Writing Discipline: Why Talent Isn’t Enough (And What You Need Instead)

by David Safford | 16 comments

Do you sometimes feel like you'll never succeed as a writer? Do you read other books and worry you're not talented enough? Or question if talent is enough?

Writing Discipline: Why Talent Isn't Enough (And What You Need Instead)

Comparison is almost never an effective strategy for finding writing success, and who gets to decide what defines talent?

The truth is talent alone won't make you a writer. You have to be able to finish a book. Multiple books.

And that takes hard work and discipline.

How I Learned to Become a Disciplined Writer

When I was twelve, I loved golf.

I had huge dreams for my golfing career and told everyone my goal: to win the Masters.

For those who don’t know, the Masters is a golf tournament featuring the game’s best players. At twelve, I decided that I was going to win someday. To fulfill that promise, I played competitive golf on my high school team and in summer tournaments. And for a while, I was good.

But I wasn’t getting better. In fact, as the years wore on, I seemed to get worse.

The breaking point came on the seventh hole during a tournament when I shanked a drive into the woods. I teed up another. And then another. Both shots disappeared into the trees.

I slammed my club into the ground until it splintered like a twig, and threw the pieces into the woods.

And I decided to quit. I drove home, threw my clubs in the garage, and never returned to that course.

When I began playing golf, I seemed to have talent. But I didn't truly have the discipline to develop it at the time. I gave up before discipline could build me into a remarkable golfer. I might not have won the Masters Tournament, but when I quit, I guaranteed I wouldn't.

Golfing and writing are very different activities—but one thing they have in common is that they rely on one person: You.

And when you have huge dreams, those dreams can crush you as you throw yourself at projects over and over again, and still fail.

Why does this happen? Why can’t our talent and dreams make us successful?

Are we doomed to smash our computers like a four-iron and quit?

Thankfully, there is a way to do things differently and live a joyful writing life that will lead to success.

The Problem With Talent Alone

“You don’t have enough talent to win on talent alone!” — Coach Herb Brooks, Miracle

Here’s the truth about why I failed at golf: I hated practicing.

I didn’t want to stand on the driving range for hours and hours. I wanted to be out on the course, constantly chasing a better score.

Yet the course did nothing to develop my discipline. Instead, it angered my sense of pride, and made me demand success from myself immediately. “Why am I not winning now?” I would ask.

I should have been in the practice area honing my swing, zeroing in my chip shots, and learning to putt like Tiger Woods. But pride kept tempting me to skip the range and head out to the course, and before long, I imploded.

How does pride do the same thing with our writing?

Pride may tell you a number of things. One thing it is probably telling you is this: “You should write and publish a bestseller immediately. If you don’t succeed now, then you’re a failure.”

So you power through a draft, only to assume that your novel is ready for publication the moment it’s finished. When I finished the first draft of my first novel, I wanted the world to throw me a parade. I was exhausted, and the thought of more work made me sick.

This is pride’s lie: “Your talent needs to be enough now. If it isn't, then it will never be.”

That lie is going to do the same thing to you that it did to me: You’re going to break things until you break yourself.

If you do, then you’ll be further from your dreams, and more tempted to quit than ever before.

What Practicing Looks Like

So what does “practicing” look like for us as writers?

How do we obtain the discipline to produce great work on a regular basis?

As with anything worth doing, writing requires many forms of discipline. Some of them are obvious and visible:

Visible Writing Disciplines

These are practical, visible ways to practice writing week after week, year after year, until you've accomplished your goal.

But you can also benefit from adjusting your writing mindset by defining your writing wins differently, and living a rewarding life separate from writing. These disciplines are just as important for your long-term success, even if they feel invisible and harder to track on a spreadsheet or daily writing goal sheet.

