It’s a Writer Thing — Turbo-Charge the Power of the Environment

Turbo-charge the power of the environment for you and your writing with stimulus generalizability

This is a guest post by Jessica Bayliss. 

Happy Fall!
Welcome back to my blog series on writing called, It’s a Writer Thing. Last time, I began a discussion about the concept of stimulus control, a powerful psychological principal we writers can harness to increase our drive to write. By creating a writing situation that we stick to—same day, same time, same place, same old robe that is really falling apart but we can’t live without—we can ingrain a writing habit and amp our productivity.
But, remember last time I talked about how there is a debate out there on whether writers should hit their manuscripts every single day? Some say yes, others say it should be up to the individual author to decide what works for them. According to psychology both of these camps have it right. Life is just full of confusing shit like that. 
So, though stimulus control is an excellent concept and will definitely work for you if you chose to set up your own writing habit, it can also hinder us at times. Today I wanted to talk about the flip side, a principal called stimulus generalizability.


Stimulus generalizability is the concept that covers how one’s behavior can become conditioned to occur in the context of many different stimuli. Remember the stop sign? Sure, it’s a very strongly conditioned stimulus for all us drivers, but so are stop lights, crossing families of geese, and the coffee shop that makes the perfect espresso.
Stimulus generalizability is how we turbo-charge the power of the environment to work for us and our writing. To appreciate the potential of stimulus generalizability, it’s important to understand the way stimulus control can mess us up.


Have you ever heard of a baseball player who won’t change his socks? The guy just wears them, all crusty and smelly, until the end of the season because of some belief that if he washes them, he’ll wash the luck out. In addition to representing a superstitious belief that has zero impact on whether his team wins the game or not, this scenario represents stimulus control at its very worst.
We can, at times, become so reliant on our designated routine—or lucky socks—that we begin to believe that the desired behavior we want is only possible in our special environmental conditions. In other words, if we as writers can’t write at the right time, in our favorite coffee house (and in the right table within said coffee house) or while wearing that ratty old robe, we think we cannot be productive at all. Sure, we may bang out a ton of words between 5AM and 6AM on weekdays, but what good is that if we can’t write at 3PM on a Sunday afternoon. Or in the car during a long road trip. Or in the evening after work when we discover we have some surprise free time. Or… 
What good is it if we can only hit one particular kind of goal under one particular set of circumstances?


In order to be productive as writers, we need to harness both stimulus control and stimulus generalizability.
Here’s how. I still say that starting off with one set routine is great. Condition yourself to write under your preferred circumstances first. BUT, once you’ve gotten into a good rhythm with that, it’s time to vary your writing environment. In addition to your usual time, start adding in other writing stimuli: your friend’s house; the car; the diner instead of the coffee house; a different Panera. Whatever. Vary the time, the music. Drink tea instead of coffee (or how about a big old glass of wine?). Just like a dog trained not to be an asshole in public because he can sit no matter where he is and who is giving the command, we will train ourselves to be productive writers under any circumstances.
So, remember, though stimulus control is an excellent tool, if we want optimal productivity, we must also practice writing in a variety of situations in order to let the behavior of writing generalize.
Next time, I’ll talk about the power of our own thoughts and some cognitive traps to watch out for. As always, a HUGE thanks to Amber Gregg for having me here on “Judging More than Just the Cover,” and until next time, don’t forget: You can do it! You can write!
This article was also posted on as a part of the “It’s A Writer Thing” series. 
Jessica Bayliss is an author of commercial fiction who loves nothing better than getting lost in a good story, whether in print or on film. When not busy with her latest fiction project, she can be found loving her friends and family—especially her husband, Eric—playing with one pesky Havanese, or trying to appease an ornery cockatiel, typically with a cup of coffee near at hand. 
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Do you agree? Disagree?