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How to Become a More Self-Disciplined Writer

Friday, April 29, 2011

All five of my children have learned to play the piano (or are still in the process). While none of them are musical geniuses, I firmly believe learning to play the piano is a gift I’m offering my children. Not only are they getting a solid foundation in music, but even more valuable than that, they’re getting an important lesson in self-discipline.

According to Merriam-Webster, self-discipline is: correction or regulation of oneself for the sake of improvement.

There’s just something about learning piano (or any instrument) that forces a person to correct and train oneself for the sake of improvement. It fosters self-discipline, which then carries over into other areas of our life.

Like my children, I also took many years of piano lessons (not that I play well anymore!). But in the process of learning piano (among other activities), I practiced self-discipline over and over. And now self-discipline is one character quality that has helped me enormously in my writing career.

Here are a few lessons I’ve learned about growing in self-discipline as a writer from piano lessons:

Concentrated increments can help us be more productive.

Rather than 5 minute practice sessions scattered throughout the day, my children practice piano in 20 to 30 increments (depending on their level). The larger chunk of time is more productive because they need a few minutes to warm up their fingers before the songs begin to flow.

When we’re writing, we need to give ourselves more than five minutes here or ten minutes there. Yes, some days that may be all we can squeeze in. But usually I spend the first part of my writing time getting back into the swing of the story. It takes some time before the words start flowing. I’ve noticed that on days when I have extended time, I write my best and fastest, especially when I’ve been at it for an hour or two.

I know from personal experience how hard it is to find concentrated writing time. And yet, I would encourage all of us to block out some uninterrupted and extended time every week.

Consistent practice hones our skill.

My children practice piano every day, 6 days a week. Sure, they get occasional breaks. But when they keep up with their songs and scales day after day, what they’re learning sticks better.

When we’re writing, if we take time to write every day, the story stays fresh in our minds. And when we use our writing muscles consistently, we eventually build them up and can write with more ease and speed.

Forcing ourselves to work regardless of feelings develops perseverance.

Sometimes my kids say, “Practicing piano isn’t fun.” In fact, there are plenty of days my kids would like to get out of practicing. It can grow laborious and monotonous. But in order to teach them the value of self-discipline, I don’t allow any excuses. There’s no getting out of it, not for any reason. And even when they’re sick, I say, “If you’re too sick to practice piano (or do schoolwork), then you’re too sick to play.”

We can’t expect to be successful if we wait to write until we’re inspired or only when it’s fun. Regardless of everything else going on, we have to make ourselves sit down at the keyboard, plunk away, and add words—on the days we feel like it AND the days we don’t.

Challenging ourselves beyond our comfort zone leads to growth.

My children like to practice the songs they’ve memorized, the ones that come easy. Sometimes they get stuck on practicing those easy tunes and avoid putting dedicated effort to the new harder ones the teacher assigns them. I remind them the “easy” songs used to be hard. I encourage them to go above and beyond what they teacher has asked them to do. Take the extra step. Press just a little harder.

Growth comes when we challenge ourselves to do more than we think we can. If writing is always “easy”, then maybe we’re not pushing ourselves hard enough—to find original descriptions, to make our plot more complex, etc. Or maybe we need to challenge ourselves to write more words per day. Whatever the area, we can stretch ourselves beyond our comfort zone.

Diligent work helps us progress faster.

During the allotted practice time, I encourage my children to stay focused, not to get up for drinks, or to chat with a sibling. If they dilly-dally during their practice time, then over the course of time, they don’t progress as quickly as they could.

If we set aside concentrated increments and sit down to write consistently, we need to make every second count. Often that requires shutting off the internet, putting on headphones, bending our head down, and not looking up until we reach the end of our “practice time.”

I usually set a timer during my writing time. During a 30 minute span I give myself a goal of writing a certain number of words. I put it on a sticky note. That helps me to stay focused during that time. When the time is up, I challenge myself for another 30 minutes, and so on, giving myself breaks to check email or twitter when I complete my time/goal.

How well did you learn self-discipline when you were growing up? Did anything help develop that quality in you (like piano lessons)? How self-disciplined are you now in your writing?

35 comments:

  1. Nice post, Jodi. It's so cool how we can find analogies for writing in so many different areas. As for me, I didn't become self-disciplined until my jr. high years—when I began sports. And out of the three I participated in (v-ball, b-ball, track), I'd say running track helped me the most with learning to discipline myself in order to set & achieve personal goals. Yet, like writing, there was still a camaraderie with other teammates and a general sense of cheering on others, even if they were competing against me, because I knew they would push me to try harder. Not to mention, if I studied their technique, I could learn from them. :)

    These days, I could use a little help in the discipline area. By far, the worst enemy for me is the internet. So when I really need to get down to business, I write with paper and pen. Even if the internet is shut off, it's still too tempting for me b/c I know it's right there, so I have to physically remove myself from the computer! (LOL that sounds rather pathetic, but it's how I deal with it!)

