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Rewards and Challenges

ICL-Quote-2-4Long ago, researchers were studying how creatures react to reward. They learned that if you put a “reward station” in a rat’s cage and have a treat appear every time the rat pushes a button, the rat will push the button a lot at first, then taper off. Eventually, he’ll push the button only when he wants a treat and his desire for the treat seems to lessen over time. BUT if you have the “reward station” produce a treat only sometimes, and give nothing the rest of the time, the rat will actually push the button a lot more often and that frequency will never taper off.

I think about that sometimes in relation to writing, because I can be a lot like that rat. If every single creative thing I do is praised and rewarded, I tend to get tired of that art form. I feel like it has no more challenges for me. But if I’m never praised and rewarded, I feel like it’s a bad match for me, and I drop it for that reason. No one enjoys being a total failure.

This is why writing has never grown old or stale for me. Sometimes I write something and sell it. Sometimes I receive feedback written in glowing terms. But sometimes I write something and no one seems to want it; the reward station doesn’t produce a single glimmer of reward. Sometimes I send things off and get no response at all! No reward, just a button pushed for nothing. But I get rewards enough that I never grow tired of pushing that button. Writing never feels like a “sure thing” or like it lacks challenge. It always stays fresh. And it keeps me trying new things, even though that can mean more trips to the reward station without getting a treat, because I get enough treats to tide me over if the new challenge proves difficult.

If you want more writing instruction like this, plus lots of tips and great resources

The whole model of action/reward is one to consider as a writer, especially a new writer. When I was fairly early in my career, I sometimes wrote things that weren’t necessarily my favorite type of writing to do. I wrote a lot of how-to pieces, for instance. I did this because I could almost always sell them, and I was having a much harder time selling my fiction. But the publication experience with the how-to pieces gave me enough reward to pull me through those dark, rejection blues.

I think this is something that can have value for any writer. If you’re getting the blues about the struggle to publish a picture book or the rough job of finishing a novel, consider taking a small break and doing a piece that will give you a treat at that reward station. You could write for a no pay market or write an essay on your writing journey as you’ve been living it and consider one of the online markets for it. You could offer a guest blog post on writing to a writing site. During the tough times, these rewards can be enormously helpful to morale.

Almost every successful writer I know has these sure reward options in their tool pack. They write letters to the editor of the local paper. Or they have a blog read by friends and family who always offer uplifting commentary. There’s something, some place they can go for that treat when the writing gets tough. And almost every time I find a writer who has lost that spark of interest in writing, it’s because they either don’t find that sure reward place OR it’s because they become so successful that writing feels like it holds no more challenge (so are getting too many treats at the reward station).

So, take a moment to make a list of possible sure reward options for your writing life and consider sprinkling that kind of writing into your year. You may find the morale boost gives you the energy to take on more challenges than ever before. Go for it!

If you want more writing instruction like this, plus lots of tips and great resources

With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.

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