Goal Setting for Writers

The first rule in Cal Newport’s book, Deep Work (which I wrote about in Focus on Writing), includes advice to focus on specific goals. The rationale is that goal setting allows you to say yes to a few things instead of constantly saying no to all the distractions.

So what does that mean for a writer?

Well, my ultimate goal is to have people buy my book and read it and love it. Simple, right? If you’re a writer, you probably have a similar goal.

But before that can happen, my book has to get published, which means I need to finish it and find a publisher.

Performance goals versus outcome goals goal-achieved

That ultimate goal of mine is an outcome goal. It might be a great motivator, and it might help me make decisions about my writing, but it’s not something I can just sit down and do today on my laptop. It’s like saying I want to lose twenty pounds.

Performance goals are things I can actually do, like getting more exercise or eating less sugar or figuring out how my villain gets the deadly disease to the victim. What I need on a day to day basis are good performance goals that will eventually get me to my ultimate goal.

SMART goals

Business gurus, who never met an acronym they didn’t like, say that useful goals are specific, measurable, action oriented, realistic, and time based. Action oriented is another way to say performance based. Specific, measurable, and time based are another way of saying be precise with your goals, so you can tell whether you achieved them or not. For me, writing a specific scene, finishing the lead-up to a particular plot point, or writing a set number of words could be the goal, and all I would need to add is a deadline. This is the genius of NaNoWriMo: the simple goal is to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days, which is easy to break down into 1,667 words per day.

Realistic but ambitious

It’s important for goals to be achievable – otherwise, you’re apt to just give up – but at the same time, they shouldn’t be set too low. If your goal doesn’t ask you to do more than you’d do if you didn’t have it, why bother having a goal?

Written and prioritized

Finally, writing goals down helps to clarify them, and gives you something to look at to remind you where you’re going today. When you have multiple goals, prioritizing them helps ensure you’re working on the right thing at the moment.

What do you gain from setting goals?

  • Happiness and a better life, according to Eric Barker’s post about goals from 2012.
  • Faster progress! Goal setting is a step towards something Rachel Aaron recommends in her blog about how she went from writing 2,000 words a day to 10,000 words a day. She calls her first step “know what you’re writing before you write it.”
  • Less reliance on moment-to-moment willpower. By making the decision once, when you set the goal, you make life easier for yourself. This NYT article says willpower may be a limited resource that can get worn out over the course of the day.

Do you set writing goals for yourself? What works for you? Please share in the comments below.


Written by Shan
I spent 25 years conducting performance audits of state agencies, looking for ways they could be more effective and efficient. I helped write countless government reports. I worked with the smartest, nicest people in state government, and was honored to be a part of that group. Now, though, I’m writing fiction (yay! adjectives! dialogue!), learning banjo, traveling, hanging out with my fabulous granddaughters, and – big surprise – I’m still not decluttering that back room that was on hold for the past 25 years.