Thursday, December 16, 2010

Break down your goals!

I don't have a lot of time to write, so I'm always very cautious about setting writing goals. I don't even track my word counts. Why? Because it depresses me every time I see friends on Facebook or on the forums talk about how they wrote 1000 words today, or 3000, or however many. If I counted, I'd probably end up with 100, or some number that merely indicates I redid a scene with hardly any wordcount change. And of course there are always days when I get zero words. But zero words might mean I was too sick or busy - or it might mean that I got a lot of fruitful thinking done, just no typing.

My number one rule of goal-setting is "be compassionate with yourself." I focus on saying "I did a bit of work today," and on keeping a sense of momentum.

That said, there are times when setting a goal can be motivating. Don't set one that's too big, like "I have to write a novel as soon as possible." Ouch! If you're writing a novel, and it's a big project, it's a good idea to find ways to keep your eyes on the prize, but break it down. I made some good progress yesterday (unexpectedly) and now I'm thinking, "Can I get Chapter 5 done by Monday?"

For me, goals come in several categories.

1. Write every day. For this one, thinking/plotting/outlining count. This is maintaining momentum.
2. When you sense a potential goal close, try giving yourself a timeline to reach it. I'd call this one opportunistic goal-setting. It can help you get a boost of motivation over a short time period.
3. When you have a big project, set smaller goals. Set a chapter writing-rate goal, realizing that it will vary longer/shorter depending on the demands of your life. Set a chunk goal, too. My current chunk goal is to get to Chapter 10 - the end of a major arc. My sense of when I'll finish the whole novel will depend on how long it takes me to get to Chapter 10, and how I feel at that point.

I speculate about how I'd like to finish writing this novel by next October or so. It's a good thing to imagine, but at the moment I have no idea how realistic it is. It depends on too many factors. If you find your larger goals are overwhelming you, be compassionate with yourself. Break down your goals to make them more manageable. Then as the smaller ones are achieved, you can get a better sense of what to expect with the larger ones.

Above all, don't punish yourself for underperformance. It will only make things worse.


  1. I am also a slow writer- of course long hand is slower than typing anyway- but I write every day too and try to count even a paragraph as a triumph.

  2. This year I'm tackling some editorial projects that I know will slow down my output--this post was really encouraging!

  3. I'm the exact same way. The "write X words every day -- no excuses" approach just doesn't work for everyone.

  4. Thanks for the comments!

    Che, you're very brave to write longhand. I wrote that way some of the time until I started feeling like the redundancy of transferring to screen was slowing me down unnecessarily. Good for you for trying to write every day!

    Wendy, good luck with the editing! Try not to stress too much, because some change in productivity is natural.

    Heidi, I'm cheering for you. We just have to believe in ourselves and keep going!

  5. That's a good reminder. I'm terrible at maintaining momentum. I'm very all or nothing. 1000 - 5000 words a day and then nothing at all for months. I should really put some effort into changing that.

  6. I don't go for the write every day because that got me into a mess of first drafts that I'm still struggling to edit. However, I like your interpretation as writing related work. I have yet to set next year's goals, but the beginning is going to be crazy.

  7. Shannon - your output during your productive times amazes me! But I do find that if I do a bit of thinking (at least) every day, it helps me be productive again sooner.

    Margaret, I'm curious about your reaction because it does seem that you define "writing" as "creating new stuff." For me, editing *is* writing, and so is outlining and plotting and other kinds of thinking. So don't get down on yourself for editing and not "writing" - because you are!

  8. Juliette,

    I am working hard at making that mental transition. It's because the words are the same but the meaning is different.

    Submitting=stressing ;).

    But for the longest while I couldn't see anything good about the editing step, and I think that's because I come not from a writing perspective but a storytelling one. In storytelling, what you get you get and that's that. Time to move on to a new story. It's not that I don't edit, because trust me I do, it's that I am only now learning to feel the same charge from editing that creating new offers.

  9. Margaret,

    Interesting thoughts. You make me want to write a post about editing, and what it is. For me, editing is more than just prettying up my sentences - often it has to do with altering characters or major events, or structural issues. I enjoy editing because I feel that it isn't changing the story I've created, but getting me closer to the story I've envisioned.

  10. Which is exactly where I'm trying to reach in attitude. In reality, of course it's all those things. But in the back of my head, it's a little more complicated :).

    However, a post about editing would be interesting to read regardless.

  11. I'll try to do that for you, Margaret!

  12. I remember seeing a documentary about Chris Boardman (who, if you don't know, is a British cycling olympic gold medallist) and was astounded to learn that there were days that he just didn't train because he didn't think that it would be productive. I always took that to heart. I think it's OK to have days where you don't do anything (in terms of writing) if you're either not in the mood, or it's just not coming to you. Better not to force it and have a productive day another day than write a page or two of drivel that you'll probably trash anyway.

  13. Glad to inspire you :).

    Stuart, One thing with physical training that I think translates to mental as well is that it can be good to take time off to process (though in Juliette's definition, thinking counts :)).

  14. Stuart and Margaret, the reason I count thinking time is because that fallow time contributes to the ripening of one's thoughts.

  15. Last year, I kept my goal simple: revise this one very broken novel. It took me almost all year, but I did it. My next goal was to write 500 words a day, another manageable goal. Being too ambitious in my goal-setting only made me feel terrible when I failed. I like the confidence boost of achieving smaller goals.

    I haven't decided my goals for 2011. I'd like to up the bar a bit, but not *too* much. It's a fine distinction.

  16. Thanks for the comment, Rabia. Good luck with your goals for 2011!