Friday, November 11, 2011

Set Your Goals, Step By Step

I’ve been talking about setting career goals. I started by describing my career. Then I quoted some other successful authors. Now it’s your turn.

Exercise: Goal Setting

What is my primary writing goal?

What are my secondary writing goals?

How can these goals work together? Do they contradict each other at all? Do they interfere with other career, family or personal goals?

What steps do I need to take? Do I need to work on specific craft techniques, time management, market research, or submissions?

Which steps come first? How can I schedule the steps to reach my goals?

A regular review of your personal goals can keep you on track, or help you recognize when it’s time to change. Once you identify your priorities, you can take steps to get there. If money is the priority, you might focus on work for hire and market research. If your ideal is winning major literary awards, maybe you need to take more classes to work on your craft. The journey may still be a long one, but you take the first step by identifying where you want to go.

Janet S. Fox says, “When I started writing for children I had one goal: to get published!” She found a critique group to help her on that path. “My critique partners and I shared the goal of publishing—but we also shared the goals of improving our craft, of learning about the nuances of the publishing industry, of understanding structure, character, and voice. We pushed each other, and attended conferences together.” They are all now published.

Large-scale, general goals need to be broken into specific small steps. Sydney Salter, author of My Big Nose and Other Natural Disasters and the award-winning Swoon at Your Own Risk (both HM Harcourt) says, “When I decided that I really wanted to make writing a professional career, not just a hobby, I bought an engagement calendar to use just for my writing. Each day I recorded what I had done to work on my writing career, whether it was revising a magazine article, researching a novel, writing 1,500 words, or reading a Newbery winning novel over the weekend. I also recorded goals at the beginning of each month to keep myself on track—things like write 12,000 words, submit teen story to Children’s Writer contest, read three MT Anderson books. This technique kept me focused on my goals and allowed me to have some small successes, such as published magazine stories and contest wins, while I worked toward book publication.”

Each step on the path not only brings you closer to your destination, it also builds valuable skills for when you arrive. Salter says, “When I found an interested agent, I was grateful for the discipline that I’d learned through years of treating my writing seriously. My editor also appreciates my work ethic.”

Writers may benefit from reviewing their goals yearly, or even more often. You may also want to review goals whenever you feel bored or frustrated, as instinct may be telling you that you’re on the wrong path.

It’s good to have big goals, even fantasies, but break them down into shorter-term goals, and lists the steps you need to take to get there. To be a rich and famous writer would be nice. But you may need to start by taking writing classes to build your storytelling skills. Then there’s the discipline of writing on a regular schedule, finding helpful critiques, editing, market research, networking... all the steps along the way. You can’t jump ahead to the end, but you can keep moving along the path.

Make your goals as specific as possible. For example, “Make money from writing” is a vague goal. Will you be happy with $10 from an online poem just so you can say you’ve been paid? Do you want to make a profit so you can claim writing as a business on your tax forms? Contribute a certain amount to the family income? Quit your day job?

You may also need to break down goals into short-term and long-term. Making enough money to quit your day job may be a five-year or 10-year goal. You can then set short-term goals to help you get there.

Goal setting should involve the entire career, from time management to craft to market research and submissions to publicity for published works.

You may not achieve every goal you set. You can’t win a Newbery medal just because you want to, or even because you work really hard. But you can focus on writing books of the style and quality that win Newberys. That puts you on the right path. Perhaps that path will lead to the realization of your dream. At least you’ll be heading in the right direction, and can enjoy the journey.

Tip: If your goals include polishing a manuscript and becoming a better writer, consider getting professional feedback! See my critique rates and recommendations in the right-hand column, or e-mail me through my website.


  1. great info! I really like the idea about writing goals and keeping track of what I write on an calendar. I may have to start using that one!

  2. This was excellent advice. I think sometimes we focus on either the 'big' goal or the 'small' goal to the detriment of the other. As you point out, we need both.

  3. Thanks, C.R. and Tracy. It's easy to make goals, but without some kind of organized way to prioritize and track them, it's also easy to get off track!