Writing Self-discipline: Why Expertise Isn’t Sufficient (And What You Want As a substitute)
Do you sometimes feel like you’ll never succeed as a writer? Do you read other books and worry you’re not talented enough? Or question if talent is enough?
Comparison is almost never an effective strategy for finding writing success, and who gets to decide what defines talent?
The truth is talent alone won’t make you a writer. You have to be able to finish a book. Multiple books.
And that takes hard work and discipline.
How I Learned to Become a Disciplined Writer
When I was twelve, I loved golf.
I had huge dreams for my golfing career and told everyone my goal: to win the Masters.
For those who don’t know, the Masters is a golf tournament featuring the game’s best players. At twelve, I decided that I was going to win someday. To fulfill that promise, I played competitive golf on my high school team and in summer tournaments. And for a while, I was good.
But I wasn’t getting better. In fact, as the years wore on, I seemed to get worse.
The breaking point came on the seventh hole during a tournament when I shanked a drive into the woods. I teed up another. And then another. Both shots disappeared into the trees.
I slammed my club into the ground until it splintered like a twig, and threw the pieces into the woods.
And I decided to quit. I drove home, threw my clubs in the garage, and never returned to that course.
When I began playing golf, I seemed to have talent. But I didn’t truly have the discipline to develop it at the time. I gave up before discipline could build me into a remarkable golfer. I might not have won the Masters Tournament, but when I quit, I guaranteed I wouldn’t.
Golfing and writing are very different activities—but one thing they have in common is that they rely on one person: You.
And when you have huge dreams, those dreams can crush you as you throw yourself at projects over and over again, and still fail.
Why does this happen? Why can’t our talent and dreams make us successful?
Are we doomed to smash our computers like a four-iron and quit?
Thankfully, there is a way to do things differently and live a joyful writing life that will lead to success.
The Problem With Talent Alone
“You don’t have enough talent to win on talent alone!” — Coach Herb Brooks, Miracle
Here’s the truth about why I failed at golf: I hated practicing.
I didn’t want to stand on the driving range for hours and hours. I wanted to be out on the course, constantly chasing a better score.
Yet the course did nothing to develop my discipline. Instead, it angered my sense of pride, and made me demand success from myself immediately. “Why am I not winning now?” I would ask.
I should have been in the practice area honing my swing, zeroing in my chip shots, and learning to putt like Tiger Woods. But pride kept tempting me to skip the range and head out to the course, and before long, I imploded.
How does pride do the same thing with our writing?
Pride may tell you a number of things. One thing it is probably telling you is this: “You should write and publish a bestseller immediately. If you don’t succeed now, then you’re a failure.”
So you power through a draft, only to assume that your novel is ready for publication the moment it’s finished. When I finished the first draft of my first novel, I wanted the world to throw me a parade. I was exhausted, and the thought of more work made me sick.
This is pride’s lie: “Your talent needs to be enough now. If it isn’t, then it will never be.”
That lie is going to do the same thing to you that it did to me: You’re going to break things until you break yourself.
If you do, then you’ll be further from your dreams, and more tempted to quit than ever before.
Pride says you must be a master writer NOW. The truth is, you need to practice.
What Practicing Looks Like
So what does “practicing” look like for us as writers?
How do we obtain the discipline to produce great work on a regular basis?
As with anything worth doing, writing requires many forms of discipline. Some of them are obvious and visible:
Visible Writing Disciplines
These are practical, visible ways to practice writing week after week, year after year, until you’ve accomplished your goal.
But you can also benefit from adjusting your writing mindset by defining your writing wins differently, and living a rewarding life separate from writing. These disciplines are just as important for your long-term success, even if they feel invisible and harder to track on a spreadsheet or daily writing goal sheet.
Invisible Writing Disciplines
- Stop focusing solely on talent and comparison and let yourself enjoy the process
- Spend time with family and friends while not writing
- Forgive yourself for failure and frustration
- Believe in the value of BOTH the final product and the journey
- Journal, meditate, or pray
- Take healthy breaks from writing (especially when it consumes you)
- Accept that you have very limited control over some measures of success
- Emphasize giving over selling
These aren’t just activities. They’re behaviors.
When mastered, they become deeply engrained in your character, and truly transform who you are. Meeting your long-term writing goals is going to take more than a day of writing, a focus on willpower, and creative desires. It’s going to take practice on these disciplines.
The 3 Fundamental Writing Disciplines
I’ve shared a couple of long lists, but I want you to focus on a few of these to get started.
1. Write Every Day
Daily writing is a visible writing discipline, and it flexes the very muscle you want to grow. The best thing about writing every day is that this can take many forms.
