07 January, 2009

Setting Effective Writing Goals

by Moira Allen

One of the greatest challenges we face as writers is the lack of "structure" in our job. There's no one to tell us what to do, when to do it, how to do it -- or even whether we've done it well. (While acceptances are certainly a sign of success, rejections are not necessarily a sign of failure.)

One way to overcome that challenge is to learn how to set goals. Goals, by the way, are not the same as dreams. While you may yearn to become a six-figure novelist who regularly guests on Oprah, that's not a goal. It's a dream -- and the only way you'll achieve that dream is by setting measurable goals that will take you toward that dream, one step at a time.

Defining Goals

To be effective, goals should meet three criteria: They should be measurable, meaningful, and attainable.

Measurable. Many writers start with "qualititative" goals: We want to be a "good" writer, or a "better" writer, or a "successful" writer, or a writer who produces "worthwhile" material. But how do you define good, or successful, or worthwhile? Because these terms are so difficult to measure, such goals continually seem to slip from our grasp (or to be beyond our grasp).

Goals are useless if you can't determine whether they've been met. (After all, it's always possible to become a "better" writer.) Thus, quantifiable goals -- goals that can be measured by some form of output or results -- are often more effective. For example, you might set a goal of writing a particular number of pages per day, or sending out a certain number of queries per week. If you dream of becoming "rich" (or at least "self-supporting"), define a specific income goal -- and the time in which you hope to reach it.

Attainable. The gulf between where we are and where we'd like to be often seems to great to span. Goals can help by breaking the journey into short, attainable steps. If your dream is to become a best-selling novelist, but you've never set pen to paper, consider setting an immediately attainable goal such as attending a writing course, or taking a class online, or simply studying a book on novel-writing. A second goal might be to write your first story, write the outline of your novel, or actually write your first chapter. A third might be to seek feedback, perhaps by joining a critique group or by sending your story to an editor. Each goal marks a step toward your long-term dream, and each is attainable in its own right.

To set attainable goals, you must be honest with yourself about what you are able to achieve at this stage in your writing career. If you have never earned a penny from writing, for example, it would be unrealistic to set the goal of becoming "self-supporting" in a year. Similarly, if you've never written anything longer than the annual holiday newsletter, it would probably be unrealistic to expect yourself to complete a 600-page novel in six months.

Attainability also means recognizing what is physically possible in the world of writing. I once spoke with someone who was frustrated at having "failed" to become self-supporting by writing science fiction short stories -- despite the fact that markets for such work average around 5 cents per word. At that rate, to earn even $25,000 per year (exclusive of taxes), one would have to write and sell 500,000 words per year (i.e., one hundred 5000-word stories, or an average of two per week).

Meaningful. In writing, it's easy to be sidetracked by goals that appear worthwhile, but that don't lead in the direction you want to go. This can often be the result of competing goals. For example, you may dream of becoming a novelist, but face the very real need to put food on the table. Consequently, it's easy to postpone that novel (which won't earn you a dime until it's finished) for more immediately lucrative projects. In a situation like this, remember that competing goals don't have to be an either/or proposition: You could resolve this problem by devoting 25% of your writing time to your novel, and the other 75% to income-producing articles.

Another source of sidetracking is the pursuit of someone else's goals or recommendations for "success." Writing magazines are full of sure-fire secrets and formulas, but often fail to mention that these strategies don't work for everyone. For example, if you've set the goal of "getting up every morning to write before work," that may work fine -- unless you happen to be a natural night person, in which case you'll either hate those hours of writing, or hate yourself for being unable to achieve the goal you've set. Similarly, if you've been told that a good writer always keeps a journal, but yours bores you to tears, you may come to the mistaken conclusion that you aren't a "real" writer -- or simply waste a lot of time in a pursuit that has no real meaning for you. At the same time, be careful about passing up opportunities just because they don't seem immediately fulfilling. Taking a writing class, for example, may not seem exciting, but it could help you toward your long-term goals.

Short-Term Goals, Long-Term Goals, and Measures of Success

A wise writing strategy includes a mix of short-term goals ("Today I'll locate five craft markets") and long-term goals ("Someday I'll write that novel").

A good way to determine your long-term goals is to ask yourself where you want to be in six months, one year, five years, or ten years. By answering those questions, you define your vision and chart your course -- and you'll also be better able to determine whether a particular writing project is likely to contribute to your long-term goal or distract from it.

