A long time ago, I decided I was going to write a novel.
This was a big deal. I’d spent my whole life up to that point reading other people’s novels and dreaming of someday writing my own. Declaring that I was going to do “the impossible” and write a book from beginning to end was exhilarating — so much so that I actually sat down and did it.
There is only ever one true downside to achieving a goal you never thought you could achieve: What do you do when you’re done?
I set out to write a novel. I did it. And then, because I didn’t know what else to do, I did it again. And again. I kept deciding I was going to write books and then I kept doing it. Granted, I was fifteen and the books weren’t that great and most of them are just taking up space on my hard drive at this point. But still.
Eventually I got bored of setting out to accomplish and then accomplishing the same goal over and over, and for what felt like a very long time, I didn’t do much creative writing at all.
It took me a very long time to realize that it wasn’t my books or my writing or ME causing the problem. It was my writing goal. “Write a novel” is a common, simple, and highly attainable goal in the grand scheme of creative ambitions. It’s not a “bad” goal.
To be clear, setting writing goals — even small ones — is an accomplishment within itself. Establishing an endpoint means you’re at least considering putting in the time and effort necessary to reach it, and that’s a step further than many aspiring writers will ever take. You’re doing great.
But you could be doing even better. I almost learned this much too late.
For me, striving to write a novel was enough — but only in the beginning. At some point it no longer served as a challenge or gave me the sense of fulfillment or purpose it once had. I wasn’t able to recognize that at the time, so I just kept doing the same thing over and over thinking something would change.
The way I approach writing goals — especially creative writing goals — is much different now than it used to be. Right now, for example, I am still working on a novel. I’d like to finish writing it; edit it; rewrite at least half of it; edit it again’ try to get it published. Same old, same old.
But my goals run deeper than that now. Now, instead of just trying to finish writing a book, I’m also keeping that story’s greater purpose in mind. Why do I want people to read it? Why does sending it out into the world matter to me? My goal isn’t just to have a book published, but to have an opportunity to initiate conversations about that book’s subject matter. THAT is what is important to me.
Your purpose for publishing a story, if that’s your goal, might have to do with money or recognition. I wouldn’t personally recommend striving for those things exclusively, but it’s your life and your story and you can do whatever you want with it. As long as you’re doing something to break the kind of cycle I unintentionally found myself in, I think you’ll be just fine.
But when it comes to goal setting, how much is too much? Is there such a thing? What if you decide you want to be as rich and famous as J.K. Rowling but don’t ever get that far? Will all your efforts have been wasted?
It’s important to remember that a goal should always have a solid foundation of realism to remain sustainable. There is nothing wrong with dreaming of one day being able to fully support your family by writing romance novels. Dream big or don’t dream. But when you’re setting your writing goals, there need to be smaller, more accessible milestones to work toward. If there aren’t, you’re going to burn out trying to swim across an ocean, and that’s not good.
It might be best to set a seemingly unrealistic overarching goal — write a book series as successful as Harry Potter (I’m not saying you should try this, it’s just an example) — but work toward much more achievable, yet still healthfully challenging, goals along the way. Like writing a story you’ve been afraid to write, or sharing something you’ve written with a critique group. The only way to arrive at success is through small but steady steps.
Don’t keep setting the same goals over and over. Challenge yourself — but not so much that you’re constantly discouraged. Everyone needs small victories. Allow yourself the chance to have those, even if they’re very minor. They still count. But also give yourself opportunities to celebrate big wins. You’ll never be able to do that if you don’t dare to set some big goals, and some medium-sized ones too.
Setting writing goals isn’t easy. I’m working on a short guide to help you with that. In the meantime, if you feel like you’re struggling, focus your attention on just one thing at a time. Want to write an 80,000-word novel? Try writing 500 words today. Want to become a bestselling author? Try writing at least one chapter of your book. Start small. Work your way up. Be brave. Never quit.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.