Whenever I sell books at a comic convention or a craft show, people will walk into my booth, wide-eyed, and ask, “Wow, are all of these books yours?”
My answer is, “Yep, I wrote them all.”
Most of the time. But we’ll get to that.
But HOW do I set my writing goals so I actually achieve them?
There are two parts to this series. In this article, we’re going to cover how to SET writing goals you’ll actually accomplish, by breaking down my goal-setting process giving you some scheduling tips so you can start your week off right. In the next part, we'll talk about how to finish your novels or larger writing projects.
Because SETTING goals and ACHIEVING THEM are two different subjects!
If nothing else, take away this: you want to set yourself up for success so you’ll hit your targets.
If you don’t set reasonable goals, you’re setting yourself up for failure.
Word Count Goals vs. Other Types of Writing Goals
Let’s talk about word counts for a minute.
If you’ve ever hung around writers or if you’re a writer yourself, you likely recognize the joys and frustrations of working towards (or editing the manuscript down to) a particular word count.
Page counts are irrelevant, as that varies with your typesetting. But feel free to set page count goals for fun if you’re writing a draft, and ideally, not changing the font size to immediately achieve the target! XD
If you’re writing for a publisher or a publishing deadline, a word count goal might be relevant if you’ve been asked to slim down parts of the manuscript. From a publisher’s perspective, the shorter the formatted book is, the cheaper it is to produce (MOSTLY – not always a hard and fast rule. Depends on paper weight, cover embossments, foiling – lots of factors go into physical book unit costs!).
What if I don’t want to set a word count goal?
Word counts can be daunting and overwhelming. After all, you could write 2,000 garbage words and still meet a target. Or, those 2,000 words could be good, objectively, but useless in the context of your story.
If you're not working towards a particular word count goal, you might want to try chapter-based or scene-based goals. A chapter-based or scene-based goal is exactly what it sounds like.
Some examples I’ve used in the past are:
- “Finish Chapter seven” – which might mean – “Connect and smooth out the two disjointed parts of the chapter with dialogue or action”
- “Rewrite end of fight scene” – which might mean – “The cliffhanger moment doesn’t land. Give more emotional weight to the moment when Jia realizes her sister won’t make the jump.”
Try chapter-based or scene-based goals if word-count goals don't resonate.
So what kind of writing goal is BETTER?
Personally, I find working toward a word count motivating to a certain degree.
Once I’m deep into the project, the word count stops mattering, and I will pivot to chapter-based or scene-based goals. Because when I’m more than halfway done, I just want to FINISH!
When working with chapter-based or scene-based goals, you are trudging through the nitty-gritty of your manuscript. Having a scene land just right is more relevant than hitting a certain word count.
When setting your initial goal, consider where you are in your manuscript and what will motivate you the most to sit down and start writing.
SMART Goals for Writers
I've written about SMART goals before.
SMART goals are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-based.
Why are SMART goals important?
They give us a rough framework to judge the "achieveableness" of the task. The more lofty, the more undefined a goal, the less likely we are to sit down and devote energy towards it.
Let's return to one of my chapter-based goals: "Finish Chapter Seven," which I further defined as “Connect and smooth out the two disjointed parts of the chapter with dialogue or action.”
Notice how specific I’m getting here.
“Finish chapter seven” isn’t actually specific enough and it’s an overwhelming goal. After all: how long is chapter seven? How much work needs to be done? But when I add specific instructions to the goal – connect and smooth out two disjointed pieces of dialogue and action? That’s solvable. Immediate. I can get to work on that right away.
Okay, but are those goals measurable?
Yes, actually. Once I’ve evaluated how long it will take me to connect two parts of the scene, I can see the end in sight. I say to myself, “Oh, that will only take me an hour to complete.” Whether or not it takes me longer, seeing the finish line is motivating and I’m going to get to work on it sooner rather than later.
Is the target achievable?
When you look at the task, do you know in your heart you can do it? Not the larger goal of “finish the story” but the more immediate task relating to finishing chapter seven.
If “Connect and smooth over the two disjointed parts of the chapter with dialogue or action” feels unachievable, break it down further: “Find the two parts of the chapter that need connecting.” That’s step one. Then: “Find the commonality between the two.”
This kind of goal is so situational that it’s tough to break down step by step what you may need to do to complete it. It may end up being that you need to scrap the entire section and rewrite it for the chapter to make sense. If that’s what it takes to get to done – then that’s what you must do.
How do you make the task relevant?
I’d argue that relevancy for writing goals relates to your larger picture. You need to finish chapter seven so you can finish the book. Unless of course, it turns out chapter seven is absolute garbage and you should delete it off the face of the earth. If that’s the case, deleting it IS completing the task – yay!
But Clare, how do I make a writing goal time-based?
Easy. By adding a deadline.
In my daily and weekly planner, I list by daily tasks and weekly goals, so they become time-based when I add them to a particular day, or add a quick deadline note next to them.
