Monday, May 31, 2010

The Power of Positive Reinforcement by TM Hunter

The Power of Positive Reinforcement
by T. M. Hunter
Anyone who follows my blog or has seen my various articles on the web would know that I’m a big proponent of setting goals as a means to get jump-started on your writing and to keep it flowing. There are those who see goal-setting as bringing far too much structure into what is considered a creative endeavor.  I see it differently, and have a feeling there are many would-be writers out there who struggle with getting words out on the page just as I have in the past. They feel disappointed in themselves for being unable to accomplish what they want to get done, and these negative feelings feed upon themselves, which only propagates the issue farther. Six or twelve months later, you’re still looking to get your first draft finished or maybe even  the first page of your novel.
In my own situation, thus was born the goal-setting life, and I have a feeling it will help any other struggling writer out there.
Of course, I’ve written other articles on setting goals, including tips on how to set them, but one thing to remember is that writing is primarily a mental activity. As such, it’s important that we should not only set our writing goals but we should give ourselves rewards when we complete them. Now this isn’t to say a person should set themselves up on a Caribbean cruise when they finish the first draft of their novel (although if anyone wants to buy me one for when I finish my third Aston novel, I won’t object). But as always, with anything there should be rules, and so your rewards for completing your goals should adhere to the following three guidelines:
1. Your reward should be something you don’t already receive on a regular basis

I’ve seen many people steer away from this precept when they reward themselves. In fact, while sitting down to write this article, a writer friend of mine told me to turn off Twitter until I finished. Although I did as he instructed, returning to Twitter won’t in fact be my reward, because ultimately (though I hope it will encourage me to finish) I’ll receive that ‘reward’ eventually whether I complete my task or not. The same goes for those who go out to dinner after they finish the first draft of a story or novel. Unless you never go out to dinner otherwise (which would be rare in this day and age), that isn’t really considered a true reward because you receive it other times when you aren’t accomplishing your goals.
Be inventive. What is something you never (or almost never) get to do? Set that up as your reward, and then bask in the glory of being able to do it when you’re finished.
2. Your reward should fit the goal that you completed

I mentioned before that a person shouldn’t set themselves up on a Caribbean cruise when they complete the first draft. Again, it seems fairly obvious, but the opposite can also be true. What if you finished the final draft of your latest novel and sent it off to your first batch of agents? That’s something that doesn’t happen all too often, so it deserves a larger reward than say, finishing your word count goal for the month. You wouldn’t want to go out to a fancy dinner alone (although maybe you never get to go out to dinner). The intensity of the reward is what’s important for tasks that are monumental, and usually rare, because it’s all about forming a habit. Finishing a short story, on the other hand, might just end up with a reward of a special ice cream treat (assuming you don’t go out for these all the time), since it’s something that can be accomplished fairly quickly and easily for most.
And of course, when you begin completing the same goal (a word count goal for the month, for example) over and over, it’s time to set your goal higher in order to receive the same reward. One  might ask why they couldn’t just scale back the reward, but the mind will begin having no incentive to reach the goal any longer, and the habit will begin to fade.
And of course, maybe you can book your (and my) Caribbean cruise once you sell the movie rights to your novel.
3. Your reward should be something positive

Yet one more obvious statement (it’s beginning to  form a trend), but one would be surprised how many people will use a negative consequence to spur them to complete a goal (such as removing yourself from  personal contact with friends and family until you’re finished with a story). Although punishing oneself until a task is completed may actually get the task at hand accomplished, the mind seeks to have positive sensations when forming and maintaining habits (which is why it’s so hard for addicts to quit). If your task was accomplished through negativity, your mind won’t form a lasting habit. Although it may serve as a start, and momentum will carry you for a while, ultimately the old habits (not accomplishing your goals) will return. So, make sure you earnestly seek out a positive reward and your habits will both form and last.
So there you have it, three solid guidelines for setting up rewards to go along with your writing goals. I hope they prove as useful for you as they have for me. Have a great time, everyone, and enjoy those rewards along the way.
T. M. Hunter has always had a fascination with interstellar travel, earning a B. S. in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Kansas. Twice a top ten finisher in the P&E Readers Poll for his short stories (2007, 2009), his book HEROES DIE YOUNG earned Champagne Books’ Best-Selling Book of 2008 award. FRIENDS IN DEED is his latest novel. For more information, including links to his published short stories and novels, please visit You can also find T. M. Hunter on Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace as well.


