Pretend Someone is Watching–and Other Tips to Help Your Writing

A couple weeks ago I wrote a post that compared the discipline of running to the discipline of writing. That struck a nerve with some readers who have never even put on a pair of running shoes. I am following up this week with three more crucial disciplines from running that help me as a writer. Unless I follow these habits in both running and writing, I can’t get anything done.

1. Take It In Segments.

When I start my morning run, I can’t bear the thought of all that territory that lies ahead.  I follow a regular route that winds along some horse trails and streets through parks and neighborhoods near my house. However, when I’m out there, I don’t think of myself as running one long route. That would feel too overwhelming.

Instead, I run a series of segments. First there is the warm-up walk from my house to a certain driveway one street over. Then comes the segment that takes me to the end of my neighborhood. Then there is my run through the park. And so on. I can do those little segments. Each one by itself feels manageable. If I think about how far it is to the end of the run, I might be tempted to quit. I run one part, then another, and then another. Eventually, I reach the finish line.

When I’m writing, I follow a similar discipline. I don’t sit down and think of myself as writing a book. That’s too daunting. I don’t even think of writing a chapter. Instead, I think of one small part—maybe a paragraph, or scene, or anecdote—that I know I can do. I work on that. Once I finish it, I work on the next bit. Momentum builds, and so does my confidence. Before long, the ideas flow freely.

2. Pretend Someone is Watching.

This one may sound a little weird, but have you ever watched a group of kids around the neighborhood playing basketball or some other sport, and one of them is announcing every move like a TV sports announcer? Do you ever hear that announcer in your head when you’re playing sports yourself? Sometimes when I’m running, especially on days when my motivation is lacking, I pretend this is more than just some regular daily run. Instead, it’s a momentous race, and everything—say, the fate of the world, or my country—hinges on my reaching the finish line. People on all sides are cheering me on. I barely have room to run. They’re all watching. I’d better not screw this up.

With writing, I also sometimes envision an audience. Some writers I know think of specific people they are writing to. I have done that, but often I write to an idealized audience. It’s the type of reader who is leaning toward me, listening with anticipation, ready to engage my ideas. I don’t want to let that reader down. I want to hold up my end of the conversation.

Writing can be a lonely task, with just me and the computer in a quiet room. Imagining an audience reminds me that if I do this right, that pretend audience might become real if I stick to my work and get the words down on the page.

3. Get So Lost in the Work that Time Slips Away.

When I’m running, the worst thing for me to think about is the running itself. If I’m thinking about my breathing, or my feet, or my movement, that over-awareness makes the run seem much longer. The best runs are the ones in which my mind is thinking about everything except running. As I daydream or plan, the time slips by, and once I break out of that deep concentration, I might be surprised to realize that the run is half over. I may not remember much about the last mile, but I ran it anyway. The work is done.

With writing, the key is not to focus on fretful thoughts such as, “Oh, I should be writing. WIll I be able to do the writing? I am worried about the writing.” Instead, I need to let myself get close to my ideas. Let the images and language lure me in. Shut out all distractions and let my mind get absorbed in the world of the writing project. When I create conditions that help me get lost in the work, I look up an hour later to realize the paragraphs that had seemed so daunting are now on the page, and I am ready for more. That won’t happen if I’m checking Facebook every ten minutes, or writing emails, or answering text messages. I need to be surrounded only by the words. The computer. The books and other materials I need for research. A calm and energetic mind. A determination to sit there until the words begin to flow.

I wish you well as you run the race of writing.


What Running Reveals About Writing

Photo by Mike Warren

I run several mornings a week, but there is a point in the running process when I just don’t want to do it. Those moments of resistance taught me something important about another activity that is important to me—the discipline of writing.

By the time I have been out on my morning run for about 15 minutes, I start to feel pretty good. By then I’m warmed up, physically and mentally. My breathing is settled, my body feels that smooth running rhythm, and my mind is lost in the solitude that running allows. At that point I don’t care if it rains or whether it’s cold or hot outside. I am committed to the run by then, and I will finish it no matter what.

In all my years of running, I don’t remember ever regretting coming out for my run once I am past those first 15 minutes or so. By that point I am always glad that I’m out there and that I didn’t let any excuses hold me back.

When I say that I never regret the run, that is not to say that I “enjoy” it. While I do enjoy being outdoors by the foothills near our home and the feeling that I’m doing something that’s good for me, for the most part running is difficult and painful, and I’m always glad when I reach the end of my course. It’s physically draining and takes time out of my day. But once I finish, I also feel a small sense of triumph that I have gotten the day off to a good start.

For me, the hardest part of the running process takes place about an hour before the run. I wake up early, have breakfast, sit on my recliner and drink coffee and read the newspaper. In those groggy but comfortable moments, I sometimes think, I just can’t do that run today. My mind seeks excuses not to do it. Is it raining? Do I have an early meeting at work that would prevent me? Should I sit here and drink a second cup of coffee and forget the run?

I have learned that this is not the time to make my running decision. Intellectually, I know I’ll be fine once I’m out there, but emotionally I’m still fighting it. I have learned to ignore those urges to skip the run. I turn off those thoughts as I get off the recliner, get dressed for the run, and head out. It takes awhile to convince myself I’ve made the right choice, but if I can just resist the excuses long enough to get outside, then I’ll be glad I did it.

Running Lessons Applied to Writing

Something similar happens in the writing process. Once I have been writing for awhile, say half an hour or so, my brain gets fully engaged in the project, and I don’t want to stop. Writing is “enjoyable” only in ways similar to how running is enjoyable. I’m glad I’m doing it, but it’s also difficult and painful at the same time. I never regret writing once I am fully absorbed in it.

The most dangerous part of the writing process is the half hour or so before I start writing, and the first twenty minutes or so of sitting at the computer, before my brain has fully engaged. As with running, it’s the transition from the comfortable world to the world of the writing project that the lazy part of my mind wants to avoid. If I can resist the urge to give in to excuses not to write (and there are thousands of them, from emails that “need” to be written to household chores that “need” to be done first), then I am likely to have a productive writing period.

With writing as with running, feelings are my enemy during those transition times. I have to anticipate that I will not want to do it, and I have to prepare myself to do it anyway. I can’t claim that I always win this battle, but I have gotten better at it once I learned to identify and fight the thinking processes that prevent me from pushing forward.