    Barb

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  3. Wonderful post, Jody. These are all excellent ways to maintain self-discipline.

    I did gymnastics and other sports when I was in school, which are also great activities for teaching self-discipline.

    I wish I had taken piano lessons when I was a child. But it's never too late to learn!

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  4. This is one of your best posts in my opinion. So true.

    Practice does make perfect--or nearly.

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  5. Very good points you make. I'm in a hard time right now as far as finding time to write. You've given me some good ideas and motivation.

    In general, this is the best blog for writers I've come across. You're amazing. I don't know how you do it, except that you're disciplined, I guess.

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  6. I use a system I developed as a doctoral student (while writing my dissertation) to write all of my books, articles, etc. I never enjoyed cramming or overstudying so I fell into a page a day habit (and no more than 3). The pages racked up and it allowed me to edit more effectively. The key was to make sure I wrote everyday which is easy because it didn't take long and a bunch of other reasons.

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  7. I'm a firm believer in sitting in the chair and getting something done. While I love the frenzied moments that come in bursts of inspiration, I don't depend on them. I depend on sitting down to work on a regular schedule and staying add it.

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  8. I am also forcing (training) my chold to play the piano. She balks at it, but I think you've hit the nail on the head as to why.... so self-disciline and laziness. I KNOW she is and will be blessed by it and will keep her going. Some day she will thank me. :O)

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  9. Wonderful post, Jody! I think the comparison to learning an instrument is excellent--I remember really pouring myself into learning mallet percussion in high school and what a joy it was to master a difficult piece. With writing, I know I really struggle at times to get focused, but I think transferring what I learned with marimba and xylophone will help. I like the timer idea with rewards.

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  10. Good morning everyone! I'm rubbing my eyes (blurry from getting up early to watch the royal wedding!). And I'm drinking lots of coffee this morning, but heading into a little writing time myself! On a morning like this SELF DISCIPLINE is indeed key! :-)

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  11. Excellent post, Jody. Self discipline is so important to our success. And maybe you're right - maybe it was all those hours at the piano keyboard that have translated so well into sitting at the computer keyboard. Just one more reason to thank my mother for my upbringing, I suppose! :)

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  12. Well said. Practicing piano is a great analogy for writing and everything you said was absolutely true. It is the same with sports, theater - just about anything worth doing takes work and self discipline.

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  13. Very useful post and sound advice too. If only I could stick to it...

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  14. Great advice, Jody! This is something I struggle with on many days, since I do child care in addition to my 5 year old. Wednesday morning is my big block of writing time, but I also try to get in at least 30 minutes every day, even if it's just editing. I feel disconnected from the characters if I don't.

    I too, learned the piano and also the clarinet, and my parents weren't as dedicated to making me practice as you are. I've had to teach myself discipline over the years, and it's not easy. Instilling it in our kids is a great gift to them!

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  15. Writing a post about self-discipline in a few weeks. I'll link this.

    A thought about pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone...I wrote a comment related to this on Rachelle's blog today. It would be easy for me to guide my boat home, to write for myself (and not for publication) but sometimes the winds push us toward that unknown island and it's scary and thrilling all at once. Anyhoo. Happy weekend, Jody!
    ~ Wendy

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  16. Practice makes perfect. Or at least, makes us better.
    I find that even if I can't get an entire chapter in at one sitting, I have to finish a complete scene. Leaving it dangling keeps me from focusing on other tasks. Plus, if I've set it up correctly, I have to write from the cliff hanger, making the next scene easier to dive into.
    Thanks for this post. Great advice!

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  17. I honestly believe that my private school education helped teach me the proper discipline needed for most things in life, including writing. Participating in multiple extra curricular activities while managing an advanced class load also helped me tremendously - to know how to multitask, and to make time for my passion. I do find that finding a partner online to participate in a timed writing session with me helps me crank out more words in a sitting, otherwise I self-edit too much as I write. Great post!

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  18. I wish I had learned piano, but sadly I didn't.
    Self-discipline is still a struggle for me. It sure doesn't come naturally, but I battle with it daily and usually win. :)

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  19. What a great analogy, Jody.

    Because I'm not a naturally disciplined person, I must force myself to stick to a task with tools like goal lists and rewards. But, the longer I stay focused, the easier it becomes.

    My husband was forced to take ten years of piano lessons, which he disliked immmensely. After not playing for fifteen years, he began to write songs. To date, he's composed over 1700 songs, plays by ear, and has recorded 3 cds. Keep practicing, kids!

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  20. Oh dear, I'm doomed!

