THE BLOG
01/15/2015 10:04 am ET Updated Mar 17, 2015

7 Ways Writers Can Learn From Sports

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It's the start of a new year and everybody is going to the gym. If you're a writer, you might look at all this athletic activity and think it has nothing to do with you. Or you might conclude that going to the gym is a necessary evil. But in fact, writers have a lot to gain from the world of sports. Rather than see physical and creative activity as incompatible, writers can borrow valuable tools from sports to help them be more productive. As a writer and an athlete, I've come to appreciate how much my sport (rowing) has contributed to my craft and my process. While I used to agonize over how to balance between these two very important parts of my life, I now see that my involvement in sports has given me these seven valuable writing lessons.

1. Train for your writing:
Treat your writing as if it were a sport. Create a workout plan by scheduling writing sessions into your days. Pick a long-term goal the way an athlete would set her sights on a race, and then identify intermediate goals that will prepare you for the big finish. If you're aiming to complete a novel revision, you might set shorter-term goals like sending literary magazines an excerpt as a short story, or participating in a reading series at which you'll read aloud a section of the new work.

2. Take a rest:
You can't train at anaerobic intensity every day of the week. You need a combination of work at different intensities: anaerobic, aerobic threshold, steady state, and rest. Similarly, you can't go all out at your writing every day. You can try, but you'll surely burn out. Better to mix it up, planning certain days off, other days for long, intense work sessions, and yet others when you have only a couple of hours to dip into your writing. If you can anticipate your life schedule, you can plan your writing days to fit in with the rhythms of your other commitments. Weekend days might be your equivalent of an anaerobic workout--the days when you have the time and the energy to go all out at your desk for hours. Or they could be your valuable rest days when your brain regroups for the following week's creative work.

3. Watch the Olympians to improve your game:
I often watch videos of Olympic rowers to learn from their technique. As a writer, I learn from the technique of other writers who are far more skilled than I. While I tend to stay away from books that are similar in theme to something I'm working on, I do look to other novels for masterful examples of specific elements of craft, like dialogue or sentence structure, or plot. Remember that time you spend reading thoughtfully is time that benefits your own writing.

4. Let go of a bad workout:
Writers with computers can hoard every draft we have ever written. We can store up every sentence, good or bad, successful or failed. And these failures can torment us, even tempting us to hang onto them long after they have proven themselves useless. Not so a bad workout. You go out on the water (if you're a rower) and your rhythm is off or you feel fatigued or one of your hands is doing something goofy, but when you leave the water, that bad workout is gone. Unless you injured yourself in the process, there is no trace of any errors you made during your row. Treat your bad writing sessions the same way. Stop holding onto the bad prose, the clunky paragraphs, and accept that the work you did that day was still valuable as part of your long-term writing goal. But don't keep it!

5. Letting go of a bad workout, part two:
The fact that you had a bad workout doesn't make you a bad athlete at your sport. So, too, a bad writing session on Monday--in which you either can't manage to write a full sentence or manage to write dozens of them and they're all awful--doesn't make you a bad writer. The bad workout and the bad writing session have no effect at all on the next day. Don't beat yourself up because you weren't at your best form on one day. You'll get it back.

6. Focus on one coaching tip at a time:
When you're engaged in a sport, you're likely to get numerous coaching tips during any given session. They're all going to be valuable to you, but if you focus on all of them at once, you'll be overwhelmed. It's best to try to find one thing to think about that carries the most importance to you, or that allows you to tackle a few problems at once. Do the same with critique comments. You can't possibly agree with all of them, and you can't possibly address all of them during your next writing session. Instead, evaluate your critique and identify the one concept that allows you to make the most effective revision (and sometimes there will be one concept that encompasses several of the critiques). Then work on that.

7. Finish with the positive:
Even a terrible workout can end well. For instance, to get their boats from the dock to the boathouse, rowers carry their boats on their heads. At regattas, it's useful to be able to hold the boat with one hand and carry your oars with the other to minimize trips to a very busy dock. I am good at this. No matter how lousy my technique or my power or my steering has been during a row, I know that I will finish by doing something very well. I will swoop the boat up onto my head, squat down and pick up my oars in one hand, and I'll walk up the ramp, sometimes letting go of the boat with my other hand just for the experience of balancing it completely on my head. I leave my workout with a feeling of mastery, and that sets me up with a confident approach to the next day's workout. In writing, finish your session with a quick look back at something you succeeded at. Maybe it's a stretch of dialogue, or the way you pruned some wordy prose. Don't make darlings out of these sections, lest you need to eliminate them some day. But look at what you did, find the best part, and have the confidence to tell yourself it was good.

Most of all, learn from sports how to be fearless. A committed athlete knows that success comes from the willingness to push yourself seemingly beyond your ability, to court fear just a little, and to relinquish safety. Write into what scares you. Go past the point where you feel comfortable and you'll see how much stronger your work can become.