Self-Discipline for the Writer

Nancy J. Cohen

Writers sit in a chair for hours, peering at their work, blocking out the rest of the world in their intense concentration. It’s not an easy job. Some days, I marvel that readers have no idea how many endless days we toil away at our craft. It takes immense self-discipline to keep the butt in the chair when nature tempts us to enjoy the sunshine and balmy weather outside.

We don’t only spend the time writing the manuscript. After submitting our work and having it accepted, we get revisions back from our editor. This requires another round of poring over our work. And another opportunity comes with the page proofs where we scrutinize each word for errors. How many times do we review the same pages, the same words? How many tweaks do we make, continuously correcting and making each sentence better?

These hours and hours of sitting are worth the effort when we hold the published book in our hands, when readers write to us how much they enjoyed the story, or when we win accolades in a contest. As I get older, I wonder if these hours are well spent. My time is getting shorter. Shouldn’t I be outside, enjoying what the community has to offer, admiring the trees and flowers, visiting with friends? Each moment I sit in front of the computer is a moment gone.

But I can no more give up my craft than I can stop breathing. It’s who I am. And the hours I sit here pounding at the keyboard are my legacy.

BICHOK is our motto: Butt in Chair, Hands on Keyboard. This policy can take its toll on writers’ health with repetitive strain injury, adverse effects of prolonged sitting, neck and shoulder problems. We have to discipline ourselves not only to sit and work for hours on end, but to get up and exercise so as to avoid injury. This career requires extreme discipline, and those wannabes who can’t concentrate for long periods of time or who give up easily will never reach the summit. They can enjoy the journey and believe that’s where it ends, but they’re playing at being a writer and not acting as a professional.

We’re slaves to our muse, immersed in our imaginary worlds, losing ourselves to the story. And then we have to revise, correct, edit, read through the manuscript numerous times until we turn it in or our vision goes bleary. We are driven. And so we sit, toiling in our chairs (or on the couch if you use a laptop). Hours of life pass us by, irretrievable hours that we’ll never get back.

So please, readers, understand how many hours we put into this craft to entertain you, to educate you, and to illuminate human nature in our stories.

And this doesn’t even count the time required for social media.

I put myself in the chair until I achieve a daily quota. In a writing phase, this is five pages a day or twenty-five pages per week. For self-edits, I aim for a chapter a day but that’s not always possible. I do this is the morning when I’m most creative. Afternoons are for writing blogs, social media, promotion, etc.

How do you get yourself to sit in the chair day after day? Do you set daily goals? Do you offer yourself rewards along the way? Do you ever doubt the time you sacrifice to your muse? Or do you love the process so much that you’d not trade those hours for anything else?


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28 thoughts on “Self-Discipline for the Writer

  1. When drafting, I have to write a page a day, two on Saturdays ad Sundays. When revising, I have set goals I have to complete each day. That being said, I allow for special events, and take much of the summer off from concentrated work to keep my batteries charged. Of course, I have no contract deadline, so I have an advantage when maintaining my balance many writers do not.

    • It’s even more important to maintain a schedule without a contract deadline, so good for you. And you’re right, allowing for special events, vacations, conferences, and potential illnesses should also fit into the overall project timeline.

  2. Once I really get started, a sort of OCD takes over and I just keep barreling along. For me, getting started is the problem — it’s so much easier to start “tomorrow.”

    • Beginnings are hard for me, too. That’s where my five pages a day really works. I have to write them no matter how bad they are. The words can be fixed later. It’s a wonderful feeling when the story flows, isn’t it?

  3. I use Clare Langley-Hawthorne’s Industrial Grade Bum Glue (in the gold can with the kangaroo on the lid).

    And a weekly quota of words. If I miss a day, I make it up on other days. Nothing more important to me than seeing the numbers total up on an Excel spreadsheet.

    • Now, glue is a good idea! Other than that, keeping a spreadsheet or records of pages done can be a valuable visual aid to see your accomplishments.

  4. I think being a writer has increased my reading experience. It’s like watching a professional athlete after trying my hand at the same sport. Since I only write for an hour or two a day after my pay-for-food-and-rent job, staying in the chair isn’t difficult. However, because both my jobs involve sitting all day, my back does announce a revolt from time to time. Exercise is key. High impact training especially. It makes my sitting time more comfortable and keeps my mind sharp.

  5. It’s especially tough when you have a day job that involves sitting. Finding the time to write and exercise must be difficult, but that’s where setting attainable goals is helpful. Your working on writing for an hour or two a day is a worthy achievement.

  6. Yes … sitting butt in chair every day, for a set time or number of words, is why most of us cannot share the ‘claim to fame’ with you the successful authors.

    We can find thousands of excuses pertaining to health, age, work and weather but it all comes down to sacrifice—if we want it bad enough.

    I speak for myself however, I am sure there are thousands of us out there falling in the same category.

    The Kangaroo bum glue, may work for a while, until Google searched for Kangaroo Bum Glue Solvent.
    Matter ‘o’ fact, my bum is getting antsy as we chat.

    Oh, as an after-thought.
    Would it be possible to do a ditty on research some time in the near future?

  7. I am presently bum glued to my comfy chair, laptop on, manuscript open, and not planning to move till passed the 1000 word mark…or until the cough medicine kicks in and I slip into dreams of writing.

    • Indeed I did ma’am, and here’s a sample:

      “Ah, so this nengi is good medicine then,” he asked.

      “We’ve also got some wild ginseng we found,” Jung Ah told him. “Very good for men’s uh…stamina.”

      “My lady,” Kharzai raised an eyebrow, and tossed the older woman a flirty gaze “do I look like I need extra stamina?”

      The fiftyish lady-mechanic’s cheeks reddend slightly as she answered, “Well, it depends on the woman you’re with doesn’t it.”

      Sammi nearly choked on the laugh that burst from her gut.

  8. I missed this post until now because I was WRITING. I will start looking in the morning instead of waiting for them to show up in my inbox. And before I start writing…
    Does anyone else have a problem with the lack of feeback when writing? I feel as if I am working in a vacume, I don’t know if what I have done each day, or even each week, is any good until much later when someone either accepts or rejects my work.

    • Join a critique group, Anne. I meet with five other writers twice a month and we critique each others’ works. If you don’t have meetings of a professional writing organization to attend near you, look online. Join SinC, MWA, RWA, whatever applies and ask for critique partners. Another way to get feedback is to enter writing contests where you get comments back and not just scores. Watch for our summer contest coming soon.

  9. Wonderful advice, thanks so much! I am enjoying this blog immensely, I just found you a few weeks ago. Even this small amount of contact with other writers has helped.

  10. I always chuckle when people react to the amount of work I put in a day. Their eyes pop open and the question is always the same: “How much?” Then they always ask if I’ve sold a lot of books or if my blog gets a lot of views. Then they get even more perplexed when I say “not yet, but I’m working at it.”

    I run competitively. People don’t think twice when I tell them I put in about 3 hours of work a day at the peak of my season. But they gawk at the thought of people writing for as long or longer a day. Your post perfectly encapsulated it. Nice job.

    • No one except another writer truly understands what is required in this job. And it is a job, not a hobby, with all the resultant factors of marketing, etc. The time we put into this business, in addition to the writing part, is never enough.

  11. I start when I get in from work and go until I hit 1000 words. My girlfriend, the supportive thing she is, takes away all things fun (video games, internet, herself) until those 1000 words are hit. Normally though, once I’ve started, I struggle to stop. It’s always “I’ll just finish this one scene” or “I just want to finish this chapter”. So for me, it’s definitely about starting more than anything…

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