“He shoots…he scores!” (or, writing goals)

Goal-setting for a hockey player is easy: “Get the puck into the net.”

Goals are especially important for writers because we don’t otherwise have a means to judge our performance. In setting goals, however, we must be careful to make “us-dependent” goals rather than “them-dependent” goals.

A goal that is us-dependent is a goal realized through your own effort. It does not involve anyone else’s response.
– I will write one poem every week.
– I will keep a journal.
– I will attend the writer’s group and bring something to critique.

A goal that is them-dependent relies on others for its fulfillment.
– I will get my novel published this year.
– I will write a column for the newspaper.

Publication and contest wins are beyond your control, which is part of why writing is so frustrating. You can improve your odds tremendously with market research and a sparkling query, but you cannot guarantee acceptance. The editor might not even read your query. Is that rejection truly a measure of your skill? The publisher might have just accepted a piece similar to yours. The newspaper may not have any funding. While important, this sort of goal is not an accurate gauge of progress.

A writer’s goals should combine the two types. If your ultimate goal is to be published, then use that…but add in others.

Just for example, my goals for 2005 were:
– Get a novel published.
– Get 12 pieces accepted or get 100 rejections in the process.

The first was not dependent on me. I could submit all I liked, but if my genre wasn’t snapping, I wasn’t going to sell, and I didn’t. The second, though…

I was guaranteed to achieve one part or the other of the second goal if I submitted 111 pieces: two pieces per week, and some weeks three. Plus, every rejection letter, rather than being disheartening, carried me closer to my goal!

As it turned out, I did get 12 acceptances that year, so I made my second goal. I didn’t sell Seven Archangels: Annihilation until February, 2007.

Finally, is your goal achievable? If you’ve never written a poem before, publication in The New Yorker is less achievable than the goal of bringing one highly-polished poem every month to your writing group. Also, the goal must be challenging. If it doesn’t involve enough effort, we’re more likely to let it slip, and achieving it would be meaningless.

Your take-away: Set goals, but make them reasonable, and make most of them dependent on your own effort. Then get the puck into the net.


  1. John Desjarlais

    I’m big on setting goals for writing, especially since I am always at work on a novel. For such a long project, I’ve found I need intermediate goals and deadlines to keep myself on track. Since I generally aim for 20 chapters of 20 pages each (a 400-page goal), I’m able to calculate how much work I must do each week to meet the goals. I allow for some down time and expected delays – a family trip or something like that. I like to aim for a completion date with some significance – by a certain conference where I can pitch to an agent, something like that. I have found that my production pace is about two pages a day when the coffee is good. So I can push out ten pages a week and 40 pages a month. So I know a 400-page ms will take me about 10-11 months. Considering what I’ve written so far, that means that my current ms could be done 9 months from now – sheesh, like a baby – sometime in late October. But since I expect some interruptions, I’m aiming for the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, December 12. That way, I can ask her for a little extra help!

    I also set spiritual goals regarding my devotional life, church involvement, and works of charity. But I won’t go into those here.

    Grace and peace to you in the New Year.

  2. tallgirl

    Thanks for this. It reminded me that I need to set a specific goal for my own writing this year – because otherwise I’ll let everything else get in the way as I have in the past. Reading this, it also struck me that the personal goals I set are usually not measurable – which might explain why I have such a hard time meeting them.

  3. philangelus

    I haven’t really defined my own writing goals yet this year. I kind of know what I want, but it’s very nebulous, so I need to actually quantify the what when and how often.

    6 weblog entries per week
    renew membership in writing group
    novel finished by april (hah — start the novel first)
    short stories and humor pieces for publication

    but again, it’s just cloudy right now and impossible to measure. I like John’s plan above, but I’m going to do mine by word count (1000 words a day minimum, for example) and measure by a ticker in the sidebar so you guys can mock me relentlessly if it doesn’t move for a few days.

    Or post an excel spreadsheet like the one I did last time on the weblog.

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  5. Cricket

    I need to come up with more concrete goals this year. My most productive months are ones where I have a grid with almost all my daily and weekly tasks. I notice, though, that the same squares never get filled in. Anything to do with practice, or starting a large project that requires concentration is skipped. At least when I have the grid going, I can prove productive procrastination.

    One goal this year is to notice when I’m bored and going to the internet rather than doing something productive. I usually claim I’m not able to concentrate well at that point, and OD’d on housework, but I need to increase my concentration ability. More details belong on my own blog, which is the subject of two conflicting goals: More entries, and less time using the internet to procrastinate.

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