At ProfHacker, we have written a number of posts about the benefits of writing groups. Writing groups are an effective way to have accountability in the writing process, to build a community of like-minded people supporting each other in that process, they are a great way to develop readers for your work. As good as writing groups are, sometimes they aren’t enough. You have to be in the right frame of mind for a group to succeed.
Today, we offer a way to develop that right frame of mind.
Writing is very hard work. So hard, in fact, that most people who try are not wholly successful. The best way define success, for our purposes, is to compare being a successful writer to being a successful athlete. Writers and athletes have a lot in common. Each needs to set goals for their work, each needs to identify their talent, they need the right equipment, and they need focus to achieve their goals.
The physical ability to run, throw, ski, or swim comes easily to some people. Swimming seems to come easily to Michael Phelps. Or, maybe he just makes swimming the 200m butterfly in under two minutes look easy. Phelps spent years of his life in a swimming pool. He had the talent, but he trained hard. He persevered.
Writing is much the same. We are not born excellent and speedy writers. We have to work to develop the talent, and some of us have to work very hard. It’s important to remember the old adage: success is 90% effort and 10% talent. Phelps spent years in the pool. You must spend time at your computer.
Create a Plan / Set Goals
When an athlete begins training for a marathon, for example, she doesn’t run 10-miles on her first afternoon on the track. She sets goals for herself, especially if she’s new to the sport. She runs one mile, then two. She plans to run a 5K by a certain date. She focuses on a 10K a few months away. She sets short-term and long-term goals for herself. This allows her to be successfully achieve these short-term goals. Then long-term goals become within reach.
As writer, you must set long-range goals: “I’ll have this article submitted to XYZ Journal by the end of the semester,” or “I’ll have my book prospectus to a publisher by the end of the year.” Then, set a series of small-goals that will help you reach your ultimate aim. These smaller goals could include writing a certain number of words each day, reading relevant scholarship for at least one hour on teaching days, researching grant sources every week. These smaller goals would break down into a daily to-do list.
Get in the Zone
In college sports, when football and basketball teams travel to “away” games, they are often barraged in trash talk by the home fans. Yet these athletes have the ability to block out all those voices and those distractions. They have developed a mental skill of—being in the zone—being able to focus on what they need to do to make the free throw or the field goal.
If you find that you are spending too much time on Twitter or reading blogs or playing games on Facebook, you might need to develop your own zone that will help you ignore those distractions. If ignoring the distractions proves to be too difficult, limit access to the Internet while you write by unplugging your Internet connection or moving to a writing location (coffee shop) that doesn’t include Internet access. You can get to your own zone. The point is that you need to develop the ability to work through those voices/distractions.
When athletes don’t win a game, they don’t simply quit and stop trying. They gather themselves up and keep on with the goal of becoming better athletes, of becoming winners. As writers, we must do the same. If you miss a goal or deadline, recognize the need to make changes in your procedure or plan, and then move on, never losing sight of your long-term goal.
Athletes don’t buy running shoes that are too big, and they don’t leave their tennis racket at home when they have a match. Similarly, you need appropriate gear to be a writer. For most of us, that’s a computer with a word processing program. But you might need specialized software. You might include a pad of paper and pens or pencils. Good light, a sturdy chair, and a comfortable temperature are also important. Some writers—myself included—need to be physically comfortable when writing. When I was writing my dissertation, I needed my hair pulled back off of my face, and I needed white noise in my writing space. Part of my gear was a headband and a fan. As a writer, you must know what equipment you need. Then get it. Use it.
Athletes take care of their bodies. Along with daily training at their sport, they eat healthy foods, they get enough sleep, and they find ways to relax. In short, they find a way to balance their lives. We need to do the same for ourselves as writers. We need to learn to take care of ourselves. When we spend our time writing, caring for family and friends, teaching classes, serving on committees, advising students, and engaging in community endeavors, we often don’t leave enough time to eat well, to get enough sleep, or to relax. We work. I have learned the hard way that working hard isn’t as productive as working smart. ProfHacker has a number of regular columns that can help you include healthy foods and exercise into your routine so you can also work a little smarter.
Of course the comparison of writer and athlete is not perfect. The point is, we can do things that can help us be successful at writing if we think of ourselves in this new light. We need the goals, the structure, the equipment, the physical presence, and we can do it. With this new frame of mind, we can once again try the writing group.
In comments below, please leave suggestions about how you “get in the zone” of writing, or the equipment you use, or ways that you psyche yourself up for the “big game.”
[Image of runner by Flickr user Oskarn. Used under the Creative Commons license.]