After poet and essayist Mare Hake completes a difficult piece of writing, she drives to her local market in Lakewood, Washington, and purchases a chocolate-covered donut, and then eats it in her car before she drives home.
“Decades ago, I was profoundly depressed,” she explains. “The therapist noticed that I really enjoyed reading the daily newspaper and doing the crossword puzzle. She told me I had to go for a half-hour walk every morning, and if I did that, I could read the paper and do the crossword. In the same way, I hold myself accountable and reward myself as a writer.”
This positive reinforcement is one element of operant conditioning – a learning process that allows us to modify the behavior of animals and people by rewarding desirable actions. Just as a dog will sit for a treat, or a child will do chores for allowance, writers can train themselves to complete the rough draft of a manuscript or clear the terrifying hurdle of submitting a piece for potential publication.
Identify the problem, a goal, and a reward
Freelance writer and novelist Sarah Howery Hart says it’s imperative that writers identify a specific problem, a goal, and a reward for any behavior they wish to change. In her conference workshops titled “Stuck, Tired, Bored, and Distracted: How Writers in Distress can use Psychology Tools to Overcome Common Writing-related Problems,” she teaches techniques learned in her doctoral study of psychology to help writers become more productive and efficient.
One of the most common complaints she hears is the lack of time to write. “First, we need to determine what that means,” she says. “Maybe it means that you do things that interrupt your own writing, like checking emails and social media. Your next step is to determine how often this is happening.”
She offers her participants worksheets to help them measure how often a particular behavior occurs, and then asks them to evaluate whether the behavior is truly a problem. “Let’s say you find that you check your email once an hour while you’re writing. Is that excessive? Only you can determine that,” she says. “If you check your email and then move on to Facebook and then to Twitter – even if you’ve only checked once, this can take an entire 15 minutes out of your writing hour. Also, you lose your train of thought and can’t remember what you were going to write next.”
She advises writers to set a goal – for instance, writing for an hour without checking email or social media. “And then you have to determine your reward schedule,” she says. “How often will you need to reward yourself? At first, this may be frequently.”
She asks writers to make a list of what they like, and what they like to do. “Maybe you like to read, hang out with your dogs, watch a particular TV show, or go for a run,” she says. “It’s very personal. Look at the list and pick out what’s most rewarding – identify what you’d like to do today as a reward, and then tell yourself, ‘If I write for an hour without interruption, I’ll earn 15 minutes of reading time.’”
She urges writers to assess their progress periodically. “After a day, after a few days, are you meeting your goals?” she says. “If the reward didn’t work, you may need to revisit it. Maybe reading a book for 15 minutes wasn’t the strongest reward for you because you read for two hours when you go to bed at night. Maybe you’d rather go to the gym or out for a half-hour run.”
Do something kind for yourself
Boston-based author Karen Pryor has a background in behavioral psychology. She’s the author of Don’t Shoot the Dog: The New Art of Teaching and Training, about clicker-training, in which a trainer shapes the actions of a trainee by using a plastic clicker paired initially with a desired reward. For a dog, this might be a piece of freeze-dried liver; for a horse, a peppermint candy. Writers crave all sorts of rewards, from a cup of great coffee to a pair of new shoes to Hake’s chocolate-covered donut.
“You can train any living creature,” Pryor says, describing how she used positive reinforcement in graduate school, a tedious subway ride from her home in downtown New York. “Classes were at night, and I was always tired,” she explains. “So when I got out of the house and drove to the subway station, I gave myself a small piece of chocolate. When I got on the train, I got another piece of chocolate, and when I got to the university, another. It’s silly, but it worked for me.”
She tells writers to pick a simple goal that’s easy to reach and break into steps. “Maybe you come up with a title first, and then write an outline, rewarding yourself for each step,” she says. “Or you’ll tell yourself, ‘I’m going to write 500 words today, and when I’ve finished, I can go for a walk or watch television or play with my kids.” It’s very reassuring, and it’s a nice way to do something kind for ourselves. We’re always pretty stingy with ourselves.”
The power of kittens and candy
Tim Kim, program director at National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), believes wholeheartedly in the power of positive reinforcement to build a writing habit. Every November, he and other staff members at Berkeley’s Office of Letters and Light send motivational emails and videos to the hundreds of thousands of people across the world who’ve committed to writing 50,000 words of a manuscript in a month.
Writers register online for free, then log a daily word count on NaNoWriMo’s website. At the end of 1,667 words, they earn a badge that they can then display on social media. They earn another when they’ve completed 5,000 words and another at 10,000 words. “These all help celebrate your progress as you continue working on your goal,” Kim says.
He also enjoys online reward sites like “Written? Kitten!,” which shows writers a new photo of a kitten every time they meet their pre-programmed writing goal, and a Pokémon widget that evolves depending on the number of words you write. “They’re these little, positive motivating tools,” he explains. “On the Camp NaNoWriMo site, there’s a neat bullseye illustration that allows an arrow to shift toward your goal every time you log in a new word count.”
Need a more tangible reward? On the third Sunday of November each year, NaNoWriMo holds “The Night of Writing Dangerously” and invites writers to the Julia Morgan Ballroom in San Francisco for six hours of writing, dinner, and drinks. “We also run word sprints,” Kim says. “You give yourself 5 or 10 or 15 minutes to focus on your writing with as much purpose as you can, and then you share how many words you’ve written. The person who writes the most gets a crown.”