Invisible Writing Disciplines

  • Stop focusing solely on talent and comparison and let yourself enjoy the process
  • Spend time with family and friends while not writing
  • Forgive yourself for failure and frustration
  • Believe in the value of BOTH the final product and the journey
  • Journal, meditate, or pray
  • Take healthy breaks from writing (especially when it consumes you)
  • Accept that you have very limited control over some measures of success
  • Emphasize giving over selling

These aren’t just activities. They’re behaviors.

When mastered, they become deeply engrained in your character, and truly transform who you are. Meeting your long-term writing goals is going to take more than a day of writing, a focus on willpower, and creative desires. It's going to take practice on these disciplines.

The 3 Fundamental Writing Disciplines

I've shared a couple of long lists, but I want you to focus on a few of these to get started.

1. Write Every Day

Daily writing is a visible writing discipline, and it flexes the very muscle you want to grow. The best thing about writing every day is that this can take many forms.

You can write:

  • a chapter of a novel or a draft of a story.
  • a poem.
  • a letter or handwritten note
  • notes, especially about your story ideas and revisions, in your phone.

The point is that you write, and you do it every day. If that's not possible, at least establish a writing schedule where you are as consistent with your writing as you are showing up for your job. Flex the muscle of regular storytelling, and it will inevitably grow.

Notice that this has nothing to do with talent. Talent cannot possibly prepare you for every context you will write in. It cannot anticipate your future readers’ wants and needs.

Set some small writing goals whether daily or on a weekly schedule that you can track and will get you in a writing habit. Prioritizing dedicated writing time with an emphasis on practice (not greatness) will slowly but surely make a difference.

2. Emphasize Giving Over Selling

A few years ago, I made a commitment: For the whole year, I wasn’t going to “sell” anything.

That doesn’t mean I shut down my CreateSpace or Amazon accounts. I just chose not to promote them.

The only things I promoted were free giveaways. I wrote an entire book, The 10 Reasons Readers Quit Your Book (and How to Win Them Back), in order to give it away.

Why do this?

The idea of a “free giveaway” is nothing new in the writing blog world, but what might be new is the mindset it provides. When you approach the craft and discipline of writing with a generous attitude, everything changes.

It’s no longer about you.

It’s about the reader.

Selling, while essential for an artist to survive, focuses on short-term goals. While some authors regularly accomplish their selling goals, most of us don’t. When I launched my first novel, I failed miserably at meeting any of my goals and was tempted to quit writing altogether, just like I did with golf.

But I was able to continue by remembering why I do any of this: to build relationships and give.

Generosity is wildly opposed to our everyday human desires. We want to be served, not the other way around. But when you are generous, you'll find a world of freedom and joy waiting for you.

But you have to practice. You have build the giving muscle. Begin by putting your readers’ needs first and trusting that this healthy relationship will build a platform that eventually puts food on your plate.

3. Journal, Meditate, and/or Pray

The successful writer is a reflective, self-aware writer.

Few masters of the craft suffer delusions about themselves. You will find that the most successful artists have some kind of daily practice of quieting themselves and spending time alone, away from their computer or website.

This practice has saved my life many times. It saved my life after the launch of my novel when I chose to rest from writing for a month. It saves my life daily when pause from work and communicate with God, and with myself.

After the failed launch, I took my family to the mountains for a much-needed retreat. My favorite activity every day was sitting on the porch with a journal and pot of coffee, and just being. It gave me space to keep going.

For me, I seek solace in a quiet room of the house, the solitude of my commute to and from work, or in my headphones at a coffee shop. Sometimes I just need to be, and for me that means journaling my thoughts.

That’s far better than smashing a golf club to smithereens.

So take a moment every day to journal, pray, meditate, or enjoy some time alone to reflect on your writing. Be honest about what is going well and what is not. Learn to forgive yourself for your mistakes.

This will transform your creative life. It might even affect your success in other areas of life, too. How might your marriage, parenting, friendships, or “day job” be positively impacted by this?

So make the commitment to spend time alone, even if it’s five minutes a day. You need it, and you deserve it.

