One of the most important things writers (or anyone) can do is set clear, explicit goals about what they want to accomplish. Most of us have a bunch of vague goals, like the “one day novel” (as in, “one day, I’m going to write a novel). We want to “someday” do x, y, and z – get a big magazine assignment, find an agent, finish our book – but without clear goals, we don’t seem to make any progress. We chug along, picking at our huge projects, rarely coming any closer to finishing, and we feel horrible about ourselves.

If you don’t set goals, you won’t achieve them.

There are a lot of reasons people don’t set clear goals. Most of them boil down to a fear of commitment – and of letting ourselves down when we fail to live up to that commitment. Saying “I’m going to finish my novel” sets us up for failure. What if I don’t have any ideas? What if some life crisis happens and I can’t finish? What if, like the main character in Wonder Boys, I have too many ideas, and it just keeps growing and growing and growing…? What if something better comes along?

And on and on. We have a million ways of talking ourselves out of committing to achievement. So we avoid the commitment. We keep our options open. We dally.

As anyone who’s ever been in a romantic relationship without commitment knows, this is a recipe for disaster. In fact, it’s a pretty good analogy, because an author’s relationship with a work in progress is a lot like your relationship with your significant other. You have to work at it every day, and nurture it, and accept its quirks and even failures. And if you lack real commitment, sooner or later, one or the other of you will flake out.

SMART goals are easier to achieve than dumb ones

One reason goal-setting is so daunting is because we don’t know how to set good goals. We set vague, unspecified, open-ended goals – goals with precisely the same faults we mercilessly strike from our writing. “Someday”, “eventually”, “when inspiration strikes”, “as the Muses allow” – these words and phrases need to be banished from your goal-setting vocabulary. What you need are crisp, clear, specific goals.

SMART goals.

The idea of the SMART goal was conceived by a business psychologist named George Doran. SMART is an acronym, standing for goals that are:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant, and
  • Time-bound.

Let’s look at these elements one by one.

S Specific Set goals with specific outcomes. Avoid loose language. Ex: “Write story for publication”
M Measurable Set concrete goals that you can keep track of – and keep track of them! Ex: “Write 20,000 word story for publication”
A Achievable Set realistic goals that you’re prepared to pursue. 30,000 words in a month is reasonable. 50,000 is pushing it. 120,000 words is almost impossible – and when you fail to meet it, you’ll feel bad about yourself.
R Relevant Set goals that matter to you, that will have a positive effect in your life.
T Time-bound Give yourself a deadline to create a sense of urgency and keep you focused on the task at hand. Ex: “Write 20,000 word story for publication by August 31”

A bad goal – but the kind we are most comfortable committing to – is something like “Write more.”

That’s a dumb goal – more than what? How will you know if you’re writing more? How much more? When should you write more – tomorrow? next week? someday?

A SMART goal would be “Write 1,000 words a day every weekday between now and September 15th.” You know when to start — “now” – and you can easily track your progress – just write down daily word counts. If they’re less than a thousand, don’t stop writing that day!

Here’s another dumb goal: get novel published. It’s too big, too unspecific – it doesn’t suggest any action. Every day, you’ll say to yourself, “Oh, right. I really oughtta get that novel published!” and then go back to surfing the Internet, watching TV, or playing Wii.

Instead, set a series of SMART goals:

  • Write a proposal for my novel by July 30th.
  • Identify 10 likely agents for my novel by August 7th.
  • Send copies of proposal to 10 agents by August 15th.

Even that might not be granular enough – maybe you’re not prepared to write the proposal (it’s not achievable). Maybe you need to:

  • Research how to write a book proposal by July 20th.
  • Brainstorm 20 promotional ideas for book by July 22nd.
  • Identify 20 magazines that would be likely to review my novel by July 25th.

Of course, I’ve taken for granted that publishing your novel is relevant to you, and if you’re a writer, it probably is. But you have to think about whether a goal is relevant, and how, every time, or you won’t have the necessary motivation to complete the goal. It’s boring researching competitor’s books for a book proposal – but if you want to publish that novel, then doing the legwork becomes incredibly relevant.

Make sure you have some way of keeping track of your goals. For daily writing goals and the like, I like the idea of keeping a white board by your desk and writing daily word counts after every writing session. But a notebook, diary, computer file, or anything else will work fine. Maybe you can start a “goal diary” – a nice-looking notebook that you can write goals in, one per page, and track progress in as needed.

Whatever you decide to use, make sure you keep on top of it. Accountability, even just to yourself, is key – both so you can feel good about your project (especially in the middle of a big project that seems like it will never end) and so you can identify hangups and other problems that are keeping you from accomplishing your goals.

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