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Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Talking Shop

Op-ed • "Developing Writer Discipline," By Eric Dontigney 


Start time: 12: 57 PM 10/3/18

Inspiration gets a lot of credit among artistic types. We talk about how much we get done when we’re inspired. Yet, all of my practical experience tells me that inspiration has very little to do with getting words on the page.

Case in point. I was miserably ill most of last week. That was courtesy of a plague-carrier cashier who decided to cough all over me instead of covering her mouth. I spent most of the week huddled in bed or crouching over a toilet. Needless to say, I got no writing done.

In my non-novel and short story writing life, I write blog posts and web articles for money. Yesterday was my first day back at the desk. I was still feeling lousy. I like paying my bills, though, so I worked. Over the course of a 9 hour day, I wrote four 1000-word articles.

Inspiration had nothing to do with it. How can you tell? I wrote about online business managers, the benefits of branding, tips for landing a dream job, and fixing your credit score. These are not topics that whip most writers into a frenzy of excitement. Inspiration didn’t get those 4000 words written. Discipline got it done.

Now, you might be thinking something like, “But writing fiction is different!”

It’s really not. We only think it is because writing fiction is an “imaginative exercise.” Trust me, writing about fixing your credit score is also an imaginative exercise. I had to imagine ways to talk about the topic in a new way. I had to dream up analogies. I had to keep it interesting. Sound anything like writing fiction?

Granted, 4000 words in a day is a lot for many writers, even professional novelists. I’m aware of that and I’m not advocating that you should aim for that. I write those kinds of articles professionally. When I’m writing fiction, I generally aim for 1000-2000 words a day. I’m also aware that 1000-2000 words a day might sound like a huge feat to many novelists. It’s perfectly achievable. I promise you.

Developing writer discipline breaks down into two main areas. Breaking down illusions and creating proper conditions. Let’s start with the first one.

Here are some common illusions to which novelists of all stripes cling:
  • The possibility of the perfect first draft
  • The necessity of inspiration
  • The idea that writing is or should be painful
  • That writing fast means writing badly

None of the illusions hold water. There is absolutely never a perfect first draft. No matter how sharp your writing, you will need to edit. Inspiration is nothing more than a nice bonus. You can write without it. I did it yesterday.

The whole idea that artists should be tortured souls who can only produce art if it comes at some horrendous spiritual cost is absurd. If I could take that notion out back and put a bullet in its head, I would do it gladly and pay for the privilege. Good writing is hard work, but there’s no requirement that it be painful. Moreover, there’s little evidence that making the process a soul-searing exercise actually makes for better writing. It’s just a myth.

The idea that fast writing is bad writing has a tiny kernel of truth buried at its heart. In high school, fast writing generally is bad writing because it’s a product of sloppy thinking. Now think about the skills you employ at your current or former jobs. You worked slower when you first started out. As you achieve mastery, you get faster.

If you’ve been writing for 10, 15, or 20 years, you should be faster! Writing fast isn’t a sign that you’re doing it wrong. It’s a sign that you’ve been doing it for a long time.

Now, let’s move on to setting the proper conditions. I don’t buy into this notion that every single little thing must be just so in order to get the creative juices flowing. I’ve written on buses, trains, and airplanes. I’ve written in hotels, at other people’s kitchen tables, and sitting in coffee houses. None of those are my preferred settings, but I’ve made them work.

The proper conditions are largely psychological. You must train your brain to associate certain things with writing. Specifically, you must associate things that don’t largely change from setting to setting. For me, sitting down with a keyboard in front of me will usually do it. I’ve trained my brain to tie that condition to productive writing.

Most people need a few more cues. Here are my recommendations. Pick a specific spot in your apartment, house, or yurt where you do writing. (This also works for restaurants, coffee houses, etc., as long as you use the same one consistently.) Get a pair of headphones or earbuds that feel comfortable to you. Pick out some inoffensive, non-distracting, instrumental music. Go to that same spot, listen to the same music, and write. Do it every day or as close as you can manage.

Here is the other thing. You don’t necessarily need to work on your novel or college thesis or whatever project is burning a hole in your psyche. The point is to train your brain to make the association. That means you must put fingers to keyboard (or pen to paper) and get words down. Write complete garbage if you need to, but write.

Make yourself do that for a month. Why a month? That’s the approximate amount of time it takes to create new habits. Once you create the habit and psychological associations, you’ll find that it’s much, much easier to be disciplined and write what you need to write every day.

Stop time: 1:58pm 10/3/18.


Eric Dontigney is the author of the Samuel Branch urban fantasy series and the short story collection, Contingency Jones: The Complete Season One.  Raised in Western New York, he currently resides near Dayton, OH. You can find him haunting obscure sections of libraries, in Chinese restaurants or occasionally at

Eric’s last appearance in our pages was “Lenses,” in Stupefying Stories #21, and later this year we’ll be releasing his paranormal mystery novel, The Midnight Ground. Watch for it! 


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