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

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

The truth is, while great writing and structure can separate the newbies from the greats, 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 just got 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.

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

I decided to quit. I drove home, threw my clubs in the garage, and never came back to the course.

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

And when you have huge dreams weighing on your shoulders, 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 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. But Pride, ever the merciless master, 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 give in to Pride’s demands and 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 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 farther 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

  • Write every day
  • Read every day
  • Blog
  • Set goals with daily timelines
  • Read coaching blogs (like The Write Practice!)
  • Comment on those blogs
  • Enter writing contests
  • Participate in writer’s groups

When we do these activities, it tends to feel good. They feel, and often are, productive. And productivity feeds our Pride.

While productivity can be a great thing, it is often a mask for toxic problems simmering below the surface of our consciousness. Heading onto the golf course looked, and felt, “productive” to me. But it did nothing to address the issues that were boiling inside of me like magma.

This is why it is the Invisible Disciplines of writing that will eventually make someone truly great:

Invisible Writing Disciplines

  • Talk with, and listen to, your readers
  • Spend time with family and friends while not writing
  • Spend time at work (interacting with humans) while not writing
  • Emphasize giving over selling
  • Build relationships with other writers and content creators
  • Tangibly forgive yourself for failure and frustration
  • Believe in the value of BOTH the final product and the journey
  • Journal, meditate, and pray
  • Take healthy breaks, or Sabbaths, from writing (especially when it consumes you)
  • Accept that you have very little control over your own success

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

When mastered, they become deeply engrained in one’s character, and truly transform who you are from within.

The 3 Fundamental Writing Disciplines

While this is a long list, and possibly an overwhelming one, I want you to focus on a few of these to get started, as the majority of these disciplines will grow when you adopt and master these first three.

1. Write Every Day

A Visible Writing Discipline, daily writing flexes the very muscle you are seeking 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.
  • emails and memos for work.
  • notes, especially about your story ideas and revisions, in your phone.
  • by hand, by keyboard, or by screen.
  • comments on blog posts (like this one!).
  • hand-written “Thank You’s,” or other notes, to your spouse, children, family, friends, or roommates.

The point is that you write, and you do it every day. Flex the muscle of daily 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.

And talent is useless when the desire to use it is destroyed by failure and pride. Talent is merely a tool. You need to become a hard-working craftsman.

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 blogging world, but what might be new is the mindset it provides. When you approach the craft and discipline of writing with a Giving 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 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 right the ship by remembering why I do any of this: to build relationships and Give.

Here's the kicker: You have to practice the daily discipline of Giving. It is wildly opposed to our everyday human desires. We wish to be served, not the other way around. Developing this Discipline takes time and sacrifice over many months and years.

But when you do serve, you will find a world of freedom and joy waiting for you. Doors open that you could not have imagined. Your whole writing game changes in wildly fun and freeing ways.

But you have to practice. You have build the Giving muscle. So 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 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 “Sabbath,” or 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. I would breathe, think, feel, wonder, and converse with God about this journey I was on.

It was awesome.

For every day I’m not in the mountains, I seek solace in a quiet room of the house, or 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 in prayer, journaling in thought, and journaling with raw, free emotions.

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

Do you do this?

Do you value solitude, quiet, and time to communicate with your god and with yourself?

Whatever belief system you have, it must be an essential part of your daily functioning. And when you participate in this daily function, you must submit your writing and your work to whatever eternal truth you believe in.

Don’t mistake my meaning here: I’m not talking about asking God, Buddha, or Santa Claus to make you rich or famous. Do that, and you’ll quit harder than I did (and lose more than your passion for writing).

I’m talking about bringing your Truth with you on this writing journey, and sharing that experience with the deepest parts of your spiritual self. If you don’t, you will surely succumb to the same temptations that made me hang up my golf bag: anger, self-deceit, and the death of your dreams.

So take a moment every day to journal, pray, meditate, or enjoy some time alone with yourself (and with your god) to reflect on your writing. Talk to yourself 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.

On its own, Talent loses. Without Discipline, Talent is useless.

Talent is merely the jump-off. It is the inkling, the inspiration, the thought to visit a blog like this one and get coached into excellence. It is the full measure of your untapped potential.

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. And it will be a victorious 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.


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.

Whomever they are, think of that person and the kind of writing 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 in the comments. 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 commenters!

Happy Practicing!

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.

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