Defining Success: Setting and Keeping Your Individual Writing Goals
January is the season of goal-setting. The new year is a convenient place to begin new routines, though there really is no BAD time to start setting goals. I’ll wax poetic on the power of deadlines in a minute, but there are plenty of articles about the “should” of goal-setting without much guidance on the how or why of it all.
Events like NaNoWriMo use word count as their metric to keep you battling to the end. In truth, there are plenty of different ways to achieve “success” that fit with your individual work style and ultimate goals for your writing. Speed may not be the most important thing if you’re at a point in your writing journey where craft is key. But whether you want to make a living from your books or you just want to prove you have that novel in you, there are several ways to measure success and use goals to get you there.
This article will cover:
- The power of individualized goal-setting to reach writing success
- How to assess your motivations and how they should inform your goals
- Case studies based on my personal writing journey to help you set reasonable goals
Why Bother with Goals in the First Place?
They say there are two ways to motivate people; be the carrot or be the stick. This means to either offer rewards (carrot) or offer punishment (the stick) for particular behaviors. But for the sake of your sanity and mine, I want to abandon this whole concept right off the bat. If you didn’t already find something about writing to be intrinsically rewarding, you wouldn’t be here right now. Making a living as a writer is waaaaaaaaaaaay too hard and time-consuming for the average Josephine to bother with the hassle, even if someone is threatening fustigation. So, I want you to leave that stick out of your planning process from the get-go, too.
Make Your Goals Make Sense for You
Broadly speaking, everyone wants to succeed. When we achieve success, we feel satisfaction. But what sorts of “wins” produce that sensation is determined by each person. Even in a group of people who may appear to have the same goals, they could be very different. Take a dance class, for instance. All of the dancers are there to put on a good show at the recital, but there are more layers than just the surface performance. One dancer may be focused on building strength through exercise. Another one is hoping to become more graceful in her everyday life. A third is living up to the expectations of her overbearing mother. All three dancers are performing the same movements, but their individual goals are what keep them spinning.
For writers, the final performance is often a polished piece of fiction, so we’ll assume that is the outward-facing, meta-goal from here on out. Whether you want to put your finished piece of fiction in a drawer, self-publish immediately, or seek out a longer traditional route, there is some sort of concrete end to keep in your sights.
The length and structure of that fiction is determined by the individual writer. The subject, tone, setting—you name it. They all come down to each writer and what about the writing process gives them satisfaction at each step of the way. The steps between the blank page and the finished product can’t all be fun and games, but if you can figure out what helps you feel good about even the ickiest parts, it helps you stay motivated to reach your overarching goals.
At the same time, your goals are also the best way to see how far you’ve come. During those seemingly inevitable bouts of self-loathing we creative types are prone to, having something to look at and use to assess our progress can be the difference between giving up or getting it done. I know I’ll reach the end of a week sometimes and start to get down on myself for not having accomplished more. As often as not, this stems more from the fact I don’t have something tangible to point at and declare “I did that.” But if you have goals and steps in place for reaching those goals, there is always something to turn to and use a yardstick for measuring if these feelings are valid. And even better, to help you figure out the steps to take to keep from feeling that way again.
Abstract vs. Concrete Measures of Success
If you ask a room full of writers why they write, you will get a range of answers, but they fall somewhere along a spectrum of abstract to concrete. Abstract motivations involve self-expression, personal growth, exploring a difficult issue or time in one’s life, learning something new, and other intangible ways to find satisfaction and fulfillment by putting words on the page. They are those things that can be difficult to define, which makes them impossible to really measure in a traditional sense.
Image from Ilead2serve.com
These motivations are vital for getting you started down your writing path, but they can’t always see you through the rough times. Or in some cases, can actually hold you back. For instance, if you are trying to work through grief by writing about the death of a loved one, those same big feelings you want to exorcise can also keep you from ever starting. To move past pain, we must confront it, and that is incredibly intimidating. It is much easier to shy away from putting pen to paper than to push yourself through the discomfort unless there is some sort of outside force to push through it.
Remember, our overarching goal is to take a piece of writing from idea to completion. That is a ruthlessly concrete goal, but will arguably bring the greatest satisfaction at the end. Smaller-scale, concrete motivations are more akin to making x amount of money to buy something specific or quit a cruddy job and write full-time. When cash or other external measures become involved, questions of speed and efficiency come into play in a different way than abstract motivations. In other words, if the number of words you write has a direct effect on the amount of food in your mouth, your metrics for measuring success won’t line up with the writer who is working through the death of a loved one. And that’s okay on both sides.
