3 Writing Lessons from Olympic Sailing

Sailors might be better known for swearing than writing, but lately I’ve been realizing how much my Olympic training helped me succeed as an author. Physically, the two skills couldn’t be more different; one demands constant movement, while the other involves mostly sitting (or standing) at a desk. There’s also a big difference in definitions of success. Winning a sailboat race means crossing the finish line ahead of the other boats. How do you “win” as an author?

For me, success means publishing books that readers find and enjoy enough to come back for more. And I never would’ve had the stamina and dedication to finish four novels if I hadn’t learned to write like I sail. So here are 3 tips that helped me “win” at writing. (We’ll get back to swearing at the end.)

1. Work with the day’s conditions

Sailboat races can be run in strong or light winds; on a tiny lake or in big ocean waves; through the cold driving New England rain or the dry heat of an Athens summer. Some days are as much a battle with the weather as a competition with other sailors. I definitely have my favorite conditions—but I still have to show up and compete on the other days, too. 

My writing is also affected by the weather; sunshine distracts me, while a rainy or snowy day makes me grateful for the comforting warmth of my office and the ability to imagine my way into a warmer scene.

What I learned training for the Olympics is that matching goals to each day’s conditions will be the best use of limited time on the water. If it’s windy (not my best skill set), I might vow to improve my heavy air skills rather than setting an unrealistic performance goal. When I was writing Ferry to Cooperation Island, I set a lower word count goal on sunny days, or moved out to the front porch to write on my laptop. Every day is an opportunity to make progress—even if it’s just honing undervalued skills, like adapting to new realities and just plain showing up. 

2. Training and a routine provide long-term benefits

Working toward the Olympics, we divided our four-year campaign into weeklong training blocks that culminated in regattas. Dividing up an ocean of training time into digestible chunks made it easier to stay focused—and the competitions along the way helped us see progress.

Most authors don’t have such a well-defined time frame in which to finish a book. (I thought I’d completed Ferry to Cooperation Island in August 2017, but it was two more years before it was actually ready to publish.) But muscle memory applies to our brains, too, so training and routine are quite important. 

Day after day of the same damned thing doesn’t sound like much fun, but it’s only by developing a routine and sticking to it that we make the incremental improvements that keep us making progress through the tough times. Picture the difference in word count between a month’s worth of mornings writing, and thirty days of waiting for inspiration to strike. Even on days when it feels like I’m just going through the motions, words on a page are always better than no words. 

Breaking up the work into digestible chunks will definitely make it easier to see progress. At the beginning of each week, I try to fix an achievable goal to focus on. That keeps me from sitting down at my desk and letting the unknown tie me in knots. (“OMG, I still have so many loose ends to tie up.”) At the end of the week, I consciously take time to evaluate my progress and always try to reward myself with a positive thought, even if it’s just “I finished another chapter.” Without marking our small victories, doing the same damn thing every day will seem quite pointless.

After four books, I still think story planning and writing should get easier… but so far, there’s always a saggy middle phase when I just have to keep working and trust the process to get me to the finish line. Training is the only way to develop a routine, and sometimes that routine is the only thing that keeps us powering through. 

3. Win in your own way

Winning a sailboat race means crossing the line first, but every competitor I know has a slightly different way of getting there. Some develop a fixed plan before the race starts and win only if that plan proves correct. Others prefer to figure it out moment to moment, trusting their instincts to help them make the right decisions and adjust to changing conditions. 

Writers would call these folks “plotters” and “pantsers,” and different approaches can lead to a “win” in writing as well. Give a first sentence to ten different authors, and you’ll end up with ten completely different stories. 

Recently, I’ve realized that I do my best work (in both sailing and writing) if I focus on trusting my instincts—while also keeping an eye on the bigger picture. I never know where my hard-headed characters will take me, but I also need to gently steer them toward that final scene. It also helps to keep in mind my very personal definition of “winning” at writing: publishing books that readers find and enjoy enough to come back for more. 

So that’s a little about how writing like a sailor has helped me succeed. As for swearing like a sailor? 

Sonofabitch, we’re out of time.