It's often said that writing a novel happens one word at a time. When you're mid-slog through a first draft, this truism can be encouraging. All I have to do is write another word, then the next, then the next. One word certainly seems less intimidating than 80,000, right? But it's not always clear how to make those words add up to a published book with an eager audience. When it comes to living your ideal writer's life, there's a lot more involved than just spitting out words--whether you're an indie author, whether you want to be traditionally published, or if you just want to create your best possible work.
The "one word at a time" adage does capture a key truth: you can only reach a milestone by taking incremental steps. It all comes down to setting the right kinds of goals; not the kinds of big, overarching goals that populate our daydreams. Of course, those big dreams are fun and often inspiring. Someday I'm going to finish this novel. I'm going to design a rocking cover. I'll hit the New York Times or USA Today bestseller lists. I'll have a devoted cadre of rabid fans to defend my honor online.
No, I'm talking practical goals. Workhorse goals. The kinds of goals that you can actually stick with. When it comes to setting writing goals that will help you achieve big things, you need to think small.
Imagine there's a laser beam shining down from space, pinpointing an object on the earth. (Can a laser do that? I don't know. I heard this metaphor on a podcast--Mind Pump if you're curious. Let's just roll with it.) If you make tiny, millimeter-at-a-time adjustments up at the source of the laser, that beam of light could eventually end up miles off target on the earth's surface. Reaching any long term goal works in much the same way--you make small changes each day, practice patience and persistence, and eventually you can dramatically alter your status quo. You can finish that future bestseller. Even better, you'll be living the life of a writer.
Think of the finish line you'd like to cross, whether it's a year down the line or ten. This is where that big, distant daydream comes in. Make a list of what kinds of things need to happen for you to reach that dream. Let's say it's "Finish my novel." You might decide to write 2,000 words per day, which is one of the gold-standards of writing (for better or worse). That's a great daily goal--if you can follow it through.
The key is to set small, daily goals that you can realistically handle.
Now, achieving any kind of lifestyle shift requires willpower: the ability to choose hard work now in the service of some distant goal. It takes sacrifice. It's a constant balance between being pragmatic and honest with yourself on the one hand, and always pushing yourself to try a little harder on the other. You might need to quit Netflix for awhile to make time to write. You'll have to push through the discomfort of sitting down and writing, even when it's the last thing you want to do. But research shows that willpower is like a muscle, and like any muscle it can be trained. It starts with making those small, achievable goals each day and then following through. Maybe it's half an hour of writing; revising a few pages or a single chapter; finding three agents to query; researching how to format an ebook file. Maybe it's just an Instagram post about your latest project.
A great way to cement your daily writing goal? Write it down. Whether it's in your phone calendar, a paper planner, or just a post-it note on your laptop, writing down your goal will make you more likely to keep it.
It's OK to start small. Do whatever you can do to start checking off that "writing" box, day in and day out. Because completing each baby step will make the next day's work easier. Over time, all those small achievements will add up into something that you can be proud of.
Plan Your Alternates
Not every day is the same. Sometimes it's easy to meet my writing goals; those 2,000 words fly out of my head and straight onto the page. But other days, life interferes. Unless you're lucky enough to be a full-time writer, you've got a day job and/or plenty of other responsibilities that will often take precedence. Your typical writing goal might not be achievable. But that doesn't mean you should skip writing altogether. Because the more times you skip meeting your daily goal, the easier it gets, and the less likely it becomes that you'll ever reach that big dream.
What to do? Have some alternate goals on your list. (And I mean a literal, written list, wherever you choose to keep it). Side aside smaller, discrete tasks for those days when you're too busy to fit anything more. Things like reading craft books about character or story structure; writing back-cover copy; jotting down ideas for a sequel; even writing your author bio. Bite-sized goals. Often it's tempting to take on these small tasks as a means of procrastinating--choosing a handful of them instead of your usual writing goal just because it's easier. Don't fall into that trap. Save those smaller tasks for the days that you truly can't manage anything else.
And always keep an eye on your schedule for days that are more open than others. Take those opportunities to fit in some extra words, or take on some really annoying tasks that you've otherwise been putting off.
What if several months go by, you're staying pretty consistent with your daily goals (along with alternates as needed), but you don't feel like you're any closer to achieving your big dream? Then it's time to take a step back and assess. You can even set this as your goal for a day. Look back over your track record for the past few months and be brutally honest: did you stick with it? Could you have been doing more? Is it time to set your current project aside and dive into a new one? Schedules change and circumstances change. Our interests change, too! It's OK to change up your daily writing goal, depending on your needs.
Big changes happen when you make small goals and follow through--day after day after day. If you stick with it, if you practice patience and stay consistent, you will see results in your writing. Better yet, you'll be living the writer's life.
How do you structure your writing goals? Let me know on Twitter @anwilliswrites and on Instagram @morningcoffeeforwriters. And if you'd like to get an e-mail whenever I have a new writing blog post, subscribe below.