You can write:
- a chapter of a novel or a draft of a story.
- a poem.
- a letter or handwritten note
- notes, especially about your story ideas and revisions, in your phone.
The point is that you write, and you do it every day. If that’s not possible, at least establish a writing schedule where you are as consistent with your writing as you are showing up for your job. Flex the muscle of regular storytelling, and it will inevitably grow.
Notice that this has nothing to do with talent. Talent cannot possibly prepare you for every context you will write in. It cannot anticipate your future readers’ wants and needs.
Set some small writing goals whether daily or on a weekly schedule that you can track and will get you in a writing habit. Prioritizing dedicated writing time with an emphasis on practice (not greatness) will slowly but surely make a difference.
The mark of a successful writer isn’t their talent, but their discipline to write.
2. Emphasize Giving Over Selling
A few years ago, I made a commitment: For the whole year, I wasn’t going to “sell” anything.
That doesn’t mean I shut down my CreateSpace or Amazon accounts. I just chose not to promote them.
The only things I promoted were free giveaways. I wrote an entire book, The 10 Reasons Readers Quit Your Book (and How to Win Them Back), in order to give it away.
Why do this?
The idea of a “free giveaway” is nothing new in the writing blog world, but what might be new is the mindset it provides. When you approach the craft and discipline of writing with a generous attitude, everything changes.
It’s no longer about you.
It’s about the reader.
Selling, while essential for an artist to survive, focuses on short-term goals. While some authors regularly accomplish their selling goals, most of us don’t. When I launched my first novel, I failed miserably at meeting any of my goals and was tempted to quit writing altogether, just like I did with golf.
But I was able to continue by remembering why I do any of this: to build relationships and give.
Generosity is wildly opposed to our everyday human desires. We want to be served, not the other way around. But when you are generous, you’ll find a world of freedom and joy waiting for you.
But you have to practice. You have build the giving muscle. Begin by putting your readers’ needs first and trusting that this healthy relationship will build a platform that eventually puts food on your plate.
3. Journal, Meditate, and/or Pray
The successful writer is a reflective, self-aware writer.
Few masters of the craft suffer delusions about themselves. You will find that the most successful artists have some kind of daily practice of quieting themselves and spending time alone, away from their computer or website.
This practice has saved my life many times. It saved my life after the launch of my novel when I chose to rest from writing for a month. It saves my life daily when pause from work and communicate with God, and with myself.
After the failed launch, I took my family to the mountains for a much-needed retreat. My favorite activity every day was sitting on the porch with a journal and pot of coffee, and just being. It gave me space to keep going.
For me, I seek solace in a quiet room of the house, the solitude of my commute to and from work, or in my headphones at a coffee shop. Sometimes I just need to be, and for me that means journaling my thoughts.
That’s far better than smashing a golf club to smithereens.
So take a moment every day to journal, pray, meditate, or enjoy some time alone to reflect on your writing. Be honest about what is going well and what is not. Learn to forgive yourself for your mistakes.
This will transform your creative life. It might even affect your success in other areas of life, too. How might your marriage, parenting, friendships, or “day job” be positively impacted by this?
So make the commitment to spend time alone, even if it’s five minutes a day. You need it, and you deserve it.
And your readers will appreciate it when you begin producing your best work because you are truly your best, most disciplined self.
Writing Discipline Wins
There is no doubt in my mind that I had the talent to be good at golf. My coach told me all the time. So did my family.
But I never understood his phrasing. Yes, I had the talent, but talent is just a place to begin. It takes talent to be good at something. Talent is not goodness in and of itself.
Without discipline, talent is useless.
The only way to reveal your true talent, the talent you “think” you have, or “hope” you have, is to dig deep and live a disciplined writing life. And when you do, it will be a joyful life. It will be a fulfilling life.
Because discipline wins.
What daily writing discipline do you maintain? How has that helped you to grow as a writer? Let me know in the comments.
Today, we’re going to practice the second writing discipline: emphasize giving. This comes to you in three steps.
Step 1: Think of your reader. Who are they? This might be someone who is already a fan of the book you published. They might be a friend who likes the same kinds of stories as you. They might be your mom, or your brother, or someone who just needs a note of encouragement.
What kind of writing would they would love to read today. Is it a story? A poem? A letter?
Step 2: Take fifteen minutes to write something just for them.
Step 3: Share your writing—Write Practice Pro members can share here in the practice workshop. Then, be bold and share your writing with the person you thought of in Step 1. You wrote it as a gift, so give it away!
Be sure to share thoughts and encouragement with at least three other writers!
Not a member yet? Join our terrific writing community here as a part of pursuing your own discipline.