Do You Really Have to Set Writing Goals?

What is the point of a writing goal if it is just going to stress you out?

“I don’t want to set a formal writing goal, it will just make me hate writing.”

I have heard this complaint many times. It’s quite possible that I have even said it in the past, back when I was less experienced and convinced that passive ambition was just part of what made me who I was.

Here’s the thing about writing goals: They only sound scary and unflattering when you assume too much about what they imply. This often comes from places like school or the workplace, where goals are associated with a “do this or else” environment.

Writing might technically count as work most of the time, but at the end of the day, it is still meant to be fun and rewarding. So why set a goal if it’s just going to “suck all the fun” out of creative experession?

That’s the point a lot of people are missing: No one ever said it had to.

Having just one goal can help keep your mind on your craft. For the record, I understand why many people believe they should not or have convinced themselves they do not want to set even just one writing goal. In creative writing especially, it can feel to some people like a restraint where there should be freedom. After all, if there is creativity in spontaneity, then shouldn’t you just write what you want, when you want to, and not worry about it?

Sure — and you are obviously more than welcome to go about your writing life however you want. But there are many people who do have big writing related ambitions, even if they have not admitted them to anyone (or even to themselves). And the “I’ll just do it whenever I feel like it” attitude, if we are being completely honest, won’t get you very far very fast.

Not that speed is the most important thing; dreams don’t have deadlines (in the sense that you have to had published a book by the time you turn age x, for example). But there are a lot of people out there with a lot of “somedays.” Don’t you want to turn a someday into a real, tangible possibility?

It’s easy enough to get distracted and discouraged even when you already have a set of writing goals in place. I can only imagine what it must feel like to know you want to write a book, to keep telling yourself you are going to work on that book, but time after time decide not to, even when you have the space and time, because you “just don’t feel like it right now.”

A goal can keep you focused on working at your own pace toward the things you want to achieve most in your life. If you want to write a book, gosh darn it, write a book. But give yourself, at the very least, a few checkpoints to keep your eye on the prize. “I want to finish a first draft by Christmas next year” or “I want to have a chapter done to show my best friend by the end of the month.”

Writing goals don’t have to be stressful. Something we can all 100 percent agree on? Life is stressful enough already. There is absolutely no need to set a writing goal that is going to add even more worry and guilt and chaos to your already hectic world.

Far too many writers set out to accomplish these huge goals in ridiculously short amounts of time — and in a way, they are just setting themselves up to feel disappointed. It’s great that you want to accomplish a lot this year. It’s admirable that you are taking your motivation and putting it toward something that is important to you, and that you are making good use of your imagination.

But a goal should seek to stretch and challenge you. It should never bend you to the point of breaking. You should not find yourself spending an entire year turning down invitations to events, barely remembering to text your friends back, and coming to hate what you are doing. A goal should not be so easy that you learn nothing from it. It should not be so difficult that it brings you to tears almost on a daily basis.

So, you have to evaluate your goals while keeping all this in mind. So maybe writing an entire first draft of a novel is just going to be too much for you this year. That’s okay. Set out to write a chapter a month, or 100 pages in six months, or 50,000 words in 365 days. Choose a goal that is going to keep you moving forward at a consistent pace without making you want to quit writing forever.

You don’t have to be a “certain type of person” to set a goal. There are a lot of people — even a lot of creative people — who claim they aren’t motivated by goals, or that goals don’t work for them. If you don’t feel like setting a goal can help you achieve something that matters to you, you are not wrong for thinking that way. But I do want to encourage you to keep a few things in mind.

First of all, just because a goal has not led to an achievement for you in the past does not mean it never will in the future. Many writers are afraid to continue working toward big accomplishments because of mistakes they have made or things they did not or could not do in the past. But that’s silly. You should never feel like something is impossible simply because you have not done it yet. Make it possible.

Second, a lot of people tend to think goals do not work for them because they have never been taught how to set goals properly. “I want to write a novel someday,” for example, is not a goal — it’s a dream. “I want to self-publish a romance novel before I turn 30,” however, is a goal. It’s specific. You can break it into various checkpoints. And it has a deadline so that you aren’t eternally trapped in “someday land.”

Anyone can set and achieve a goal. It just has to be the right one — and the most realistic one possible — for you.

An unmet goal is not a failure. At least not in the traditional sense. I think we, as writers and creators and yes, even dreamers, focus way too much on failure as something negative to be ashamed of or something from our past that exists only to bury.

When we do not meet a goal we have set, it does not mean we ourselves are “failures” or that we should never have tried to challenge ourselves. Usually what it means is that something somewhere along the goal setting and achievement process did not work. It might be your fault. It might be the result of many hangups and frustrations, not all having directly to do with you or your work ethic.

But the point here is not to dwell on what you did not get done or all the ways you “should have done better.” If you are going to move forward, you have to frame your progress in a more positive way. Instead of looking back on your shortcomings in disgust, you might consider taking some time to reflect on what worked and what didn’t, what came more easily to you and what you struggled with; the parts you loved, and the parts you could have done without.

You should do all this with the intent of learning from your mistakes and your unfinished goals or projects. That does not just mean acknowledging what you did not do well, but saying what you are going to do differently from this point forward to change your outcome in the future … and then actually following through and doing that.

Even though you still might not succeed, not succeeding does not always have to be the end of the line.

Yes, you should always try as hard as you can to achieve any goal that you set for yourself. But you should not feel afraid of not quite getting there. Pressure and stress should occur at a level that motivates you and forces you to remember why you are working so hard to accomplish your goal — not at a level that makes you dread having to sit down and write or one that makes you hate writing in general.

Even if you do not think you are the kind of person that can accomplish something big thanks to the help of a goal, really, you’re just assuming something based on past experience — or fear of the unknown future, or both. A goal can completely change your life. It can help you keep your head down and focused on your work.

And most importantly, a writing goal will allow you to look back on all you have accomplished a year from now. Because even if you don’t end up meeting your goal, it’s likely that you at least did something here and there to try getting there. That’s something. That counts.

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.

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