Keeping to your goals in writing is hard. Maybe balancing creative ‘me’ time and office time grew harder while working from home. Or you commute a lot. Or you have young children who require the lion’s share of your focus. Sticking to your goals is easier with SMART, quantitative goals. Here are ten ideas to help you keep to yours:
Keep to your writing goals: 10 ideas
- Write your goals down in detail
- Choose quantitative (measurable) goals
- Set realistic, attainable targets
- Suspend judgment
- Build accountability
- Prioritize process goals
- Recognize and reward milestones
- Set short- and long-term writing goals
- Adjust your goals in writing as needed
- Write down what you learned
Let’s explore each of these ideas in brief (watch a video on setting SMART goals below).
1. Write your goals down in detail
Discussing the neuroscience of goal-setting, Mark Murphy for Forbes says you are up to 1.4 times more likely to achieve goals you write them down.
Verbalizing what you want to achieve in as much detail as possible is a great first step.
Clarifying, quantifying and visualizing necessary steps is very motivating.
Next, as Melissa Burkley suggests on Psychology Today, stick your writing goals where you will see them often.
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.Melissa Burkley, ‘Want to Write a Novel? Set SMART Goals’, via Psychology Today
Your goal could be:
- Brainstorm my story’s central idea and write a draft synopsis of my story
- Write 600 words every day for a week until I finish a rough draft of my first chapter
- Research 5 interesting facts about X city in Y year (the place and time where my story is set)
2. Choose quantitative (measurable) goals
‘Write 600 words every day’ is what we call a quantitative goal. It’s a goal we can measure or quantify.
Other examples of quantitative goals in writing:
- Edit three pages
- Find 5 synonyms for adjectives I used in chapter 1
- Make a list of 5 possible names for a protagonist
Examples of qualitative goals in writing:
- Become a better writer
- Become a publishing phenomenon/success
- Be a household name
The challenge with qualitative goals is they don’t supply us with exact, measurable objectives. They are, of course, helpful for long-term, ‘larger picture’ thinking.
It’s easy to get lost in the dream with this type of goal, though (or rebuke ourselves unfairly for falling short of goals that were never measurable to begin with).
Choosing a quantitative goal (such as writing 500 words for a day, every day) means you can measure your performance against your target.
This type of goal is how Olympic records are broken. Records are held or revised in the countable splitting of seconds. Quantitative goals help you make – and break – your own records.
3. Set realistic, attainable targets
It’s easiest to meet goals in writing when you set attainable goals – no pipe dreams.
Measurable goals, attainable goals – these are two of the five types of ‘SMART’ goal.
SMART goals are goals that are:
Why is the ‘A’ of ‘attainable’ important? It comes down to the psychology of motivation.
A wonderful, ambitious motivation such as having your novel made into a Hollywood blockbuster is great. And yet, if you haven’t even written your first page, what is the timeline? Is this goal relevant to where you are now?
As we coach writing and have done so since 2012, we have learned that a major enemy to progress is focusing on unattainable goals or goals that are out of your immediate control.
You can write 500 words today; you can’t predict an agent will ask to represent you tomorrow (but you can keep working and improving and maximize your prospects).
These are important questions to ask – whether your writing goals are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-based. They will help you focus on an achievable process and avoid deluding yourself with unrealistic expectations.
This ensures you’re able to motivate yourself and continue doing so through the sometimes arduous writing process.
4. Suspend judgment
Creatives in all arts grapple in many ways with judgment. This may be the judgment of teachers and critiques (which are nonetheless important – the feedback loop – for growth). Or it may be the judgment of family (‘you’re still writing that book?’).
One kind of judgment we have some power over is our own.
If you’re having a hard week sticking to writing goals because life has gotten in the way, don’t talk yourself down and diminish your own motivation.
Instead, treat this time as a conscious break, and add a few tens (or hundreds) of extra words to your daily writing practice when you resume writing.
5. Build accountability
In surveying Now Novel’s coaching members, a word that recurs when we ask about what members value is ‘accountability’.
