How to Develop the Discipline of a Professional Writer


There are a lot of articles on the web about the importance of self-discipline for a writer. Putting together my thoughts on the topic for the Article Team, I realize that I have nothing to add to them and no creative spin to filter things through. I have nothing to say on it to the internet.  But I still want to write this for my friends at Mythic Scribes.

It’s too easy to get complacent on the web. It’s too easy to lose yourself in the thought and the banter and to forget the labor. If we want to create and further the Art of Fantasy Storytelling, I think we need to push one another to create more.

Yes, you’ve probably heard all the advice before. Write every day. Work through the stress, the emotions, and the writer’s block. Stop looking for the magic bullet, the perfect story, the in-depth world – your first draft, especially your first novel, will be lousy anyways. So just write it, get it out of your system, and then keep writing more.

Even so, I’ve looked at a lot of articles on these topics searching for my own magic bullet.  There is one: That hard work everyone keeps talking about.  You already know what you need to do.  The magic is in getting the notion to wiggle in through the skull.  I think that’s why they call it a bullet.

But discipline is more than a catchword or a force of willpower some people have and others don’t.  It’s a trait and a skill you develop just like anything else.  And there’s science and a process behind learning discipline.  I want to break it down as best as I can.

I haven’t saved most of the articles and research I’ve looked through.  I won’t be citing many sources.  But I will cite just one that I consider a must read because nothing that I’ve looked at does quite as good of a job hammering home the main point as this article:

Inspiration Is for Amateurs: How to Become a Creative Professional

In particular, I’d like to call attention to this passage:

I would like to suggest reviving this perspective on professionalism — viewing it as an attitude, a mindset, an ironclad commitment towards the labors before you. . . . “professionals” have vowed to get a job done, no matter their mood. (emphasis added)

Being a creative professional is about doing the work. Routinely. With unfailing commitment.  Work isn’t exciting or emotional.  On some level whether or not you succeed comes down to whether you can handle the boredom. This shouldn’t be new or surprising for anybody. The single piece of advice people give new writers most often is to write every day. Nothing that you do every day can always be done in excitement and giddiness.

That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t find writing fun or look for ways to make the labor more enjoyable. But by far the most exciting and motivating thing that you can do is make progress. That’s the proof that you care about what you’re doing. And it’s the work and boredom that ultimately earn you the thrills of making progress.

Nobody else can take responsibility for your writing progress but you. Or me, in my own case. But it’s not always easy to get to the point where you’re comfortable writing on the schedule you’re aiming for. Getting there comes down to three things:

  • Embracing Discipline
  • Narrowing Your Expectations
  • Understanding Your Motivation

I’m going to try to tackle each of them below.

Embracing Discipline

More than anything, it’s important to own your time. Very little happens naturally, organically, or on its own. If you want to become a writer, you need to own that desire and spend your time in a way that leads you to your goals. Just like the characters who pass through their arcs in your book, you need to make the choice to overcome your obstacles.

It’s possible that you’re too busy. I can’t speak for your schedule or your commitments or how you should prioritize your time. But busyness can often be more feeling than reality. It can represent a lack of focus or ownership of your time and your commitments.

Consistency is everything, even when it comes down to your emotions. From the article quoted above:

Since action breeds feelings more effectively than feelings lead to action, professionals ultimately end up with more, and more consistent, inspiration than amateurs, and make more progress on their goals.

If it’s just that you feel too busy – or too stressed, tired, frustrated, etc. – to work on your writing, then disciplining yourself into a creative consistency is the best way to overcome those feelings.

If you want to feel better about writing, discipline yourself to do more writing.

And consistency doesn’t merely suppress those feelings of busyness, frustration or tiredness.  It lets you channel them.  Your emotions are powered by stress, and stress is a good thing when you accept it.  Stress is the power your body generates to overcome a challenge.  When you’re stressed about your writing it means that you care about your writing.  The more consistent you are about your writing, the more your body will shift that power away from your emotions and into getting you what you care about: Your writing.

So you have to make the choice. Set your priorities. Are you going to write?  Do you want to feel busy, or do you want to feel like a writer? The choice is yours.

Consider this your bullet.  Will you bring the magic?

Narrowing Your Expectations

But that notion of discipline can mess with our heads. To become better writers, we have to sit down and work when we don’t want to. If we have trouble with that, does that mean we’re not really fit to be writers? Does that mean we don’t want it badly enough?

Is it how well I push through exhaustion that tells me what I do or do not really want in life?

No. Once we make the commitment to write regularly, we still need to know what to expect and how to deal with the challenges ahead of us.

Remember, willpower is a real mental energy, connected to glucose levels in specific regions of the brain. The more decisions you make throughout the day, the more you deplete your brain’s glucose levels and exhaust your willpower.

When you first begin to build your writing habits you’re drawing heavily on your willpower, and it depletes quickly. Trying to push forward when you have no willpower can be painful, exhausting, and disheartening. And too much of it can lead to bad decisions and crappy writing. You have to push through your mental exhaustion, but not that much.

How many words can you write in one good hour? Be honest and pick a number. Say it out loud before you read on. . . . . . .

. . . now, start with a goal of reaching 80% of that number. It’s good to know that you can write more, but nothing is static.  Work fluctuates.  One day you might open a new chapter and struggle to get it started.  Another day you might near the end of it and find the words plunge out of you until you finish it.  You’re setting a regular goal – 80% is a healthy and realistic expectation.

