Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

How to Help Your Writing by Talking Like an Athlete

Are you a writer so addicted to self-sabotage that you regularly trash-talk to yourself? You know what I mean. You say things like:

I really don't know how to write...
My boss is going to hate this...
Readers are going to be so bored...

One of my best solutions for dealing with this problem, I think, is making a friend of doubt. Doubt is that narrow-eyed monster who tells you you're not good enough to write a blog post, never mind a report, and really don't even consider a book.

But I recently stumbled across some useful advice directed specifically at self-talk. In a 2011 review published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, researchers reported that athletes who were trained to talk to themselves, the right way, performed better than those who weren't. 

The biggest lesson from this review? Instructional self-talk is particularly helpful. Have you ever learned to play a racquet sport? I always hated tennis but I love racquetball and squash.  If so, you'll likely be familiar with instructional self-talk. Keep your eye on the ball, you tell yourself. That bounce against the right wall will put the ball back in the middle, so stay in the middle, you say. Snap your wrist (for racquetball); move your elbow up (for squash.) Stay on your toes so you can move quickly. 

I used the 2nd person voice ("you") deliberately here because I find when I'm instructing myself it's almost as if I'm talking to an entirely separate person. 

This kind of self-talk works for the following reasons: 

  1. It improves our attention. Instead of focusing on our feelings, which might well be negative, it teaches us to concentrate on specifically what we need to do. This is an excellent way to screen out distractions. 
     
  2. It's unfailingly positive. Instead of telling us what we're bad at ("I really suck at metaphors") it challenges us to do good work ("I need to place a metaphor in the next paragraph.") This type of challenge is actually more than positive — it's invigorating!
     
  3. It regulates our effort. If we're going to instruct ourselves, we need a goal and a plan for how to achieve it. Below, I've suggested some scripted lines you might want to consider saying to yourself when doing your own writing. After your next writing session, evaluate which lines worked best for you and consider pasting them onto a wall or bulletin board near your screen. 

Here's the script:  

  1. My goal is to write XX words per day. As long as I do that, I've succeeded.
  2. I don't need to look at Facebook/Twitter/email right now. I can use that as a reward when I've finished my writing. 
  3. My number 1 objective is to write a really crappy first draft.
  4. I can make this writing better, later.
  5. When writing, my only job is to put words on the page. Publishing and pleasing both come later.
  6. Writing and editing are two separate jobs.
  7. The opinions of other people don't matter for now; I can deal with them later.
  8. The faster I get this first draft written the sooner I can get on with editing.
  9. The best writers are the best re-writers. No one — not even ____ [insert name of your favorite writer here] — writes a perfect first draft.

I am learning how to write and I will improve with time and practice.


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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ 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:

Thursday January 29th 2015, 7:11 AM
Comment by: Julia S. (Ennice, NC)
Thank you for a most helpful article. These thoughts will help me move beyond my current writer's block. I didn't even realize how negative self talk was getting in my way. Thank you.
Thursday January 29th 2015, 2:38 PM
Comment by: Elizabeth A.
A very helpful article. It would help me with my next writing.
Thursday January 29th 2015, 3:15 PM
Comment by: JOHN E. (BEDFORD, NH)
Nice! I'll share with my granddaughter (and keep a copy for myself)...
Friday January 30th 2015, 1:44 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks for your comments! Self-talk is usually a much bigger issue than most people imagine it to be.
Tuesday February 3rd 2015, 8:29 PM
Comment by: James F.
When I was in high school, my teachers often explained plagiarism to me after reading my essays or other writing assignments. Once, after being embarrassed in front of my classmates, I offered to write a short story during a study period and in her classroom. She picked a title, "Fear of Snakes". She apologized to me and in front of my classmates the following day.

I didn't choose writing as a career but as a forensic doctor my writing skills were of great value.Thank you, Daphne, for your excellent article.
Wednesday February 4th 2015, 8:42 AM
Comment by: Gena W.
in addition to Daphne's good advice, I recommend something that I read by Daniel Pink. To my understanding, other social science research indicates that interrogative self-talk works extremely well to build confidence before a persuasion effort (in this case, the discussion is about selling or some other public interaction task). So rather than telling myself "You can do this!", I should say "Can I do this? Yes, I can, because I have prepared in the following ways: xx, xx, xx."

In general, negative self-talk is a scourge--it limits productivity and happiness in myriad ways. Thanks, Daphne, for your view on how we can erase those tapes.

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