Goals could also fall somewhere in between, such as getting a story into a certain prestigious anthology. This has a measurable end, but also gives an intangible satisfaction of helping you to win the respect of other writers and potential editors. This could possibly have tangible effects of more paid work along the line.
Mastering your Motives
Before you read on, set a timer for 60 seconds. During that minute, I just want you to think about abstract reasons you want to finish your work of fiction. In other words, what about writing makes you feel things. Don’t worry about recording your answers yet, but I do encourage you to talk yourself through the minute rather than keeping it all in your head. If you have a writing buddy or group, this could turn into a wonderful opportunity for discussion as well. But fair warning, you may find your own motivations surprise you. You are a creative person, so allow yourself to apply that creativity to this situation, too.
(There are no wrong answers, even if you find satisfaction from the thought of sticking it to that stodgy English teacher who said you’d never amount to anything! Just focus on the feelings for now.)
When your minute is up, it’s time to record a list of abstract motivations. If setting a timer helps you, give yourself another 60 seconds, but you can take as much time as you need on this step. Understanding your motives is essential to setting individualized goals, so you can’t really spend too much time thinking about them at the outset.
Once you’ve got a list of abstractions, grab a new piece of paper or start a new page in your word processor. Take another minute to think about your concrete motivations for finishing a piece of fiction. Remember, these are going to be things that can be measured in numbers. If there’s some overlap in your lists, that’s totally fine.
After you have items on both lists and you feel like you’ve exhausted your brainstorming, put those lists side by side. Is one much longer than the other? If your motivators are mostly concrete, you’ll want to focus on metrics that can be measured in numbers. Instead, if you find your motivators are more abstract, things like word count won’t be the best way to set your goals.
Goals are Homework You Assign Yourself
I know for many, the “h” word is probably a dirty one. Maybe you had a terrible fourth grade teacher who tortured you with busy work all weekend, or a Chem prof who delighted in droning. But those are exactly the experiences I want you to tap into right now. Think about those times when you were given an assignment that didn’t seem to have a point, or a took hours of rote memorization only to be forgotten the next semester. All that time, all that energy you could have been using to do things YOU wanted to do.
Annoyed? Good. That’s how you should feel when your time and talent are wasted.
Let’s make sure it never happens again, shall we?
Even if you couldn’t always see the point of those assignments, I guarantee your teachers had something in mind when they planned them out. As an educator myself, I know the goal is always some version of you gaining knowledge or mastering a skill. Of course, not all teachers are created equal, and neither are their methods. Luckily, you don’t have that goofy basketball coach/American history teacher calling the shots when it comes to your writing! You are both the teacher and the student, which means you choose not only the desired outcomes, but the assignments to help you reach them. And better yet, you get to define what it means to successfully complete any assignment you set for yourself, and give out your own grades (which is called assessment when it comes to goals).
If that sounds overwhelming, remember that teacher-you has already spoken, and teacher-you wants a piece of fiction as the final product. And you want it on your desk by… oh yeah. The deadline.
Using Units of Time to Track Progress
Even though we can sometimes cheat a little by writing our characters in a non-linear way, us flesh and blood folks are beholden to the traditional passage of time. Most goals you’d want to set will have a time component to them because our time on this planet is finite. By definition, if you finish something there is a time when it didn’t exist, and you’ve now entered a time where it does. So as with assuming your overarching goal is to complete a long-form work, let’s assume that measuring time is going to come into play as you set your writing goals.
More than likely, you have more going on in your life than just this writing project. There will be things that occur annually, monthly, weekly, and daily that will influence your ability to reach your goals. Before you can set reasonable goals, you have to be honest with yourself about how much time you actually have to spend on your project and your skill level. If this is your first novel, it is going to be a much different experience than if you are on your 10th.
My first novel took over three years to complete, and that is only talking about the first draft. It was just a hobby for a long time, so I worked on it when I felt like it. Who knows when I would have typed “The End” on draft one if I hadn’t started talking to a publisher when I did. That organization fell apart before my book went to print, and it has never seen the light of day. On the surface, that’s a sad story, but honestly, I’m not too torn about it anymore because at least it pushed me to finish what I started.
