Motivation vs. Discipline: Keeping Your Writing on Track

(c) Can Stock Photo/stevanovicigor
(c) Can Stock Photo/stevanovicigor

Are you a writer? Do you aspire to be one? Whatever your current status and goals, you have a set of motivations that drive you. Perhaps you’ve loved telling stories since childhood and the ideas are piled up inside your brain, pushing you to let them out into the world. Maybe you’re a wordsmith who enjoys crafting sentences and creating a beautiful flow of text. Or maybe your motivations are a combination of things, such as a love for storytelling, a fascination with research, and a  driving need to work a flexible job that you can perform at home or while traveling.

Whatever your reasons for becoming a writer, you likely have a list of things that motivate you — large and small — to sit down at your computer and work on your manuscript. There’s the bigger picture — which includes your desire to be a writer in general — and the smaller one, as well — which might be a combination of a challenging scene you’re dying to write and a deadline looming on the horizon. These things join forces to motivate you, to make you want to get down to the actual work of writing.

But what happens on days you don’t want to write? Days when you don’t feel like it? Maybe you’re not quite sure what comes next in the story, or you had a late night and just the thought of being creative makes your head throb. Or it’s possible your day job requires you to put in some extra hours this week, and the only way you can squeeze in your writing time is to stay up an extra hour before going to bed each night. And you really don’t want to do that.

It happens. No matter how much you love to write, no matter how strong your desire to succeed, you are only human, and it’s impossible for a human being to be highly motivated about something every hour of every day. This is where discipline comes into play.

Discipline gets a bad wrap in terms of the words we use. It tends to have more of a negative connotation these days, bringing to mind parents who believe in spankings, or long prison sentences. But somewhere among those numbered dictionary definitions is the one I need, meaning self-control, or orderly or prescribed conduct. Discipline is the thing that gets you to the keyboard when you’d rather not get out of bed in the morning.

People have two basic modes of conscious behavior: Things they do automatically, and things they think about before deciding whether or not to move forward. The things that come automatically didn’t always do so. Your parents reminded you to brush your teeth for years, most likely, before you truly adopted the habit. It probably took a few years of your childhood for you to get out of bed without prompting and get ready for school, but that habit helped train you for getting ready for work later on.

As an adult, you’ve developed your own set of routines, and it probably took a certain amount of discipline to put them in place. You may not always feel like hitting the gym, but you make yourself go because your health and fitness are important to you and because you understand the dangers of breaking that habit. Likewise, you don’t always wake feeling excited about going to your day job, but you go because you’re a responsible person who needs to pay their bills, and because your coworkers count on you. So where does writing fit on your scale? Is it something you do daily, automatically? Or is it something you think about and then decide to move forward, or not?

If you wish to make writing your career, if you want to be serious and professional about it, you need to treat it as you would any other important, nonnegotiable aspect of your life. Behave like a professional writer from the moment you determine that’s your ultimate goal. You don’t write because you happen to feel like it that day; you commit to writing because it’s important and you set the time to do it. Then you show up and do the work. Don’t wait to feel inspired. Don’t take time off simply because you’re feeling less motivated that day. You need to treat writing as a job if you wish it to become one.


7 thoughts on “Motivation vs. Discipline: Keeping Your Writing on Track

  1. I wrote my first poem when I was five, my first short story when I was ten. Publishable material? Absolutely not. Enjoyable to write? Definitely. Writing is the one career I’ve desired my whole life.

    I write every day. If I am feeling burned out on my current project, which is a memoir, I take a break and write something different. That something different can be a poem, a blog post or jotting down ideas for other pieces. It can also be reading and critiquing another’s work. Although not the same as sitting down at my laptop, I believe it requires the same combination of creativity and critical thinking.

    Anyway, this is my two cents worth. Thanks for taking the time to post something helpful for us aspiring writers. 🙂

  2. Oh, boy did I need this post today.

    I’ve created a daily writing habit this year that’s served me well, but today I just don’t want to write. It’s a major revision of a very tough scene, and simply thinking about it makes my head hurt. I decided to look at my emails and read some blogs instead.

    And then I see this post.

    I’m going to go to my WiP, and even if everything I write ends up being scrapped later, I will write. Thank you for this well-timed kick in the pants.

    1. So glad this came at a good time for you. Get those words down! They do all count, even if you end up revising a good portion of them.

  3. I have kids, one with special needs. I don’t have the luxury of not having discipline, which is important to me on two fronts. 1) If I don’t scrabble the time for it somehow, even if I’m pulled over to the side of the road, it simply doesn’t get done. 2) If I don’t show my children that my writing writing (my “stuff” to quote For Colored Girls) sometimes it has to take priority, how will they, as adults, ever learn the discipline to make a time and a place for what they care about passionately?

    The hardest part for me then is making the time for writing that requires the long, slow think–like structural revision, or making sure that fleeting metaphor chases all the way through a section. That’s when partner has to take up the slack–if he’s got slack to give! (I should write a sonnet: Oh, had I the funds for a part-time maid and nanny–you’re welcome to come up with the next line.)

    blogging at

    1. Good for you! And also an excellent point about showing your kids how it’s done. I think it’s easy to tell your children to do X or Y, but if they also see their parents setting that example it goes a long way toward helping them understand the benefits of getting your stuff done.

  4. This is a wonderful post. Many people tend to think you need to be inspired to write, but that’s not the case most of the time. I agree, showing up and putting down words or editing is important even if you’re not in the mood. Though there are times, like anything else, where we need a day or two away to refresh and recharge so we can continue without feeling burnt out. And that’s ok too.
    Thank you for the post. I enjoyed it.

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