✍️ How to Set Writing Goals without Setting Yourself Up for Disaster
or, Moving Targets Isn’t Just a Book by Atwood
Writing goals have always been a slippery slope. Goals can be motivating, but they can also be debilitating – not unlike New Year’s resolutions. There is probably a bunch of psychology about self-defeating attitudes, our idealized selves losing touch with our “real” selves, and why this sets ourselves up for failure.
Yada yada yada.
I find that the struggle at the writer level goes something like this. You want to finish a project – let’s say a novel. Yay, I have a goal! But a novel is a VERY big project. You talk yourself through the “every journey starts with the first step” and “a goal without a plan is a dream” and other self-motivational slogans that somehow do the opposite. By now, those voices have already started chanting at you like Evil Bob the Builder: Can we do it? NO WE CAN’T!
Then, unsurprisingly, we fail.
We suspect it’s got something to do with taking our writing too lightly. So then we say, okay, enough of the BS! You get serious and you work diligently – for a week or so, anyway. Then the momentum slows. You miss a day because you’re just not feeling it. Then another day. Then the guilt starts to set in and you look down the road and it doesn’t look like you’re any closer anyway, so what’s the use? Maybe it’s time to see what’s new on Netflix...
I suspect that for writers, this Circle of Hell is similar to those who decide to quit smoking on January 1 or sign up for the two-year gym membership. Great for those it works for, but for most of us, it’s a self-imposed and arbitrary framework that can only lead to disaster.
So how can we make writing goals if we know they’re as doomed as most New Year’s resolutions?
First, Be Honest About Your Goals
I do believe that goals help us reach the finish line. But what should your goal be? Do you want to climb Everest? Or are you happy for a stroll through Hampstead Heath, Central Park, or some other leisurely green space?
It’s okay to be a stroller. If you want to sit down to write when inspiration hits or doodle some poetic lines on a cocktail napkin in a café then hey, that’s a goal in itself! Sit down and write when you want, guilt-free. That’s what strolling is all about.
If Everest – or even Kilimanjaro – is more your activity level but you’re not summitting, I’ve got some concrete ideas on how to break out from the Circle of Hell, get rid of the BS, AND decidedly not get too stressed about the whole thing while actually (get this...) achieving your writing goals.
I’ve talked about goals in previous posts:
In all of these, I’ve preached the same thing: goals should be motivators, not stress-inducing balls of hate. So let’s see what we can do about that!
Some Ideas for Setting Positive Goals
Set Targets, Not Goals
Targets are less intimidating than goals. Matt Bell puts this extremely well:
“For me, goals are targets, not arbiters of my self-worth or anything else. If I miss my target, I pick another one farther down the field and try again.”
If we equate missing goals with failure, it quickly becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. We get down on ourselves, discouraged, and, as Matt points out, it can damage our self-worth. Accept moving targets. Honestly try to hit them, but give yourself a break if Life gets in the way of your arrows.
Adjust Our Targets
If you are consistently missing your targets, maybe the problem is the targets. My FitBit – a wearable fitness tracker I use – kept reprimanding me because I wasn’t getting eight hours of sleep every night. However, my body only needs seven on most nights. So I adjusted the target. Now, I start most days with a little gold star.
Are you consistently missing your 500 words per day? Adjust it to 300 words. Not hitting your hour per day of writing? Shoot for a half hour. If you’re afraid it will take forever to finish your novel, here’s some perspective: If you wrote 300 words per day for only 300 days out of 365 (9+ months), that’s 90,000 words in a year. That’s a novel. On the other hand, if you try to write 500 words per day and end up writing 300 words per day and get discouraged and quit after five days, that’s 1,500 words. That’s an essay. Slow and steady wins the race.
Write Now, Count Later
Kenny Rogers famously said in his song, The Gambler: “You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table. There’ll be time enough for countin’, when the dealin’s done.”
My song is called, The Writer. Don’t count your words or time until you’re done writing. If you’ve come up short, don’t let it bring you down. Focus on the positive: you have XX number of words more than you did when you started. Which brings us to...
Writing and Creativity Naturally Come in Spurts
So you only wrote 60 words today. So what? Tomorrow or the next day or someday soon, you’ll write 600 words in one session. Because that’s how writing and creativity works.
Break Down Big Projects into Small Pieces
Novels are big projects. Setting targets for scenes, chapters, and sections instead of “a book” can help.
Use a Checklist
Create a checklist to track those smaller pieces. Each tick is so satisfying!
A Last Word...
As many of you know, I’m currently working on a novel. My goal is to finish it. That’s it. I had a target of 90,000 words done so I could start editing during my writing retreat this weekend. I am at 54,000 as I write this, so that’s not going to happen. So, I revised my target to 60,000. Even if I’m short, I’ll still have 55,000+ words to work with.
In other words, I’m strolling my way to the top of Everest. That’s my goal: have fun, keep writing, and not worry about the end until I get there.
Key Takeaway: Writing goals can be hurtful as well as helpful. Sometimes we have to adjust our targets, not our writing. Our only “goal” is to keep writing, so adjust your expectations so you can keep motivated to write!
Over to You: How Are Your Goals Coming Along?
Did you set any goals at New Year’s? Or do you have writing goals that are ongoing? How do you overcome those inevitable bumps in the road? Let us know in the comments below!
In the meantime, below is a Zoom discussion between Margaret Atwood and Tim Ferriss about the creative process.
Until next time, keep writing with wild abandon!
email me if you get lost.