I mentioned in the previous post that writing is a very peculiar behavior, with a great chasm between its execution and hypothetical reward. That makes it hard to reinforce, to keep it consistent, comparable to similar activities with equally deferred rewards, like strength sports.
I thought I was being original when I wrote that but reading the papers I had ready for today’s post I noticed I was probably just paraphrasing one of them. It’s from a 1977 paper , which includes an introduction and discussion by a psychologist, but the core of the paper is the novelist Irving Wallace explaining his charts and timekeeping methods he used to become a professional writer.
An interesting quote by the introductory discussion is this:
“The persistence of the successful novelist seems, superficially at least, to defy prevalent notions of reinforcement. Novel writing involves a supreme effort whose ultimate primary reinforcement, by any conventional standard, must be described as very long deferred. What reinforces the behavior before the completion of the manuscript, its publication, and its public acclaim? And if the manuscript is rejected by all potential publishers, what reinforces the behavior that produced subsequent manuscripts until finally one is published? […] Novel writing is a rather uncommon endeavor and, when it is undertaken, appears quite susceptible to extinction.”
What this means, in terms of “writer’s block,” is that it’s perfectly normal, rational even, for such a strange behavior like writing to become “extinct,” to disappear, and to be “blocked.”
The writer William Wallace offers his insights and claims that a lot of the successful novelist he has met made this strange activity into a daily habit, with meticulous timekeeping and charts of daily pages being written and so forth. He warns against some romantic misconceptions:
“Once, long ago, deceived by the instructors, professors, by an old romantic tradition, I had believed that a writer writes only when he feels like it, only when is touched by mystic inspiration. But then, after studying the work habits of novelists of the past, I realized that most successful writers invest their work with professionalism.”
He mentioned Balzac, Flaubert, Conrad, Maugham, Aldous Huxley, Hemingway, and Victor Hugo and their 5-to-8-hours writing routines. There’s a lot to comment on this paper, but it’s not the focus of this post.
A year earlier, in 1976 , a psychologist named Richard H. Passman treated a young woman with writer’s block, and he published the results.
The woman was 25 and a college student who had been unable to complete or even start writing the papers she had to hand in for the English course, a requirement for her graduation.
“She stated that she had been able to organize her thoughts and to perform the necessary research for the papers but that she experienced anxiety and ‘blockage’ whenever she attempted to write”
The treatment was straightforward. During the first session she was asked to list possible reinforcers (music, going outside, spend time with a friend, etc) and then a behavioral contract was established. Once a day, she would set aside a period of time just to write. She would not leave the chair until the task for that particular period was completed. The task was simple: one paragraph. She was specifically told not to think about or attempt to complete an entire paper, just write it paragraph by paragraph, on a day-by-day basis. Then he would reinforce herself with one of the things from the list.
At first, the experiment didn’t work because the patient
“compressed the small steps into one large onerous chore, failed to complete the paper in one sitting, gave up, and returned to the next session determined to terminate therapy.”
The therapist managed to turn her around, and the next week was a success. She did not relapse and in follow-up sessions 15 and 30 weeks later, the patient reported good grades and no more blockages.
Now, this was a straightforward behavioral programme for a relatively simple problem of, quite likely, anxious procrastination. Just write a paragraph a day (mind you, back then paragraphs were larger) and reward yourself. It’s not much for someone who may want to become a professional writer, but it worked for her, and at least the blockage disappeared.
A more hardcore method was tried in 1983 . Robert Boice, whom I already quoted in the previous post, set up an experiment to treat writer’s block. The subjects were academicians who had serious problems writing papers — and they really needed them. Six of them, for example, were in danger of being denied tenure for their inability to write.
The experimental design was based on four phases: a baseline phase with no contingency (I’ll explain this in a moment,) the first contingency phrase, a second noncontingent phrase, and the second contingent phase.
The first phase was 2-3 weeks were the subjects would write normally, as always (i.e. not at all,) which is why it’s called the “baseline” phase since it will be used to check the effect of the treatment later.
The goals for this experiment were modest but way larger than in the previous experiment: 2 or 3 pages a day. And how to reinforce that? Well, here it was not about rewarding productivity but punishing failure.
“Following completion of their baseline periods, subjects were instructed to begin the use of a special case of contingency management, productive avoidance. Each subject prepared five $15 checks [close to 38$ in today’s dollars] from their own funds that would be mailed to an organization (that they had chosen as “hated“) by a third party following every scheduled working day where the total level for writing output was not met.”
This lasted for 35 to 75 writing days.
What this means, for those who are reading this in the current year, is that if you happen to be a liberal writer who has a stroke just by seeing the word ‘Trump’ and you suffer from writer’s block while fiddling away your writing hours on Twitter, start preparing those checks for Trump’s Reelection Fund! He needs your money to make American Really Great Again. On the other hand, if you are a conservative, family-oriented writer, you may consider sending them to Planned Parenthood or the Clinton’s Foundation.
During the Third Phase, this contingency was put off and the writers went back to their baseline, normal routine. Then during the Fourth Phase, the contingency was reintroduced.
Did this work? Oh, yes. Just being in the experiment apparently psyched them up because, despite their assurances that they were unable to write, they actually started to write a bit during the baseline phase. However, the big improvement came when the Second Phase began and, most importantly, this improvement was a consistent, daily habit of writing.
These are the charts of five of the subjects:
A are the two non-contingency phases, and as you can see, some of them actually wrote a bit (and one of them a lot) during the first one. But it’s during the two Phase B when things get funny. The terror of having to send money to people you hate clearly worked. Notice, by the way, how the “binge” days are followed by steep drops in the quantity of writing. A smaller but steady working output is preferable to binge writing.
There are two important conclusions in the paper:
“These results indicate, first, that academicians complaining of writing blocks can be induced to habitual writing with ordinary behavior therapy techniques.”
And, most important for creative types:
“Not only does contingency management make habitual writers of these subjects, but it produced reports of decreased anxiety about writing and of a generalization of this outcome to related activities […] Second, a related study of academicians clearly demonstrated that regular productivity almost invariable precedes reports of substantial levels of useful, creative ideas for writing.”
What this means is that the usual theory of creativity and “ideas” as a prerequisite of writing, as something you need to wait to start writing, may be wrong or at least incomplete. You start writing, tentatively at first and at chunks, then the ideas will come because the process of writing will generate them.
So now you know what you have to do. Keep detailed charts of productivity and develop an almost bureaucratic habit of timekeeping, then divide your work into manageable chunks followed by rewards and reinforcements. And finally, grab a friend and give him your hard-earned money so he can send it to someone you HATE if you don’t write.
 Irving Wallace with J.J. Pear (1977) Self-Control Techniques of Famous Novelists, Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 10, pp. 515-525, Number 3 (Fall)
 Richard H. Passman (1976), A procedure for eliminating writer’s block in a college student, Journal of Behavioral Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, Vol 7, pp. 297-298
 Robert Boice (1983), Experimental and Clinical Treatments of Writing Blocks, Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, vol 51., No. 2, 183-191