Tips For Writers By Alison Breen Writing can be hard, hard work. While the idea in your head may be clear and vivid, trying to capture it can be a frustrating experience. At times, it may feel so difficult that you may start to doubt yourself. You may procrastinate. You may even abandon your writing project before it is finished. Grit–The Key to Success? Research by Angela Duckworth from the University of Pennsylvania shows that grit may be the most important factor determining your success. Perhaps even more so than intelligence or talent. Grit is about resilience in the face of failure and adversity. It is also about having consistent interests over time. In an interview in Educational Leadership, Duckworth explains: “Grit is having stamina. It is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Tweet: Grit is living life as a marathon, not a sprint.” Many of us, her research shows, tend to give up at the first sign of frustration or confusion. And ironically, once people reach a certain level of proficiency in a given skill, they tend to stop putting in the work needed to reach even greater levels of mastery. We can learn the value of grit from J.K. Rowling. Her first book Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was rejected by twelve publishers. And being able to stick with a project consistently over time? She got the idea for Harry Potter in 1990, and finished her last book in 2007! Grit is Related to Self-Control Self-control is the ability to control your behaviour and inhibit impulses. It allows you to delay gratification and manage distraction. In the popular marshmallow experiment, children are told that if they don’t eat the marshmallow they’ve been given, they’d get two marshmallows instead of one after about 15 minutes. Researchers found that the children who were able to delay gratification and resist the urge to immediately eat the marshmallow, when interviewed years later, were more likely to get better marks, be more popular, earn higher salaries, and have a lower BMI, and were less likely to abuse drugs. You can see how this relates to writing. We know that to write well, we need to write consistently. We need to pay attention. We actually have to write. Again and again and again. We need to be able to resist the many temptations and distractions that threaten to pull our attention from the task at hand. The good news is that there are ways that show you how to keep writing and develop the perseverance you need to follow through to completion; ways that help you cope with the challenges of the writing process, such as rejection, fear, frustration and uncertainty. How to Keep Writing When You Feel Like Giving Up Here are some suggestions that will help you persevere and finish your writing projects. #1. Know Your Writing Motivation Simon Sinek, author of Start With Why, advises that when you have a clear sense of your purpose, cause or belief, you can wake up feeling inspired. Having a clear idea of the underlying “why” for doing the work helps when you hit difficult times. As Duckworth’s research shows, grit is related to passion for our long-term interests. Often we get so caught up in the “how” of a project that we lose sight of “why” we’re doing it in the first place. Why do you choose to write, day after day, when there are other things you could do with your precious time? Is it to share your experience and learnings to help others cope better with their challenges? To market a business that you believe could make a positive difference in people’s lives? Identifying your “why” can help you get to completion with your writing projects. #2. Practice Mindfulness Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to the present moment with an attitude of acceptance. So many of us go through our days on autopilot. When you practice paying attention to what you are doing in the present moment, you are more likely to notice thoughts or feelings that knock you off-track, and can deal with them right away. Particularly relevant here is that practicing mindfulness helps you develop self-control by inhibiting your impulses. So you are less likely to procrastinate. One way to develop mindfulness is meditation. If meditation doesn’t feel right for you, there are many ways to integrate mindfulness exercises into your day. #3. Manage Your Self-Talk It turns out that when we experience challenges, our attitude towards ourselves determines whether or not we’ll reach our goals. An attitude of self-compassion—kindness towards yourself in the face of challenge or failure—makes it far more likely that you will succeed. Most of us are very hard on ourselves, and while we may think this is helpful, it turns out that it is not. Being critical and judgemental when you slip up makes it harder for you to get back on track. Hillary Rettig, author of the The 7 secrets of the Highly Prolific, explains: “Because the prolific person is focused on problem-solving rather than remorse and self-recrimination, she will typically either a) recover quickly from obstacles and triggers, or b) not even perceive them in the first place.” #4. Shift Your Focus Changing where you focus your attention can help you stay the course and avoid procrastination. Research has shown that focusing on the end goal or on the next step can have different effects at different stages of the process. At the beginning of a process, it