My second novel started life as two novellas, but from conception of the first to final draft of a beta-read and copy-edited novel, it took just over a year. My two completed works happen to be almost exactly the same length, so in very rough terms, we could say I got over 3x better at finishing a novel since my first because it took 1/3 of the time. A 300% improvement rate feels pretty awesome, but it’s also good to keep in mind that I likely won’t see a jump like that again. To maintain the same rate, I’d have to complete 3 books in 2018 and 9 in 2019. It would be silly to set a long-term improvement goal like that because I would eventually hit a point where it would be physically impossible to maintain that rate. Or at least, I couldn’t maintain that rate and also the quality of work that will give me personal satisfaction.
I have set myself the goal of completing the first draft of two full novels (90k words or greater) by the end of 2018. Based on my success rate of 2/2 novels so far (concrete), but also how much I have learned over the last year (abstract), this feels like a perfectly reasonable goal. It pushes me to do more within the unit of time than before, but in a way in which I can accomplish it and still be in line with my abstract motivations of producing a well-crafted piece of writing. I could see pushing myself to as many as 3-4 full-length novels per year in the future, but I don’t want to set myself up for failure by pushing myself too hard too soon.
Within my year, I will also be setting monthly goals for my accomplishments, and creating a system of daily and weekly goals as stepping stones along the way. But I can’t create these sub-goals if I don’t have a good grasp on what I can accomplish in a large unit of time like a year.
Hitting a Moving Target
Also within my year as a writer, I have monthly articles due to Our Write Side, a guaranteed five freelance assignments from one company six months out of every year, and three blogs to run continuously. Chances are, I am also going to find short story contests to write for or other sorts of paid writing or editing work that will make demands on my time. These are all different assignments I have to intertwine with my meta goal of completing novels. And beyond my personal measures of success, I also have to take into account how these other organizations operate and how I fit into their overarching goals.
Living la vida freelance means I have to be extremely flexible with my time, and by extension, my goals for deadlines. Paid work always has to come before my personal satisfaction in order to stay afloat because I am doing this as a job now rather than a hobby. This means I am constantly moving around and re-assessing my goals and deadlines. My priorities can change from month to month depending on what new assignment or external deadline is placed on me.
On top of that, there’s always a chance that I was just plain off about how long something will take! Even if I have the same word count goal for every OWS article, it doesn’t mean that each one is equally simple to plan and write. I may sit down to write one sort of short story and find in the course of writing it that I have something completely different taking shape. I might find out that I need to do more research before I can actually move forward.
What I DON’T do is beat myself up over making these changes to my plans. If I never set a deadline, I can’t measure my performance against expectations, which means I can’t possibly know if and to what degree I am improving. At the moment of any decision, we can only make that decision in light of the information we currently have. If new information comes to light, you have to give yourself permission to take it into account and adjust your expectations accordingly. So, this doesn’t really mean you were “wrong” the first time, it meant that you didn’t have all the data. You wouldn’t expect a computer to correctly figure out a problem if one of the numbers was never fed into the equation. And you can’t expect to make a flawless plan the first time around.
[bctt tweet=”Don’t beat yourself up if plans change. Set the deadline anyway. #writingtips #writerslife #amwriting” username=”phoebedarqueling”]
My latest novel recently underwent a fairly substantial rewrite even after I’d integrated the two novellas into a single work. Two of my betas gave me comments on the same swathe of about 25k words, so I knew it needed some sort of attention. As this rewrite evolved, I came to use gamer terms to think about it, so I’m going to use that same idea to explain it here.
The feedback basically boiled down to needing another subplot to make this section of the book feel as full as the other 75%. This became Level 1 of the rewrite. I came up with my new subplot, identified how and where the new scenes would be integrated, set my goal date for completing the new scenes, and off I went secure in my own ability to succeed.
The section that needed reworking all took place on the Transcontinental Railroad going from Sacramento to Chicago. As I made my edits, I needed to revisit some of my research to make sure my historical details were consistent. Imagine my horror when I discovered one of my resources had been fast and loose with their level of detail! Even though the East coast had certain “widespread” amenities, it turns out I had several scenes set in a dining car that would not have become part of the train system West of Omaha for another 20 years. Between this and realizing I’d misinterpreted a vintage photo detailing the sleeper cars, I had a lot of history to fix. At that point, some writers would have just said “meh” and left the inaccuracies lie. But my personal goal was to write something that would read like historical fiction with a supernatural twist rather than pure fantasy, so I had to fix it. That became Level 2, and I moved my deadline back.
