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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.

Rewards Rewire Your Brain for Better Writing

Don't be stingy -- reward the little steps!

Don’t be stingy — reward the little steps!

Rewards cause your brain to release the neurotransmitters that allow you to rewire your brain. This rewiring takes more time and repetition than your conscious mind might think necessary.

You might spend several weeks or months repeating and rewarding a series of tiny, incremental steps to acquire the writing habits and skills you want.

If it seems you are giving yourself far too many rewards for far too long, you’re probably doing it right.

Remember we are rewarding approximate behaviors at this stage, not the final results. Look for the smallest incremental change that brings you closer to your final goal and reward that.

In the beginning, I rewarded Blue for looking at the teeter-totter, then gradually upped the ante to reward her for touching the teeter-totter with a paw, then rewarded putting two paws on the board, and so on.

After years of training, I now reward Blue for final results. When we’re at trials, I don’t stop in the middle of a course to reward her for doing the teeter-totter or climbing the a-frame. We play with her Frisbee after we complete a course.

But if I had been stingy with the treats in her early years of training, if I had waited until she did 15 to 20 different obstacles before rewarding her, we’d have given up long ago. If I had expected a puppy to run like a trained, adult dog, we’d never gotten out of puppy class.

I do the same thing with my writing: when I’m immersed in writing (running a course) I don’t pause to reward myself; the writing (running) is its own reward. But when my writing is at the puppy stage, that is, when I challenge myself to learn a new technique, start a new project or transition from drafting to revising, I do reward myself often.

I certainly don’t wait until I’m perfect or even good or until I’m close to completion to trigger my brain to release those neurotransmitters. If I did, I’d never get my writing out of puppy class.

startStart Where You Are and Give Yourself What You Need to Progress

Which approximate behaviors you want to reward depends on where you are and where you want to go. If you’re easily and consistently honoring a commitment to show up for Product Time for 10 to 15 minutes a day four or five times a week, you will have a different set of behaviors to watch for and reward than a writer who’s struggling to show up once a week or to show up at all.

A writer who can show up for 15 minutes four or five times a week from the very beginning can do that. But writers who face more initial resistance and struggle to show up consistently need to focus on the incremental steps that will establish their Product Time habit. They need rewards for every small step along the way, which could include showing up and doing anything related to writing for:

  • Hourglass5 minutes once a week
  • 5 minutes twice a week
  • 5 minutes three times a week
  • 5 minutes three times and 10 minutes once a week
  • 5 minutes twice and 10 minutes three times a week
  • 10 minutes twice and 15 minutes once a week
  • 15 minutes three times a week
  • 15 minutes five times a week.

Writers who have a habit of consistently showing up for Product Time can add target times as the next tier of intermediate steps. To clarify: commitments must be honored no matter what; targets are stretch goals we strive to reach, but there’s no guilt if targets are occasionally missed.

We’ll talk about the specifics of what to do during Product Time in an upcoming post on Action Mapping, but the principle of rewarding approximate behavior through a series of intermediate steps applies to developing particular skills.

For example, a writer who wants to develop dialogue skills might follow these steps over several weeks:

  • write shitty dialogue
  • write just the words spoken
  • write who said the words and how
  • revise shitty dialogue into slightly less shitty dialogue
  • read and/or take a class about writing dialogue
  • study how several authors write effective dialogue in different ways
  • write the same section of dialogue at least three different ways
  • revise slightly less shitty dialogue into almost good dialogue.

If you’ve been struggling with resistance, it may take months to relearn that writing is fun and interesting, not scary. The longer you de-motivated yourself with harsh criticism and lack of rewards, the longer it will take to retrain yourself.

The up side is that you’ll get a lot of rewards along the way.

Next post: What exactly is a reward? It depends

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One Comment on “Rewards Rewire Your Brain for Better Writing”

  1. Joel D Canfield March 29, 2014 at 12:01 am #

    “If it seems you are giving yourself far too many rewards for far too long, you’re probably doing it right.”

    I love that.

    Just finished a book and I’m perilously close to finishing another, but then I’ll be back to thinking through story lines and complexifying plots and it’s all going to feel weird at first.

    Time to reward some approximate behaviors.


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