may be daunting for you to focus on the end goal. Fear of failure and worry about what people will think of your work can overwhelm you. It may be better to focus on the process—on your next step. As you get closer to the finish, focusing on the end may give you the additional motivation to see you through. Shifting your focus away from observing and monitoring your performance can also help free up your writing. Watching yourself in action and wondering whether you are good enough is likely to make it harder to write. Instead, practise shifting your focus to how you are benefiting your readers. How are you hoping their lives will be different after reading your work? What is the essence of the message you hope to communicate? #5. Learn to Regulate Your Emotions To follow through with your writing, you need to be able to regulate your emotions. Especially your feelings related to your writing. You are more likely to procrastinate if you’re in a bad mood. But you’re also likely to procrastinate when in a good mood if you have negative feelings about your writing. Hillary Rettig believes that the difference between prolific and underproductive writers is the level of procrastination-producing emotions they experience, such as shame, guilt, disappointment and fear. Here are some suggestions to help you change your feelings towards your writing: Psychologist and writer Mary Pipher in her book Writing to Change the World suggests finishing your writing for the day on a high note. That way, you are more likely to feel good about returning to it the next day. Monitor and celebrate small wins. Nothing is more motivating than progress. Write about your negative feelings and associations towards your writing. This has been shown to be effective in helping people process negative emotions. And it helps get you get started on writing. Reframing the physical sensation of fear to excitement is another useful strategy if performance anxiety is leading to avoidance. Alison Wood Brook, performance anxiety researcher, explains: “When people feel anxious and try to calm down, they are thinking about all the things that could go badly. When they are excited, they are thinking about how things could go well.” Experiment and build a list. Keep it handy. You’ll probably need it sooner than you think. #6. Shift to a Growth Mindset Carol Dweck in her book Mindset: The Psychology of Success shows how our beliefs about our abilities impacts how we learn. When you approach your writing with the goal of getting it right, you’ll see mistakes as a sign of failure and as a reflection of an innate ability. You’ll struggle to share your work with others for feedback. You may even try to do everything by yourself. (Yes, perfectionism we see you.) But if you write with the goal of getting better, you’re more likely to welcome feedback, and challenges that will help you improve. You’ll see your writing ability as something to be developed through practice and effort. This will also help you reframe experiences of rejection and perceived failure as learning experiences, so that you recover quickly, and focus on the next step. #7. Keep Your Energy Levels High We need energy to exert control, and the energy needs to be continuously replenished. Blood sugar levels regulate the ability to exercise self-control. With low blood sugar, you find it harder to concentrate and control negative emotions, and resort to management strategies like procrastination. Research also shows that lack of sleep impairs the body’s ability to process glucose and, as a result, lowers self-control. Self-control diminishes throughout the day, so it may be useful to schedule challenging writing tasks first thing in the morning. When Persevering is a Bad Idea I have to add a quick disclaimer. Sometimes, not following through is a good thing. There are times when we end up doing things where the motivation behind the action is confused. Maybe it is the “right thing to do,” what is expected of you. Pressure from others can start you down a road that feels neither fulfilling nor meaningful. You may also have a tendency to take on too much at one time, or put too much pressure on yourself as a result of perfectionistic tendencies. If what you are doing has a detrimental effect on an important aspect of your life, such as your relationships or health, the most adaptive response might be to find ways to walk away from it without completing the work. I hope these suggestions help you persevere through the tough times to finish your writing projects. Successful experiences build confidence. Each time you complete a project, you build trust in yourself and your capabilities. This makes it easier to keep going the next time you hit a period of difficulty. Most of us believe that we can make changes by reading alone. Not true! Ideas and strategies need to be implemented consistently to have an impact. I find that strategies work best when you find ways to integrate them into your daily routine. Take a look at your day and see where you can integrate some of these practices. “Beyond the very extreme of fatigue and distress, we may find amounts of ease and power we never dreamed ourselves to own; sources of strength never taxed at all because we never push through the obstruction.” ~William James What helps you persevere when things are tough? Share your tips and experiences in the comments!