Writing goals: how to set them and how to make sure you achieve them!
by Sarah Ann Juckes
What is it that you want to achieve from your writing this year?
Maybe you want to finally write that book. Or perhaps you have a book that you want to get published.
The fact is that thousands of would-be writers around the world share this very same goal. But only a handful have the dedication, passion and ability to make that happen.
This blog post will give you the tools you need to set a realistic target for your writing this year and ensure you reach it before the year is out.
4 steps to setting achievable writing goals:
Be specific about what you’re trying to achieve and how you’re going to do it
Record your progress
Set realistic targets (not just ‘I want to be a multi-award-winning author’ but smaller, more achievable goals)
Ensure they’re relevant to YOU
Set a deadline – and keep to it!
Why most writers fail at goal-setting
But first – let’s look at why so many writers never get to where they want to go (because you’ll want to make sure you’re not going to be one of them!)
The primary reason writers never finish their books is because they set unrealistic targets for themselves.
In the world of writing, there’s a LOT of advice floating around. Mantras like “kill your darlings” and “show, don’t tell” have made it into a writer’s everyday life now. And although it’s true that sometimes you need to cut elements that aren’t pulling their weight, and that action scenes are generally a more exciting way to relay information – this advice isn’t always correct for every single writer, every single time. Some of our favourite scenes should stay. And sometimes, a little bit of telling is necessary for clarification.
The same goes for writing targets. There’s a myth floating around the writing world that any writer worth their weight should be writing every single day.
Reader – this is a lie.
Some writers may well find that setting themselves a target to write every day helps them remain creative. But for others – myself included – writing every day just isn’t realistic.
For instance – if I’m ill, I don’t want to write. I want to sit in my pyjamas and watch Netflix. And sometimes, LIFE gets in the way of best laid plans. Sometimes instead of writing, I need to be a carer, or a daughter, or a friend first.
The advice to ‘write every day’ often leads writers to set goals that are unrealistic for them. They might keep to it for a week, and then something will inevitably get in their way and they’ll stop. And once you break a goal like ‘write every day’, it’s difficult to start again. It becomes easier and easier to find excuses not to. And before you know it, you’ve not written anything for a month and are feeling so bad about that, the guilt feels like it might stop you writing forever.
So – leave any pre-conceived ideas on what a writer should be and do and how often right here.
This blog post is about YOU. You as a writer, as well as all the other hats you have to wear (including, occasionally, ‘sick person’).
Now we’ve got that out of the way, let’s look at how to set a goal that is realistic for you.
How to set your realistic writing goal
Let’s look to the world of business.
There, entrepreneurs set themselves a target to reach, and if they don’t reach it, there are consequences. There’s a boss to answer to, or customers wanting their money back.
We writers don’t have a boss. Eventually, once you get a publishing deal, you might have a deadline set by a publisher (which really does make it easier to put pen to paper!) But until then – we’re on our own.
So – what do entrepreneurs use to set themselves targets that they need to stick to?
SMART targets aren’t just for work
In the world of work, a clear and reachable goal is SMART:
S – Specific
M – Measurable
A – Achievable
R – Relevant
T – Time-bound
So, what does this look like in the world of writing?
Get SPECIFIC about your target
It’s no good saying that you “want to become a better writer”. How are you going to achieve that? What actionable things can you do to improve your writing craft?
SMART targets ask people to answer the five ‘W’ questions to help them narrow this down: What; Why; Who; Where; Which.
Let’s say your goal was to learn how to plot a novel. Your specific target might look like this:
WHAT? I want to learn how to plot a novel.
WHY?So I can put this knowledge into practice when I come to write.
WHO? I can learn how to plot by taking a course.
WHERE? I work full-time, so an online course would be best for my lifestyle.
Okay, so now we’ve narrowed our goal down to something actionable. How do you make sure you achieve it?
MEASURE your progress
There’s nothing more motivating than seeing yourself getting closer to reaching your goal.
Wherever possible, you should try to assign a number or percentage to your goal. If that’s something like “write ten thousand words”, then this is easy – you can record how any words you’ve written so far in a notebook and watch that counter go up and up.
Ticking off a to-do list is similarly useful. Give yourself a tick, gold star or treat every time you complete a step towards your goal.
As well as motivating you to keep ticking, measuring your progress will also help you identify when you’re falling behind, so you can keep yourself on track.
Make your goal ACHIEVABLE
There’s no point setting yourself a goal that you have no power over. “Sign with a literary agent” might seem like a good goal, but you can’t affect an agent’s decision to sign you. This, unfortunately, is more of a dream.
Similarly, you need to think about other realistic factors that are out of your control. Finances are a big one, as is time, health and other commitments. I myself am a carer. My writing will need to take a back seat occasionally, and I need to factor that into every goal I set myself if I’m serious about achieving it.
Make sure your goal is RELEVANT to you
Do you want to write that book? Do you really want it to be published?
Both writing and publishing is a huge undertaking and requires a lot of sacrifice, dedication and time. Many writers who set out to write a good story quickly realise just how difficult it is and throw in the towel when they realise that other things are more important to them.
The same goes for publishing. It took me twelve years and four books to find a literary agent – and that’s not so unusual a tale. Publishing is also a rollercoaster ride that can take a serious toll on a writer’s mental health. Is this something you really want?
Remember – it’s completely fine to want to write a book and not want to get it published. Publishing is a career, but writing can happily remain a passion without it!
