How to Set Writing Goals that Actually Work

Filed in Finding & Following Your Voice by on January 2, 2017 • views: 2146

destructive-goalsIt’s that time of year again, the time when we all tend to think about what goals we want to set for the New Year.

What have we yet to accomplish? Where do we want to be a year from now?

Usually setting goals is a good thing, particularly for writers and other creatives. We need goals to keep us moving forward, and to motivate us to keep working.

Most any goal will do to get us going, but some, unfortunately, are destined to lead to discouragement and reduced productivity down the road. Some can even be dangerous, setting us up and then dropping us on our noses when we fail to achieve them.

Creatives have to be careful with goal-setting. It’s a good thing to do if it compels you to improve your craft or to reach for something you haven’t achieved yet. If it only leads to disappointment down the road, though, it could break your heart or leave you feeling so discouraged that you stop writing.

Following are seven of the most common goals writers set that can do more harm than good. I’ll explain why, and then show you how to set the kind of goals that will keep you writing, producing, and improving all year long.

laptop-writer-discouraged7 Goals that Discourage Writers in the Long Run

Most writers have set one or more of these goals at one time or another over the course of their careers. They can all seem like good goals initially.

I’ve felt the rush of the dream each time I’ve set one of them, and have definitely taken action toward that dream. So what’s the problem?

Everything changes when the dream doesn’t come true—or doesn’t come true when you think it should. You are likely to end up feeling discouraged instead of motivated. And if you’re like most writers, that discouragement will quickly turn into self-doubt.

“What made me think I could do that? That’s never going to happen, so why bother?”

These sorts of negative thoughts will translate to your writing practice. Your output will drop, and your motivation right along with it. You’ll have to find a way to drag yourself out of the mire, and encourage yourself to try again, which can take a lot of time and effort.

Some writers don’t succeed in climbing back out.

I don’t want that to happen to you. No matter the initial action these goals may inspire, the eventual backlash is usually not worth it, especially when other goals can work much better.

bestselling-books-21. Become a bestselling novelist.

Sounds reasonable, right? Who wouldn’t want this? But ask yourself. How much of this is in your control?

When we start out, we think all we have to do is write a really good book and then we’ll become bestsellers. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

To reach the Wall Street Journal’s bestseller list, you need to sell 3,000 copies in the first week after launch. To do the same on the New York Times list, you need to sell 9,000.

Yet in 2015, Andrew O’Hagan’s The Illuminations (Faber & Faber), which was longlisted for the Man Booker prize, sold less than 3,000 before the announcement of the prize. Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island (Jonathan Cape) sold less than 1,000 before the announcement.

The thing is, whether or not your book hits the bestseller list is largely out of your control. Yes, you can write the best book you’re capable of, and you can do everything you can to help market it, but in the end, it’s up to the readers. And in today’s market, which is overwhelmed with books, the odds are against you.

That doesn’t mean you can’t do it. It only means that if you set this goal, you’re likely to get discouraged if your first book doesn’t make it. You may also feel discouraged when you read about how difficult it is for a new writer to become known these days, or how much money it can take to really give your book a fair shake on the market.

Suddenly you may head to your computer and think, “Who am I fooling? This is never going to happen. Why am I wasting my time?” And just like that, your writing motivation takes a nose dive.

earn money2. Make enough money writing so I can quit my day job.

Yes, some writers make it happen, but they are in the minority.

In 2015, the Author’s Guild conducted a member survey to find out how much writers were earning. They gathered information and compared it to a previous survey they had conducted in 2009.

What they found was not encouraging. Full-time authors saw a decrease of 30 percent in their yearly income, while part-time authors saw a 38 percent decrease. Only a little over a third—39 percent—supported themselves on their writing alone. Most worked supporting jobs.

Yes, you can make money at writing, particularly if you write fast and can produce a large number of books. Other writers branch out to include teaching, speaking, conducting workshops, or combining traditional and self-publishing. Writers are finding ways to do it, but it takes time and a lot of self-education, and meanwhile, you need a way to support yourself.

