3 Writing Lessons I Learned in
Dog Obedience School

Golden Retriever Puppy

If an alien were to look down from outer space and analyze the hierarchy of animals on the earth, who would be at the top: humans or dogs?

Think about it.

We bathe and groom them. We rub and scratch them. We supply them with food and water. In return, all they do is smile and wag.

Who’s really in charge?

You could ask the same question of a blogger and her muse. Yes, you’re the one with the domain name, expertise, and technical know-how to put together a blog, but who supplies the magic for your writing?

Do you ever struggle to come up with new post ideas? Have you ever sat at the keyboard for hours, trying to think of how to put a vague idea into words? Does your writing sometimes lack that “pop” that makes people pay attention?

If so, who is really in charge? You… or your muse?

Take Yourself to Muse Obedience School

Wait a minute. Don’t I mean take your muse to obedience school?

No. Your muse doesn’t have a problem. You do.

Lots of people take their dog to obedience school to learn some manners, but it rarely sticks. It’s not the dog’s fault, either. The owner fails to reinforce the training and the dog slips back into its old habits.

It’s the same for muses. Reading a blog post like this one might give you some temporary inspiration, but if you really want to master your creative process, you need to adopt habits that keep your muse happy and efficient.

Curiously, they’re pretty much the same as you’d learn in dog obedience school. Here are 3 to get you started:

1. Never Tolerate Disobedience

Sometimes, I see people tell their dog to, “Sit,” and when the dog ignores them, they go about their business, never correcting the dog’s disobedience. Unwittingly, they are telling their dog, “It’s OK to disobey me.” Then they wonder why it never listens to them.

In writing, this is the equivalent of sitting down to crank out a blog post, and when nothing comes to you, deciding to do something else, such as reading through your RSS feeds. Subconsciously, you’re telling your muse that it’s OK to ignore your schedule, and you’ll come back later.

Don’t do it! If you can’t think of anything, just sit there. Show your muse that you mean business. I write 4-6 hours every day, regardless of how much I finish. Sometimes it’s 4,000 words and sometimes it’s a paragraph, but my muse never gets to play hooky. And it’s slowly stopped trying.

2. Stick to a Strict Writing Schedule

Dogs fall apart without a schedule. If you leave the food down all day, they’ll eat all day. If you take them for walks at varying times, they’ll have an “accident.” If you try to sleep in, you wake up to a dog licking your face.

Muses have similar problems. Unless you keep a writing schedule, your muse is apt to fall asleep, wander off, or get lost in his or her own thoughts. The only solution is to write at the same time, every day, no exceptions. Otherwise, you’ll sit down to write a blog post and find that eerie silence inside your head.

3. Set Aside Lots of Playtime

Many dog owners keep their pets locked up all day and wonder why they come home to garbage strewn all over the house or a pile of chewed up shoes. They think the dog is bad, but it’s not. It’s just bored. All the owner needs to do is set aside an hour a day for play and exercise, and many of those bad habits will disappear.

The same goes for muses. If you demand instant creativity, make sure you read for several hours a day. Read blog posts, books, magazines. Personally, I read for at least 2-3 hours every day, and I’ve found it’s absolutely necessary for my creative process. It keeps my output consistent and my writing focused.

A Muse Is a Writer’s Best Friend

Remember the old saying, “A dog is a man’s best friend?” It’s true, but only if you treat it like a friend. Friendship is a kind of responsibility, an unwritten social contract that we enter into that says, “We’ll take care of each other.” If either party breaks that contract, then you have problems.

In the case of a dog, you agree to take care of it in exchange for unconditional love and obedience. And I mean really take care of it. You have to watch its diet, play with it, and explain what’s acceptable and what’s not. Do that, and your dog will keep up its end of the bargain. Don’t do that, and it might become an unruly little monster.

As a writer, your relationship with your muse works exactly the same way. Give it clear expectations, lots of reading material, and a work schedule, and it will sit dutifully on your shoulder, whispering one brilliant idea after another into your ear. Fail to do that, and you’ll receive nothing but inconsistent inspiration and wild ideas that get you into trouble.

Yes, it’s a lot of work, but most long-lasting friendships are. If writing is important to you, you’ll need to commit yourself to it. Accept the responsibility. Believe me when I say you won’t regret it.

Because a muse really is a writer’s best friend.

If you hate get rich quick schemes, penny pinching, and advice without substance, then you might just love Jon’s blog, On Moneymaking.