Long-term goals often build upon one another. For example, your goal for your first year of freelance writing might be to build as many clips as possible. Once you've established a varied portfolio, however, you might devote your second year to using those clips to help you target more prestigious, better-paying markets. You might find yourself moving from a "generalist" to a "specialist" -- establishing yourself as an expert in a certain field. Conversely, you might find yourself choosing to broaden your writing horizons and potential markets by moving from tightly focused subjects to more diverse topics.

While long-term goals help you determine where you're going, short-term goals help you decide how to get there. If your one-year goal is to "sell at least ten magazine articles," your short-term goals might include conducting market research, writing queries, or submitting a certain number of articles per month.

Short-term goals are usually measured by "output." Output goals are those in which you have complete control over the results: E.g., you will mail ten queries per week, or write three articles or stories per month. Typical output goals include:

  • Number of hours spent writing per day (or week)
  • Number of pages produced per day (or week)
  • Number of queries submitted per week or month
  • Number of projects (articles, stories, or chapters) written per month or year

Note that these output goals have short timeframes. A short-term goal doesn't become a long-term goal simply by expanding the quota ("Submit 520 queries in a year"). Instead, long-term goals are best measured, not by output, but by results. The key difference is that while you can control your output, you cannot always control the results. Even though you meet your weekly quota of ten queries, you can't control the editorial decisions and market factors that determine whether those queries will be accepted. (Few writers achieve a 100% success rate in any area of output.)

To determine whether you are "on schedule," ahead of schedule, or falling behind in terms of meeting your "results" goals, therefore, it's important to review your progress regularly. Have you been able to meet your output goals, have you exceeded them, or did you set them unrealistically high? If you've met those goals, are you any closer to your long-term "result" goal -- or does it seem as distant as ever?

Such assessments can help you determine whether you need to change your long-term goals, or the short-term strategies you're using to meet them. If, for example, your one-year goal was to "get something, anything, published," and you've accomplished that goal in the first month, it's time to set a new long-term goal. If, on the other hand, you've sent out ten queries per week for the last six months and have still not received a single positive response, it may be time to reevaluate your short-term goals: Perhaps you need to target different markets, reexamine the ideas you're pitching, or learn how to write a more effective query. In other words, if your first six months of "output" haven't brought you measurably closer to your long-term goal, don't waste another six doing exactly the same thing!

And that, perhaps, is the most delightful thing about goals: You can change them. They are not graven in stone. They are not chains, meant to lock you into some sort of writer's bondage. Quite often, they change themselves before you realize what has happened: A goal that had meaning a year ago may not seem so important now, while another goal you might not have dared aspire to before suddenly seems attainable. Your interests may change, your dreams may change, your skills most certainly will change -- and as these change, your goals can (and should) change as well. The key is to remember that goals are not your destiny. They are simply highly effective tools that you can use to reach that destiny.

Copyright © 2001 Moira Allen, Writing-World.com


Adaddinsane said...

Nice one, Robin. Most stuff talked about goals is airy-fairy rubbish ... this is a good practical article.

Elaine Saunders - Complete Text said...

I think the most important goal for any writer is to write something EVERY day. It can be a page, 2,000 words or a whole scene as long as you're doing it every day.

And don't confuse writing with typing. You can "write" whenever your mind has nothing to do, making notes to help you remember until you can sit down at the keyboard.

Just get out there and do it!

Elaine Saunders
Author - Fiction Writing Exercises
Books For Writers Blog
It’s A Book About….blog
Complete Text

Neil said...

Elaine - while I appreciate what you're saying about writing every day, everyone is different. I sometimes go a whole week without writing anything, but then write half a screenplay in one day.

But I do THINK every day - about fiction, ideas, plans, goals, etc. I think that is the key - to keep your goals and your work in mind, but not always writing. Having said that I tend to always do one of three things every day that count as writing-focused:
- Write my blog
- Jot ideas down
- Actually write some stuff.

So I think it's all individual. As long as you're doing something writing-related, then you're good.

Good post Robin, btw.

Ben McGaughey said...

This is great advice for college students as well.

Writing anything of any length can be daunting for some, but setting a few goals ahead of time on what you actually want to accomplish in the final work would be HUGE.

In fact, something similar to this post should be in the beginning of creative writing textbooks. Invaluable information, well done.