To be ‘accountable’ is to be answerable or responsible. For example, when people say that politicians must be accountable for corruption or incendiary statements. It means that we answer to (but most importantly take ownership of) our actions and choices.
Why is this important, when it comes to keeping goals in writing? Because in creative pursuits, we really are ‘a law unto our ourselves’, often. Procrastination, self-doubt, second-guessing, starting over and all.
Working with a writing coach builds accountability, not in the sense that you will be rapped over the knuckles or ridiculed on social media like a politician, of course.
Instead, it helps you stay answerable to the goals you have set yourself. You remember to measure your progress. Or show up for regular writing sprints with members of your writing circle who share your goals.
This ongoing conversation that focuses on your objectives, with feedback and frequent touching base, helps you keep focused on your own, active SMART process.
6. Prioritize process goals
Goals in writing may be ‘process’ goals, ‘performance’ goals or ‘outcome’ goals.
Eastern Washington University’s succinct resource on goal setting theories and concepts explains that of the above three types of goals, ‘process’ goals are the most under our control.
An example of a process goal would be a measurable, quantifiable, time-based goal such as:
- For the next week, I will write 500 words every day before I watch a TV show in the evening
This combines a ‘process’ goal with a habit one might have (‘habit stacking’ is something we discussed in the context of writing motivation before).
A ‘performance’ goal is based on your personal standard. It may still be quantifiable, but you have less control over the outcome. For example:
- I will get 100% positive critiques on my next critique submission
An ‘outcome’ goal is based on winning. For example, landing a publishing contract.
Although an outcome goal is a valuable long-term goal to have for motivation, you need ‘process’ goals that keep you taking all the necessary preceding steps to have any chance of reaching it.
7. Recognize and reward milestones
An important part of setting goals in writing that we often neglect is what to do when we achieve micro goals along the way.
Plan ahead how you will celebrate.
Recognizing your own goal attainment is an important part of the feedback loop for keeping yourself encouraged and energized for the long haul.
Athletes don’t just celebrate the golds. They celebrate the silvers and bronzes, and the individual, successful training sessions, too.
8. Set short- and long-term writing goals
SMART writing goals need to include the ‘time-based’ aspect. How long does a page take to write? And a chapter? Good story planning has measurable requirements.
The question should be how long does it take you to write a page, a chapter. Everyone’s schedule, energy levels, or ability to work for sustained periods of time is different.
In fact, a great short-term goal when you are first sitting down to write a book is to work out when – and how – you work best. Morning, midday or evening?
This will likely be affected by your other roles and responsibilities. Yet you can work around these, too.
In a recent webinar, Now Novel coach Romy described taking notes while waiting in the car to fetch her daughter from school. The short-term offers us many windows of opportunity such as this that make long-term writing goals more attainable.
9. Adjust your goals in writing as needed
In setting goals in writing, it’s important to remember that your goals are not holy writ. They’re not engraved in stone or sealed on ancient papyrus.
Being flexible and adjusting your writing goals as life throws you curve balls will help you implement the fourth idea above (suspending judgment).
If you give yourself 6 months and overshoot that, its only a lesson that you need to give yourself more time for book two.
Adjusting your goals as necessary will help you maintain motivation, without destroying the joy of writing through excessive pressure.
10. Write down what you learned
Keeping a journal is a valuable process when you have any kind of short-term or long-term goal.
By checking in with yourself, you learn valuable things about your own ‘motivation-goal-reward’ loop. Lessons such as:
- What was hard (and how you overcame it)
- What was easy (and why)
- How you might approach things differently next time, now that you know more
Through this process, you render unconscious processes, motivations and struggles conscious.
As part of setting writing goals, try to write a weekly summary of how your writing week went. Are there patterns that emerge? What can you learn from them?
Finish writing a book in 6 months on our Group Coaching course. Stay accountable with writing sprints, coach Q&As, and a structured plan to complete your story.