Friday, December 29, 2017

Stay Motivated With Writing Goals

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

In the writing world, November (and much of October) tends to be filled with advice on NaNoWriMo, but the lessons learned are ones we can all put to good use any time of the year. NaNo is about hitting a target word count and training yourself to write when you have to, and these are skills that every writer can benefit from. Goals keep us motivated, give us clear and defined milestones to gauge our progress by, and give us targets to shoot for.

While word count is by far the easiest milestone to set for ourselves, it's not the only one. Some people are daunted by vast numbers of words or find it too constricting, putting the focus on quantity, not quality. For these writers, a different measurement is often more useful for gauging progress. Maybe it's chapters, or acts, or specific points in the story. Maybe a set amount of time per day is a better motivator. It all comes down to what tactics works best to help motivate you to achieve the goals you've set.

Just like in our novels, I've found a layered technique works well to keep the writing momentum going. The NaNo goal of 50,000 words in 30 days can seem overwhelming when you look at the big picture, but that's just 1667 words per day. The smaller chunk feels much more manageable.

You can do the same thing with your own goals--better still, you can do this year- round, not just once a year.

What Are Your Long-Term Goals?

The most likely answer here is "to finish a novel" (or whatever project you're working on), but someone writing to improve their skills might not be interested in completing a novel just yet. They might want to get a handle on point of view or figure out how to get their ideas down on paper. It's good to identify what you want and what your goal is so you'll know if you're making progress.

Long-term goals give us targets for the bigger picture, and help us craft the steps we'll work toward over a period of time we determine for ourselves. Maybe the long-term goal is to finish a novel in a year, or have a solid outline in six months, or even solve a craft issue you've been having within the next three months. Think of your long-term goal as determining the scope of the project.

(Here's more on ways to be a more productive writer)

What Are Your Medium-Term Goals?

Since long-term goals are big picture, they don't give us much direction to work with. Sure, we know we want to write an entire novel this year, but what exactly does that entail? What are the steps we need to take to hit that goal?

Medium-term goals are our checkpoints to determine if we're still on target for the project. If we have a six-month goal to finish a first draft, then we might have monthly goals that break that into smaller chunks. For example, if the target word count is 60,000 words, you might aim for 10,000 words every month to get there. Or maybe it's three chapters a week, or ten scenes. It could even be to reach specific plot moments in the story, such as getting the protagonist to make an all-important plot decision by the end of the first writing month.

(Here are more tips on setting goals and staying motivated)

What Are Your Short-Term Goals?

Steps and milestones are fantastic tools to help keep us moving toward our goal, but they don't always help with the daily grind of getting the writing done. If we know we have a month to get five chapters done, we might be tempted to procrastinate, and then find ourselves near the end of the month with way too much work to do to hit our goal.

Short-term goals are the tasks we want to do on a daily or weekly basis to meet our deadline. If we need to hit 10,000 words in a month, then we might set a daily word count goal of 333 words a day, or even 2,500 per week. If it's chapters or scenes, we'll have that broken down into manageable chunks that allow us to feel productive without feeling like we never have time to get our writing done. Even if we just promise ourselves to write for two hours a day, we've made progress and don't have to feel guilty about not writing or not being farther along in our projects.

(Here's more on using ten minute slices of time to get things done)

The Key to Setting Goals

We all have different ways to motivate ourselves, but the key is to choose goals we can reliably hit. While you don't want to create goals that are too low (like 500 words per day if you regularly write 1,500), be wary of setting them too high.
  • If you've never written 5,000 words a day in your life, setting a 5,000-word-a-day goal is setting yourself up for failure. 
  • If it takes you a year to write a first draft, trying to write one in thirty days will also probably end in failure. 
There's nothing wrong with lofty goals if the point is to push yourself, but understand that going in so if you don't make it, you don't feel like you failed. Look instead at the progress you made toward that lofty goal.

Aim for goals that will motivate you, give you a sense of progress and accomplishment when you hit them, but still help you reach your long-term goals. 

(Here's more on challenging yourself vs. setting yourself up to fail)

Realistic Goals vs. Challenge Goals

For those who like a little extra motivation or who want to push themselves, try setting a high bar as well as a low one. For example, for last year's NaNo, I had two goals, neither of which were to actually hit that 50K mark. One goal I felt comfortable I'd be able to reach, the other was a pie-in-the-sky goal I'd love to have been able to reach.

