The Skill List Project: Discipline

This is another post in The Skill List Project: an attempt to list all the skills involved in writing and selling fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy. Last time, I decided that we had looked at most of the skills involved with plot, characterization, and other story elements, so it was time to step back and look at some meta-skills. This month, it’s discipline.


Many many writers and other creative professionals have written about discipline, and there’s no point in me re-inventing the wheel. Therefore, I’ll start by pointing you toward some of my favorites:

There are many many more; the Web is full of blogs and tumblrs by people with good advice on writing discipline. Go exploring, and I’m sure you’ll find good stuff.

My Own Two Cents

But I may as well throw in some advice of my own as well. Feel free to take what you think will be useful and ignore the rest.

1. Address any overt problems that get in the way.

It’s presumptuous of me to give life advice—huge thanks to my parents for genes and a happy childhood that have let me dodge so many bullets that have hit other people. But I will add my voice to support you if you’re dealing with health problems that interfere with writing: everything from depression to arthritis to other chronic difficulties. Please reach out for help from doctors, online support groups, and other knowledgeable people.

I know, for example, several writers and artists who were wary of medication because they were afraid it would dull their brains. Those who eventually took the leap often say, “Why did I wait so long?”

That’s all I can say from my position of ignorance…except to extend my deepest hopes that you’ll seek and find what you need.

2. Don’t glamorize avoidance.

No, you do not have Writer’s Block. My previous point was about dealing your real problems. Anything left over is garden-variety resistance / avoidance / bad habits.

What do you do about such habits? You avoid reinforcing them; you don’t make them a thing (i.e. writer’s block). Then you do whatever you can to break them.

If you find yourself in the middle of an unproductive behavior pattern, do anything else instead. Stand up and sing the National Anthem. Hit the floor and do pushups. Balance on one leg as long as you can. Do anything else at all (provided it’s not part of another avoidance pattern) until you feel the pressure behind the pattern abate. Then get back to work.

But don’t glamorize the pattern by telling stories about it—that just feeds it by rationalizing its existence. (“I wanted to blow off some pressure by playing video games, because I’m stressed out about how to write the next scene…”) No, no, no. Don’t talk it out; don’t try to explain. Just recognize the pattern and disrupt it. (“This is that avoidance pattern again. Time to count backwards from fifty.”)

3. Pick your battles and preserve your mental strength.

Just as muscles can get tired out from being used, your brain can too. Psychological research shows that the more you use your willpower, the less you have left until you take time to recuperate.

For example, if you make some difficult decisions, you’ll find it harder to focus afterward. I don’t know if scientists have figured out the neurology behind this result, but I think of it this way: your brain has limited resources (neuro-transmitters, blood sugar, etc.). As your brain operates, it uses those resources. If you ask your brain to make more than average exertions, you have lower levels of resources until they have time to be replenished. It’ll be harder to maintain mental discipline.

So minimize mental activity immediately before you’re going to write. Put off decisions till afterward. For example, if you’re the sort of person who really thinks about what clothes you’re going to wear, don’t do that before writing. Just come up with a standard writing uniform (whether it’s an old bathrobe, or sweat pants and a T-shirt) so you have one less thing to spend brainpower on. One of the most important aspects about developing a writing routine is that you don’t have to think once you figured it out: you always do the same thing to prepare for writing so your brain can coast for a while.

4. Take notes about what helps and what hurts.

Did you have a bad day writing? Procrastination and avoidance? Why do you think that happened? Try not to do it again.

Did you have a good day? What do you think was the cause? Do more of that!

It’s easy to think that writing is as random as lightning: sometimes striking and sometimes not. Often, however, good days and bad days aren’t mysterious at all. You can easily identify, “I went to bed too late,” or, “I wasted time on Twitter,” or, “It really helped to get some fresh air before I started.”

Pay attention! Write these things down! Start a computer file labeled Things I Should Do and another labeled Things I Shouldn’t. Then very consciously draw up a schedule that facilitates the good and minimizes the risk of the bad. If you get distracted by computer games, don’t have ‘em on your computer. If necessary, go to the library and write there.

Study yourself, then adapt your routine to the way your brain and body work. Pay attention! Write it down!

Other Tricks?

These are a few of my ideas for establishing and maintaining writing discipline. I’m sure many of you out there have tips of your own. What helps you buckle down and write? Fill up the comments, and I’ll see you next month.

Filed under For Novelists, learning to write, the business of writing, writing life, writing process. You can also use to trackback.

Author Information

James Alan Gardner

James Alan Gardner got his M.Math from the University of Waterloo with a thesis on black holes...and then he immediately started writing science fiction instead. He's been a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula awards, and has won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award as well as the Aurora award (twice). He's published seven novels (beginning with "Expendable"), plus a short story collection and (for street cred) a Lara Croft book. He cares deeply about words and sentences, and is working his way up to paragraphs. Visit site.



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