Monday, January 12, 2015

SMART goals for writers

It's 2015 you guys! Whatever happened to 2014? I mean seriously. It's like 2013 was the day before yesterday.

Anyway. I'm personally not one for New Year's resolutions. Mostly because I end up breaking them by February. But every year around this time I do review my goals and try to recognize the steps I need to take to achieve them which is a completely different beast. While the New Year is certainly an arbitrary marker for the movement of time, it is however no more made up than most of human society and thus a good time to think about one's goals. I'm a fan of SMART goals, mostly because they're designed to be - relatively speaking - easier to achieve. Which is why I thought I'd take this post to share some ideas for setting SMART writing goals.


It's all well and good trying to make stuff happen by resolving to "write" or "lose weight" this year. Because our brains apparently work that way, it's much more likely that you'll be able to actually make things happen if you decide to "finish a novel" or "lose 5 kg". "Writing" is an amorphous mass that makes it hard to see the actual steps leading up to it whereas "finish a novel" is a specific goal with easy to see steps leading up to achieving it.

Trying to get your goals into a specific form also helps you with figuring out what you really want to accomplish. If you can't pin down a specific goal, maybe you don't really want it as badly as you thought?


Once you've pinned down your specific goal how do you know if you've reached it? Take the goal of "finish a novel". When is a novel finished exactly? When there's a first draft? First pass of edits? Beta-reader comments? Accepted by an agent (assuming one is heading toward traditional publishing)? When it's published? Never?

You need to be able to tell when you've accomplished any particular goal that you've set for yourself. Partly for the same reasons you need to set specific goals. But more than that your brain actually releases dopamine when you complete a task and if you can't tell when a task is completed you'll never get that release. So instead of "finish a novel" go for a goal like "finish the first draft of a novel".


To keep yourself motivated it's also important to make sure your goals are achievable. You can set a goal to write 1,000,000 in the next year all you like but if the best you can manage in a day is around 250 words, you'll never achieve it and you'll be demoralized by day 2.

The same goes for goals that you have no actual control over. While I would of course encourage you to dream about selling your novel to Tor for a $1,000,000 advance, I don't think you should set it as a goal for yourself because it contains a mountain of moving parts that you don't actually control. Maybe the market's glutted with the kind of books you're trying to sell. Maybe the editor who might buy it just bought a similar book the day before yours landed on her desk. Maybe they want it at a $6,000 advance but definitely no higher. Maybe it goes into a bidding war between multiple publishing houses and you realize that it has a much better home somewhere else.

No matter the reason, you should make sure that your goals are achievable. But you should also stretch yourself a little. If you can do 250 words/ day with effort, try making a goal to write an average of 350 words every day. Something that's still achievable but slightly challenging.


So let's say that your ultimate dream is to become a published author. There are many goals to achieve on the road to that success. First draft, first sale, first published. Marketing, editing, education and so on. So maybe setting a goal like "master the author signature" isn't a good idea. In order to determine if a goal is relevant to you right now you should be asking yourself questions like: "does this seem worthwhile?" or "is this the right time?". I'm sure you, dear reader, are smart enough (pun intended and I'm sorry for it) to figure out the rest.


Last but not least your goals need to be time-bound. Humans in general seem to work better when they're working on a deadline, however made up. In general I find that adding a due date to a goal creates a sense of urgency that motivates me to take action right now instead of waiting 'till tomorrow to start. It's important to make sure this date is also realistic.

Having your goal be time helps it from being swept up in the various little emergencies that everyone has in their life. Dog peed on the rug? Still gotta get those words in! As Neil Gaiman says: Make Good Art.

If you're working on more than one goal this will also help you prioritize work. Need to finish a novel and a short story but the short story needs to get done in two weeks but the novel is three months away? Keep chipping away at that novel but put most of your work toward finishing that short story.

Bonus point: Accountability

This is not really a part of the SMART goals phenomenon but I find that I work better and more consistently when there's someone to check in with. If no one besides me cares about whether or not my work gets done it is shamefully easy to decide that I'll just create one more civilization. Having regular check-ins keeps my projects in my mind. This is probably also why NaNoWriMo works so darn well for me. It's millions of accountability partners also working toward the same goal. Try to check in with your accountability partner at least once a week and even more often if you can find a way to work it in. Just make sure that you're not replacing actual writing time with time spent your accountability partner.

Additional bonus point: Character goals

You can also use SMART goals as a plotting device. Your characters need concrete, measurable and especially time-bound goals as much, if not more than you do.

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