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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

Reward Your Intermediate Writing Steps

Blue navigates the teeter like a pro

Speaking is natural and innate for humans; writing is not.

Likewise, much of what dogs do in agility are natural behaviors – running, jumping, climbing – but navigating the teeter-totter is not. Watch the first 40 seconds of this if you’ve never seen a dog on a teeter-totter.

What does teaching my dog to walk a teeter-totter have to do with helping you write more consistently and joyfully? Just think about how enthusiastic and confident a dog would be about approaching a wobbly, tipping board if the training had been negative, demanding, critical and required instant perfection.

“Bad dog. Hurry up. No, that’s not the way to start. Do this. You are totally undisciplined and lazy. You call that running a teeter? You don’t have what it takes to be an agility dog.”

But that’s the sort of ‘motivation’ too many of us give ourselves as writers.

“I’m a bad writer. I should be done by now. That’s a stupid way to start a sentence. I should be writing like _______. I’m totally undisciplined and lazy. You call this writing? Maybe I just don’t have what it takes to be a writer.”

Rewards Excel Where Criticism Fails

You might expect that training dogs to maneuver the teeter is difficult, and with many dogs it is. But it was one of the easiest things to teach Blue because my trainer showed me how to use rewards. Those rewards helped Blue learn that the teeter-totter was interesting, not scary, and that interacting with it was fun, not work.

applauseWhen you started writing, there were rewards — praise, compliments, grades, awards — that led you to think writing is interesting and fun. If there were no rewards at all, you’d have no interest in writing.

To maintain your interest and keep developing your ability, you need to be know how to reward yourself and what to reward yourself for.

When we started, I gave Blue a small treat anytime she looked at the teeter-totter. Whenever she saw the teeter, Blue’s brain released dopamine and acetylcoline. She was excited and eager to play because she associated the teeter with getting a reward.

I praised Blue from time to time, but I never asked her to do anything. She initiated all her movements; I just rewarded the ones that were close to a series of behaviors we were looking for, which is called “rewarding approximate behaviors.”

For several months, I rewarded Blue for doing things that would ultimately lead to the desired end result of her running the teeter. I never ‘corrected’ her; there was no ‘bad’ behavior, just behaviors that were rewarded and behaviors that were ignored.

What if you stopped correcting and criticizing your writing? What if you started rewarding yourself for every small step forward?

Approximate Behaviors, aka Baby Steps

To motivate yourself as a writer with positive reinforcement, you have to access where you are now and where you want to be. Then you need to determine what intermediate steps will get you to the desired end result and reinforce those behaviors with rewards.

I wanted Blue to learn to run up a teeter, find the tipping point, tip the board and ride it safely until it touched the ground, and then run off eager to do the next obstacle. She could do none of those things in the beginning, but she can do all of them now with confidence and speed.

Maybe it’s easier to give a baby or puppy permission to play around and do something that only approximates the end result we’re looking for. You might feel silly giving yourself rewards for doing something simple that only approximates the way you eventually want to write.

But the technique will work. When you finish retraining yourself, you won’t need to reward every little step.

Where are you now in your writing habits? If you’re completely avoiding your writing, you’ll need to reward more basic writing behaviors than if you’re showing up for the writing but not finishing projects.

In the next post, you’ll explore what “approximate behaviors” will lead you where you want to go with your writing.

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6 Comments on “Reward Your Intermediate Writing Steps”

  1. Anya Achtenberg March 26, 2014 at 5:18 pm #

    Thank you, Roseanne, it’s good to discuss these things– they are so very important to us writers.
    Best to you,


  2. Joel D Canfield March 21, 2014 at 4:15 pm #

    It feels so foreign to reward “approximate” behaviors, yet from my studies I know it’s completely valid. It’s going to be fun to experiment with.

    Also excited to read the next post on what kinds of approximate behaviors to reward.

    And then to teach our 9-year-old to go to bed early.


    • rosannebane March 21, 2014 at 4:40 pm #

      Thanks Joel for inspiring this mini-series on rewards. I’m delighted to hear you’re looking forward to the next post.


  3. Anya Achtenberg March 21, 2014 at 3:22 pm #

    Rewards? Sure, a chocolate bar, a walk, a good meal. But rewards from the outside?
    This post is very useful concerning the negative effects of negative and punitive responses, but I have to disagree with you on this — for many of us this is utterly untrue — “When you started writing, there were rewards — praise, compliments, grades, awards — that led you to think writing is interesting and fun. If there were no rewards at all, you’d have no interest in writing.”
    Some of us wrote without positive reinforcement of that kind. Or, what we wrote that mattered the most to us, the real writing, was under the desk, urgent and necessary, and free of the grades and smiley teachers who liked our grammar or excellent sentences. No interest in writing? When writing saved our lives? Gave us a place to think away from not only punishment, but nice little rewards for “behaving”, for not speaking truth, for not pointing out contradictions, for not trying to change the world…
    Indeed, while writing habits and practice should not be contingent upon negative and punitive responses, deep writing cannot be contingent upon “positive reinforcement” from outside either. In my experience, that will stop its wildness, suffocate its truth, divert it from its deepest sources, move it into “pleasing” in a way that ultimately betrays it.


    • rosannebane March 21, 2014 at 4:39 pm #

      Anya, thank you for your thoughtful reply. I agree that the very best writing is not contingent on outside opinions and responses and that our deep writing can be stunted or blocked if we over-focus on pleasing others. Research shows that external rewards reduce creativity unless the artist finds a way to minimize the external constraints and focus on her/his own intrinsic motivation.
      I was perhaps too glib in assuming every writer had at least some rewards for writing. I have deep admiration and awe for those writers who persisted without positive reinforcement.
      I believe few, if any of us, got all the positive reinforcement we would have like or benefited from. And most of us got far too much negative feedback.
      All of which highlights the importance of being able to reward ourselves.


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