Struggling to achieve a goal is not a great feeling. It makes you feel as though you are failing, or not good at something you thought you were good at. It brings up a lot of negative emotions that aren’t always easy to deal with.
What many writers don’t realize is that it’s not their inability to write a good story or finish a project or “do things right” that is holding them back. It might actually be the goals themselves that are the problem.
What does an ‘unreasonable’ writing goal look like?
So. You want to write something, huh? Maybe you even wrote down a few writing goals at the start of your journey (and good on you for that). But what you might not know is that your goals may be unreasonable — at least, for the time and space at which you currently exist.
See, some writers mistakingly believe the best strategy when it comes to setting goals is to aim as high as possible and work toward the most ambitious achievements they can think of. This is great and theory — the higher you set the bar, the more likely you are to reach that bar.
But this doesn’t always work for everyone. Sometimes, in doing this, you actually end up sabotaging your own writing success and you don’t even realize you’re doing it.
The truth? Some goals are just too far beyond your reach right now. Maybe they always have been, or maybe they weren’t before. But at this particular moment, you’re neither being honest nor realistic.
- Sometimes a goal really is too hard for you (right now). We don’t like to admit there are things we don’t know, as a general species. We don’t like failing or admitting that we are struggling, and we are terrified of the possibility of having other people point out our flaws. But sometimes, you have to stand up and be honest with yourself about your goals compared to your circumstances. Some people want to write a book, but aren’t at that level yet. They don’t struggle to finish a novel because they’re lazy or don’t want to, they struggle because it’s too far above what they are capable of right now. It doesn’t mean they never will. It just means writing a book might not be a goal they are ready to pursue yet. There is nothing wrong with that.
- Just because someone else did it doesn’t mean you have to. Is your goal secretly to write more books in your lifetime than Stephen King? First of all, good luck with that? Second of all, this is absolutely not a reasonable goal to set for someone who has never even written a full first draft of their own book, for example. Consider your circumstances here. Maybe you should aim a little lower. Try to write just one book, for now, and see where that one takes you. You don’t have to be Stephen King. Do you really want to be?
- You might be looking at things out of order. I have met more than one person who already has the title, synopsis, book cover, and pitch/query/proposal of their book all ready to go but they haven’t even written the first draft of the book yet. To say you hope to publish a bestselling novel is one thing, but to focus on all the details that make a book look and sound appealing before you have even written the thing is extremely concerning. If you’re not prepared or disciplined enough to write something, saying you’re going to do x, y, and z once you’re an author isn’t going to cut it. You have to have the ability to write a story from beginning to end. You have to be able to prove it, too.
Don’t push yourself so hard trying to do something you aren’t ready for — or, if you do want to keep that goal, set smaller goals that will eventually get you there. Maybe someday you want to write an epic fantasy series — a very big task to take on! Start by writing one short fantasy novel. And repeat. And repeat again. That’s realistic. That’s, ideally, something you can do. And along the way, you can work up to that “something bigger” you are hoping for.
What does a ‘reasonable’ writing goal look like?
A reasonable writing goal is one that is possible for you personally. This is the “attainable and realistic” portion of a SMART goal.
Reasonable writing goals are those you ideally have the skills, resources, motivation, and time to work toward achieving. These goals should be challenging enough to give you a reason to work toward them on a consistent basis, but not so challenging that you consistently fall behind, miss the mark, or quit.
- Don’t try to make time for something you don’t have time for. You can say “oh I’ll have time to do this eventually, I’ll just have to wait until things calm down before I can really get going.” But things will never calm down. Saying it’s possible to be all caught up on work is like saying it’s possible to have all your Christmas shopping done the day after Thanksgiving. It’s not going to happen. Ever. So don’t expect a bunch of free time to suddenly appear. If you don’t have time for it now, you never will.
- Select your challenges carefully. It’s not possible to grow as a writer if you do not challenge yourself every once in a while. But there is a time for embarking on an epic uncharted quest and a time to sit back and stick with what is simple and familiar. There are a lot of writing-related things I would love to do in order to push myself and truly feel like I am making progress toward something that matters. But I also have a lot of goals, and for right now, it’s better to focus on making sure I can check off boxes to stay motivated. You don’t want to continuously stand up to challenges you can’t beat. You need a win every now and then.
- Work on projects that actually matter to you. There are a lot of people out there who will say, “I want to write a self-help book because people like self-help books and it doesn’t seem all that hard.” But they have zero interest in actually writing a self-help book. It looks and sounds like a cool thing to be able to say they have done, but are they really going to be able to put in the time and effort to create a high quality product if they don’t care about it? Choose projects that are important to you and that align with your personal and professional goals, even if it’s just a side project on your own time (for now …).
Reasonable goals incorporate everything that’s important to you as a storyteller in a quantity and time frame/pace you can handle. They’re not so easy that you suffer inflated confidence, but they’re not impossible to the point of showering you in unnecessary self-doubt. They give you something to work toward and something you hope to accomplish — something to build your skills and confidence and make you feel good about yourself! — without dragging you along with no hope in sight.
If you are having a hard time achieving your goals, keep in mind that there is nothing wrong with shifting priorities and changing the goals you previously set. That’s not an indicator of failure or a sign of “commitment issues.” It’s a sign you are self-aware enough to realize you need to do something and work toward something different than what you were doing before.
It’s a good thing. It means you’re getting closer to being on the right track.
Don’t give up when you start to struggle. Re-evaluate. Look at what you’re trying to do and figure out why it’s not working. Be honest with yourself. And adjust accordingly — and keep writing!
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.