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Reader Comments (30)

  1. says

    One of the most important things I learned in dog obedience school is to be clear and succinct. Dogs don’t understand long commands … and I’ve come to believe people enjoy a concise call to action.

  2. says

    Mark – I don’t know about all of that, but thanks for the compliment! :-)

    Cybele – As you can probably tell, my muse has a penchant for wordiness, but that’s a good tip.

    By the way, everyone feel free to leave any additional tips in the comments here. There are lots of ways to apply the metaphor, especially considering the creativity of the Copyblogger readership. :-)

  3. says

    This sounds like a challenge… I’m game. But I have a question: How long do you think it takes the average writer to tame the Muse into obedience?

    Because, as we know, there are breeds of dogs as there are breeds of writers. I’m probably a Schapendoes or a Husky – high energy, easily distracted and needing looootsa toys and room to roam. Problem.

  4. says

    Great analogy! I think something that’s missing though is rewarding your muse when they are obedient! It’s hard to keep your muse motivated if they aren’t rewarded for their work. I think that’s where a lot of bloggers get frustrated, present company included.

    You take several hours to bang out what you muse has given you and zippo no reaction, no comments, no traffic, no new subscribers!

    I find the best way to keep the muse happy sometimes, is to write some content based on long tailed keyword research , then apply some simple SEO practices to my post. In my experience this has lead to quick results within a few days with some top 10 rankings and new readers to your blog. That’s a reward that muse seems to love. lol

  5. says

    I hadn’t thought about trying to train my muse (or myself) like I’ve trained my dog . . . But really, I think I need to look at my dog for the best training tips–he’s really done an excellent job teaching all of us what he expects of us! Maybe he and my muse should get together (grin).

  6. says

    James – I hadn’t even considered that angle. Good one! I’d like to think my muse is a golden retriever — easily distracted but thrilled to serve and needs LOTS of attention.

    Work at Home – Very true. I was hoping someone would come up with that one.

    Deb – Nooo… keep them separate. Otherwise, you might wake up to find they’ve staged a coup d’รฉtat. Looking to your dog for advice is a good idea though.

  7. says

    Thanks for the insight.

    It’s amazing what happens when we don’t take the time to honor our creative muse.

    Sometimes we expect our muse to sit up and perform and all it does is roll over and play dead.

    But I agree that we should give our muse it’s much needed TLC, for keeping it alive and energized is definitely well worth the effort.


  8. says

    I prefer the third world mentality “when you’ve had a bad day, go home and kick the muse”. I don’t have a dog and am not into animals but I do kick my muse. Perhaps that’s why it is so obedient…lol.

  9. says

    This is a wonderfully pertinent post as we recruited a yellow labrador puppy to our household earlier this year and I’ve been taking her to obedience classes. She’s very good, but my friends tell me I that I still need more discipline.


  10. says

    My muse used to complain that I wasn’t letting her be herself, that I always demanded that she fell in line. Eventually, we learned to accommodate each other, and our relationship is currently the greatest it’s ever been! ๐Ÿ˜€

  11. says

    I love this post! You are so right, in that we writers tend to blame our ineffectiveness on our muse, rather than on our own inconsistencies. Terrific tips! :)

  12. says

    The metaphor of the dog and dog training really brought this lesson home for me. Thanks. Hey, was it a little internet marketing joke on your part to use “dog training” as an example since dog training is so overdone on the web now?

  13. ChrisJB says

    If you ask me, creativity isn’t something that you should constrain in a leash. I’d rather encourage it’s wild freedom.

  14. says

    Really good post filled with good advice… I do suggest allowing your muse to take a break SOMETIMES… otherwise she might lash out at you ๐Ÿ˜›
    I also realized something else wit this post: my dog OWNS me lol

  15. says

    Wait – humans are supposed to have authority over dogs?

    I’ve just suggested this to the Large Munsterlander sat by my desk. She reminded me who picks up whose sh!t.

  16. dej says

    Okay, now address burn out; that which happens when you force the muse for long periods of time and she runs off to Tahiti.

  17. says

    Great Post. I agree with work at home scams. There has to be reward fit in there somewhere. As the owner of a dog , I find that to keep going sometimes it works for me to go out and exercise. I take her with me and it curtails her boredom and it gives me a “break” and allows me some free creative thought and relieves the self-induced pressure cooker valve. Trail running is good for that. I come back refreshed and with a fresh mind-set.

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