Four Prolific Writing Tips from B.F. Skinner


Back when I was a doctoral student at UNR, I came across an article by B.F. Skinner (1981) titled “How to Discover What you Have to Say — A Talk to Students.”  In it, Skinner provided tips on how to become a productive writer.  Though he geared his paper towards students, the lessons contained in the paper can apply to anyone wishing to improve their writing skills.

Skinner organized his paper by breaking the title into component pieces and discussing each in greater detail.  Here is a brief outline of what he said:

1) “How to” — The question here is one of verbal self management.  Skinner notes that what we “express” in writing “are not preverbal ideas but the past history and present circumstances of the speaker.”  The question posed by “how to” is how to arrange circumstances to express oneself most effectively.

2) “Discover” — Skinner first recommends to “put yourself in the best possible condition for behaving verbally.”  This includes eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, getting plenty of sleep, and avoiding drugs, alcohol, and tobacco.  You should also make yourself a special place to do your writing.  One that is comfortable and free of distractions.  Write in this place at the same time of day and do nothing else in this place.  Soon, the room will come to evoke verbal behavior automatically.

3) “You” — The question here is “who is the you who has something to say?”.  According to Skinner, “you” are the coherence between your genetic history and environmental history during your lifetime.  Interestingly, he notes “more than one history in one lifetime leads to multiple selves” which can be useful in writing fictional characters.  In a sense, you are creating yourself through a history of writing and reviewing what you write regularly to keep it fresh in your repertoire.

4)  “Have to Say” — Skinner notes a few different meanings of the phrase, but states that aversive control may certainly exist if, for example, you get up at 5am every morning to write.  However, creating your special writing space, as noted above, increases the likelihood of your behavior contacting positive reinforcement for writing.  Skinner generated some clever ways of adding positive reinforcers to your writing environment, but you will have to read the article to find them.

There are many more tips in the article, which you can access through the hyperlink above.  Have you ever tried these writing tips?  Let us know in the comments below and don’t forget to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive new articles directly to your inbox!


Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D is President of bSci21 Media, LLC, which owns and  Todd serves as an Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management and as an editorial board member for Behavior and Social Issues.  He has worked as a behavior analyst in day centers, residential providers, homes, and schools, and served as the director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas.  Todd’s areas of expertise include writing, entrepreneurship, Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, Instructional Design, Organizational Behavior Management, and ABA therapy. Todd can be reached at [email protected].

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