The realistic goal: to write the first half of my novel, which for me meant 40,000 words and twelve chapters of a solid first draft. I was aiming for three chapters and 10,000 words a week. (The 40K words was my medium-term goal, and the long-term goal was do it again in December and finish the first draft of the novel).

The challenge goal: to write a solid first draft in November (80,000 words and 24 chapters). So that was a very ambitious six chapters a week (which was one per day on my writing schedule) or close to 20,000 words a week. I needed to write 3,000 words every writing session to hit this goal, and there were days when I needed more like 4,000 or 5,000 to balance out the 1,000-word days that also happened (because they always do).

My plan with having two separate goals was to have one set motivate me to get to work done and focus on the writing, while the other was to keep me working even after I'd hit my regular goal and was feeling good about my progress. It was a challenge to see what I could do if I really put my mind to it, and I'd hoped it would train me to be more productive overall.

Nine days in, I managed 17,000 words and six chapters with only six days of actual writing. A little short of my goal (two of those chapters needed some fleshing out still), but close enough that I was encouraged that it was possible to make my challenge goal. I had slow days and good days, and by November 30th, I had written 63,000 words. Not quite the first draft of my challenge goal, but well ahead of my realistic goal.

(Here's more on that process for those looking for a few more tips to boost productivity)

Writing goals can be a valuable tool for any writer, and something we can vary and change when we need to. For example, for busy writer parents, summers might be hard and the goals might need to come down a little in order for you to live your life. But once fall starts and the kids go back to school? You might kick your goals up a notch.

Try setting a few goals and see how they work for you.

Do you set writing goals? How do you manage them? What works for you? 

If you're looking for more to improve your craft (or a fun fantasy read), check out one of my writing books or novels:

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for plotting a novel, and the companion Plotting Your Novel Workbook, and my Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series, with step-by-step guides to revising a novel. 

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011).

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.
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  1. When i'm writing consistently i always set goals, usually a word count goal or something saying i want to be to this point in the novel before the end of the week. Aside from that i don't do much with goals because i often overestimate things and fall behind and that starts my self-destructive downward spiral...

    right now the only writing goal i have is to write everyday (been focusing on other things with family, and writing hasn't been a priority). i'm doing so so on it, but as long as i open up my scrivener project and get a few words in i'm content and feel like i'm still moving forward, even if it is at a glacial pace.

    1. Sounds good. That self-destructive spiral is one of the downsides to goals for sure. It can be hard to walk away when it starts becoming de-motivating. I'm glad you found a goal that works for you :) Nothing wrong with a slow pace.

  2. Setting goals is very helpful in making progress with my writing. I tend to set a year's worth of goals then break those down by setting mothly goals I can review and adjust during each month and the year.

    1. Wow, good for you. That's awesome. I bet you have plenty checked off your to-do list by the end of the year :)

  3. I like this post a lot! I realized early on that the traditional NaNo thing wasn't gonna happen for me this time around, so instead I have made it a goal to write out my book scenes by the end of the month. I got the idea after reading the NaNo prep article you did about a week ago. I'm hoping that by asking the purpose of the scene and all the other questions that you suggested, that I get further along in my plotting than I have before. Once my scenes are done the goal is to write by scene instead of word count. I hope to make more progress that way.

    1. I think that's a great idea. I tend to look at chapters instead of words myself, and it's much more freeing. And kudos for you for adapting NaNo to your needs. Perfect way to use the spirit of the month to motivate you the way you need. Good luck with those scenes!

  4. These last few weeks have been hectic, and the coming week involves a lot of social activities, so my plan is to jot notes for the second half of my book. The characters decided they didn't want to play anymore just before everything got busy, so my goal is to figure out what they want by the time my social activities wind down. That way I won't be going `well I have time to write again- and nothing to say!' :)

    1. Sounds like a good plan. You're still making the most of your "writing time" even if you aren't putting words on paper.

  5. I was setting writing goals, which, I'm sure, helped me get past that first ugly draft. But now, I am not looking at goals and, instead, making a point to be "there" five days a week as I rewrite the story from scratch. Now that I have the basic story [my first draft], I don't want to rush anything in hopes of making this draft a lot closer to the finished draft.

    1. Good goal. I like how you shift focus to best fit the goal and situation. Keeps you adaptable! Best of luck on that draft :)