How to Get Some Writing Done: Discipline vs. Enthusiasm

Sooner or later, most writers discover that the most difficult part of writing isn’t dreaming up characters or perfecting our sentences or learning story structure. No, the hardest part of getting some writing done is just… doing it. Procrastination is a hot topic (and a self-deprecating joke) among writers for the very reason that almost all of us struggle to maintain the sheer force of will often required in simply putting our fingers to the keyboard and making them move.

One of the best bits of advice I ever received, years ago when I began taking my writing seriously, was to “treat it like a job.” I memorized Peter de Vries great quote and then posted it above my desk for good measure:

I write when I’m inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired at nine o’clock every morning.

Enthusiasm may have prompted an interest in this approach, but really what we’re talking about is discipline, pure and simple. And yet as important as discipline may be in keeping us at the desk, it isn’t enough. When life gets real, discipline may (or may not) bring us to the desk, but it can’t always make the words flow. A couple weeks ago, @Amira568 tweeted me the following:

During this COVID-19 quarantine, many people are trying to take the opportunity to learn new skills, further creative desires, and write. New Wordplayer Matthew Zweig wrote me from China:

I wanted to take a moment to thank you for your awesome work, site, free content (ebooks yay!) and advice! Your site has been a source of guidance, inspiration, and knowledge! Thank you!

I’m an ex-pat, living in China, on … day 69(?) of “lockdown” since the COVID19 broke out here in January—and while a lot of folks are struggling with, what I am calling, Stuckhome Syndrome (Stuckhome… Stockholm… get it? Very punny haha) I have been using the time to get stuck into writing and doing a ton of writing prompts and exercises.

I never truly appreciated how intimidating writing can be! I’ve always wanted to be a writer, a novelist—it was only when I sat down to write that it hit home. Writing is scary! Putting your inner thoughts and experiences and stories down on paper and making them “real”… truly scary stuff! But your site has given me structure, calmed me down, pointed me in the right direction. So THANK YOU!

I do hope that you and yours keep safe during this interesting time!

Matthew nailed it. Writing is scary, even at the best of times! While discipline can help us construct structures and systems to help us work through fear and resistance, the discipline will eventually run dry if we’re not also cultivating sheer unadulterated enthusiasm for our work (which I think you can feel radiating from Matthew’s email!).

How to start (and keep) writing even when it’s really hard is an evergreen subject among writers. But it’s particularly pertinent right now, in part because more people than ever are exploring those stories they’ve always wanted to tell. This is a great time to explore our enthusiasm for writing, both because enthusiasm can be harder to access in times of stress and also because enthusiasm is a powerfully positive emotion that, in itself, can bring much good into your life.

Today, let’s look at the subjects of discipline and enthusiasm—and how a proper balance between them will help you get some writing done during the quarantine and after.

Top 5 Tips for Cultivating the Discipline of a Daily Writing Practice

I used to say discipline in writing came down to “willpower, old boy, willpower.” And it does—to an extent. But willpower is a limited resource. If you don’t support it with good habits, it will eventually run out. If you’re consistent in disciplining yourself to show up at the desk for at least a month, your habitual brain will take over and you’ll find you need to employ less and less willpower.

There will still be days (and whole periods) when those habits are challenged by outside circumstances, but showing up at your desk for the 30th day in a row (or, even better, the 6,000th—which is approximately where I’m at after 18+ years of regular writing) is a whole lot easier than showing up sporadically for 30 days spread out over a longer period of time.

Discipline is directly linked to motivation. If your motivation for sitting down to write is strong, then the discipline will follow. By the same token, if you’re struggling with discipline, check your motivation. How bad do you really want to write this story? To be a writer? To have a daily writing practice?

There are no wrong answers. But honesty will either prepare you to better meet your goals—or save you a lot of trouble if it turns out you have different desires.

Assuming you do want to cultivate the habit of discipline in your writing life, here are my top five tips.

1. Build a Writing Session Into Your Daily Schedule

I’ve talked about this in several different posts, but recently in this one: “8 Challenges (and Solutions) When Writing From Home.” If writing is truly going to happen for you on a regular basis, then you must build it into a larger schedule. This schedule must not only make time for your writing, but also support you physically, mentally, and energetically so you have the necessary resources when you do show up at the desk. A good daily writing session, done regularly, is what will build those muscles of habit.

