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.
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.
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.