Over the last few years, I’ve discovered there are significant correlations between what it takes to succeed as a writer and a runner. Here are a couple of running principles to your writing practice to increase your likelihood of success.
Before going to law school, I was a high school teacher. During the fall, I coached football. In the winter, I helped with the basketball program. In the spring, I went to a lot of baseball games. And when on summer break, I framed houses or hung gutter for friends of mine. I was active. I was in my 20s. It was easy to stay in relatively good shape even though I didn’t do any real exercise.
Then I went to law school, where I became sedentary. I sat for endless hours, listening or reading. My weight started to creep up. By Christmas after my first semester, it was noticeable. I was self-conscious about it and unhappy. I started going to the gym with my wife to work out. It helped some, but I loathed working out at the gym. After several months, my wife mentioned she wanted to run a 5K. Neither of us had ever done any running before, but I decided I’d run with her. Anything to be out of that gym.
Little did I know I had traded one form of misery for another. We printed a couch-to-5K regimen and began our training. Going from no cardio to running 3 times a week is hard. Even when those initial runs consist of little more than running for 1 minute, walking for 30 seconds; running for 2 minutes, walking for 1 minute, and so on as you slowly build up your endurance. I did not enjoy learning to run … at all. But I did prefer being outside to being in that dreaded gym.
By the time I was able to run 3 miles, I had decided that I liked running. In fact I decided I wanted to run a half marathon. And 5 months later, I ran the Mercedes Half Marathon in Birmingham. Then I ran a few more races. The next year, my wife ran a half marathon with me at the Talladega Superspeedway. Running became an important part of my life over the next few years.
Then we had a kid, and I haven’t run regularly since. But I learned some important things along the way that I’ve found applicable to my writing practice.
Muscle memory is an asset
When you first start running, or even when you stretch yourself to run new distances, you don’t know what to expect. You hold back on your tempo and exertion levels because you don’t know what 3 miles or 6 miles or 13 miles feels like. But eventually you do it enough that when you set out to run a particular distance, your body knows what’s coming.
When I was conditioned well, I knew that running 3-4 miles at an 8:00 minute mile would give me a pretty good workout. I could cruise through 6 miles miles at a 10:00/mi pace and feel good afterward. Even though I haven’t run in … a while, I could go out right now and run 3 miles because my body still knows what that would take.
Writing requires the same training. If you’d told me in 2016 at the outset of my law blog, that I would write a 45,000 word book, I’d have found that hard to believe.
But I didn’t have to write a 45,000 word book all at once. I had to write 800 words on one topic, 900 words on another topic for months on end. It took me a while to find my writing voice, but once I did, everything fell into place much more easily. I trained my brain how to think in a particular way so that now, when I sit down to write about a topic, I have muscle memory I can rely on.
Even on days when I’m not feeling particularly inspired or nothing seems to be falling into place well, I can push through the resistance and get through the writing I need to do. This applies to legal writing, blogging, and creative writing. If you make a practice of writing regularly, you’ll find your brain is a finely tuned muscle that will respond upon demand.
Pacing yourself is the key
In 2012, I started running with my golden retriever. She loved it! Whenever she saw me getting my running shoes out of the closet, she would run around in circles, nipping at her tail and barking at nothing. But for all her love of running, that dog was terrible at pacing herself.
If we were going on a 4-miler, for the first half she was straining at the end of her leash, dragging me along with her. The second half of the run would find her lolling behind me, also at the end of her leash, but this time serving as an anchor rather than a propeller.
If you’ve got a big writing project ahead of you, whether it’s a short story or a novel, you need to allot plenty of time to get it done. Unless you’re well organized and in the regular practice of writing, you’re not going to be able to write multiple thousand words in a day like Jennifer Romig (of Emory Law School and Listen Like a Lawyer) did recently while working on her book.
I can’t say that I’ve ever written 7,000 words in a day before. But a few weeks ago, I wrote 2,000 words on a travel day while bouncing around from one airport to the next. I felt pretty good about that.
When I proposed my book Building a Better Law Practice to the ABA, I pitched it as a 28,000 word book. They replied that they were interested in the book and liked the format, but would only publish it if it were 40,000 words or more. They wanted to know if I could do that within the next four months. I replied that of course I could do that. Never mind that it had taken me a year to come up with the first 28,000 words.
That conversation occurred on November 28. Knowing my January schedule was looking fairly rough, I figured out how frequently and how much I needed to write to meet my deadline. Then in the early mornings on weekdays and during nap times on weekends, I wrote. I had plenty of ideas in my queue, where I drop ideas as they come to me. And I knew that my schedule does not allow large chunks for writing time, so I had to be prepared and organized. And I had to pace myself.
Not only was there the additional 12,000 words (that become 17,000 words) to write, but there was also proofreading, editing, and re-writing to do … multiple times. I had a long row to hoe, and if I didn’t pace myself appropriately, I’d be lolling at the end of my leash, but with no one to pull me along.
The next time you set about on a large writing project, you’ll find it much easier to accomplish if you’re already in the regular habit of writing and you plan appropriately to get your writing accomplished.