And your readers will appreciate it when you begin producing your best work because you are truly your best, most disciplined self.

Writing Discipline Wins

There is no doubt in my mind that I had the talent to be good at golf. My coach told me all the time. So did my family.

But I never understood his phrasing. Yes, I had the talent, but talent is just a place to begin. It takes talent to be good at something. Talent is not goodness in and of itself.

Without discipline, talent is useless.

The only way to reveal your true talent, the talent you “think” you have, or “hope” you have, is to dig deep and live a disciplined writing life. And when you do, it will be a joyful life. It will be a fulfilling life.

Because discipline wins.

What daily writing discipline do you maintain? How has that helped you to grow as a writer? Let me know in the comments.

PRACTICE

Today, we're going to practice the second writing discipline: emphasize giving. This comes to you in three steps.

Step 1: Think of your reader. Who are they? This might be someone who is already a fan of the book you published. They might be a friend who likes the same kinds of stories as you. They might be your mom, or your brother, or someone who just needs a note of encouragement.

What kind of writing would they would love to read today. Is it a story? A poem? A letter?

Step 2: Take fifteen minutes to write something just for them.

Step 3: Share your writing—Write Practice Pro members can share here in the practice workshop. Then, be bold and share your writing with the person you thought of in Step 1. You wrote it as a gift, so give it away!

Be sure to share thoughts and encouragement with at least three other writers!

Not a member yet? Join our terrific writing community here as a part of pursuing your own discipline. 

How to Write Like Louise PennyWant to write like Louise Penny? Join our new class and learn how. Learn more and sign up here.

Join Class

Next LIVE lesson is coming up soon!

You deserve a great book. That's why David Safford writes adventure stories that you won't be able to put down. Read his latest story at his website. David is a Language Arts teacher, novelist, blogger, hiker, Legend of Zelda fanatic, puzzle-doer, husband, and father of two awesome children.

16 Comments

  1. Angela Carroll

    but I feel strongly about this. I found that article puritanical. It is not pride…it maybe fear and laziness..or it maybe chaotic time management .why does it have to be pride? I know so many people in different careers who have the same problem settling down to doing what they must.There is always an element of fear that nothing good will happen. To be inspired read Jim Denney. Read about all the famous authors who were in a state of absolute poverty with deadlines of horror. Read about Ray Bradbury! He put off writing the enlarged version of Farenheit.for months and he doesn’t strike me as a prideful sort of man. I am sorry but I feel passionately about this I was brought up first in a hell proclaiming roman catholic church then brought up in a protestant puritanical victorian girls boarding school and that sort of thinking destroyed so much fun in creativity. With my daughter it was the criticism not her pride that made her put her work away for years. Now I am glad to say she is painting and writing and speaking. I need to organize and write every day…yes but I need to play with my writing and feel safe.

    Reply
    • David H. Safford

      Angela,

      I appreciate your honest and passionate feedback. When I wrote about pride, I was referring to arrogance or insecurity. I wasn’t speaking about the freedom and safety you seek – in fact, my goal with this piece was to promote EXACTLY what you’re talking about: Freedom.

      Insecure pride is what causes artists to fall into depression or to get “blocked” – our pride tends to demand far too much of us than we can ever deliver. The details of your upbringing definitely sound like they weren’t friendly to creativity, and that should sadden anyone who reads your comment. I hope that you might see my true meaning – that through daily practice, generous giving, and self-reflection, we can find joy and success in our writing – should you be gracious enough to give this post a reread.

      Best, David

    • Madani

      Hi, David
      I write in french. I say that just to apolozige for the poorness of my English.
      Now as far as the topic is concerned I agree with you and with Angela as well.
      I agree with you because a friend of mine is writing his second novel without publishing of course and he is, let me say ill with pride. He gave me his manuscript not to have a feed back but an applause ( verb to applaud). He writes in french, like me, I told him all what I learned with writepractice and with late Dr John Yeoman in the writers’ village but he listens to none but himself.
      Now about, me. Yes it’s laziness which creates me problems; Yes I pracise every day for years, but as I find no one to submit my writing to that i feel gnawed by the will to quit and seek for a tranquil life in my home near the sea.

