An Acquired Skill

An Acquired Skill

Discipline is a hot topic among writers. Until I started reading the blogs of other writers, I never realized how important a concept it is, especially for those of us just starting out, trying to break into the professional world.

It’s obvious the most important step in the writing process is to write. Writing often is the only way to learn how to write well. You can’t tell your story if you don’t ever write it down. You’ll never finish anything if you don’t start it, nor if you don’t stick with it. Bestselling author Neil Gaiman has been quoted as saying it doesn’t matter what you have to do; just get the writing finished.

It sounds like such a simple thing. You just sit down and do it. But it’s one of the hardest things in the world.

The moment you sit down to write, you’re assaulted by a million other things. There’s an important email that needs a response. One more message to leave on Twitter. There are chores in the house you’ve forgotten to do, a bill that needs paid, a letter to write, a phone call to make. Before you know it, half your allotted writing time has been consumed without a single word written. Distractions aren’t the only issues either. It may sound silly, but being creative can take as much energy as physical labor. If you come home from a full day of work, it can be hard to summon the energy for that creative endeavor, especially when you add the distractions on top of it.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I admit; I can procrastinate with the best of them. That’s why it surprises me that I’ve written 4 novels in the past 9 years. True, that’s less than one a year (I’m hoping to work my way up to 2 a year in order to make this my full-time job), but its still a major accomplishment. There are plenty of people who never manage to complete a novel.

So how does an expert procrastinator like me manage to write 4 novels, each in a progressively shorter amount of time?


My friends tell me I’m good at keeping on task. In general, I agree with them. I set a goal and, while I rarely achieve it in the amount of time I originally scheduled for it, I manage to reach those goals in a reasonable amount of time. The key words here being reasonable and manage. Maybe some writers float to the keyboard, pound out their daily word counts with ease, and reach their original deadline with plenty of time to spare – I haven’t heard of or met any of them, but maybe they exist. I am not one of them. There are days when writing is a real struggle for me; a stay up until 2 AM because damn it! I am going to finish this chapter before I sleep if it kills me struggle. Even now there are days when I give up, walk away, and rearrange my schedule to accommodate a sanity break (so called because the breaks spare my sanity). But as time goes on, and I learn to manage my goals more effectively, those persistent needs to take day-long breaks, and the excuses which accompany them, grow fewer.

There are many different methods of writing discipline. Many have a pre-writing ritual they use to get themselves ready for the task, myself included. Some people make strict word goals. Some successfully isolate themselves from distractions. A popular emerging trend is ‘writing productivity applications’ such as Write or Die. This cheap application is supposed to increase a writer’s productivity by leaps and bounds. How does it do that? It punishes you for failure to be productive. That’s right; it beats you with the proverbial whip to ensure you get the work done.

Write or Die has several settings from mild to so annoying I can’t imagine it being useful. For instance, if you stop writing for a long enough period of time, it will play a horrible sound until you start writing again. If higher levels of stress are what it takes to get the words out of you, the Kamikaze setting will actually start to delete what you’ve already written if you don’t keep at it.

It isn’t the only application of its kind either. Freedom, for example, locks you off the Internet for a set period of time and refuses to let you back on until your lock-out period ends. While it’s true, isolation from distractions (especially Internet distractions) greatly increases focus, paying $10 for a program which does something you could do manually seems counterproductive to me.

If you think positive re-enforcement trumps the negative, there’s also programs like Written? Kitten!, which will show you a new picture of a cute little kitty for every x number of words you write.

While I’ve heard some swear by them, I wouldn’t recommend a single one. Nor would I recommend any similar application which offers to increase your productivity via brow-beating or bribes. The whole idea strikes me as trying to write with someone standing beside your chair screaming alternating encouragements and threats in your ear while you try to focus on a heart-rending love sequence. Is panic really the best motivator? Is it possible to produce quality under such conditions? One could argue that every first draft is terrible. Messy writing can be fixed during the editing process. But I maintain that putting down drivel just to keep the high-pitched chime from sounding only makes it harder for you to edit your work (and I’m not sure there’s a program that can similarly brow-beat you into editing your work).

Discipline is important, but constantly forcing yourself to produce under extreme stress just to reach your set word goals isn’t going to help you develop it. Here’s a little secret it seems not everyone knows; discipline is an acquired skill. You can learn to manage your time and energy without using programs which offer arbitrary reward or punishment based on keyboard strokes. In fact, teaching yourself to achieve your goals without leaning on crutches not only makes the experience more rewarding, it makes it more fun. Program enforced discipline disappears the moment you stop using the application. Real discipline stays with you and adapts to new circumstances.

You can accomplish everything these programs do for you on your own. Yes, it’s harder when you start. The results are slower and the effort greater. But much like with exercise, the more you work on developing your discipline, the more you apply it to your projects, the easier it becomes and the happier you feel about it.

Isolate yourself by choice; give yourself the option to come out of it whenever you want, rather than being locked in your hypothetical writing room for a set number of hours, productive or not. Otherwise you feel stifled. You may even resent your writing time because it robs you of your enjoyment.

Muscle through manually. Learn to tell the difference between procrastination and genuine blockage. Walking away from a scene for a few minutes, or even sleeping on it, may grant you more insight into the blockage than chipping at unyielding rock. Once you learn to tell the difference between problems with your writing and Facebook whispering distraction in your ear, it gets easier to put aside the distraction and keep writing. It also improves the quality of your first draft. While that by no means grants you the ability to skip the editing process, it will make editing much easier.

Reward yourself for a job well done. You don’t need arbitrary kitten pictures. When you pass a major milestone in your work, even if you intend to go on for the day, take a break. Make some tea. Allow yourself ten minutes to screw around on Facebook. The milestone could be anything; a scene break, finishing a conversation, getting past the paragraph that’s been driving you nuts for the last thirty minutes.

The single greatest reward of developing your own discipline is the knowledge that you are writing, not because a program is going to blast your eardrums if you don’t, but because it’s what you really, truly want to do.

4 Replies to “An Acquired Skill”

  1. AHAHAHAHA!!! “Written? Kitten!” made me laugh. I love that stuff like that exists (simply because someone dreamed it up – not because I think it’s necessarily useful.

    Good post! I need to learn to apply this to parenting. o.O

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