There are generally two times of the year that writers set goals: New Year’s and NaNoWriMo. But if you really want to be successful, you should be constantly setting new writing goals for yourself.
But when it comes to writing goals, not all are created equal. Certain goals are more likely to be achieved than others. Surely we’ve all had the experience of setting a writing goal (or even a non-writing goal) and failing to achieve it. So how can you make sure that the writing goals you set for yourself are ones that will ensure success?
The good news is that psychological scientists have done the hard work for you. Decades of research has uncovered a few simple secrets that if you follow, will guarantee that the goals you set are ones you’ll actually achieve.
Essentially, it all comes down to this: Smart people set S.M.A.R.T. goals.
First, your writing goal should be specific. A major reason people fail at their goals is that they define them too vaguely. For example, saying “I want to write a novel” is much vaguer than saying “I want to write a chapter for my novel every month.” And saying “I want to get my shorts stories published” is vaguer than saying “I want to write five short stories and submit them by the end of the summer.” Making your writing goal specific gives you greater clarity on exactly what you want and how to get it. Plus, specific goals are less overwhelming because they take a big, looming task like writing a novel or getting published and break it into small, more manageable parts.
Second, your writing goal should be measurable. This just means defining your goal in numerical terms. By doing this, you get two birds with one stone because not only does it make your goal measurable, it automatically makes it specific too!
You have several options when it comes to making your goal measurable. For example, you could define your goal in terms of number of pages, chapters or short stories (“I want to submit five of my short stories to top magazines”). Or instead, you could do what I do and define your goal by word count (“I want to write 1000 words a day for my novel”).
By quantifying your goal in this way, it becomes far easier to tell if you are succeeding at your goal or failing. Notice how hard it is to tell if you are currently failing at the goal to “write a novel,” but it is plainly obvious when you are failing at the goal to “write a chapter a week.” Quantifying your goal in this way helps you identify early on if you are falling short of your goal and then you can adjust your behavior accordingly. Plus, it gives you an accurate sense of how much effort and time is required to succeed at your goal.
Third, your writing goal should be accountable. It is one thing to set a goal for yourself; it is another to tell others about your goal. The stakes for failure aren’t very high when we are the only ones to know about our writing goal. But when we tell others about our goal and we fail, we often experience a windfall of shame and guilt. Tons of studies show that if you make your goal public in some form—this could be telling your loved ones, the members of your writer’s group, finding a writing buddy in your online community, or posting your goal on social media—you are more likely in the end to actually achieve your goal. So whatever your writing goal is, don’t keep it a secret.
Fourth, your writing goal should be realistic. Or to state it another way, your goal should be reasonably attainable given your level of experience and your talents. We all wish we could magically write 10,000 words a day (and there a few crazy writers out there who claim they can) but such a goal is completely unrealistic, especially if you have a full-time job, a family that actually wants to see you face-to-face, or any other number of obligations.
Overly enthusiastic writers (aka writing novices) often make this fatal mistake or starting out with unattainable goals. They leap out of the starting gate with an unrealistic idea of what they want to accomplish and as a result, practically guarantee that they will fall flat on their face.
So what is a realistic writing goal? It depends on who you ask.
Hemingway supposedly wrote 500-1000 words a day. Instead, Stephen King writes about 2000 words a day, every single day (even on his birthday and Christmas). But King recognizes that not everyone has the luxury to be a full-time writer like himself, so in his excellent book On Writing (a must-have for any writer) he suggests you aim for 1,000 words a day. Or if you a fan of Julia Cameron’s suggestion to do morning pages (based on her advice book The Artist’s Way), you can hit 750 words at the start of each day. The point is this: it is easy to identify an unrealistic goal, but only you can determine what an attainable goal is for you personally.
My advice: if you are a writer struggling to find time to write, start with a goal of 500 words a day (or if you prefer time, 30 minutes a day). Once you consistently hit that goal, ratchet it up to 750 or 1,000 words. And if you struggle to even hit 500 words, lower the bar a bit and strive for 200 words. It may take you longer to finish your novel but even with a small goal like that, you will eventually finish if you stick with it. Sometimes slow and steady is the only way you can finish the race, and that’s okay, so long as you actually finish.
Lastly, your writing goal should be time-bound. This means you should assign deadlines to your writing goal. You can (and should) do this in two ways. First, assign an overarching end-date to your overall goal. For example, if you want to write a novel, give yourself a reasonable deadline for when you want to have the first draft finished. Second, and perhaps more importantly, break up your goal into mini-goals and assign these deadlines along the way. So instead of saying, “I will work on my novel this week” you could say “I will write for an hour a day five days this week.” Or instead of saying, “I want to submit my short stories this year” you could say “Every Friday I will spend one hour on Duotrope identifying desirable markets for my stories and then submitting them.”
Okay, so let’s put it all together now. If your goal is to write a novel this year, try setting a goal like this: “I will write 1,000 words a day (specific/measurable/realistic) five days of the week (time-bound). I will tell my best friend about my goal and tell them to check in weekly and make sure I am sticking to it (accountable).” See how much harder it is to slack on this goal compared to the standard “I will write a novel this year”?
Before I leave you, here is one additional piece of advice: To make it even more likely that you will achieve your writing goal, take a moment to actually write down your goal on a Post-It or notecard and stick it in a location that you will see every day. For example, I write my goals on Post-Its and stick them on the bathroom mirror or on the corner of my TV, but you could also put them on the fridge, your laptop, or wherever they will serve as a constant reminder of what you want to achieve.
[For more excellent advice on setting goals and developing habits, I highly recommend The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg]