How to help your writing by talking like an athlete

Reading time: About 2.5 minutes

Most writers aren’t terribly sporty but did you know you can help your writing by talking like an athlete?

I’ve written before about how we writers seem addicted to self-sabotage by trash-talking to ourselves.

  • I really don’t know how to write…
  • My boss is going to hate this…
  • Readers are going to be so bored…

…are just some of the supremely unhelpful things we say. One of my best solutions for dealing with this problem, I think, is making a friend of doubt. You know, who I mean — 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 raquetball); 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 __ words per day. [insert your own number] 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, pleasing come later.

6)    Doubt has its job to do: doubting. I have mine: writing.

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 favourite writer here] — writes a perfect first draft.

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

What kind of self-talk works best for you? We can all learn from each other so please share your thoughts with my readers and me by commenting below. (If you don’t see the comments box, click here and then scroll to the end.)

Scroll to Top