Last year, I spent over 50 percent of my writing time composing words that still only my eyes have seen.
In my (perhaps over-ambitious) quest to write 1 million words in 365 days in 2019 (I did it, but barely — more on that later), there was no way I could have spent 3,000 words’ worth of time every single day only writing words presentable enough for readers, editors, and potential collaborators to view.
Since one of the main purposes of this personal challenge was to force myself to all but completely abandon my natural state of perfectionism, I ended up spending a lot of time writing unpolished prose.
It’s an extremely effective way to train yourself to write anything and everything, anywhere, anytime. But there is one consequence to this particular method of practice: You end up doing a lot of work without the adrenaline rush that often comes with the typical rewards of completion.
Without anyone congratulating you — without getting paid, or promoted, or getting that metaphorical gold star many of us still secretly long for upon completing a lengthy and trying task — where do we gather the motivation necessary to get to the finish line? I have a few ideas.
Create your own reward system for getting things done. Many writers — and people in general — depend on what’s called external accountability to motivate them to achieve their goals. This means their motivation is often fueled by other people either cheering them on or congratulating them on a job well done.
And you can absolutely take advantage of this type of accountability in your work — I do it all the time. I don’t think I would have gotten through the last 40,000 words of my 2019 goal if I didn’t post my current word count at the end of each writing day in a Twitter thread. Even just the act of announcing how many words I had left to write helped me push through all the “I don’t want to do this anymore” moments.
But you’re not always going to have that kind of accountability readily available as you work. Here lies the importance of internal accountability — reliance on yourself to provide the motivation and rewards you need in order to set, work toward, and complete goals.
How you set up a system of rewards for every goal you set is really up to you, but it’s going to take some trial and error over many weeks to figure out what works for you and what doesn’t.
- What works for me: Leaving a cookie at the corner of my desk and not letting myself eat it until I get my work done
- What doesn’t work for me: Saying I’ll get to “relax tonight” if I get the “I don’t want to do this” thing done right now
A reward can be tangible or it can be more symbolic. But it has to be something within your control (don’t say you’re going to hang out with friends — they might cancel, and then what?). A reward also has to match the magnitude of the completed task. You wouldn’t plan a trip to Disney World as a reward for folding your laundry. I mean, I guess you could, but … you get what I mean.
Motivation works generally in the same way for most humans, but everyone is motivated by different things. Figure out what motivates you (even if it’s the fear of failing!) and capitalize on that to the best of your ability.
Write down clear goals (with sub-goals) and review them often. Even if you don’t think you’re “the type of person” to write down or even set specific goals, I can guarantee that doing it anyway will help you in more ways than one — especially if you are currently struggling to complete your work even with small rewards in sight for yourself.
Of course, before you can immerse yourself fully in your writing goals, you have to take the time and effort to set clear and manageable ones. You also have to create separate goal “tiers” that will help you climb up from small goal to small goal until you reach the big overarching goal you have in mind.
I’ll use “write a novel” as an example here, because many readers who stumble upon this blog and/or return to it at a later date hope to write a book someday. Having a goal to write a book is NOT a bad goal and it’s TOTALLY manageable for most people! However, no one — NO ONE — is capable of sitting down at their desk and writing a book in one sitting, or a matter of days or even weeks.
So how do you get from “want to write a book” to “have written a book”? You give yourself stepping stones to move across on your way to “have written” starting at “want to write.” I call these sub-goals, or small goals. Eventually, you’ll get to your end goal. But first, you have to work a little bit each day (or almost each day) to get there.
So maybe your goal this week, for example, would be to write 2,000 words. That’s four days of writing 500 words each of those days — Monday through Thursday, maybe. At 2,000 words a week — maybe for you that comes out to a chapter or two — you could have the first draft of your book written within a year. A YEAR!
Set your goals and write them down — not just so you’ll remember them, but also so you can review them. I have a daily ritual each morning of looking at my goals for the year (there are only 10 — I’m trying my best to cut back), and then at my goals for the month, which are much smaller. I read my monthly goals to myself first, then say the ones I’m working on that day out loud.
I have no scientific proof that this works, and it certainly won’t work for everyone. But if you’re really passionate about your writing goals, you need a way to keep them in the front of your mind as many hours of the day as possible.
It’s hard doing work that no one is going to see for a while — or ever.
But it’s still worth the effort. Whatever you can do to remind yourself of that, do it. Do it often. You need it.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is an editor and writer, and a 12-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food, and Star Wars.