    My mother and piano teacher conspired to make me practice by suggesting I quit. They thought reverse psychology would work but it didn't. I gleefully quit.
    Lo these many years later, I wish I'd stuck it out. I'm trying not to make the same mistake with my writing.

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  21. I've been struggling with my writing this month. A lot of it has to do with unexpected factors--like my son being in the hospital for a week--but some of it is having just fallen out of habit. Your post is both inspiring and a great reminder for me. Thank you!

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  22. Spring is always a busy time at our house with activities, sports, and end-of-school-year assemblies. It's also the time where I REALLY need to engage in self-discipline in regard to my writing time. It would be so easy to sit back at the end of the day, and ahhhh...

    Thanks for this great reminder to keep going regardless of tired limbs ;)

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  23. Great advice. I've been off my game lately and need to discipline myself to get back on track.

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  24. "Growth comes when we challenge ourselves to do more than we think we can." I love this, Jody.

    One of the challenges of being a writer is that in the beginning it's 100% self-motivation. Nobody cares whether we write or not, so it's all up to us. With no deadlines or punching clocks, it's so easy to get distracted and put off our work. Self-discipline is vital (but so hard to muster!)

    Another great post, Jody. Thanks for the tips.

    Lorena

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  25. It has always been my plan that, if I'm fortunate enough to have kids, they will learn the piano too, and for the same reasons you've listed.

    On the writing end of this post, all I can say, Jody, is that you have to stop writing these posts just for me. Your other readers are going to get jealous! :-)

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  26. Beautiful post! I especially love that you pointed out the value of challenging ourselves beyond our comfort zone. I know that's helped me progress so much in my writing. Thank you.

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  27. I'm new to your blog Jody, and got here from a link on Twitter. Fabulous post!

    I especially love how you brought out that we need to write even at times we don't necessarily feel like it. In my experience some of the best writing comes in those moments.

    For myself, I can usually find discipline to write the first draft. Sticking to edits, and querying are areas where I could exercise more self-discipline.

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  28. Hi Jody -

    A two-hour block of time works best for me. It takes at least a half hour to get into the creative flow.

    Blessings,
    Susan :)

    P.S. I linked to you yesterday (Friday).

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  29. As always, great post Jody!!
    I never had discpline of any sort until the 1984 Olympics when Olympic Commissioner Peter Ueberroth said he gave false deadlines to get the Los Angeles Olympics underway! I thought it was the best advice I ever heard and practiced it since. I still backslide, but I also manage to get things done way ahead of time, LOL! I'm weird I know...

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  30. Self-discipline is very difficult for me, a right-brained person who gets distracted easily and a mom who is the same as I am. Although I do try to work on my MS each day for a certain amount of time, I don't set goals as much as I should and often I do quit when the "flow" isn't there. This post encourages me to become more self-disciplined during my writing time.

    One thing that helped me learn self-discipline growing up is definitely cheerleading. I cheered off and on from 3rd to 8th grade, and many times I hated it - especially in middle school, when almost all the girls on my team were giddy, gossipy, and cliquey. There were several practices in middle school - three times a week, four hours each. Sometimes more, if there was a competition coming up. The coaches were very hard on us and would give us very little breaks during a practice. Many times I tried talking my parents into letting me skip one, but I didn't exactly have a choice unless it was an emergency. Each practice built on to the one before. Cheerleading is a team sport, so if one girl missed a practice, the entire team would suffer. Although writing isn't a team sport, each "practice" builds on to the one before and should be just as important as a regular sport.

    Anyways, thanks for sharing this. =)

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  31. Self-discipline is one of the things I struggle with, between my regular work-from-home job and the kids and everything that goes with those. But it's something I'm trying to focus on more these days, especially since my littlest will be in school all day starting next school year.

    I have my kids in piano lessons for the same reason. My oldest is very bright, so most school stuff comes extremely easy to her. Almost too easy--she was getting to the point where she didn't want to try anything that wasn't going to be super-easy. So we decided that music would be good, because no matter how smart you are or how much natural ability you might have, you're never going to get good unless you just put your fingers to the keys and practice. There was a lot of whining at first ("But it's too haaaaaaaard!") but she is getting better at perserverance.

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  32. Hey everyone! Thanks for all of the input into the discussion! Love all of your thoughts!

    And Julie, that's so true--we won't get better until we put our fingers onto our keyboards and practice! I've found that over the months and years of writitng, that I keep getting faster and more efficient. I can formulate my thoughts easier and the words flow smoother. So, yes there's something to be said for consistent practice, even in our writing!

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  33. Oh Jody,
    Just read this. I'm printing it and taping to my office wall. Such a struggle right now. Thanks kiddo!

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  35. Jody - This was great; so often articles allude to creating the right writing space. The harder task is creating where you are, which of course requires self-discipline.

    Thanks - TF

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