What separates writers from those who want to be writers?
What encourages consistency in writing practice?
Any writer who has stuck with writing likely has a plan. It might not be one fully formed and articulated on paper, but a plan's a plan, no matter what form it ends up taking. When you get to the end of any structured writing experience—a class, a critique group, a weeklong conference—it is always a good idea to take a moment to think about what you will do next. December is an end of sorts, the end of a year, a time to reassess, to reconsider the year and your intentions for the next one. Why not make your writing intentions a part of this process?
Writing is an activity that doesn’t have inherent deadlines and a focused structure, so it is your job to take the time to create a structure and set your own expectations and intentions. If you have set goals or intentions for yourself in the past, now is a good time to see how much closer you are to meeting those goals or how much you have followed through on your intentions. Finding out that you have largely forgotten about them is a great wake up call, and a nice excuse to create a better, less avoidable plan of action for the future. On the other hand, finding out that you have met some goals you made gives you an opportunity to see how you can meet even more in.
Some of you may be veteran goal setters; some of you may be novices. For each of you, here are a few writing-specific issues to think about as you construct your plan:
What are your goals? Think of this in terms of long-term goals and short-term goals.
Long term: Do you want to publish a novel? Teach a fiction workshop? Complete one decent short story? Screenplay? Article? Write consistently from week to week? Become a famous writer? Get a spot on a morning talk show with your book as a book-of-the-month selection? All of these—from the most humble to the most glamorous—are valid long-term goals. What is yours?
You might have to explore some big issues, like why you're writing, or what you place the most value on, but come up with at least one long-term goal. That is the light on the shore that you will travel toward. Keep it in your sights, lest you lose it completely.
Once you have your long-term goals, make a list of smaller actions that you will need to do in order to reach that long-term goal. If your goal is to publish a novel, perhaps your list would look something like this:
- figure out an idea for a novel
- write the novel
- find a way to get feedback and revise the novel
- market it to agents
Don't worry about how far fetched or clueless you feel as you make this list. Just figure out what you're going to need to do to get to that longer-term goal.
Choose one of the items on the list as your starting point and begin to create shorter term goals from there. If I've written nothing on this novel, I'd better get moving, right? So perhaps some of my shorter-term goals would read like this:
- write for two hours five days a week
- read a contemporary novel a month to say up on what's being published
- study craft by examining elements in The Great Gatsby
- Ask Glenda (writer friend) if she'll read a preliminary draft of chapter one when it's completed.
It's vital to be specific with yourself. Don’t just say: I need to write more. Instead, develop a plan of action of how much more you want to write and how often. You can funnel this into a time designation (one hour a day) or a word count (a thousand words a day). Choose a specific that's reasonable and challenging. If you're writing nothing right now, you might not necessarily want to set a goal to write three hours a day, every day. It might feel too overwhelming to start and to keep up with and you'll find your goal in the trash. If you start with something that feels reasonable and you stick with it, later you can up the quantity. Give yourself a chance to feel productive and successful.
Once you set out your long-term goals and your specific short term goals, determine a time to implement your practice. Again, be reasonable but firm with yourself. There's no time like the present, of course, but if the present finds you squeezing shopping into every free minute to make the holidays a decent experience for the kids, or running around trying to secure the last minute details for the New Year's Extravaganza you're putting on for the first time this year, then you might be able to make a fresher start come mid-January. Or you might start with just one short-term goal today and implement the others later. Either way, choose a date that's reasonable and soon. While you don't want to set yourself up for discouragement, you also don't want to give yourself too much leeway. A body at rest tends to stay at rest. Laziness is no excuse for putting off goals. Set the date now and prepare for it—be it tomorrow or next week—then dive in.
In addition to setting a date to start, it is also important to set dates for when you will assess or reassess your progress. Those who pledge to diet come January first and then don't think about it again until summer or, worse, next New Year's, likely did not implement a reassessment schedule. Giving yourself a chance to reassess gives you room for failure without having to jump ship completely.
I suggest having an initial reassessment early on; say two weeks after your start date, and then at regular intervals—perhaps monthly—after that. Reassessing allows you to look at your goals, to see if anything has changed, make tweaks as necessary and to look at what is working well and what isn't working at all. Writing an hour before leaving for work might have seemed like a grand idea, but let's say you didn't take into account that your creative brain doesn't turn on at that hour. You might not have even realized that about yourself until you actually tried
implementing the plan. There is no use sticking to a schedule that isn't working and if you don't reassess, you might end up giving up that hour in the morning and forgetting to place it elsewhere in your schedule. Reassessment lets you make the tweaks in the schedule and re-plan given what you've learned or discovered.
Proclaim your intentions to the world—loud and proud. You might share your goals with a close friend who you know will follow up with you. You might enter into a pact with a writer friend, agreeing to share your short-term goals and follow up with each other once a month to see the progress. Sharing your intentions with others can make them more real and hold you accountable, which might be just what you need down the road when things get busy or you get sidetracked.
Keep goals and intentions as a part of your regular writing life. These are not just the stuff of beginning writers, or ones prone to fall off the wagon. They are a way to handle your writing as a professional and keep you on track with what you want to accomplish. I set goals as often as I need to. Sometimes, when I am particularly busy with a lot of clients, I reassess weekly to make sure I'm fitting in all the writing time I can and again when things slow down to get myself back at my normal writing time.
Whatever your goals, take the time to think a bit about them and about your plan to make them happen. Then write it all down. That way you have a written documentation of what your plans are and you can refer to it to refresh your memory, to gauge how well you’re sticking to the plan and to determine what is successful and what is not.
This article originally appeared in Letterpress.