You also need money for your writing habit. Writers are required to do much more marketing today than they were even 10 years ago. That means at the very least, having a website and being active on social media.

Since most publishers are concerned about the bottom line, they’re likely to put their marketing dollars only behind bestselling authors, which leaves new ones to shoulder the burden of marketing themselves, and have no doubt—it takes money.

Some of the things writers usually end up paying for include:

  • Hosting fees for a website (strongly recommended vs. free blogging platforms)
  • Image fees
  • Design fees
  • Photography (if you want to have a quality headshot)
  • Contest submissions
  • Writer’s conferences
  • Book blog tours
  • Book trailers
  • Travel to bookstores
  • Apps (like Hootsuite to manage your social media posts—$15/month)
  • Books (for your own reading and education)
  • Any advertising
  • Editing and proofreading (if you’re self-publishing, and often even if you’re traditionally publishing but want to improve your work before submitting)
  • Research costs

Yes, you can save money along the way by making economical choices or choosing free or do-it-yourself options, but you’re still going to need some money to get your name off the ground.

Most people tend to get stressed out if they don’t have enough money to pay the rent and groceries. If after five years (or longer) you’re finding you still have to do other work besides writing (which most writers do), you could get really discouraged if this is your main goal.

writing award3. Take first place in X contest.

Again, this may sound like a nice goal, and it may encourage you to take action, but it’s out of your control.

You can write a good book and submit to the contest, but then what if your book isn’t chosen? What if you try again the next year, and the next, with the same result?

You’re likely to get discouraged. Suddenly writing doesn’t seem all that important. That makes this a destructive goal. You’re putting your future in someone else’s hands. The judges shouldn’t have that much power.

agent agreement4. Get picked up by an awesome agent.

This sounds so romantic, doesn’t it? Many writers dream of telling others about their agent.

“My agent loves my story. She’s submitting it to Random House this week. She says she feels good about it.” Meanwhile, you dream of outrageous advances and bestseller’s lists.

Except this rarely happens, particularly for first-time authors. It typically takes a very long time to find an agent, if you find one that’s willing to sign you on. We’re talking months if not years of your time submitting and attending writer’s conferences and looking for that perfect match.

One you have an agent, that’s no guarantee of success. He may submit your book to several publishers, but be unable to sell it. If he does, it could be to a small, indie publisher that you could have queried yourself, but instead you pay 15 percent in perpetuity to the agent for it.

Yes, first-time authors have found perfect agents and gone on to get good publishing contracts. But again, it’s one of those things you can’t guarantee. There’s nothing wrong with trying, but it can be a discouraging process if this is your main goal.

Publisher5. Get published by one of the biggies.

Penguin Random House. Harper Collins. Simon & Schuster. Hachette. Macmillan.

We all grew up with these names, and sometimes we dream of having them on the inside pages of our books.

Deals with these guys have gotten more difficult to obtain over the past couple decades, though. Some would say near impossible, especially for new authors (though it can happen). The problem with having the goal of being published by these guys is again, it can be really discouraging.

You can put years into a book and have a perfectly fine story, but if your goal all along was to have it accepted by one of these guys and it’s not, it’s going to feel like you wasted your time.

This would be sad, as there are plenty of high-quality small presses and indie publishers out there right now that can give a new author a really good start. Why limit yourself to such a narrow possibility?

impress friends6. Impress my family/friends/loved ones with my authorship.

I know a lot of authors who were once motivated by the idea of, “I’ll show them!”

It works for awhile, until you publish that first book and you hold it up proudly for everyone to see and they…don’t really give a darn.

People have busy lives. They’re running around doing their thing, and don’t have time to make you feel like you’ve finally arrived. Don’t be surprised if some (or all) of your family members never read your book. It happens all the time. Your friends may congratulate you. They may even buy a copy but then not read it, or fail to leave you a review.

