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Goals for Writing: What and why?

2 December, 2009

This is the first of three posts on setting goals for your writing:

Goals for writing: What and why

Goals for writing: Your current state

Goals for writing: Creating your goals & strategies

A friend recently invited me to join her in developing artistic goals for the upcoming year. She makes and sells lovely botanical drawings, and I write short stories. I like the idea of writing goals and usually have a fair idea of where I want to get to, in terms of my writing. But I do not follow a logical approach, writing down my goals and planning in detail how to achieve them. Maybe this is why I can get stressed working to a deadline. (I’m reminded of Douglas Adams, who wrote: I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.)

I know how to set goals. I used to do a lot of that when I managed complicated, long-term work projects. Perhaps one reason I have not formalised my writing goals is my negative response to the goal-setting language used in management. This language does not sit well with creative writing. Can you imagine working out your writing plans and using terms such as key performance indicators, effort-driven scheduling, critical path analysis, best practice, deliverables, and stakeholders?

The bigger difficulty for me—probably shared by many others who write fiction—is that writing, as an artistic and mysterious process, can be difficult to plan, analyse or measure. Still, goals for writing can help you move forward rather than staying in one place—or worse, going around in circles.

To start setting my writing goals for 2010, I have looked at what others have said about this, plus thought through what I think is workable for me.

Why set writing goals?

Goals can help you stay focused on what you want to achieve over a set period, say a year. Working towards and achieving your goals can help you grow as a writer, e.g. to—

  • write more, write more often, and complete more work.
  • locate and remedy deficits in your writing knowledge and skills.
  • manage your time effectively and by doing so reduce stress.
  • gain confidence about your writing and about yourself as a writer.

Setting writing goals can also be scary. By stating what you intend to achieve, you make yourself accountable. Goals set a target—to hit it you may need to make significant and sometimes difficult changes in your life.

What is a goal?

Your goals clarify what you intend to succeed at. You can achieve some intentions on your own. Others are beyond your control. I will use

  • goal to refer to an aim you can achieve on your own
  • aspiration to refer to an aim you cannot achieve by yourself.

Example of an aspiration: Get my novel onto the bestseller list. You can complete your manuscript, sign with an agent, and sell your work to a publisher. But getting onto the list also depends on influences beyond your control, such as the reviews your book gets and the publicity generated for it.

Even though you cannot single-handedly achieve your aspirations, do not ignore them. An aspiration may reflect you ultimate desired destination. And your goals, what you can do? They are the paths that lead you closer to it.

Follow your heart

Other people may have ideas about what you should be writing or doing as a writer. Maybe you have been told to write romances because the genre has a huge potential market. Or to continue writing fan fiction because you are good at it. Choose how you want to invest your time, energy and passion for writing. What goals will keep you motivated, fired up enough to continue pursuing them?

Stretch yourself

The best goals challenge you to go into uncharted territory, beyond your comfort zone. A comfort zone can sometimes become a prison. E.g., writers who constantly revise a single story rather than writing anything new, or writers who are so hooked on writing classes, they cannot create anything without a teacher.

Going beyond your comfort zone does not mean setting an extreme goal, one almost impossible to achieve in terms of your current writing ability and interests. Such goals can set you up for failure. If you have never written anything longer than 100-word flash fiction pieces, it would be unusual (although not impossible) to make writing a trilogy your very first writing goal.

I like the baby-step approach to goals. Baby steps are the opposite of  huge, scary goals, which often requires you to make major changes and develop advanced skills. The baby-step goal does not require undue sacrifice. You move into new writing territory, but more toward the territory’s edge, closer to where you are now. To get there, you need a much smaller ‘kit’ of new skills and knowledge to achieve your goal.

For the writer of flash fiction, a baby-step goal may be to complete a slightly longer story. To meet this goal, the writer still draws on current skills and knowledge but may also learn new things. After all, working on a larger story canvas requires a different approach to establishing themes, characters, and scenes. Once the writer reaches this goal—and attains new skills and knowledge—it is possible to set another small goal,  again one  slightly beyond his or her current abilities.

This approach does not work for everyone. Some people like to set big scary goals and challenge themselves to achieve the near-impossible.

Look for my future posts about goal-setting for writers.

These are small, doable goals that move you into new writing  territory, but more to its edge and closer to where you are now.
6 Comments leave one →
  1. MeanderingMelbourne permalink
    2 December, 2009 5:45 pm

    Once I read the reason that cats will leap upon the lap of someone who is not-so-fond of felines is because the not-so-fond one is the one person in the room not *staring* at said cat. And because cats are contrary. But mostly because the cat lovers are staring and cooing whereas the indifferent one is gazing away. So the cat feels at home with the non-starer.

    What does this have to do with goals? Sometimes I feel that sneaking up on goals (like cats)works. This year an online friend and I exchange weekly writing goals. Sometimes it feels a little like a to-do list (well, it IS a to-do list, but often it’s more than *just* a grocery list ;-)). Anyway, although it’s not true to the spirit of goal-setting, I often find that while I’m running away from doing whatever I said would be done (although it does get done), I start working on some other writing that needs to be completed. And you know what? The goal-setting is keeping us both on track, e-mail by e-mail, week-by-week.

    Love the “baby steps” too. I read an article by Martha Beck years ago and she refers to these steps as “turtle steps”, which I also like.


    • 2 December, 2009 8:32 pm

      The ‘sneaking up/cat’ approach seems workable and simple. Sometimes when goal planning is made too complex–multiple charts, timelines, etc.–people find the goals hard to implement in the context of real life, which is messy and contradictory at times.
      I like your idea of exchanging weekly writing goals with a friend. It’s an example of a cybernetic approach, with its flexibility that allows you to make small changes week by week but still keep on a path to achieving the long-term goals.
      ‘Turtle steps’–sounds good.


  2. 2 December, 2009 2:37 pm

    We’re justifiably reluctant to take an enjoyable pursuit and turn it into a chore by really working at it, as you say. On the other hand, the most challenging obstacles seem to serve the purpose of preventing the halfhearted and the unqualified from reaching the summit. How many times have you undertaken a strenuous hike and thought, upon reaching your scenic destination, how very few people have managed to reach that pinnacle and enjoy the view? It wasn’t worth their time and effort. They missed their opportunities. They were content to hear about your adventures instead.

    I love the line in Roethke’s “The Waking“: “I learn by going where I have to go.”


    • 2 December, 2009 9:33 pm

      Reaching the summit is a good analogy for writing goals. Before tackling a mountain, you need to prepare physically and mentally, have proper equipment, take enough food with the right nutritional value, plus water, maps, etc. And it doesn’t hurt to have a bit of luck and some good weather!
      When a goal is more complex and long-term–as many writing goals are–it may be hard to work out which elements to pursue in order to gain a success. This confusion and complexity may be what causes ‘the halfhearted and the unqualified’ to turn away from the challenge.
      The writers who persevere and reach their chosen summit–even if it is only a small hill–then have a better idea of what is needed to tackle the next, bigger hill and how to go about it.

      I liked the line from Roethke and applied it to writing goals. The goals we set identify a path that we feel we ‘have to go’, that we feel somehow called to follow. Part of our work needs to be removing any obstacles that threaten to sidetrack or delay us. If we can stay on our path, we will learn something by making this journey, whether or not we achieve our goal, our destination.



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