One of the hardest things about writing is that it’s extremely difficult to judge whether or not you’re improving or making serious progress toward your goals.
Even tracking your progress throughout a larger project makes things more complicated than it often seems they should be.
A mistake writers often make when starting new projects is “aiming high” — setting a very large and ambitious goal, such as getting a novel published — and beginning to work toward that large and ambitious goal without establishing any strategy for how to continue progressing the whole way through.
When you start working toward achieving a big project, your motivation runs high, the ideas flow freely, and you can write thousands of words without breaking a metaphorical sweat.
But all that wears off. You start to see just how far away your end goal is. You start to get discouraged, and even begin to wonder if continuing is even worth it.
It doesn’t have to be this way, though. I promise.
Focus on your mile markers. When running a marathon, you are faced with a very large end goal as you stand on the starting line and think of how far you still have to go before you reach the end.
But you don’t just start running and run straight through until you finish. Along the way, you pass mile markers that indicate not only how far you still have to go, but also how far you have come.
Your goals, too, need mile markers — checkpoints, if you will, that help you track your progress and work toward your own personal finish line little by little. Instead of writing a whole book in one go, you take it chapter by chapter, even page by page. Instead of building a successful blog, you focus on one high-quality post at a time.
Breaking your “big” goal into smaller goals makes getting to your finish line so much easier. I’m trying to write 1 million words this year. I didn’t just start on January 1 working toward that 1 million. I had a monthly goal to work toward, a weekly goal, even a daily goal to get me started. It’s sticking to those smaller goals that helped me get closer and closer to my overall goal over time.
Hitting a milestone, no matter how small, feels good. It builds confidence and serves as an often much-needed reminder that YOU CAN DO IT!
But having and hitting those milestones isn’t quite enough to keep up your momentum. You should also have a way of rewarding yourself each time you inch a little closer to where you want to eventually end up.
Celebrate your small victories. That’s it. That’s the advice.
Seriously. Do you know what happens when you move from milestone to milestone without taking a second to recognize that what you’ve done is AMAZING? You burn out. You start to doubt yourself. You forget that you are supposed to feel GOOD about what you’re doing. Just because an accomplishment is “small” does not mean it isn’t significant.
So celebrate, gosh darn it! Go to bed early! Sleep in on a Saturday! Go see a movie! Make it simple, but make it count. You did a cool thing and you have earned the right to pat yourself on the back.
Even if somehow managing to write five days in a row is the only thing you have accomplished this week, celebrate! You earned it! The more you celebrate your successes along the way, the more you will continue to be motivated to keep working toward your goals one at a time, even when it isn’t easy.
Only worry about today. I’ve written a lot of things over the years (many of which no one will ever see). I know what it feels like to start a new project and immediately start running through the “what ifs.” You want every sentence to make sense. You want the plot to flow smoothly. You want all your messages to be clear.
But you also want to write something. You want to be able to start a project, work on it over a period of time, and actually finish it. And it might not be easy to do that if you’re worried about things that don’t matter yet.
Spelling mistakes are a simple but straightforward example of this. Say you’re writing the first draft of your novel. It’s going pretty well, and you’re mostly happy with what you’ve written so far. But you’re notoriously a terrible speller, and all those red squiggly lines are bugging you. Do you keep writing and continue making more mistakes, leaving even more to correct later, or do you go back and fix the errors before you move on?
If you’re focused on your finish line — completing the first draft of your novel — spelling errors don’t matter. At least not right now. Your goal isn’t to write an error-free draft, it’s just to finish a draft. Guess what? Drafts are full of mistakes. That’s why they’re not called finished products.
So turn off your spell checker and keep writing — focus not on the mistakes you can go back and fix later, but instead on the words you have to write today. Focus on right now.
Yes, keep that finish line in your sights. Keep moving toward it little by little every day. But don’t get so caught up in getting there that you focus too much on the “then” and not enough on the “now.” Don’t distract yourself with what’s ahead and make detrimental mistakes now as a result.
There is another part to this, though. If you’re preoccupied with what’s going to happen when you reach your end goal, you’re going to miss out on the thrill of everything that goes into getting there.
Because yes, writing is work, it’s often challenging and time-consuming and sometimes it’s stressful. But at the end of the day, we don’t write to work. We don’t write to make money. We don’t write to get recognized. We write because writing is something we enjoy. Some people are just lucky enough to be able to work and make money and gain recognition for doing something they love.
So don’t forget that you love to write — and make time for loving it along the way. Enjoy what you’re doing. Is a finish line really worth reaching if you were miserable the whole time you worked your way up to it?
Maybe it is. Maybe you’re doing it for the thrill of finishing and not for the enjoyment of the craft. Every writer is different, and everyone approaches writing differently. I’m not here to tell you what to do or how you are supposed to feel while you do it.
But I am here to (hopefully) make writing a little easier and more pleasant for you. So I’m obliged to say you should do it, at least in part, because it makes you happy.
Celebrating your accomplishments is worth it. Hard work is worth it. Just don’t let the future dampen your present. Stop and take a minute to appreciate what you’re doing. Look what you just wrote! You are amazing! Go you!
Writing truly is an amazing feat. Never give up simply because success seems too far away.
Chances are, it’s a lot closer than you think.
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.