Writers think that publishing a book is the ultimate dream, but for most people, well, it’s nice but not that big a deal. If people didn’t respect you before, they’re unlikely to change their minds simply because you published a book.

And that’s okay. In a way, it keeps writers grounded. It reminds us that there are a lot of other things in life besides writing and publishing. But setting a goal based on others’ reactions is doomed from the start, as you can’t control what other people think.

prove myself mirror7. Prove to myself that I am a writer.

Ah, the feeling of holding that book in your hands. Finally, you’re a writer! You’ve got the book to prove it!

Writers actually feel this way about a lot of things. It goes something like this:

When I:

  • Hold my first book in my hands
  • Make $1,000 (or whatever amount)
  • Win such-and-such a contest
  • Get an agent
  • Get a publisher
  • Become a bestseller
  • Speak at a conference

then I’ll be a real writer.

What’s wrong with this type of goal? Again, it requires that you give your power away. You’re relying on an outside experience or achievement to define yourself and who you are. If that experience doesn’t happen—if a publisher doesn’t sign you on, or your book doesn’t sell, or you never get an agent—who are you then?

Isn’t it up to you to decide who you are in this life?

Why These Goals are Destructive to Writers

What’s wrong with all these goals?

One huge thing: they all rely on factors outside of your control.

You simply cannot control what judges in a contest may think of your story, or what an agent thinks, or an editor thinks, or even what your mom thinks.

Are you noting another similarity in all of these goals?

That’s right—they depend strongly on what other people think.

Other people have to read your work and deem it worthy for you to reach any or all of these achievements.

And if that’s what you’re counting on, you’re totally giving your power away.

That’s deadly for a writer.

You need that power. Writers have to consistently motivate and encourage themselves, and often it’s not easy to do so. There are so many things that can discourage us along the way. Any goal that makes it harder isn’t a good goal to have.

Let me say it again: there’s nothing wrong with having these goals in your mind. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be a bestseller, wanting to get an agent, wanting to place in a contest, or wanting to sell a lot of books so you can quit your day job.

Nothing at all wrong with wanting these things.

Just don’t use them to set your yearly goals.

Instead, you need goals that empower you.

You need goals that you can achieve all by your little lonesome, without any help from anyone else.

Those are the types of goals that will keep you going day after day, month after month, year after year. You may get discouraged along the way, but it’s discouragement that you can handle, because the power is all in your hands.

Take ActionWriters Need Goals that Inspire Action

We can read about writing, talk about writing, and think about writing, but it’s only when we sit down and commit to putting words on the page that we have any chance of becoming the writers we want to be.

If you haven’t won that contest yet, you need goals that will inspire you to practice and improve your craft.

If you haven’t gotten that publishing contract yet, you need goals that will result in more research and more submissions.

If you’re not earning the money you want to earn yet, you need goals that will inspire you to learn more about the market and how you can get the word out about your work.

Nothing happens without action.

Are your goals inspiring concrete, measureable action? If not, they’re not good goals.

The Types of Goals that Serve Writers Over a Lifetime of Writing

How do we set goals that help us to feel empowered and inspire us to take action?

Test your goal against these three criteria:

  1. Is it totally within your power to achieve this goal?
  2. Does the goal inspire you to take concrete action toward your writing dreams?
  3. Does the goal keep you accountable?

Let’s look at an example.

Say your goal is to write a new novel by the end of the year. Does this goal meet all three of the criteria above?

First, it is completely in your control, so you’re good on number one. But on number two and three, it’s a little fuzzy. It may inspire you to take action for the first few weeks of the year, but what happens when the writing starts to get difficult (as it always does in the middle of a novel), and you get a little discouraged?

You may think, “Well, I’ve got until the end of the year. I’ll write tomorrow.” And tomorrow, and tomorrow, until you get to December and your novel remains unfinished.

