Writing self-discipline: why expertise shouldn’t be sufficient (and what you want as an alternative)
When I was twelve I loved golf.
I had big dreams for my golf career and told everyone my goal: to win the Masters.
For those who don't know, the Masters is a golf tournament with the best players in the game. When I was twelve, I decided that one day I would win. To fulfill this promise, I played competitive golf in my high school team and at summer tournaments. And for a while I was good.
But I didn't get better. In fact, I got worse over the years!
The break point came on the seventh hole during a tournament when I was pushing a drive into the forest. I picked up another one. And then another. Both shots disappeared into the trees.
So I slammed my club into the ground until it splintered like a branch and threw the pieces into the forest.
I decided to stop. I drove home, threw my clubs in the garage, and never came back to the square.
Golfing and writing are very different activities – but when you do them, they have in common that they rely on one person: you.
And if you have big dreams on your shoulders, those dreams can crush you if you keep pounding on projects and still fail.
Why does that happen? Why can't our talent and dreams make us successful?
Are we doomed to smash and quit our computers like a 4-iron?
Fortunately, there is a way to do things differently and live a joyful writing life that leads to success.
The problem with talent alone
"You don't have enough talent to win with talent alone!" – Coach Herb Brooks, wonder
Here's the truth about why I failed to play golf: I hated practicing.
I didn't want to be on the driving range for hours. I wanted to be on the course and constantly looking for a better score.
However, the course did nothing to develop my discipline. Instead, it angered my pride and made me demand success immediately. "Why am I not winning now?" I would ask.
I should have been in the practice area to improve my swing, set my chip shots to zero, and learn how to put tigers. But Pride, always the ruthless master, kept trying to skip the range and go to the course, and soon I imploded.
How does Pride do the same with our writing?
Proud can tell you a number of things. One thing that is likely to tell you is this: “You should write and publish a bestseller right away. If you don't succeed now, you're a failure. "
So you're giving in to Pride's demands and power through a draft, only to assume that your novel will be ready for publication as soon as it is published. When I finished the first draft of my novel, I wanted the world to parade me. I was exhausted and the thought of more work made me sick.
This is Pride's lie: “Your talent must be enough now. If it is not, it will never be. "
This lie will do the same to you as to me: you will break things until you break yourself.
If you do this, you will be further from your dreams and will try to stop more than ever.
Proud says you have to be a master author NOW. The truth is, you just have to practice.
What the practice looks like
What does “practicing” look like for us as writers?
How do we get the discipline to do great work regularly?
As with everything worth doing, writing requires many forms of discipline. Some of them are obvious and visible:
Visible writing disciplines
- Write every day
- Read every day
- Set goals with daily schedules
- Read coaching blogs (like The Write Practice!)
- Comment on these blogs
- Take part in writing competitions
- Participate in author groups
When we do these activities, it usually feels good. They feel productive and often are. And productivity nourishes our pride.
While productivity can be a great thing, it is often a mask for toxic problems simmering beneath the surface of our consciousness. Entering the golf course looked and felt "productive" to me. But it didn't do anything to address the problems that boiled in me like magma.
So it's the invisible disciplines of writing that make someone really great at some point:
Invisible writing disciplines
- Talk to your readers and listen to them
- Spend time with family and friends without writing
- Spend time at work (interacting with people) without writing
- Emphasize giving about selling
- Build relationships with other authors and content creators
- Forgive yourself for failure and frustration
- Believe in the value of both the end product and the trip
- Diary, meditate and pray
- Take healthy breaks or Sabbaths from writing (especially if it consumes you)
- Accept that you have very little control over your own success
These are not just activities. They are behaviors.
When mastered, they become deeply rooted in your own character and really transform who you are from within.
The 3 basic writing disciplines
While this is a long and potentially overwhelming list, I want you to focus on some of them to get started, as the majority of these disciplines will grow once you master and master the first three.
1. Write every day
As a visible writing discipline, daily writing tightens exactly the muscle that you want to grow. The best thing about daily writing is that it can take many forms.
You can write:
- a chapter of a novel or a draft of a story.
- a poem.
- a letter.
- Emails and memos for work.
- Notes, especially on your story ideas and revisions, on your phone.
- by hand, by keyboard or by screen.
- Comments on blog posts (like this one!).
- handwritten thank you notes or other notes to your spouse, children, family, friends or roommates.
The point is that you write and do it every day. Let the muscles of daily storytelling play and it will inevitably grow.
Note that this has nothing to do with talent. Talent cannot possibly prepare you for any context you write in. It cannot predict the desires and needs of your future readers.
And talent is useless if the desire to use it is destroyed by failure and pride. Talent is just a tool. You have to be a hard-working craftsman.
The hallmark of a successful writer is not his talent, but his discipline in writing.
