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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.

Writing Should Be Its Own Reward, Right? Wrong!


When we’re in the flow and the words flow effortlessly, writing is its own reward. We don’t need to reward ourselves then; in fact, giving a reward for something that is intrinsically rewarding can be counterproductive.

But writing isn’t intrinsically rewarding all, or even most, of the time. The misbelief that it should be creates a subtle yet significant form of resistance.

If writing is supposed to be rewarding, it’s far too easy to postpone showing up when:

  • you feel uninspired
  • you need 10 or 15 minutes to get warmed up
  • your words seem awkward, stilled, clichéd and inadequate
  • you’re not sure exactly what you’re trying to write or how
  • you’re incubating
  • you just can’t find the quote, bit of research, or image you need

In other words, whenever showing up to write is anything less than an immediate, creative bliss-fest. Which is most of the time.

Don’t Make Writing Harder Than It Is

In addition to zapping your motivation, the “intrinsic reward’ myth keeps you from using rewards to make your writing life easier and more productive.

When I recommend students and clients reward themselves, the usual excuses appear:

  • It doesn’t make sense to reward myself
  • It’s my money to begin with, how can I pay myself to write
  • Writing should be its own reward
  • I can’t reward myself with food treats because I’m on a diet
  • I can’t trust myself to not eat a food treat even when I’m not rewarding myself
  • There isn’t anything I want that I don’t give myself anyway; I don’t want to deprive myself

Writers who don’t know how to reward themselves are depriving themselves — of the power of rewards.

How Rewards Work for You

It doesn’t matter if you feel silly or dubious when you reward yourself. Rewards work on a physiological level, regardless of your cortex’s opinion.

When you get a reward, your brain releases acetylcholine, which aids attention and memory, and dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitter. These two neurotransmitters help your brain focus attention and consolidate what you just learned.

Rewards also activate the anterior cingulate, the part of your prefrontal cortex that tells you “This is important. Pay attention to this.”

In other words, because rewards feel good, we want to repeat the behavior that generated the reward, and because rewards sharpen our attention and memory, they improve our ability to do that.

When writing is intrinsically rewarding, you get all the dopamine you want and need to keep writing.  

But when writing isn’t self-rewarding and we have to put in extra effort just to show up, that’s when we most need and deserve a reward.

More about writing rewards in our next post. Until then, how do you reward yourself?

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9 Comments on “Writing Should Be Its Own Reward, Right? Wrong!”

  1. Michaeline Duskova August 23, 2018 at 8:35 pm #

    Over the past two years, I’ve been buying into the “writing is its own reward” myth more and more. You are absolutely right! Writing isn’t its own reward; finishing is.

    I’ve had some luck in the past with “pre-warding” — making sure I have a fruity drink for a summer writing session, or hot cocoa with extra marshmallow (and a spoon — getting up to get a spoon in the middle is a Tactical Error which leads to doing the laundry or doing “just one more thing” and losing all my writing time).

    Like

    • rosannebane August 24, 2018 at 10:24 am #

      Thanks Michaeline. I love the idea of pre-warding — it’s a way of rewarding yourself for showing up.

      Like

  2. Tracy August 23, 2018 at 7:24 am #

    I look forward to seeing your suggestions on how and what rewards would work, next post.

    I don’t currently reward myself for a completed writing session, although I *do* like adding the word count to my daily logs, and seeing the numbers creep up, which is a psychological pat on the back that reinforces the need to get more down tomorrow.

    I’m about to go off and start writing for the day. I may think up a “reward” to give myself at the end, and see how that goes.

    Cheers,

    t.

    Like

    • rosannebane August 24, 2018 at 10:23 am #

      Thanks Tracy. What did you give yourself as a reward? How did it go?

      Like

      • Tracy August 24, 2018 at 1:50 pm #

        In my usual anal way, I didn’t just give myself a reward, I built whole system of rewards to help me sustain good habits. I have a reward for writing each day, and a reward for not missing a day during the week.

        Just figuring out what the rewards will be is a reward of its own. It’s fun!

        I will be interested to see how the reward system works over the long term. Thank you for your post, which put me onto this path. I’m hoping it will be… Well, rewarding.

        Cheers,

        t.

        Like

        • rosannebane August 27, 2018 at 4:30 pm #

          Thanks Tracy! Please keep me posted on your medium- and long-term results with rewards.

          Like

  3. Joel D Canfield August 22, 2018 at 8:17 am #

    This is a major gap for me. No matter how hard I have to work to sit down and write, when I’m done, I just move on. Eager to read the next installment, where you debunk all those excuses I was making (more or less that entire list.)

    Like

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Refine Your Writing Rewards | Bane of Your Resistance - August 30, 2018

    […] comments on my previous post, Writing Should Be It’s Own Reward, Right? Wrong!, highlighted where I need to clarify a few things for everyone’s benefit. (This is one of the […]

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