And should you hit your 50,000-word writing goal that night, you can run up to the podium and ring a big bell. As if that’s not reward enough, staff also provides vats of M&Ms, licorice, and lollipops. “Maybe every 500 words, you let yourself eat an M&M or a Hershey’s Kiss,” Kim explains. “You’re not binging; you’re just giving yourself a little treat, whether it’s every 100 or 500 words, with chocolate or Skittles or Starbursts. Writers find this motivating.”
Are you a writer who could care less about chocolate or ringing a big bell? Then consider shopping. Kim describes a past intern who didn’t allow herself to shop online for the month of October but created a wishlist to reward herself during November. “Every week she met her word count that month, she’d allow herself to buy something off her wishlist,” he explains. “It was so smart.”
Enrich your entire life
Amy Sutherland is the author of several nonfiction books, including What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love, and Marriage: Lessons for People from Animals and Their Trainers. In it, she describes the positive reinforcement techniques she learned from reporting on an exotic animal training facility – techniques she uses on herself today.
“Writing a book is like being mauled by a grizzly bear,” she says. “You’re glad you survived, but you are in bits and pieces. Like most writers, I’m next to never happy with my own writing.” For Sutherland, the reward is the topic about which she writes, whether it’s animal training or homeless dogs, as in her latest book, Rescuing Penny Jane: One Shelter Volunteer, Countless Dogs, and the Quest to Find Them All Homes. “Writing is tough,” she observes, “but a subject can be reinforcing, like with my last book. I never tire of reading and thinking about dogs.”
She rewards herself by taking quick breaks to do physical things around her house, and she always takes time for lunch. “Also, if I’m really having trouble writing, I go on to other tasks, like going over notes, writing outlines, something to keep me engaged and productive,” she explains.
Sutherland agrees with Pryor that it’s important to start small with a writing goal – write perhaps 15 or 30 minutes a day at first, and extend it when you feel comfortable. “The general rule of animal training is to break down big or challenging behaviors into small parts,” she explains. “Don’t expect yourself to sit down and write the Great American Novel. That’s like expecting a dolphin to learn how to flip in one training session.”
Trainers use the word “enrichment” a great deal in their work. The term refers to their commitment to making the quality of an animal’s life satisfying. Sutherland makes sure she’s built enrichment into her work and personal life, as well.
“My office is nice,” she says. “I walk a ton. I have this weird love of grocery stores, so I go to them often during the week. I spend a TON of time with my dog. My husband and I listen to a lot of music each night. You need to think of your whole life as part of your writing process.”
Habit and community – essential tools for writers
Kim of National Novel Writing Month agrees with Sutherland. The almost 400,000 participants on six continents find the common pursuit of a goal incredibly reinforcing, especially combined with the nonprofit’s online rewards and community write-ins. Still, Kim notes that the underlying message of the event is the importance of establishing a regular writing practice.
“A lot of folks who participate have never written creatively before, never established a creative writing habit,” he says. “At the beginning of the month, people walk in as mechanics or teachers or stay-at-home parents, and they walk out writers because they’ve created this habit for themselves.”
He and other staff members hope that people will continue writing every day, supported by the NaNoWriMo friends they’ve made in November. “This combination of habit and community gives you the tools you need,” he explains.
But just in case participants start to lose momentum, there’s a similar program called Camp NaNoWriMo in April and July, and a “Now What?” program in January and February for those who want to continue working on their manuscript and find themselves in need of regular positive reinforcement and community.
Even veteran writers struggle to reward themselves for a completed project, says Pryor. “I’m sitting here staring at a whole bookcase full of research materials for my next book, and I don’t know where it’s going, how long it’s going to take, or what to do next. It’s agony.”
She knows to reward herself with something special after each step of the process. “You’ve got to pick something really reinforcing,” she says. “Tickets to the movies, something you don’t usually allow yourself.”
Hake, in Lakewood, Washington, knows exactly what rewards prove most reinforcing in her writing career. She reserves the chocolate-covered donut for book reviews. If she’s feeling vulnerable about sending poetry to a publication and completes the task, she toasts to her courage that evening with a glass of wine.
“And if I’ve written a set number of poems or articles in a month, I buy myself a new book,” she says. “If I read in public, but only if I read, do I get to purchase another reader’s book that evening and have them sign it. In other words, when something is emotionally or psychologically difficult, draining, or unbalancing, I self-care.”
Contributing editor Melissa Hart is the author of two memoirs and the middle-grade novel Avenging the Owl. Her preferred rewards are long runs and good chocolate. Website: melissahart.com.
Related resources for writers
- National Novel Writing Month, a month-long program that encourages writers to complete a full-size manuscript in a month via daily writing goals (nanowrimo.org)
- “You 2.0: The Value of ‘Deep Work’ in an Age of Distraction,” an informative episode on the podcast “Hidden Brain” (hiddenbrain.org)
- The Prosperous Heart, a book by Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, that encourages readers to look deeply at what motivates them and then build a low-cost personal rewards system. (juliacameronlive.com)
- Self-Control, an app that allows you to block distracting websites for
a set period of time (Mac only, selfcontrolapp.com)
- Written? Kitten!, a fun app that allows you to set a word count, then reward yourself with pictures of kittens (writtenkitten.net)
- 750 Words, a website that allows writers to earn points online, in a private setting, when they write 750 words a day (750words.com)
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