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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.

What’s Wrong with this Picture of a Writer?

What’s wrong with this picture? The writer is asking to be rewarded; he should be rewarding himself!

It’s no accident that the Get Around Writer’s Block flowchart says “Reward myself,” not “Ask for reward.”

The research is clear: when incentives are offered for routine work, they work; when incentives are offered for creative work, they fail.

In Around the Writer’s Block, I write,

“Contingent, if-then rewards limit autonomy, one of the three key sources of intrinsic motivation. In one study, Teresa Amabile, one of the world’s leading researchers on creativity, asked twenty-three professional artists to submit ten commissioned works and ten noncommissioned works, selected by the artists at random.

“Not surprisingly, the artists reported that they felt more constrained when working on commissioned pieces. Furthermore, a panel of artists and curators, who were unaware of the purposes of the study, consistently found the commissioned works less creative than the noncommissioned works.”

Not only does the promise of an extrinsic reward significantly reduce our sense of autonomy, which is essential for innovative work, the reward can move the focus from the creative work to itself, as the New Yorker cartoon illustrates. If the man in the cartoon was focused on  writing, he wouldn’t even think about a cookie.

No Cookie for You!

cookieDoes this mean you shouldn’t give yourself a cookie? Yes and no.

If a treat is so compelling it distracts you, it can’t be effective as a reward. I tried Tootsie Rolls for rewards because they’re small. But I had trouble limiting myself to just one Tootsie, so I stopped using them.

There’s little point in giving yourself a cookie for the parts of writing that are intrinsically rewarding. But for the parts of the writing process you don’t get excited about, rewards help.

Rewards are also valuable when resistance makes it more difficult to get started. As soon as the reward gets you into the flow and the process of writing becomes rewarding, you’ll forget about cookies.

When the writing is intrinsically rewarding, when you find satisfaction just in doing it, the only reward you need is to pay attention. Say to yourself “That was fun and challenging – I can’t wait to get back to it.”

Noticing what you did and how good it felt to do it is vital. Research shows that lasting brain changes happen only when we’re paying attention. That’s why my Product Time Tracking Table has space for these observations.

Share the Vision, Not Cookies

brain to brainWhen you have a vision and strive to put that vision into words so it can leap to another person’s mind, you’ll create your best writing. The act of writing itself will be the biggest reward. But when you write to please and win approval from editors, judges, readers, reviewers, friends or family, you simply cannot do your best creative work.

The paradox is that you do have to think about how to reach your audience so you can effectively communicate the vision. But the minute you start thinking about how to please your audience, your writing is doomed to be less than your best.

An even bigger paradox is, as I write in AWB, “artists who are least interested in extrinsic rewards and who pursue their art for the challenge and joy of creating are more likely to get both the intrinsic satisfaction and the extrinsic rewards of success, recognition and money.”

Of course, the money, success and recognition are never a measure of the value of any creative work. Van Gogh died penniless. Not all best-selling books are great or even good. And not all great books are best-sellers or even published.

There are no guarantees except that surrendering your autonomy to let someone else motivate and approve of your writing will make it impossible to create your best writing. That’s what’s wrong with the picture.

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4 Comments on “What’s Wrong with this Picture of a Writer?”

  1. www.bookoblast.com July 31, 2014 at 12:02 pm #

    This was this was an interesting find, thanks for making it available, I’m probably going to follow up on what other folks are sharing!


  2. Joel D Canfield April 10, 2014 at 10:03 am #

    Dan Pink’s “Drive” gave me loads of useful info on when, why, and how to reward. (Agrees completely with your thoughts here, no surprise.)


    • rosannebane April 16, 2014 at 8:15 am #

      No surprise indeed since Dan Pink’s Drive was a primary source on the topic. Thanks for mentioning the book Joel.



  1. Engaging the lecture hall: tapping into intrinsic motivation | S J Ladds - April 20, 2017

    […] Stevens, M (2001) The New Yorker [Online image] [Accessed on 19th April 2017] https://baneofyourresistance.com/2014/04/01/whats-wrong-with-this-picture-of-a-writer […]


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