But to get started you also want to take some of the edge off. You want to make it easy for yourself to sit down and write however often you want to write.  You want to use less willpower.

Start with the goal of reaching 80% of your hourly word count in 90 minutes.  You can scale the math to whatever timeframe you prefer – it’s not about the length.  It’s about the wiggle room, about having the time to hit your goal even when you’re exhausted and behind and you don’t want to.

That is, don’t start with the goal of writing a novel. Start with the goal of learning to write without willpower.

Keep at it until you hit that mark.  If you come up short?  That’s fine.  Keep trying.  You’ll get there!

And when you do – when you hit your word counts on demand no matter how you feel for a few weeks in a row, and it becomes easy to sit down and write – then you can push yourself to do 1% better each time. Maybe that means reaching a higher word count or building better tension or writing with smoother language. That’s what you should use your willpower for.

Yes, you can have the goal of writing a novel in a year or a chapter in a week. But your first and foremost goal should be establishing and protecting the process that will get you there.

Managing that daily grind is going to be your true benchmark for success.  You can’t expect to write a book before you’ve established your process.  Otherwise you’re building the fantasy in your head instead of on the page.

Understanding Your Motivation

But where’s the fun?  Don’t turn my pleasurable pastime into work!

One of the joys of life comes on those occasions when you realize that you are the one who gets to decide what your life is about.  Writing is one of those times.  If you want to write as a pastime whenever you feel like it, or toss out a hundred of your greatest ideas because you just don’t want to write them, that’s fine, and nobody – least of all some dope writing things like this on the internet – has any authority over how you should spend your life.

But for me, and I think for many of the people reading this, the bigger question is:

How can I find writing fun if I’m not doing enough of it?

When you write, you get to create something.  You get to pour yourself onto a page.  You get the accomplishment of telling a story and the thrill of being read.  You get to be an entertainer, a commentator, a thinker and a self-starting doer.  With a bit of discipline, you get to write.

Think about your stories.  Think about your characters.  Think about the magic, the ideas that you could share.  Think about the fun and the awesome that you find in your writing and let that help you make your writing decisions.

I can’t tell you how to prioritize your life or how much you should write.  But when I struggle with my writing, it’s the thought of telling my stories that makes me want to find ways to move forward.  When you decide how much you want to write, think about your own writing, your own stories, and not about the notions of pastime and labor.

What do you care about?  Do more of that.

And if that’s writing, then stop reading this.

You should be writing.

No, wait, if that worked then I missed the whole point.  Pick a time.  That’s when you should be writing. With consistency.

Further Discussion

Have you made a commitment to write regularly?  How are you keeping that commitment?

Is something stopping you from writing?  If so, how do you plan to overcome it?

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6 years ago

Thanks – some great reminders in here. I don’t know where I heard this, but “too busy” is just another way to say “not a priority.” There are SO many hours in a week. If all of yours are full with work, activities, social life, and sleep, you need to reprioritize…

Kendall O
Kendall O
6 years ago

Even though you started off by saying you didn’t really have a creative spin to add to this, I think you made it quite interesting to read and certainly shone a new light on it for me. Creativity doesn’t have a set schedule, but the work still needs to be put in daily to get to the end product.

Melissa Zehner
6 years ago

This is, quite simply, the best advice I’ve seen for professional writers. Too many writers are held back simply because they have the mindset that creatives must wait for the muse or that our lifestyle “should” be freewheeling and unscheduled – which results in very little work being produced. I keep regular business hours for my writing and I force myself to produce each day. It’s not always easy, but it’s a surefire way to stay on course and get the words down. Thanks for taking our craft seriously.

Brian DeLeonard
Brian DeLeonard
Reply to  Melissa Zehner
6 years ago

Thanks! It’s all about sealing in the right mindset and protecting that writing time.

Aderyn Wood
6 years ago

I’ve been writing full time for a while now and one thing I’ve had to manage is the expectations of family and friends. Sometimes, when they hear ‘I’m writing at home’ it translates to ‘I’m available to socialize/ help you out’. I’ve started saying ‘working’ instead of ‘writing’ and it’s had a pretty good effect so far.

I’ve also found having a routine, as you mention, really helps to keep me on track. And, surprisingly, having a designated space has helped with the psychology that I’m ‘at work’.

Brian DeLeonard
Brian DeLeonard
Reply to  Aderyn Wood
6 years ago

Definitely! I’ve also taken to telling my wife that I’m working because that’s what it is. It’s a stronger word and gets across the mentality that we need to shoot for.

6 years ago

Great post here. And I love the fact that I can be a writer…..though there are deadlines and certain expectations from others, the overall feeling you get from being your own boss is wonderful. But, like with any other job, there are days of….blah. But I agree with you saying “busyness can often be more feeling than reality”…..what are your priorities? What are your expectations? As a writer, we have a lot of freedom, but we also have to be committed if we want to get anywhere with it. Procrastination is the worst habit you can have.

Brian DeLeonard
Brian DeLeonard
Reply to  Beth
6 years ago

I also love being my own boss. Writing is great because you can decide what you want to write. You’ve got control of your work. But the flipside of that freedom is that you’re the one who has to hold yourself accountable. That’s not always easy.

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