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Goals for writing: Creating goals and strategies

29 December, 2009

This is the final 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  goals & strategies

Contingency approach

Some people suggest that you first set a 10-year goal, and from that a 5-year goal, then a 1-year goal, and finally monthly goals followed by weekly ones.

This approach does not work for everyone. You may not be able to envisage your future work in such detail. If you are taking baby-steps along the writing path, a huge target in the distant future can be paralysing rather than inspiring. And what happens if you focus your life on a single, major goal and do not reach it? A colleague vowed to attain a big goal by his 40th birthday. When this did not happen, he became so upset about ‘failing’ that he trashed his office. Two years later, he had not only reached his original target but exceeded it.

In the contingency approach, the focus or ‘driver’ changes to setting a short-term goal, i.e. 6-12 months in the future. At the end of that time, you assess your progress and set another realistic goal and another short timeframe.

You can still identify your aspirations or dreams, where you would like to be 2-10 years down the track. The difference is that you do not pursue these as ‘hard’ targets but as possibilities—with the freedom to change them as you grow into your writing.

One goal—or several?

Some people set one goal, such as completing a draft of a novel within a certain time period. Others set several goals, working on different aspects of their writing. The following 11 categories provide a useful starting place if you are setting multiple goals:  directions, knowledge and skills, process, reading, outcomes, self, time, money, non-writing activities, supports, obstacles and limitations.

Writing your goals

  • Focus on the positive
    Common advice in goal-setting is to incorporate positive rather than negative language—what you will do rather than what you won’t. The reasoning is that putting something in the negative makes it more compelling because you have highlighted it. E.g. I will not play computer games when I should be writing. This goal may have the effect of keeping your mind sharply focused on what you have forbidden yourself. Now shift the goal to the positive: I will write 400 words a day, or I will write 400 words before I play a computer game. Now something you like is not forbidden, but you have set some boundaries around it.

  • Show intentions, not wishes
    There is a big difference between a wish—I want to write a story a month—and an intention—I will write a story a month. Word your goal as an intention, something you will strive to achieve. If you word it as a wish, you have already achieved it—You are already wishing for it to happen.

  • Include measurements
    Measuring what you intend to achieve enables you to evaluate your progress and know when you reach the goal. Measurements often answer 3 questions: What? How much? When?
    Not: Complete the manuscript of a crime novel.
    But: Complete

    • (how much) a 90,000 word
    • (what) draft of a crime novel
    • (when) by 15 December.

    You may not be able to apply measurements to all your writing goals. But you can often measure the strategies (sometimes called sub-goals) that you will use to reach your goals. Example:

    • Goal: Learn more about how popular romance novels are structured.
    • Strategy: Read (how much) three (what) recommended books on novel structure (when) by 15 December.

Incubate and review

Once you have a list of possible goals, set it aside for at least a week. This incubation period gives your mind the chance to mull things over before you commit. When you review your list, interrogate each goal:

  • Why do I want to achieve this? Does it help me along the writing path I want? Will it move me to a new level in my writing?
  • Will I enjoy working towards and achieving it? Am I interested in it enough to pursue it over the time period I have set? Can I see myself finding sufficient time to work on it? Is it realistic? Too hard? Too easy?


Once you have set goals, you can develop strategies. Strategies (sub-goals) are the actions you take to achieve your goals. If your goal is your desired destination, strategies are the steps you take to follow the path to your goal. You may set different strategies for planning, research, drafting and revision, feedback, and time management.

  • Measuring quantity
    Look for ways to measure each strategy. Measuring suggests the quantitative rather than the qualitative. Incorporating quality elements—how well you produce–can create an extra burden, compared with quantity–how much you produce.Examples of quantitative strategies: Write at least 5 pages a day. Complete 2 journal pages twice a week. Enter a minimum of 3 major competitions each month.
    Do not let qualitative terms creep in: Write at least 5 powerful pages a day. Complete 2 well-crafted journal pages twice a week. Enter a minimum of 3 worthwhile major competitions.
  • Review
    Strategies are intended to move you closer to your goal. If you find some are not working, adjust them or scrap them altogether. It is better to devise new strategies rather than waste time continuing with what is not successful.
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