Last week I opened a can of worms, to use a cliché—and one should never use clichés, because they’re old hat.
I asked some of my favorite authors (and clients, as it happens) whether they motivate themselves as writers with “carrots” (i.e., some kind of reward) or “sticks” (an external discipline of some kind). The responses were so many and varied—and enlightening—that I decided to follow that post with more carrots and sticks. Here’s what writers said:
“I reward myself with a big reward, like a massage or pedicure when I reach a big goal. Punishment is probably for my family because I’m super grumpy when I’m writing out of ‘have to’ rather than ‘I’m in this!’” (Brenda L. Yoder, author of Fledge: Launching Your Kids Without Losing Your Mind).
“I don’t self-impose any reward or punishment to keep me writing. The final advance check and the deadline seem to provide all the carrot and stick I need. That, and, because I was an editor for a number of years, I hate to put another editor in a bind by delivering late” (Lawrence W. Wilson, author of Promises and Prayers for Men).
“I trick myself by deciding ‘all I need to write is one new sentence and that will be an accomplishment.’ Most times, that one sentence gets followed by many more. It’s always that first plunge in the water that’s hardest. I also always leave off in a spot midway through a thought so I’m not having to jump into a new page cold” (Lori Stanley Roeleveld, author of The Art of Hard Conversations).
“I actually don’t reward or punish myself when it comes to writing. Maybe it is because I am extremely self-motivated and a rather Type A personality? If I have the time, I can write for hours every day. I feel compelled and called to write. The hardest part for me is to stop writing! When I get to see people come to know Christ, huge life-changing lightbulb moments, and marriages and families healed, that is the most incredible reward to me” (April Cassidy, author and blogger at www.peacefulwife.com).
“I have three motivations: utility bills, the mortgage and medical bills. More powerful than a Snickers bar!” (James N. Watkins, author of Overcoming Fear and Worry).
“Deadlines serve as both a carrot and stick for me, motivating me to finish drafts and corrections with the anticipation of publication. I also set my own deadlines because my academic calendar gives me seasons to write rather than steady times every week. If I did not get it done in the window, the book doesn’t get written” (Alan Ehler, author of Making Big Decisions Wisely).
“Though there’s nothing like a good bowl of chocolate ice cream, I am not inclined to work for treats. I am, however, driven by a list and when I am writing on a deadline, I make a daily list of word counts, which forces me to press ahead. I keep a note pad by the computer and each day I mark off that day’s work. For me, the motivation is in daily marking off the items on my list. My reward is turning off my computer for the day once I’ve accomplished my work. The list keeps me doing what needs to be done for the day and by the same token, it forces me to put the brakes on as well. But … ice cream with hot fudge is always a pleasant treat” (Cindy Sproles, author of Liar’s Winter – An Appalachian Novel).
“I’m an engineer, a rocket scientist masquerading as a novelist … or vice versa. I motivate myself the same way I motivate my teams to meet their schedule, cost, and quality goals—with a chart. Label the Y-axis from 0 to 40 chapters (every book has 40 chapters), and log 1 to 12 weeks on the X-axis. Draw a line from day 0 to day 84, from 0 to 40 chapters, and you get 2.1 days for every chapter. Plot my daily progress of 1000 words and promise myself that if I fall behind, that I will give up my weekend to get back on track. It gets rockets built and books written” (Austin W. Boyd, author of the Mars Hill Classified trilogy).
“I prefer ‘carrots.’ And I love a good story. When I was on a tight schedule to complete my book, I set goals for every day of writing. When I reached my goal at the end of the night, I rewarded myself with reading a few pages of a sci-fi/fantasy novel. Nothing heavy, just something fun. If I reached my goal early enough, I could get a whole chapter in before falling asleep (Sharon Hoover, author of Mapping Church Missions).
Do you use one or the other? Or both? If so, how?
I’m not a rocket scientist, but I love spreadsheets. I have them for titles, tracking Bible verses, and chapter statistics. Thanks to Mr. Boyd, I’m visualizing one tracking progress. It sings to my heart.
I loved this! And I’m not a rocket scientist but think I’ll try Austin Boyd’s chart. As for me, I use carrots and sticks, but I find daily “attention sprints” most helpful to keep motivated and productive. Turn off all notifications, set a timer for 30-60 minutes, and work on one thing. When the timer goes off, pace the room, pet the dog, get a cup of tea, or check email while standing at the desk. After a few minutes, set the timer again. The uninterrupted time reaps the reward of getting in flow with the work. Thanks for all of these ideas.
Nancy B. Kennedy
I’m with April Cassidy! With every book I write, I’m so thrilled by the topic that I can’t STOP writing. I need motivation to push back from the desk and go to the gym, or make dinner, or reacquaint myself with my family. It’s a blessing… and a curse, as Monk would say. In production now: “Women Win the Vote! 19 for the 19th Amendment” (forthcoming, W.W. Norton, February 2020). These women have been my life for the last two years, and I’ve loved every minute. I can’t wait to share them with everyone!
Wow Nancy! This sounds amazing!
Nancy B Kennedy
Thanks, Jennifer! This has been a dream project for me.
How about carrot sticks? Much easier to gnaw on than a giant carrot (or a stick).
I’m more of a carrot person, although I often consider the satisfaction of completing a project reward enough. One thing I did last summer was to make sure my work friends knew I’d be bringing in cookies if my sorta-self-imposed deadline was met on time. Not sure if that’s more a carrot or a stick though, because I knew I’d be facing some disappointed people if I didn’t make it happen! P.S. My manuscript got done, and they got their cookies. 😉
My burro is not agile,
but has a vengeful kick
aimed at parts quite fragile,
so I do not use the stick.
But carrots make him meaner;
he’s made that crystal clear,
so we go to the cantina,
where I buy him beer.
Corona is a favoured brand,
and Dos Equis as well.
We’ll be at the bar (he prefers to stand),
just watch out for his tail.
And even tipsy, he does have class,
never making of himself an ass.
Ever wonder where these rhymes come from? This morning I was watching for the sunrise, that golden moment when the sun’s corona peers over the cool blue mountains…
Corona, the keyword, and the rest is history.
I created a spreadsheet as well to keep up with the word count by chapter. I did keep dates for the rough draft on it as well. I’m not a rocket scientist but a computer scientist, so I guess having something to analyze helps me with progress. When I was in the field artillery, the battalion commander was bored and went over the mathematics of it with everyone in the command center (this was not a war-time environment). Someone mentioned that it sounded like “rocket science”. The commander affirmed that it was and man the jokes just took off from there.
Watkins comment about being motivated by bills and mortgage and the title of his book being overcoming worry and fear so entertained me.
I like seeing what others do.
For me getting to write is the carrot! I’m a homeschooling stay-at-home mom, so if we get done with lessons and I have enough of a handle on the household tasks, I can fit a little writing in!