Tips on Discipline (Chapter 1 Extra)

Two basic ideas help with writing discipline: relinquish fetishes and know the difference between habit and ideal process…


Here’s an incomplete list of things I’ve given up over the years so I wouldn’t have excuses not to write:

  • Special notebooks.
  • Favorite pens.
  • Particular times of day (or night).
  • Comfortable desks and chairs.
  • A dedicated office space.
  • Specific mental exercises.
  • Nostalgic typewriters.
  • Impressive laptops.

These days, I don’t care where I am when I write, who I’m with, or if it’s midnight or noon. I don’t care if I scribble on a piece of toilet paper or in some fancy goat-skin-lined tome. If I don’t have a pen, I’ll as easily type a phrase or scene fragment into my phone and send it to my email account as try to write a note on paper.

I’m for whatever creates the least distance between thought and capturing the thought, that provides the least friction between “eureka!” and writing down “eureka!” before it becomes “What the heck was that brilliant phrase I was just thinking of a second ago and now have forgotten?”

My younger self didn’t understand this truth. My younger self kept putting obstacles between me and the act of writing. Every minute spent fetishizing the process instead of simplifying it cost me moments of creativity.

I also wasted money on all of the accoutrements we see in our mind’s eyes as belonging to the writer’s craft. In addition, my younger self didn’t understand that there’s not always a link between improved technology and greater efficiency. There have been times that my computer, with all of its distractions, with its Word that failed on me, became a much greater hindrance to my creativity than finding that special artist’s paper, that particular brand of smooth roller pen.

On long projects, my favorite notebook now is actually the simplest possible invention: the lined notecard. I write one thought or sequence or phrase per card, shove a bunch of blank ones in my back pocket wherever I go. It has made novel writing a lot easier for me. Nothing’s more annoying than having to take all of your random novel notes in a notebook and put them into sequential order. With note cards, just sequence them in minutes. Voila! Low-tech, DIY innovation. No software in the world can provide
that kind of organization.

That said — and while I play the old-school curmudgeon here to make a point — many writers I admire use sophisticated new tools to be efficient and make it easier to produce word count. Scrivener or other programs that help with chapter organization may be of use. John McCarthy, a writer and graphic design artist for the Museum of Comic Book Arts in New York City notes, for example, that “Speaking strictly as an amateur writer — whose schedule and work habits are fractured — Scrivener has been like found gold. I’ve made it part of my workflow and I’m quite confident endorsing it.” Still, for me, these tools make work too easy — word count is a hollow goal unless they’re the right words — and also impose templates that guard against the unexpected mistake, the moment when human error creates something wonderful. Thus, I find Scrivener an insidious kind of fetish — performing functions I want my brain to engage in directly.

But regardless of what you think of writing longhand or using Scrivener, I hope my point is obvious by now. In pursuing productivity, don’t abandon old technology in favor of what’s shiny and new just because everyone else is doing it. And don’t hold onto the old just because you’ve always done it that way. If you can accomplish that goal, you will be liberated from a multitude of decisions that have nothing to do with writing.



Do you know the difference? A habit is not a process. Just because you have always sacrificed a goat and three hamsters and then completed a novel doesn’t mean there is no better way. It’s easy to say that “I prefer to write on a laptop” or “I prefer to write in
the mornings” or “I write best when I polish a page and move on, rather than writing a full rough draft” or “I’m really best at writing thrillers,” but until you test your habits scientifically, with an open mind, you really don’t know if you’re doing something in a particular way out of habit or because it really is the best way — for you.

You see this in business all the time when a project is successful. The participants in that success tend to assume every aspect of what they did, except for obvious tactical failures, contributed to that success. Then they repeat all of those elements, even the ones that didn’t actually contribute to success.

Eventually, they come across a situation in which it becomes obvious that some of their process is actually habit, and that habit gets them into trouble. In business, the results of misjudging the paradigm can be utter ruin, whereas the results of not analyzing your habits as a writer are less severe: inefficiency and, possibly, not leveraging your imagination or talent across your writing as
well as you might.

This gap between habit and process in writing occurs in the same way as in business, only more so. You develop a routine as a beginning writer — sometimes in your teens — when you don’t necessarily understand your motivation or your craft, and by the time you have acquired some mastery of techniques, habit is codified as process, usually in a vacuum.

However, there’s a further complication. In the arts, unlike in business, efficiency isn’t always the goal. I even have processes that include inefficiency as an element of creating a better piece of fiction. Which is to say, having tried using computer programs for organization and for brainstorming, I need instead the messiness of little notes and scrawled charts because my inefficiency leads to
further inspiration. A word I can’t read on a note card may actually become a springboard to further invention in the text. Having to reorganize scraps of paper may suggest a better ordering of events, in a very organic way.

If my process, or anyone’s process, seems ridiculous to you, make sure you’ve tried and discarded it first. Also recognize that your response to various processes changes over the years as your writing changes. If you’re stuck on a creative project, it might have nothing to do with having written yourself into a corner. Instead, you might need to change your process. You might even find the solution in a process change you rejected five years before that now works perfectly for you.

For these reasons and more, the idea of process in writing is murkier than in other fields. There is no template that fits every writer. This is also, understandably, why we tend to confuse habit and process in our daily lives as writers. Still, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be systematic in your exploration of process versus habit.