2. Emphasize giving about selling
A few years ago I committed: I didn't want to "sell" anything for the whole of 2017.
That doesn't mean I closed my CreateSpace or Amazon accounts. I just decided not to promote it.
The only things I advertised were free giveaways. I've written an entire book, The 10 Reasons Why Readers Leave Your Book (And How To Get It Back) To Give It Away.
The idea of a "free giveaway" is nothing new in the blog world, but what may be new is the mindset that it offers. When you approach the craft and discipline of writing with a giving attitude, everything changes.
It is no longer about you.
It's about the reader.
While selling is essential for an artist's survival, it focuses on short-term goals. While some authors regularly achieve their sales goals, most of us don't. When I published my novel, I was unable to achieve any of my goals miserably and was tempted to stop writing, just as I did golf.
But I was able to fix the ship by remembering why I do it all: building and giving relationships.
Here's the kicker: you have to practice the daily discipline of giving. It is wild against our everyday human desires. We want to be served, not the other way around. The development of this discipline takes time and sacrifice over many months and years.
But if you serve, you will find a world of freedom and joy waiting for you. Doors open that you could not have imagined. Your entire writing game changes in an entertaining and liberating way.
But you have to practice. You have built the giving muscle. So start by putting the needs of your readers in the foreground and trust that this healthy relationship creates a platform that will eventually bring food to your plate.
3. Write, meditate and pray in the diary
The successful writer is a reflective, confident 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 calming down and spending time alone, away from their computer or website.
This practice has saved my life many times. It saved my life after the start of my novel when I decided to take the Sabbath or rest for a month. It saves my life every day when I take a break from work and communicate with God and myself.
After the failed start, I took my family up into the mountains to find a much-needed retreat. My favorite thing to do every day was to sit on the porch with a diary and a pot of coffee and just be. I would breathe, think, feel, wonder, and speak to God about the journey I was on.
It was fantastic.
For every day I am not in the mountains, I seek comfort in a quiet room in the house or in the loneliness of my way to and from work or in my headphones in a café. Sometimes I have to be easy, and for me that means logging in prayer, logging in thoughts, and logging with raw, free emotions.
This is far better than breaking a golf club to pieces.
Are you appreciating loneliness, rest and time to communicate with your God and with yourself?
Whatever belief system you have, it must be an integral part of your daily functioning. And when you attend this daily event, you must subject your writing and your work to the eternal truth that you believe in.
Don't confuse my meaning here: I'm not talking about asking God, Buddha or Santa to make you rich or famous. Doing so will make you stop harder than me (and lose more than your passion for writing).
I am talking about taking your truth on this writing trip and sharing this experience with the deepest parts of your spiritual self. If you don't, you will surely succumb to the same temptations that made me hang my golf bag: anger, self-deception, and the death of your dreams.
So take a moment every day to keep a diary, pray, meditate, or spend some time alone with yourself (and with your God) to reflect on your writing. Talk to yourself about what's going well and what's not. Learn to forgive yourself for your mistakes.
This will change your creative life. This can even affect your success in other areas of life. How could this have a positive effect on your marriage, your parenthood, your friendships or your "day job"?
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 start producing your best work because you really are your best, most disciplined self.
Writing discipline wins
I have no doubt that I had the talent to play golf well. My trainer told me all the time. My family too.
But I never understood his wording. Yes, I had the talent, but talent is just a start. It takes talent to be good at something. Talent is not goodness in and of itself.
Talent alone loses. Talent is useless without discipline.
Talent is just the sting. It's the premonition, the inspiration, the thought of visiting a blog like this and getting coached for excellence. It is the full measure of your untapped potential.
The only way to reveal your true talent, the talent you "think" or "hope" is to dig deep and lead a disciplined writing life. And if you do, it will be a happy life. It will be a full life. And it will be a victorious life.
Because discipline wins.
What daily writing discipline do you have? How did that help you grow as a writer? Let me know in the comments.
Today we're going to practice the second writing discipline: emphasizing giving. This comes to you in three steps.
Step 1: Think of your reader. Who are you? This could be someone who is already a fan of the book you published. You could be a friend who likes the same stories as you. You could be your mother or your brother or someone who just needs a hint of encouragement. Whoever you are, think of that person and the type of writing you would like to read today. Is it a story? A poem? A letter?
Step 2: Take fifteen minutes to write something just for her.
Step 3: Share your writing in the comments. Then be brave and share your letter with the person you were thinking of in step 1. You wrote it as a gift, so give it away!
Share your thoughts and encouragement with at least three other commentators!
Have fun practicing!
You deserve a great book. That's why David Safford writes adventure stories that you can't write. Read his latest story on his website. David is a language teacher, writer, blogger, hiker, Legend of Zelda fanatic, puzzler, husband and father of two great children.