Level 2 meant I had to return to the beginning of the whole section and re-started my rewrites. As I examined the scenes in light of how I’d have to change the setting, I found a totally NEW problem. Without a dining car, it meant my characters would be expected to disembark on a regular basis to eat at cafes or buy food along the way. But I’d made their inability to move freely an important factor in the way the characters interacted and going stir crazy in close quarters was at the heart of an important argument at the end of that section. So, I leveled up again, and pushed the deadline back.
I’ll spare you the details of Levels 4 and 5, but you get the idea. As new information came to my attention, I had to adjust my expectations for myself. The scope and impact of that new information varied greatly, and I didn’t even realize the full scope of some of my decisions until sat down and did the work. My Level 1 deadline became irrelevant when Level 2 was unlocked, and my Level 2 deadline also included my Level 1 editing needs, and so on.
It is easy to tip too far toward flexibility and start thinking that if deadlines can change there’s no point to having them. But if you kill yourself to reach a deadline even after you find out the scope of the problem is much bigger than you originally believed, then that deadline and whether you reach it really are meaningless. Instead, think of it as a learning process where you can use these “failed” deadlines to set more accurate ones in the future.
Using Concrete Units of Measurement
Many writers will report their book didn’t “feel real” until they held a copy in their hands. A printed book has dimensions, it has a measurable weight. It has a presence that can’t be matched by looking at the same words on a screen. That’s because your abstract concept has manifested and become concrete. Word count is the most commonly espoused way to achieve this transition from ideas in your head into something on the page, but it certainly isn’t the only way to apply a numerical value to your achievements. When you set your goals for whatever unit of time you see fit, you can provide yourself with a variety of measurements, which means a greater chance to succeed. In addition to wordcount and our meta-goal of a finished novel, you could also track numbers related to:
- Completed scenes or chapters
- Frequency of submissions, acceptances, and/or rejections
- Creation of new characters, settings, species, vehicles, etc.
- Reading books/articles to research your subject matter
- Reading books/articles on the craft of writing
- Trying new approaches to pantsing or plotting on a regular basis
- Story ideas (whether or not you develop them)
- Stages of development, such as storyboarding, finished drafts, beta-reader feedback, etc.
- Editing note bullet points
- Words cut or replaced with more interesting or appropriate words
Using Abstractions as a Unit of Measurement
If you found yourself with a longer list of abstract motivations than concrete ones, traditional goal-setting with a focus on the numbers isn’t going to work for you. Or even if you do like charting your progress to the exact number of words, there is a lot to gain from also tracking your abstract progress as well.
I have personally found that the longer I write fiction, the more important it is for me take notes about my process. At first, I’d start with something like a bulleted list of what I wanted to achieve and then delete the bullets as I completed them. I’ve now learned this is a terrible way to think about these notes to myself. Once they’ve been deleted, it is so easy to forget that I ever had the ideas, let alone acted on them. I have also had times where I have made, unmade, and remade the same decisions simply because I didn’t have my decision-making process documented! Now, I never delete old notes, I simply use the strikethrough function. I may move finished tasks to another part of the document, but I never delete them anymore. I also have whole documents just devoted to brainstorming about scenes or chapters, and I can see those documents piling up as I get farther into my draft.
For others, this sort of note-taking could look more like a journal. Especially for people with motivations involving working through a tough subject, a writing journal can be even more important than the finished draft. When the abstract goal is to work through grief, a journal of how you feel at the end of your writing day is a way to give you “credit” for your confronting the negative emotions.
And on those days when the writer’s funk sets in, imagine how helpful it would be to have a chronicle of all the times writing made you feel good. These notes can act as an invaluable, concrete reminder of your abstract journey as a writer.
January is the season for goal-setting, and I hope you’re leaving this article with some steps (both abstract and concrete) to help you along the way to achieving your individual goals as you plan your 2018 writing calendar. But don’t be afraid to set goals, then change them, all year long. The same way a manuscript can feel like a living thing, so is the process for completing it.
Do you have other strategies for setting goals you’d like to share? Do you have a story about reaching or failing to reach a goal that would provide insight for your fellow writers? We’d love to see your comments!
Phoebe Darqueling has been a paid freelance writer since she turned 16, and began her project management training during her Masters Degree in Museum Studies at San Francisco State University. She has overseen a variety of projects including publications and training programs for adult volunteers. As an editor, her favorite part is to help a writer work through overarching planning and structural issues of their work, and how to create the greatest emotional impact on the reader.