AstonWest said...

Thanks for stopping by everyone!

And as a special treat, everyone who posts a comment here is entered into a drawing to win their choice of one of my two print books, Heroes Die Young or Friends in Deed. Drawing will be held tomorrow evening, from all the comments have been posted today.

Want to figure out which one you'd like, so you can make an informed decision when you win? Head on over to where you can find information on both books.

I'll be in and out all day, answering questions and what not. So, enjoy!

clairewhill said...

I love the article - it is absolutely something I need to work on. So, I'll be heading back here every now to re-read it when I need the boost to get my a into g.

AstonWest said...

Thanks for stopping by, and glad the article was useful to you! :-)

TKToppin said...

Great article and very insightful. Will have to keep some of these in mind - like the 'getting treats' part.

AstonWest said...

Treats are always awesome...thanks for stopping by!

Mousey said...

Alright, here goes the attempt to rewrite my first comment. Blogger, you're evil. End of story.

I haven't thought about the novel I started in about 3 months now. I started writing it a few yeas ago as a story based of a RP plot a few friends and I developed in the RolePlay AOL chat rooms way back in 1998. ( It feels wrong to say way back when but... it feels like forever ago)

When I first started writing the book I sat down and wrote 10 chapters right off the bat. It was so easy to do because the memories were fresh in my mind after only a year or two since the story had ended. Now it's 2010, I no longer talk to that group of friends and I have no way of finding them. None of us had logs of our conversations so I doubt it matters anyways.

Most of the time when I sit down to write my story I find myself discouraged because I simply have to improvise on certain details that I felt should be more accurate than they are. I'm not sure if this is a simple mater of writer's block or a lack of effort to finish but after reading this I think I'm going to go back and look at the reward system I was using before and see if this blog post applies to it.

A lot of what you said made sense to me and I think that if I can just get past the idea that this novel I'm writing isn't going to be a perfect carbon copy of the wonderful encounter I had with my friends all those years ago then maybe I can finish my book.

AstonWest said...

Indeed, I think writing a novel out of real experiences is one of the toughest things to do. My first completed novel (read: not ever published, thankfully) was based on real experiences, and was terribly difficult to write. Not that getting things out on paper was hard, but going back and trying to make it flow. Editing (and writing) has to have some distance, at least in my opinion, for us to have some objectivity. Otherwise, we'll want to keep everything, even if it hinders the story we want to tell.

Good luck with your book, and thanks for stopping by!

Anonymous said...

Hi TM and thanks for being here. I loved your article. Lots of great information here and I am sure writers-published and unpublished- will enjoy it.


Pastor Cindy said...

I appreciated your article and your dedication to writing. I heard Lillian Winner say last week that writing was a spiritual discipline. I believe that. I also know I don't follow it. Your advice on rewarding oneself with something that isn't "usual" makes a good deal of sense. Thanks for writing this.

AstonWest said...

Glad you enjoyed it, and thanks for stopping by!

AstonWest said...

And congratulations to Mousey, who is our random blog post winner for the book giveaway contest. If you didn't win this time, be sure to stop on by where you can check out more information on my novels, including buy links. And if you follow me elsewhere online, I'll most likely be having contests sometime in the near future as well.

Thanks everyone for stopping by! Thanks to Dawn for having me! Good writing!

Book Spotlight & Giveaway~ Life After Humanity

Title :  Life After Humanity Series : Thorns and Fangs, Book Three Author : Gillian St. Kevern Publisher :   NineStar Press Re...