Another thing to consider here is timing. Is your maternity leave the best time to write a book, or are you going to have your hands full? Can your other half support you with the kids whilst you write, or is this goal better suited for another time, when they also have more space?
Keep your goal TIME-BOUND
This is the part most writers slip up on.
When is a reasonable deadline for your goal?
Your target needs to push you, whilst also taking into account the other things life might throw in your path.
When I’m setting my goal, I like to think about what my deadline would look like if I worked all day, every day on my goal, until it was done. I then deduct the time that I know I’m spending on my day job; sleeping; doing my other commitments. And then I add in a few more days on top of that for emergencies too.
Giving yourself a deadline is a blessing when it’s done properly, as it makes you sit in your chair and make stuff happen. But when it’s too tight to too loose, it can cause anxiety, guilt or laziness!
Those in the world of work might have a boss to answer to – but writers don’t.
There are ways to trick yourself into being accountable, though.
One trick I like to do is to use social media. Now there are downsides to using Twitter and Instagram around your writing (not least that they are a pit of procrastination!). But I find that doing an #accountabilitythread on Twitter is a great way to stay motivated. I write my goal and my deadline in a tweet it for all to see. Then, I update the thread every time I take a step forwards (or back!) And invite writers who are working on their own similar goals to celebrate and commiserate with me.
Similarly, writing communities like the one at Jericho Writers are brilliant platforms for accountability. We writers are all in the same boat, so finding someone to give you the tough-love you need can often be the difference between success and failure.
Hell might be other people – but achieving goals is so much easier and more fulfilling with others around you.
An example of a SMART writing Goal
Let’s put all of this into practice.
“I want to finish writing my book”
This goal is measured in word counts. It’s a goal shared by complete newbies, all the way to seasoned writers on a deadline for their one-hundredth book. And – wherever you are in that scale – the SMART target is a same.
The SPECIFIC goal
Wanting to finish writing a book is too vague. Let’s narrow it down as an example – you can switch the details here for those that work for you.
WHAT? A novel in my genre is around 80,000 words and I have written 40,000 so far. Therefore, I want to write 40,000 words (give or take).
WHY? Because becoming a published writer is my dream job.
WHO? I can use social media to become accountable for my word count. My friend Jane will be my sponsor and will check in weekly to see how I’m getting on. I can rely on her to give me the encouragement I need.
WHERE? I will clear the desk in the study and shut the door at weekends. I will take my laptop on the train and write when I can on my commute.
WHICH? I will use Scrivener to write, as I’ve found it the best tool for me.
How it will be MEASURED
Good news! A word count is the easiest way to measure a writing goal. Here’s how I do mine, around my other commitments:
I can write 800 words in one go, before my attention wavers. 1,000 words is a push.
If I write 1,000 words every day, I will reach my target in 40 days.
I buy a diary. On day one, I write the word count I’m at now (let’s say, 40,000 words). And for the next ten days, I write what the word count would be if I wrote 1,000 words each day. On the tenth day, I write “50,000 words milestone” and circle it.
I now have a micro-goal that works for me. I know I can’t always write 1,000 words every day, but I can commit to writing 10,000 in ten days. If I’m ill one day, then I can make up for it another day. As along as I reach 10,000 in ten days, I’ve reached my goal.
How it remains ACHIEVABLE
Again – the above is something that works for me. You might prefer a calendar on the wall. You might find you can only write one hundred words a day before you burn out. Make it realistic and achievable for you.
The good news is that writing words is absolutely in your control. Books are written through hard work, dedication and sitting down in that chair and writing.
Nobody else is involved in that. It’s entirely down to you.
How to ensure it is RELEVANT
Speak to the people who are reliant on you to be anything else other than a writer. Explain to them why this goal is important to you, and how they might be able to help you achieve it.
If it looks like this might not be the right time to do this, then that’s okay. Spend time planning until it is the right time, so you can ensure you stick to those word goals.
How to keep it TIME-BOUND
Do you work best when you make yourself write every day? Then do that.
Do you work best when you set yourself a target like above, when you do a certain amount of words by a certain date? Then do that.
When setting your deadline, you can set long-term ones and short-term ones. You might say for example that you want to write 40,000 words by the end of the year. But to keep this relevant and actionable, try splitting this into smaller chunks, such as “write 10,000 words during my holiday” – or, yes – “write 1,000 words a day for ten days”.
This is geared specifically for writers who want to write a large number of words in a very short time, so it won’t be right for everyone. However, if you would like to write 50,000 words in 30 days, then this platform connects you to writers from all over the world who are doing the same thing. It gives you a pre-determined goal and deadline, plus a handy way to measure it in the form of a graph. There’s also the added incentive of prizes waiting for you on the other side of the finish line!
Remember – your goals are entirely yours
This post has given you the tools to set yourself a goal that you can realistically reach.
This will look different to every single writer, so don’t worry if yours seems small compared to others. When it comes to crossing the finish line, it’s not how fast you go, but how well you pace yourself.
The other thing about having a goal that is entirely yours? Only you can achieve it.
So – go get ‘em. You’ve got this.
About the author
Sarah Ann Juckes writes books for young people. Her debut Young Adult novel ‘Outside’ (Penguin) was nominated for the Carnegie Medal Award 2020 and shortlisted for both the Mslexia Children’s Novel Award and the Bath Novel Award. She is the Content and Membership Manager for Jericho Writers, working with writers from all over the world. She is also on the Board for Creative Future, working with under-represented writers, and works creatively with young people in and out of school. She lives in East Sussex, UK. Find out more about her at www.sarahannjuckes.com.