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Writers Talk About Writing

Four Ways to Build Mental Toughness for Writing

Have you ever noticed the similarities between writing and making music or exercising? Each of these activities requires practice, commitment and repetition and we get worse at them when we take a break.

A friend sent me a link to a story on the Runner's World website — on how to build mental toughness for runners — and I thought I’d reframe it as a post about writing. Here goes, using the same ideas promoted by Runner's World:

1. Gain control over your breathing.
This tip might sound better directed at people who are exercising, but guess what? It applies to writers as well. Researcher Linda Stone calls the problem email apnea — a term borrowed from "sleep apnea" — a medical condition in which people stop breathing for a few seconds at night when they're asleep. Stone argues, and I agree, that people who spend time in front of screens (I’m looking at you, writers!) often hold their breath or breathe far too shallowly. In fact, some 80 percent of the people she observed did this. And guess who the remaining 20 percent, apnea-free people were?

  • Dancers
  • Musicians
  • High-performance athletes

There's that music-exercise connection again. Our breath is a trigger for our nervous system. When we breathe with easy, relaxed inhalations and exhalations, we calm our bodies. But when we breathe, in short, hungry gasps — or forget to breathe at all — we're telling ourselves that we're in flight-or-fight mode, and a crisis is about to occur. This feeling is stressful and makes our hearts beat faster.

To get control of your breathing, Stone suggests you begin by improving your awareness. When you write, for example, notice whether you're holding your breath. Also, attend to how you're holding your body: is it stiff or relaxed? Next, take regular breaks. She suggests breaking at least once an hour (and perhaps once every 45 minutes) for a five to 15-minute walk. I know this might sound like you'll be wasting time, but, in fact, you'll be making yourself more productive. And if you're serious about getting control of your breathing, she suggests that you dance or sing to improve your lung capacity.

2. Maintain a positive mindset.
This idea might sound a little woo-woo, but having a positive mindset can help improve your performance as a writer. Shawn Achor, one of the world's leading experts on the connection between happiness and success, has found that happiness fuels success. This maxim is the opposite to what we're taught by conventional wisdom, which holds that we'll be happy when we're successful. Instead, Achor argues, we'll be successful if we're happy. To achieve this state, he suggests the following steps:

  1. Keep a list of three things you’re grateful for every day.
  2. Maintain a journal about one positive experience you’ve had over the last 24 hours.
  3. Exercise.
  4. Meditate.
  5. Perform a random act of kindness every day.

I know, these steps appear to have almost nothing to do with writing. But they work. I find step #1, which I do daily, to be the most valuable, although I also walk and meditate every day as well.

3. Practice mental imagery.
Here's another piece of advice that might cause your woo-woo meter to go all wobbly: use mental imagery. What does such imagery have to do with writing? (That is, beyond the obvious connection of being able to envision a scene or a character if you're a fiction writer.)

Here's the deal: If you believe you're a lousy, unsuccessful writer you're far more likely to be one. But if you see yourself as eloquent, articulate and silver-tongued, you're more likely to hit those notes instead.


The Navy SEALS like to say, "We win in our mind before we enter the battlefield." To win your own mind, pick a positive affirmation like, "I can write," or "I have a good ear for dialogue," or "I'm an excellent editor," and repeat it whenever your more negative thoughts arise.

4. Set the right goals.
Why are you writing? Sure, I know the facile answer is you have a boss/editor who's demanding a story or report from you. But why did you take a job involving writing in the first place? Do you get a certain satisfaction out of writing? Do you have something important to say? Why are you doing it? Be really clear about this, so you have a way of sustaining yourself when the going gets tough.

When you know your "why," you can focus on smaller goals such as eliminating clichés, or using more figurative language or writing shorter sentences or ensuring all your antecedents are clear. Never do something just because someone else expects it of you. Instead, find your motivation. Otherwise, you'll have a difficult time getting through the challenging parts.

Being a productive and tough writer isn't something that happens by magic. Tough writers are made — not born.

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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8� Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday December 24th 2019, 1:22 PM
Comment by: David C. (Marietta, GA)
Thanks, Daphne. The first thing I'm grateful for is your column. Now, if I could only remember to breathe lone enough to visualize the second and third...
Tuesday December 24th 2019, 1:51 PM
Comment by: Rain
I'm standing at my desk, typing on my elevated laptop, drinking my warm lemon water, and getting mentally ready to pedal a few kilometers on my stationary bike. Thanks for your column, so relevant to this health-awareness time I'm enjoying.
Wednesday December 25th 2019, 12:16 PM
Comment by: Don H. (Brentwood, CA)Top 10 Commenter
Thanks for the encouraging article.

(I captured your quote, "We win in our mind before we enter the battlefield," for my Dr. Don's Collection of Wise, Wonderful, and Witty Quotes collection.)
Wednesday December 25th 2019, 5:16 PM
Comment by: Albina V.
Dear Daphne Gray-Grant,
Thank you so much for your inspiring writing. Lots of insights.
Thursday December 26th 2019, 11:11 AM
Comment by: Victoria Avilan (Redondo Beach, CA)
Thank you, Daphne. This article is so relevant to me, as I'm questioning the the HOW and WHY of writing my big monster/magnum opus...
Friday December 27th 2019, 1:19 PM
Comment by: Mary R. (Bountiful, UT)
Thank you for this practical guide, inspirational motivation, and direction for resources. I will look at the article in Runners' World, click on your blog, and actually write about a positive experience. Maybe I just got that last item on my list done.
Tuesday December 31st 2019, 4:00 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
It's wonderful to read all these cheerful, inspiring messages. As I write my response on New Year's Eve, I want to remind everyone to eschew New Year's resolutions and, instead focus on small, manageable writing habits that, over time, will allow you to achieve something significant. Even five minutes per day is enough to start!

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