Now that we’ve outlined the different kinds of writing goals you can set for yourself – word count, chapter-based, scene-based – as well as how to make them SMART - let’s dive deeper into the best ways to set them to set YOU up for success.
Measure the "achieveableness" of your writing goals based on the SMART goal framework - but don't forget about listening to your gut.
Setting yourself up for success: how to set a word count goal that works for you
For the purposes of this article, I’m going to assume you’re writing a novel, a novella, or a longer-form piece of writing. But the advice is still applicable to shorter word counts.
Let’s say you have an idea for a fantasy novel and you’re pretty sure it’ll land between 90K-100K words.
First of all – how did I come up with that number?
Fantasy novels tend to run longer – some upwards of 120K to 150K words. World building takes up a lot of words, amirite?
The answer to “how did I choose this number” is – instinct. I’ve been writing long enough to know how much “word space” a story will take to tell. That doesn’t mean I’m always right! I consider it good practice to pick a target that intuitively makes sense to you, that’s lower than what you expect.
Looking at your ideal word count goal, you might feel overwhelmed and demotivated to even open your word processor of choice. That 90,000-word count goal can feel extremely out of reach when you’ve got less than a thousand words on the page.
The key to succeeding when approaching novel writing is breaking your writing goals down into manageable chunks.
Creating Manageable Goal “Chunks”
I’ve written about creating achievable goals before, but today we’re talking about specific writing goals, not general professional or personal goals.
Let’s go with our above example: you want to write a 90,000-word novel. Great!
Now, you’re not going to sit down and write all that at once, right? (I hope not, your hand will get tired! XD)
The next step to setting your writing goal is to chose an end date for writing that first draft.
I know that can be extremely stressful and scary. For now, let’s pick a date far enough in the future that’s not too intimidating, but not too far that you’ll put it off forever.
For the purpose of this example, let’s pretend it’s January 1, and you believe you can finish a draft of the novel by December 31. That gives you a whole calendar year to produce something.
Quick side bar:
Don’t worry right now about whether or not the novel will be “good.” We’re just worrying about do-ability. You can worry about making it good once it’s all on paper. Okay? Okay!
Now that you know you have a YEAR to write an entire draft of a novel, it’s all about doing simple math:
90,000 words / 52 weeks = 1,731 words per week to achieve the goal.
Or, to be even more specific: 1,731 words / 7 days = 247 words per day.
Seeing that number – honestly answer the following questions:
- How long does it take me to write 1,000 words? When you’re first starting out, this is a tough question to answer, but it’s a useful measurement to estimate time. One thousand words might seem daunting. Me, it can take about an hour to write 1,000 words – as long as I know what I’m writing and I’m in flow. If I’m struggling, it will take me 1.5 to 2 hours to write that much.
- Is the target realistic? Can you find the time to write 248 words a day – or X number of words per week? When in doubt, lower your word count goal, and rejoice when you exceed the target.
- Does the target intuitively sit right with me? It’s hard to lie to yourself – but easy to ignore the warning pang in your stomach when you know you’ve set the bar too high. If you feel it’s too high, there’s no shame in lowering it. After all – you’re the one who suffers when you don’t meet your target.
Scheduling Your Writing Time
Every Sunday, I sit down with myself and plan my week.
Scheduling your time - and keeping that appointment with yourself - is incredibly important when it comes to getting things done.
Does every weekly plan go exactly how I want it to? No, and I'm still experimenting with a lot of productivity planners and systems as I perfect my approach.
But I do write down ALL of my tasks for the week, assign them a value, and I block the most important ones out to ensure they get done.
If you have all of your writing goals listed in one place, it allows you to easily see the scope of the task ahead of you. This can be daunting, but take a moment to appreciate the mountain ahead of you.
Now, choose one of your writing goals - and schedule a day of the week you'll work on it.
You don't have to finish it on that day. You might want to schedule in a couple of days. But working on it for an hour or two will get you that much closer to achieving it.
A novel is written one sentence and one hour at a time. A smaller, achieveable goal is more useful than a daunting, unrealistic goal.
Life is going to get in the way
Some weeks are going to be easy. Others – not so much.
Realistically, you might not meet your daily or weekly target every time. Being creative takes ENERGY and EFFORT! And some days are a struggle just to do the basic tasks to live.
So, when setting your writing goals each week (or each day, month), remember:
- Don’t overburden your daily to-do list. I’m guilty of doing this. This only leads to frustration and the shame of not accomplishing your tasks.
- Choose a day to write when you won’t be as distracted, when you’ll have the energy to achieve, etc. Setting yourself up for success means working within your own personal limits. Don’t schedule a date with yourself when you know you won’t make it.
- Set the smallest possible target that’s just slightly beyond your comfort zone. Maybe for you, that’s write three paragraphs. Maybe it’s 500 words on the manuscript in the next 20 minutes. You want the target to be motivating, not demotivating.
Let me know in the comments – what is your current writing goal? What writing project are you struggling with right now? Share your helpful advice below.
Until next time!