Do you hate writing as much as I hate exercising?

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A young engineer recently confessed to me, “I hate writing. I’d rather get my fingernails pulled out.”

I get it because I feel the same way about exercising. But I’m five-foot-two with a chocolate habit and an underactive thyroid, so I don’t really have a choice. I have to get off my duff for a brisk walk at least five days a week or pay the pudge penalty.

A couple of days ago, however, I dragged myself out for my usual afternoon walk and unexpectedly found myself jogging along, just for the joy of it. For a few minutes, I forgot how much I loathed exercising and let myself feel the pleasure of running—the fluid rhythm of my legs moving, the cool air coming into my lungs, the thin, late-fall sunshine on my face.

That moment of mindfulness-in-motion made me wonder why I have such a Debbie Downer attitude toward physical exercise. Most of it, I realized, comes from either unhelpful habits or negative associations.

The same applies to many of the writing-haters I work with as a writing instructor coach. Most of what makes writing difficult starts with the attitude of the writer. If you see writing as torture, then you’ll become a tortured writer. But if you reframe the way you think of the writing process, you may find it less painful than you think.

Actually, reframing the way I think about exercise is what enables me to maintain an active lifestyle, even though I don’t compel myself to jog or work out at the gym. I’ve learned to think of physical activities I enjoy (such as walking, yoga, skating, hiking, and biking) simply as movement, not “exercise.”  That change in perspective enables me to continue to enjoy my chocolate habit and, occasionally, a spontaneous run.

Here are some of  the negative habits and associations I’ve overcome in order to maintain an exercise routine without “exercising.” Each of them parallels negative habits and attitudes that can make writing much harder than it needs to be.

Bad habit #1: Exercising at the wrong time of the day

In my younger years, I dragged myself out of bed and straight to the gym, forcing myself to “eat the frog” before breakfast, when I was starving and rushed. During a later period, I forced myself out for a jog at the very end of the day, when my legs felt rubbery from sitting still all day and my blood sugar was ebbing. Now I don’t “force” myself to get active at a time that doesn’t work with my circadian rhythm. I schedule a daily walk for sometime between 1 and 3, before rigor computeris starts to set in.

Writers also need to think about the time of day when their energy levels are most conducive to creative, thoughtful work. For many people, that’s first thing in the morning, before the mind gets cluttered with to-do’s and worries. Another popular time for productive writing is late in the day or in the evening, when it’s possible to schedule uninterrupted time.

Bad habit #2: Thinking too much about how fat I look in exercise clothes

Memories of a high school gym teacher who said some cruel things about my unfashionable gym gear haunted me for a long time. Now, I separate the activity from the attire. Who cares what I look like, as long as I get my blood pumping.

Writers who worry too much about what the words look like when they first come out become easy prey for writer’s block.  It’s silly to waste time and energy caring about what first drafts look like. Sometimes my drafts are neatly typed; other times, they’re scrawled around the edges of a phone message on the only scrap of paper I could find when inspiration struck.

Bad habit #3: Telling myself how clumsy I am

I grew up believing I was the fattest, clumsiest kid in the class. Every time it was my turn to serve a volleyball or take a floor hockey shot, all I could hear in my head was, “You’re going to mess up again. You’re so clumsy. You have no coordination.” Now, I listen to my online yoga instructor as she tells me to be gentle with myself, to listen to my body, and to push as far as my edge, and no farther.

Many writers I’ve coached similarly believe that they have no facility with language, especially with conventions of grammar and punctuation. They think they’re doomed to crafting sentences that are awkward and incorrect, and they obsess about looking clumsy in front of their colleagues or customers. But their anxiety is misplaced because elegant writing depends less on rules and more on clarity of meaning. And some rules are better broken.

Bad habit #4: Getting embarrassed about getting sweaty and red-faced

Horses sweat, men perspire, and women glow. That’s what I heard growing up, but my glowing looks more like a red Christmas light bulb than a cover girl’s radiance. Over the years, I’ve come to accept that I can’t keep a ballerina’s poise or complexion when exerting myself physically. I’ve also noticed that I’m not the only one. I think, medically speaking, if you don’t sweat when you’re exercising, you should probably be concerned about a possible underlying condition.

Writers who say they hate writing often feel they’re alone in sweating through the process of articulating their thoughts in print. But writing is actually hard work for everyone. So are other professional activities, such as coding a computer program, designing a bridge, or delivering a sales presentation. We don’t pretend they should be easy, so why do we dismiss writing as something that should be simple to do? Like any tough task, writing becomes much more doable when you start by acknowledging the challenge and respecting the amount of effort it requires.

Bad habit #5: Worrying about reaching a target heart rate or burning a certain number of calories

When I was younger, I worried about doing a lot of different things right, and exercising was one of them. I felt I was never running fast enough, lifting enough weight, or doing enough crunches. Now, I don’t try to measure up to someone else’s artificial standards. I’ve learned to tune into my body and do what feels right to me.

I’ve also noticed many writers worrying about creating documents that communicate in the “right” way. They want me to give them a fail-proof template and a list of do’s and don’ts that will fit every situation. But the secret to becoming a more competent writer is actually much simpler than that. When I coach people, I encourage them to listen to their own writing by reading it aloud. I also show them how to use simple assessment tools that provide straightforward criteria for judging the effectiveness of a piece of writing. With proper coaching and feedback, anyone can learn to revise and edit their own writing, becoming their own writing coach.

More than 10 years ago, I was giving a writing workshop to IT consultants in Chicago when I watched someone break through some of his thinking about writing.  Just before the workshop started, one of the participants approached me to let me know that he was grateful for the learning opportunity but that he wasn’t expecting to get much from it. “I’m a terrible writer,” he mumbled. “I’ve always had trouble writing.”

And then the consultant sheepishly took his seat, resigned, I suppose, to grinding through a half-day of irrelevant advice he’d heard before. About halfway through the workshop, I led the group in a freewriting exercise that required them to shut down their internal writing critic and just “let the words out.” Imagine my surprise when Mr. Terrible Writer ran out of paper and had to ask for more to complete the activity. The man who couldn’t write had written so much in about seven minutes that he’d run out of pages!

Freewriting is just one tool for reframing the way you think about writing. When I coach clients, we work on various ways to reconceive of the writing process and make it less terrifying. There’s no need to live with the dread of writing, especially when hating writing can hold you back in your business or your career.

Trust me, if I, a supreme hater of “exercise,” can manage a walk a day and a few yoga sessions a week, you can conquer the process of putting your thoughts into writing. In the end, clear, persuasive writing doesn’t result from some kind of complicated algorithm based on rules—it’s simply your professional voice speaking through print. If you can read this blog post, you can write, and you can find your own way to writing better.


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