2. Create a Warm-Up Routine

Writing requires deep levels of concentration from both our logical brains and our imaginative brains. It’s difficult to cold-start either. Although you can absolutely train yourself (habits again!) to sit down, switch gears, and start writing like a mad person at the drop of the hat, you’ll probably encounter less inner resistance if you ease into full-blown writing with a few warm-ups. This is a build-your-own-burrito exercise, but tricks I’ve used in the past include:

  • Journaling about your goals for the writing session.
  • Brewing coffee and preparing a light snack.
  • Re-reading what you wrote the day before.
  • Reviewing research or outline notes.
  • Watching a thematically appropriate music video.

Wordplayer Eric Troyer commented a few weeks ago that:

I also do 10 minutes of meditation right before starting my morning fiction writing. I found that helps me focus.

3. Be Realistic About Necessary Preparation

One of the biggest reasons writers freeze when they sit down to write is that they’re not actually ready to write. If you find yourself revved up and willing but still unable to get started, you may need any of the following to provide the necessary resources for a full-blown writing session:

People often ask if “writing every day” literally means writing. I say, no. For my money, any necessary writing task, including all those mentioned above, counts. When I’m in research phase, I don’t write at all but spend my entire writing session reading and/or transcribing notes.

4. Set the Timer

When you are ready to write, you may find yourself with your fingers hovering over the keyboard: hovering, hovering, hovering. Before you know it, thirty minutes have passed. I’ve found that setting a short time limit, such as fifteen minutes, and then just diving in and writing like crazy will get me going and keep me going. Writing for fifteen minutes doesn’t seem as intimidating as writing for an hour or two. When the fifteen minutes is up, I start another round.

5. If You’re Struggling, Ask Why

Sometimes, no matter how much willpower you’re churning out, the words just won’t come. At this point, you have to ask yourself why. The reason you’re struggling to write almost certainly is not because you’re a lazy bum who lacks discipline. Something’s wrong. Something’s difficult. So be kind to yourself. But also be smart and look deeper. What’s the real hang up here? Maybe you need some time off to care for your physical and emotional health. Or maybe… you’re running low on enthusiasm…

Top 5 Tips for Renewing Your Enthusiasm for Writing

Another recent email, from Colleen Janik, addressed the essential nature of enthusiasm in any act of creativity:

The problem is, really, that people SAY that if you sit in that chair in front of your computer long enough and WRITE, that the Muse will obediently appear….

The truth is, as far as I have experienced, writing is partially a matter of willing the muse to come and pull up a chair next to you, sip tea and chat while you wildly type all the brilliant ideas about all the great characters and conflicts.

The trick, I believe is, to set up a place that is quite comfortable for the Muse and to invite him/her very cordially and wait very patiently for that presence and then don’t EVER EVER EVER rush him/her out the door before the visit is over.

We CANNOT artificially create the magic of writing without the Muse.

The inimitable Julia Cameron went even farther in her classic The Artist’s Way (which is, in my opinion, the one book every writer should read during this quarantine—as you’ve probably guessed, since I think I’ve talked about it in every single post I’ve written this past month):

Over any extended period of time, being an artist requires enthusiasm more than discipline. Enthusiasm is not an emotional state. It is a spiritual commitment, a loving surrender to our creative process, a loving recognition of all the creativity around us.

Enthusiasm (from the Greek, “filled with God”) is an ongoing energy supply tapped into the flow of life itself. Enthusiasm is grounded in play, not work. Far from being a brain-numbed soldier, our artist is actually our child within, our inner playmate. As with all playmates, it is joy, not duty, that makes for a lasting bond.

True, our artist may rise at dawn to greet the typewriter or easel in the morning stillness. But this event has more to do with a child’s love of secret adventure than with ironclad discipline. What other people may view as discipline is actually a play date that we make with our artist child: “I’ll meet you at 6:00 A.M. and we’ll goof around with that script, painting, sculpture…”

When your enthusiasm is on tap, no one needs to tell you how to find it. It’s just there, an effervescent well of life bubbling up from deep inside. But when it goes missing, it can be difficult to relocate it, and in my experience, the steps usually aren’t directly related to writing. In fact, if you’re really struggling with enthusiasm, whether in general or for writing in particular, you may want to relent on your discipline and give yourself the permission for a break.

If you’re striving to access your enthusiasm, here are a few exercises you can play with to cultivate it (and don’t be mistaken: healing tapped-out enthusiasm requires a discipline all its own).