    • David H. Safford

      I love how you put this: “He gave me his manuscript not to have feedback but applause.” I think we are all tempted to do that. Thank you for your honesty!

    • Beverly Brown

      Angela,
      I was held up for years but I did get a lot written as a way to escape tough times. Just never got them out into the real world until, I would say, I was in my sixties.

  2. Rose Green

    Deep in the darkness, a sound, metal on metal. It is tiny, yet evidence of the restless presence that sleeps there. Strain your ear and you can hear breathing – in and out, in and out, in and… out. Why the change?

    On the outside, you maintain your calm, efficient expression, as someone with assumed authority babbles on about the latest meaningless task they want you to perform. But inside, fear knots your stomach as you hear the unmistakable rattle of chains. The beast is rising.

    For a moment, you play with the idea of letting it loose, just to see the smug look wiped off that insufferable face. What would they think of you if they knew who you really are? They couldn’t help but admire you then, surely? Your power, your strength, so much more than theirs. But it would be admiration born of fear and where is the glory in that? So part of your mind hurries down into the darkness, beats on the firmly locked door, shouts threats – such threats! would you ever be capable of really carrying them out? – attempts to quiet the thing that is now bellowing its rage…

    And eventually, as the babble winds down, ending with a, “Let’s get on with it then,” the chains are still, their prisoner sits down again, slumped against the wall, down… but not defeated.

    Because the sounds have changed. The chains are no longer being rattled; they are being tested. You can hear the scraping of metal against stone where the chain is fixed to the wall.

    And you realise that threats and fear are not going to be enough for very much longer. Sometime soon, you are going to have to either make friends with the beast, or destroy everything.

    Reply
    • Beverly Brown

      Hi Rose!
      I could “see” that monster and think, having been raised around a lot of violence,I might loose control. I love the Lord for giving me the strength to control this when I got saved. I use to dream of a lion trying to get in my room at night. The door was split down the middle and half of it was missing. It was terrifying!

      My father’s monsters use to get out when he was drinking; causing all kinds of havoc. (Being a black man working for white families, he could never have the future he dreamed of) I never thought about it as a monster until I read your story! Thank you for the insight!

  3. aRcana

    This is GREAT! Thank you for writing this post! I once heard, “How you do one thing is how you do everything.” It’s not just writing that I need to practice, but every element of my life where I want to grow.

    I am in between jobs at the moment and putting myself out there requires a lot of patience, waiting and rejection. It’s easy to go back to what I did before, the familiar, but if I continue to practice and believe that something greater is in store for me with practice and perseverance, this next chapter of my life will be the best yet.

    Thank you for the reminder!

    Reply
    • David H. Safford

      You’re so welcome! I can’t emphasize the “Giving” aspect enough. Building ones Service muscle affects so many other aspects of life, and helps build relationships that can turn into a readership audience. Based on the story you shared, you’re already in the business of serving well! Thanks for the comments!

  4. aRcana

    This year I created a non-profit to give soup and hot chocolate to the homeless around Lake Merritt on Mondays. This past week one of my regulars passed away. I have a FB page and will be posting the following message along with pictures to that page after the memorial on Sunday.

    I hope you as the reader are inspired to let people know they matter as well as open your perspective to who homeless people are.

    Rest in Peace
    Mike Garcia Davis/Davies
    Dec 1954 – Sept 22, 2017

    It was a cold May night when I met Mike for the first time. He was bundled up on a park bench trying to stay warm. I could barely see his face hidden in the bulk of his hood.

    “Hot soup and cocoa?” I asked.

