Program your brain for writing success in 7 easy steps

February 22, 2010

by Dean Rieck

Did you ever wonder how some people can just sit down and joyously write for hours, while others struggle to crank out even a few paragraphs?

I’m not talking about writer’s block. I’m talking about what some people would call willpower, the willpower to write regularly, stick to writing schedules, and succeed.

But what is willpower? We tend to define “willpower” as energetic determination or inner strength. It’s as if we’re saying, some people can overcome their hurdles while others are just too weak. It’s a comment about character.

But hold on a minute. I think that’s unfair and inaccurate. In my opinion, some people are simply programmed for writing success while others lack that programming. So it’s really about learned behavior.

Those who can flip a switch in their brain and start writing aren’t overcoming anything or exercising great power of will, they simply enjoy writing. And that enjoyment comes from programming in their brain that gives them pleasure and satisfaction.

This makes a big difference in how you think about writing, because while it’s hard to change character, it’s much easier to change learned behavior. We’re simply talking about breaking old habits and forming new ones. Right?

So let’s drop the judgmental attitude, and concentrate on creating some positive habits that can lead to greater pleasure from writing and greater writing success in your life and career.

How? I thought you’d never ask. I just happen to have 7 suggestions.

1. Set a goal. It’s not enough to say, “I’m going to write more.” You need something more specific. Say to yourself, “I’m going to write 5 pages a day.” Or if you have larger ambitions, such as writing a book, create a schedule for writing and completing each chapter. Be realistic. Set a goal that is reasonable and attainable.

2. Make a contract. A contract? Yes, a contract. Say it out loud and mean it. If you have to, write it down and sign it. Better yet, announce your contract to people you care about. Making a public commitment creates a sense of obligation and gives you extra motivation. Your friends will ask you how you’re coming along and, if you care about what they think, you’ll want to report success.

3. Shape your behavior. Professional dog trainers use a technique called “shaping.” If you want a dog to roll over, you can’t make that happen all at once, so you give it a treat for every action that comes close to the desired result. A treat for lowering the head. A treat for laying down. And so on. You keep up the treats as the dog slowly comes closer and closer to rolling over.

Okay, you’re not a dog, but the same idea can work. That’s how you learned to act and feel the way you do today. You weren’t born the way you are. Little by little, your behavior was shaped, probably by random events, so that you either loved to write, hated to write, or like most people, fell somewhere in between.

So begin to give yourself small treats for each tiny change that brings you closer to being the sort of writer you want to be. A treat for sitting down at your desk at the same time every day. A treat for writing one page. A treat for completing a project. The positive reinforcement can slowly shape your writing attitude and behavior. Choose any small reward you want and build on each little success.

4. Create new writing cues. If you’ve ever tried to diet, you know how environmental cues affect you. Turn on the TV and suddenly you’re hungry. Why? Because you’ve eaten while watching TV so many times, one becomes a cue for the other.

The same thing happens with writing. For example, set up a place to write and do nothing else in that area. Over time, all you’ll have to do is sit down and your brain will tell you to start writing. Even better, create cues with something particularly pleasant, such as your favorite song, an exercise you like, a cup of your favorite coffee blend, anything.

5. Do happy talk. You know that little voice in your head? (I know it’s not just me who hears it.) What that little voice says can have a huge effect on your behavior. Banish the stinkin’ thinkin’ and start complimenting yourself and bucking yourself up. Focus on what you do well while you write and ignore your shortcomings.

After all, you don’t have to be perfect to be a good writer. In school, my teachers marked all my errors in red pen and graded me based on what I did wrong. Later, the little voice in my head started doing the same thing. “Look at those weak verbs.” “Awkward transition.” “You spelled that word wrong, dummy.” It made writing agony because it was all about avoiding mistakes.

But over time, I silenced the critical voice and only listened to the positive voice. Now, while I still make mistakes, I revel in what I do right, in a well-crafted sentence or a point well-made. It makes writing something I enjoy rather than dread.

6. Record your progress. If you’re really serious about programming your brain, start a writer’s journal or a simple log to keep track of what you write. Don’t write down criticisms. Record only what you do well, every success, and each goal achieved. Record at least one positive thing about everything you write. As you review your notes, you can’t help but feel energized and encouraged.

7. Reward yourself. When you reach a major goal, give yourself a significant reward. Buy that pair of shoes you’ve been longing for. Splurge on a big screen TV. Take a vacation to your favorite beach or city. If it’s a really big deal, throw a party, invite your friends, and let them toast your success. Take the time to bask in your victory and enjoy the moment. These are landmarks in your life that can forever change your attitudes and learned behaviors about writing.

Just remember, you weren’t born with the attitudes and behaviors you have. You learned them. Your mind was slowly programmed to approach writing in a certain way. Some people won the lottery and got great programming naturally. But if you’re like most people, you didn’t get this natural programming and will have to re-program yourself.

So scrap the old mental software and program yourself for writing success. Do a little each day. If I can do it, so can you.