 1. Reconnect With Your Inner Child

I love Cameron’s emphasis that creativity is inherently linked to one’s inner child. There are many things we can do to rediscover this most playful part of ourselves, including some of the following:

  • Reflect on childhood memories, using photos, home movies, and old journals as aids. Try to remember what it felt like to be enthusiastic and creative when you were young.
  • Interview your inner child. Just as if he or she were a character in a story, start asking questions and seeing what answers you find. Particularly, ask about things your inner child might be afraid of or areas in which your inner child may not trust you. Visualize what he or she may look like (mine came to me as a wary, feral “wolf girl,” a la Princess Mononoke).

  • Go have fun. Do things that are just for the wonder of it. Try to think of things that will get you off the couch and into your body. Build things. Make crafts. Play games. Roll down a hill.

2. Work Through Painful and Repressed Emotions

Enthusiasm is a flow of joy. But if other, less pleasant emotions are dammed up, eventually joy won’t flow either. If you feel disconnected from your enthusiasm, consider whether you’re disconnected from other emotions as well. If you carry a lot of tension in your body, this is often a sign of bottled-up emotions.

Particularly in an emotional and anxious time, there is tremendous value in working through backed-up emotions. Once the tears finish flowing, joy will flow again too. There are many resources available for this (including Cameron’s morning pages), but one of the most helpful to me has been yoga. Getting “into my body” and feeling my emotions physically was and is key.

3. Reconnect to Nature

All of my most vivid childhood memories take place outside—running around my childhood neighborhood, building mud forts, digging tunnels, riding horses, climbing trees. Not only is nature a powerful source of healing and inspiration, for many of us it is also a direct line to our freewheeling childhood enthusiasm. Insofar as you’re able, immerse yourself in nature. Even just filling your house with plants and streaming nature videos on your TV can be powerful.

4. Seek Gratitude Every Day

Enthusiasm and joy fade away when we’re full of tension and fear. One of the most powerful responses to fear is gratitude. Every time you think of something you hate or fear, try to also think of something you love and are grateful for. I thought this meditation from Simple Habit was especially good for balancing painful realities with accessible joys:

(If you’d like to give guided meditations a try, Simple Habit is offering free premium access to their app for one month in response to the anxiety and mental health needs caused by the pandemic.)

Even on days when my writing isn’t going well, I can be grateful for the stories I’ve already written, for the time I’m able to devote even to just sitting at the desk and staring at the blinking cursor, for the stories of others which make me happy even when my own are MIA.

5. Return to Stories That Stir You—Yours and Other People’s

Writers are notorious for suffering from Imposter Syndrome. At this point I’ve been writing for two decades, I’ve written countless stories, and I’ve published five novels among other things—and I still regularly forget that I’ve done this before, I can do this again. 

Sometimes going back to read my own stories is enough to re-spark my enthusiasm. Other times, I need to revisit the stories, written by other authors, that inspired me in the first place. Stories beget stories, just as enthusiasm begets enthusiasm and joy begets joy. If you can find even just a small seed, sometimes that’s all it takes to get the garden blooming all over again.

***

Writers will always require both discipline and enthusiasm to keep the words flowing. Discipline is the how; enthusiasm is the why. If you find yourself struggling to get the words down at any point, take a moment to consider which of these might be tripping you up—and how you can move yourself back into alignment with your creativity in a healthy way.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Which do you find it harder to maintain—discipline or enthusiasm? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Ruth Molenaar says

    Thank you for a majorly helpful post (again). I cannot tell you how much your books and blog posts have helped me figure out this really odd compulsion I have to write. I want to write, I day-dream about my story scenes, characters, world, some action bits, BUT I still struggle with ACTUALLY writing it down even after figuring out some of my sticking point. UGG!

    So overly long story short, THANK YOU for the sweetest kick in the butt I’ve ever had =)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I hear you! Sometimes it’s helpful to think of the actual writing like going to the gym. It takes a lot of effort and discipline to create that habit–even if you really enjoy working out. But you *never* regret doing it.

  2. loved this: Discipline is the how enthusiasm is the why.

    I have a kind of mission statement describing why I write and the feeling I’m reaching for in writing, that is always good to reconnect me to enthusiasm. The statement is list-like but these are the words that produce an effect on me.

    PASSION and meaning, purpose, poignancy, irony and archness this is what I’m looking for. The sublime, the otherworldly, spooky, slant, strange. The mythic. The Avatar in character. The quality in/of life. The journey.
    Passionate examination of words. reflection on meaning and truth, resistance and arising thought.

  3. Thanks for the terrific post. Now, to get down to writing.

  4. Thanks for this awesome post. Clearly stated my problem: I struggle to begin even though I really want to. But it seems to me now I have to bring back enthusiasm and joy. Once again thanks for redirecting me through your impacting posts.😉

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