Behavior modification for writers: reinforcing desirable behavior – Part 1

Writers are human. ALL of our functioning as living beings is controlled (exquisitely, except for weight – and more on that in a later post) by autonomous process: things that happen without our voluntary control. Digestion. BREATHING. Blood circulation. Walking (most of the time). VISION and all the senses. We wouldn’t survive if more than 99% of our behavior were not on automatic pilot.

To understand and explain inexplicable BEHAVIOR, you first have to know that, in most areas, humans (including writers) operate under the same laws as chinchillas.

Just looking at procrastination and writer’s block (mythological or not) we ask: Why do I surf the web instead of writing? Why is ‘one more piece of research’ so appealing? Why do all the superstitious behaviors writers engage in – target word count, deadlines, quitting in the middle of a line so as to come back and have an easier start, wearing the same hat – work, but only part of the time?

Why don’t we do what we claim we want to do, which is to write the current, top-priority, A+ work-in-progress (WIP)?

Even more important than these questions is: What do we do about it?

The main difference between us and chinchillas is that we can learn what these laws of behavior are, examine how they affect the things we WANT to do, such as writing, and learn to change our behavior.

Writers in particular – because we do it all on paper, and there is a record to be reread and shared – can learn these dangerous rules, understand them, and even, in some cases, take huge advantage of the built-in system.

In perplexity at some of my own behavior, I dragged out a book I’ve had for a very long time – and highly recommend – Don’t Shoot the Dog, by Karen Pryor. My current copy is the revised edition, from 1999 (I had the original 1984 edition but gave it to someone who needed it more (I thought) and never got it back). The basics haven’t changed, but the revised edition has extras. It is subtitled: The New Art of Teaching and Training.

None of these ideas are new any more. Many of them came from the work of B. F. Skinner and other students of animal behavior. Karen Pryor expresses them clearly and readably for the general public, and generously uses examples from her work and her life – I urge you to read her books, and visit her website,

Caveats: What follows in these blog posts will be my understanding, applied to myself. I am not an expert – and will probably get some of it wrong. On the other hand, I have a long history of (bad) writer behavior, and am in some ways an ideal subject.

I’d like to start with one of the basics: REINFORCING DESIRABLE BEHAVIOR.

Desired behavior for a writer should be an easy list: getting ‘butt in chair’, not surfing the web nor playing games, turning completed work in on time, starting work promptly, sending work out. These behaviors have a huge emotional component for most writers, much of it negative. Otherwise why would it be so hard to sit down and work, and why do many writers practically chain themselves to their desks? If writing is such a positive activity (as writers claim, at least part of the time), why do we have such a hard time doing it? A program such as Freedom, which blocks the internet access on my Mac for as many minutes as I set it up for, shouldn’t be necessary if I’m enjoying myself, right? I don’t have to be persuaded much to jump in a pool, or go to a movie, or get ice cream. To overcome the baggage, from procrastination to outright fear and loathing, the behavior needs to be reinforced.

[If you’re in the category of someone whose writing is always self-reinforcing because it is so pleasant and easy and fun, please stop reading right now: you don’t need this.]

Pryor defines a reinforcer as something that occurs at the same time as a behavior, and increases the probability of that behavior recurring. She notes that behavior must already be occurring, however sporadically, or it can’t be reinforced. This is not quite as obvious as it sounds, but a writing example would be that you can’t reinforce ‘submitting written work’ if it never happens – you can only promise yourself a reward if you submit, which Pryor categorizes as bribery, not reinforcement (it may or may not work, but it isn’t reinforcement). Thus, if a writer ever sits down to write, that behavior can be increased. Opening a new blank document is a behavior, as is typing ‘new text’ into that document; both behaviors can be increased by appropriate reinforcement.

Let’s use approbation as a reinforcer for now, leaving for a later post exactly what kind of reinforcers work for writers, and which are positive and which negative. Let’s just say that if your SO, a reader, [your agent, editor, or publisher if you have them], or a good friend told you how wonderful each sentence you wrote was, the instant you added the final period, it wouldn’t be that hard to write.

So you CAN write – you just haven’t found the right reinforcer! And what reinforcers you are using may not be applied properly – it is both critical and tricky to get the reinforcer TIMING just right.

To summarize for this step: to reinforce a desirable behavior (defined as increasing the occurrence of the desirable behavior) you have to have 1) the behavior already occurring, at least occasionally; 2) the right reinforcer for the subject (the writer); and 3) the reinforcer must be applied at the correct time, which is as close as physically possible to the time when the behavior occurs.

More on each concept, and how it might be applied to writing, in later posts.

Some of the upcoming topics I will investigate for myself are:

Timing of reinforcements
How to train a writer    Stimulus control: what is it, what works, and what doesn’t    What is discipline?
Behavior chains – and how to use them to my advantage
Reinforcements and rewards for writers
4 positive and 4 negative methods of using reinforcement to get rid of behavior you don’t want
The pernicious long-schedule intermittent variable reinforcer – the most powerful and insidious reinforcer of desirable behavior

Ignore the rules at your peril: they will still apply – Pryor calls them as immutable as the laws of physics – and you won’t even know what bit you.


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