Friday, May 4, 2012

Yes You Can: Making and Achieving Your Writing Goals

Summer is coming! (Here in New Mexico we have proof in the 85 degree temperatures, blooming cacti, and heavy winds blowing pollen. In some places you may have to go more on faith.)

Summer can work either way for writers. Depending on your job and family situation, you may suddenly have more free time – or less, with kids home demanding attention. Bright early mornings and long, late evenings may inspire you to work – or distract you with outdoor activities or lazy drinks on the patio. Either way, if you expect changes in your schedule or mood, it’s worth setting some goals now.

Where would you (realistically) like to be at the end of summer?

To start, consider where you want to go in your writing life. Do you want to make a steady income? Or is it more important to write what you love, regardless of the market? Do you care more about winning awards or getting laughs? Goal setting should involve the entire career, from time management to craft to market research and submissions to publicity for published works.

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 an annual 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 10-year goal. You can then set short-term goals to help you get there. You can’t jump ahead to the end, but you can keep moving along the path.

Goals can change over time, as we learn more about ourselves and our field. Author and writing coach Esther Hershenhorn says, “I’ve watched writers assess their interests, talents and experiences to find related niches—reviewing books for a journal or website, writing curriculum materials, working with book fairs, selling at bookstores, writing PR plans for fellow writers, returning to library school.”

It’s important to realize when you are consciously changing goals, and when you’re being led astray. Suzanne Morgan Williams found a tempting side path early on, when a fiction submission led to an offer of a nonfiction book project and eventually ten books. Williams could have stayed on that easy path, but she remembered her original goal: to write fiction. Eventually, she says, “I made the conscious decision not to pursue more nonfiction contracts until I’d spent some real time working on my fiction skills.” With that new focus, Williams wrote and sold her first novel, Bull Rider.

Author Sydney Salter 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.” Sydney now has three books out, the middle grade novel Jungle Crossing and the young adult comedies My Big Nose And Other Natural Disasters and Swoon At Your Own Risk. 

You may not achieve every goal you set. You can’t win an award just because you want to, or even because you work really hard. But you can focus on improving your craft so you can write books of the style and quality that win awards. 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.

The Bucket List is an enjoyable and inspiring movie about two men with terminal cancer who try to live their dreams before they "kick the bucket." It's a good conversation starter for thinking about your own dreams. Facebook even has "My Bucket List" apps so you can share your goals with friends.

This article on "Creating a Bucket List - 100 Things to do Before You Die" contains some ads for the author's e-book, but also has an interesting breakdown into life areas where you may want to ponder goals (work, family, health, personal contributions, etc.) and extensive lists of ideas in each area, to help with brainstorming.

Start thinking about your overall goals now. Next week, I’ll offer specific tips and resources for identifying the steps you need to take to get to your writing goals.


  1. Thank you, Chris, for another insightful post. I set goals, but after reading this I realize I need to be more specific about what those goals should be. The weekend's coming up--think I'll grab Bucket List from the Redbox!

  2. These tips go into a lot more detail than I've thought about before too! My goals tend to be larger scale, and I'm usually lucky to finish half my goals for a week. I accept that and call it aiming high, but I may think about other ways to do things.

  3. I'm sort of in that in-between stage - re-evaluating my blog, my goals, etc. Not sure what direction I'll take.