own creative writing and get into bikeshedding: I worry about the color to paint the bicycle shed while the house is not finished– obsess over a tiny plot detail before finishing my first draft, worry about writing that sentence so much better, write and re-write a passage till it shines, only to find myself editing it out later (because it is IRRELEVANT to the big picture).

I now have a firm rule: You get better in increments– don’t worry about getting it right the first time, just get it written. You’ll figure out if everything fits together first and things are ready to run before you debate over the color of paint!

Does bikeshedding hamper your fiction drafting process? How do You fight it?

Damyanti Biswas

Damyanti Biswas is the author of You Beneath Your Skin and numerous short stories that have been published in magazines and anthologies in the US, the UK, and Asia. She has been shortlisted for Best Small Fictions and Bath Novel Awards and is co-editor of the Forge Literary Magazine. Her next literary crime thriller, The Blue Bar, is represented by Lucienne Diver from The Knight Agency, and was published by Thomas & Mercer on January 1, 2023.

I appreciate comments, and I always visit back. If you're having trouble commenting, let me know via the contact form, or tweet me up @damyantig !

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  • Melissa says:

    I'll confess I'm guilty of this sometimes. I tend to be a detail person and have to force myself to look at the bigger picture. (I have to literally sit on my hands if a crit partner asks for a beta read instead of a line-by-line. LOL)

    I haven't been doing much writing since the kids got out of school, though. I've been busy building a new blog. It was the only way to get the Follower gadget to work again.

    Great post! 🙂

  • John Wiswell says:

    I'm receptive to minor criticisms. Sometimes I'll hop around and fix a niggling issue, but more often I'll make a file of potential problems and let them ride to another draft while I address more structural problems. There are times when the small-scale work of making a background character's personality consistent feels refreshing from the grind of re-tooling a dramatic arc, and stress-relief on the job is worth it. But it's all about what I can fix, and what effects it will have on the next draft versus the final product.

  • I needed this! I catch myself doing this all the time. Thank you.

  • Laura S. says:

    Great analogy and just what I needed to hear this week as I begin my week-long writing retreat where I'll be working on a couple of new picture book manuscripts.

  • It's so important to get distance from your work before you start picking on bits and pieces. Yesterday I read someone who posted that they were just about to finish a 75,000 word manuscript, edit it in the next month & publish it by late August. To me, that's craziness. You need to put distance between yourself and your manuscript, (for me at least 6 months to let it rest). Then you can go back, read it one hit, and see the work as a whole. No more bikeshedding!

  • Mina Lobo says:

    LOL, I've totally bike-shedded. But I've read enough to know it shouldn't take priority over writing a first draft. The tricky bit is remembering that I'm not chiseling the stuff in stone and I can always go back and tweak my little OCD heart out. I keep a notebook handy to jot down those thoughts that occur, about going back to fix a thing, then do my best to press on. I don't always succeed in pressing on, mind you, but I do try.
    Some Dark Romantic

  • Stephanie says:

    It used to bikeshed. I've found that to get the first draft done, I need to just write, straight through, and not allow myself to do any in the moment editing. That leads to first drafts that are all over the place, as I change plot direction, character arcs and even the nature of the world itself.

    But it's better than never getting the draft done. For me, as-I-write nitpicking eventually leads to getting discouraged with the novel overall, and moving on to a different idea.

  • D.G. Hudson says:

    When it happens, it forces me to leave the work alone for a bit. This is hard for me.

    That's good advice for any large task' break it into increments 'Good advice , Damyanti.

  • Marian Allen says:

    I DO this! For me, I think it's a way of stalling because I hate to plot. Deciding what happens means discarding all other possibilities, so I stop and piddle. In the end, I have force myself to quit that and move on. I'm always happy when I do. I hope someday to stop stopping and keep going!

    Marian Allen
    Fantasies, mysteries, comedies, recipes

  • I fight that urge to make it perfect the first time and often I do take time to chose the right words and phrasing. Sometimes it is cut, but at least if it remains it's in pretty good shape.
    Don't worry, I scarcely even remember to describe my characters!

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