    He graciously accepted. His voice bubbled with friendliness.

    Merritt Monday was the time I went around Lake Merritt giving out hot soup and cocoa to the homeless in the hope that they stayed warmer a little while longer that night. It was a time I could meet the neighbors around the lake and let them know they mattered. I got to hear many of their stories. What I hadn’t expected is that they would end up feeling more like friends than anyone else I met in the one year I lived in Oakland, CA.

    Mike was last living in Malaysia where his son and granddaughter lived. Back in May he was already planning to head to Denver, CO to take care of some business since he had family there. He planned to leave there in October when it would begin to get too cold and he would head back to Malaysia. He wanted to see his granddaughter. Talking about her made his eyes sparkle.

    In Malaysia, Mike said he was a musician. He was treated different over there. People appreciated his musical skills, but he was tired now. Tired of the hustle. But not too tired to smile and share the joy that was still very much inside of him.

    He always said the nicest things, never saying anything bad about anyone or even his situation. There was a time or two when I knew I had burned the soup or forgot to add salt and he would always claim it was the best he ever had.

    I had promised myself that I wouldn’t miss a single Merritt Monday that first year, but after losing my job I felt the need to get out of town for a few weeks. I let the folks know that I would be back in 3 weeks, Mike repeated back to me when I would be back and said he would be waiting.

    Three weeks later I returned as promised. Just before I got to Mike’s bench, I stopped to talk and give some soup and cocoa to one of my regulars by the bathrooms.

    “Do you talk to Mike?” Tadje asked.

    “Sure I do! I’m going to see him next.” I replied.

    “He passed away last week. They found him in the church doorway where he sleeps last Friday.”

    My heart broke. That couldn’t be. Mike?! “What happened?!”

    He had hurt himself, asking around, no one knew how. He lifted his pant leg up and showed some of his friends who would later say they saw maggots in his wound. His friends encouraged him to go to the hospital but he refused. Nino at one point had to leave his friends side because the stench was so bad. Reflecting back on it he realized he was smelling his friend’s body decaying.

    On Sunday Mike made the comment to Nino, “I’m kinda tired being out here 24/7 like this.” Nino didn’t take it too seriously, everyone gets tired.

    Tuesday Mike said he would go to the hospital and Nino didn’t see him for a few days after that. Mike didn’t show up at Jack London Square like he usually did mid-week. No one knows where he went.

    Friday afternoon, Mike crawled up the steps to Lake Merritt Methodist Church with his small backpack holding all of his worldly possessions. He curled up like he did every night. And that is where he was found, about 4pm.

    Nino was walking by the church when he saw the police carrying down the bodybag. Thinking of Mike he asked the police and identified Mike through a picture. That image will be forever burned into Nino’s mind. The transformation that took place on Mike’s face in the 3 days he was gone turned Nino’s stomach. Perhaps it was a situation like this that inspired someone to come up with the term “zombie.”

    The pastor of that church said, “Something has to be done. We can’t have people dying around this lake like this.”

    “Why didn’t we scoop him up and make him go to the hospital?” a homeless guy asked. He wasn’t one of my regulars, but came to pay his respects. “People did that for me and saved my life. Why didn’t anyone do that for Mike? He was GOLD!”

    Flowers, candles and notes rest on the bench where Mike sat. Nino is camping out to let people know about the Memorial service on Sunday. Mike didn’t have a lucrative job or many possessions, but he had gratitude, a smile and a heart of gold. He had friends that he saw regularly each day and week, so Nino is camping out to make sure he reaches all of them.

    I think about Mike’s family in Colorado and Malaysia. How will they find out? Do they care? Will his granddaughter know how much she meant to him?

    No one is sure if his last name is Davis or Davies. When the police asked his middle name some recalled a conversation on the park bench when someone mentioned their last name being Garcia and Mike said, “That’s my middle name.” Perhaps it was, but no name on the internet pops up. Hopefully the police are having better luck finding his family than I did.