So on number two, yes, it inspired you to take concrete action, but not for very long.

This brings us to number three: does this goal keep you accountable?

Sort of, but not in a good way. You’ve got an entire year to finish the novel. You may procrastinate, or get discouraged and stop working regularly. Your only check-in time is at the end of the year, which leaves way too much room for slacking off.

A better goal might be to write 1,750 words a week, or 250 words a day. If you stick to this goal, you’ll have about 90,000 words at the end of the year—certainly enough to make up a novel.

This goal does meet all three of our criteria. Achieving it is entirely in your hands, and it’s simple enough that it should inspire you to take action. (Who can’t write 250 words a day?) Finally, it holds you accountable. If you don’t get your 250 words (or your 1,750) finished, you know right away that you’re falling behind, and you’re likely to be motivated to catch up.

This is the kind of goal that will keep you writing. You can apply it to almost anything you want to accomplish. Want to make more money with your books? Set a goal to take three online workshops this year about marketing, along with reading five books and spending at least an hour a week on marketing research. Set a goal to conduct three giveaways, two blog tours, and ten book signings.

All of these goals are completely within your power, and if you set them up right (with regular deadlines), they will keep you accountable. It’s possible that by the end of the year you may not be making more money from your writing, but you will have significantly increased your odds of knowing how to make more money. If you keep at it, you’re much more likely to get what you want than if you simply set a goal to “make $10,000 a year from my writing.”

Want to place in a contest? Set a goal to submit to ten of them this year—one per month except for December and one other month. Narrow it down even more and decide to research contests for one hour each week in preparation for your once-a-month submission.

Add some activities that will get you some feedback on your work, like hiring a book editor, taking advantage of writing critiques at conferences, or working with another writing mentor. Narrow it down by deciding to get eight critiques on your work this year, four by June and the other four by October.

Again, these goals inspire action, are completely within your control, and keep you accountable. If you come to the end of the year and you submitted to only four contests instead of ten, you didn’t reach your goal.

If you submit to all ten, no matter what the outcome, you reached your goal and you can feel proud of that. In addition, you will have learned a lot more about submitting to contests, which of course will increase your odds of placing in the future.

Want to get an agent? Set a goal to submit to 20 of them this year, and to meet with at least three in person at writer’s conferences or other events. Follow a similar pattern to narrow down the process so you’re researching agents every week and submitting every month. Make your goal one that inspires regular and measurable action.

wantedSeparate Your Wants from Your Goals

The key to making sure that you set up a regular writing practice that keeps you consistently moving forward is to separate your wants from your goals.

Empower yourself. Use your goals as a way to determine what actions you will take this year. That way there’s no way you will come to the month of December without having made some progress, because with these types of goals, it’s impossible not to get better!

You will improve, and as you do, you’ll feel more inspired and more motivated to continue. By the end of next year, you may still be “wanting” some things you haven’t received yet, but you will have gained experience, practice, and skill.

And at the end of the day, these are the only things that will get you closer to those coveted wants. In fact, if you want one, easy way to determine whether or not you have a good goal, ask yourself:

“Does this goal inspire me to commit to regular writing practice?”

If so, you’ve got a good one.

How do you set your writing goals?

“The Wages of Writing,” The Author’s Guild, September 15, 2015,

If you liked this post, please spread the word!
Share on FacebookShare on LinkedInShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterPrint this pageEmail this to someone

Tags: , , , ,

Comments (4)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Suzanne says:

    Thanks for sharing this article – sometimes we need these mistakes pointed out to us before we realise we’re making them!

  2. Angela Noel says:

    I love the word “practice.” I set my writing goals with that word in mind. Like a yoga practice, writing isn’t a singular achievement, its a series of evolving discoveries over time. A doctor practices medicine the same way I want to practice storytelling–by applying what ! know to new and different situations, and evolving my knowledge and contribution over time.