    Had Nino not been walking by the church when he did, Mike would have been cremated and forgotten by many, while his friends would have assumed he finally made it back to Colorado.

    Homelessness increased 25% in Oakland over the last 2 years. People die every day on the streets. If they aren’t claimed and identified in 3 days, they are swept away as ashes. Everyone is one choice away from being homeless. Each homeless person you pass is someone’s child and more often than you think, someone’s parent. Too often I hear people say homeless people deserve what they get and don’t deserve handouts.

    My belief is that it’s a human right to be seen and told that you matter. One will go much further in life when they believe they matter, but it starts with first telling them.

    Reply
  5. Dee

    “My favorite activity every day was sitting on the porch with a journal and pot of coffee, and just being. I would breathe, think, feel, wonder, and converse with God about this journey I was on.”

    Thank you for reminding me of the special moments I’ve had where I was able to be in the moment, in nature, and simply feel and enjoy the gift of being. It’s funny that your article appeared in front to me today. Just this morning I was searching my mind for some memories that might remind me of who I was pre children, marriage, degrees, mortgages, career, and the balancing act that seems to be my life today. The single idea I had settled on was that there was a time when I simply enjoyed “being”. Your article reminded me that getting back to that place of simplicity, awareness, and appreciation of the gift of life, is a place I want to be often in the days ahead. Great article!

    Reply
  6. Priscilla King

    Ouch…I’m violating my “Sabbath” just by being here today! I try to stay home and offline on Saturdays. Since I didn’t get things done, and let work spill over into today, I needed this. Thanks.

    Reply
  7. Gale

    I sorta knew that some of these already, I just have a very hard time sticking with them. I need to practice every bit of my writing technique. From the discipline part to the actual writing. I love this article it makes me want to push a bit more to get my writing routine in check.

    Reply
    • Beverly Brown

      Gale, I’m with you in that. This Write Practice really got me up and going. Digging out my stories started years ago.

  8. Beverly Brown

    “Help! Help!
    “Is That Del? Delmond was my youngest little brother who was born with “Down-syndrome. He was an adventurer who often got himself into situations where help was always needed.

    “I think the sound is coming from the backyard!” said Annie. I bet he’s finally figured out a way to get that screen door open.” It was one of those muggy, hot summer days in St.Louis when everybody, and I mean everybody had screen doors so you could leave your doors, front and back, open just in case a breeze came by to give relief from the often 100 degree weather.

    “Help! Help!” there it is again and it is coming from the backyard! I said. Coming down from the top, taking the steps two and three at a time.

    “Betty! You take your time comin’ down those stairs! You know better than to be runnin’ in this house!” Why is that dog barkin out there?”

    ” Yes, M’am,” Sorry!” I yelled over my shoulder as I reached the screen door before anybody else..
    Hahahahah!” I laughed, You’ll never believe This!

    There, laying on his back, was little 2year old Del, smiling, with Whitey, our huge white German Shepherd, sitting on his legs, apparently to prevent his going any further than the back yard!

    Reply
  9. Kathleen Zoldak

    When I am writing (or not wanting to write) I think about the “giving”. Someone, just one person perhaps needs to hear my story so that they can feel a little better, know that someone else has been there, that they can survive too – when I don’t want to write, I remember it’s not for me, its for that other person waiting for me to finish my story for them

    Reply

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Writing Discipline: Why Talent Isn’t Enough (And What You Need Instead) | Creative Writing - […] “ Pride says you must be a master writer NOW. The truth is, you just need to practice. Tweet…

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Say Yes to Practice

Join over 450,000 readers who are saying YES to practice. You’ll also get a free copy of our eBook 14 Prompts:

Popular Resources

Books By Our Writers

A Shadow Stained in Blood
- Ichabod Ebenezer
Box of Shards
- K.M. Hotzel
Headspace
- J. D. Edwin
7
Share to...