January 08, 2016

Five golden rules for setting your writing goals (and why having the right ones can help)

Planning a successful year?

You’d be very unusual if you didn’t start out the year with all sorts of grand plans.

But how often to you achieve them?

As I sat down to think about my own grand plans, I realised that the first on my list was to ‘get out there more’ on social media, so thought a good place to start was to share my goal-setting process, which I changed radically last year and worked out really well for me.

Let me suggest your first writing goal for this year – discovering how setting the right goals can actually help you make positive progress.

What makes a good goal?

When I started writing I used to have a glowingly optimistic start to every new year. It was pretty simple and it looked like this:

Goal: to get published

Failing that – Goal: to get an agent. Bing! Super. Drum roll. Red carpet. Success.

Having big goals can be inspiring. It’s also a nice clear goal.

The trouble with those ‘big’ goals is that they are difficult to put in a timescale.

The other trouble (you’re ahead of me here, aren’t you) – it is rather crushingly easy not to reach them.

Setting the wrong goals can sometimes just seem to flag-up your failure. It can even make you feel worse - feel like nothing is happening and giving up.

Dreams not goals?

Sometimes goals you set yourself are more like a big wish, something that fails to reflect the huge undertaking you are embarking on. The very real difficulties you will face and the length of time it will actually take.

Last year was the first time I decided I needed to rethink my whole goal-setting approach, because I was beginning to feel the need for a proper strategy. One that didn’t make me feel like I was getting nowhere.

Re-thinking your goal setting

Last year I’d got to the stage where I was having serious difficulty in knowing what I should do next with my writing. I had been making progress, but I didn’t have an agent, let alone a publishing deal.

It felt like my goal was so far out of reach I was beginning to doubt I actually had the skill to get there. It was difficult even to see if I was getting any closer.

1. Make goals a starting point

If having too big a goal isn’t desperately helpful – can you find a goal that actually inspires you to get to where you want to go?

I’m a great believer in writing things down, brainstorming and lists.

Take your big goal is a great starting point. What you really need to know is some steps to actually get there.

Sometimes writing feels like a journey; a long path between beginner and bestseller.

All those ‘nearly there’ rejections I was having were telling me that I wasn’t a complete no-hoper, but they weren’t actually telling me what I should do.

Trying to write to get published was feeling more like being in the middle of a big jigsaw, where random pieces were learned and earned. Sometimes I couldn’t even see how they helped to make up the picture or whether I was even headed in the right direction.

I wrote down everything I could think of that could help me see that picture, everything that needed improving, not just about my writing, but about finding mentors, developing new skills such a pitching (which a couple of years ago I hadn’t even realised I needed).

I ended up with a pretty big list.

But at least I could see how much I needed to go to complete the jigsaw. At least I could see why I wasn’t quite there yet.

2. Make goals about active progress

As I started to brainstorm what on earth I needed to do next, I recognised there is much more advice out there for beginners than there was for people at a further stage on their journey.

I needed to find a way to progress from all that feedback that told me my writing was great, my characters interesting, my stories those that children would love to read. Always ending with advice that this book should definitely get me an agent – just keep sending it out! Your book will find a home! Just not with them. (Nice though this feedback is, even really positive rejection after a while can be grim.)

So I found my new active goal for last year:

Goal: To try to find out what I could do to transform my writing from something that gave me positive feedback into something that an agent would love and jump at the chance of taking on.

The sooner you can identify active steps to have as goals, the sooner you can start to take them and the stronger and more focused your actions will be in achieving your big goal.

3. Make goals about overcoming obstacles

A goal (or goals) that you can achieve within a time frame and one where you can measure the success is about the right sort of goal to have. The golden goal.

If you (like me) have a huge list of improvements you’d like to make, start to identify those that you feel would make the most difference, or those you can achieve in one year? One month, one week. Today!

Often the things you feel instinctively need attention (not-very-strangely) are exactly the right ones.

As I started to break down my problems and obstacles into a strategy, I took as my starting point that what I actually really wanted to achieve at the beginning of 2015 was to find out what I needed to do to turn those ‘close-call’ rejections I was now getting into an actual offer of representation.

And I could recognise my biggest obstacle – I’d hit a brick wall with my writing and I didn’t really know any more what I should be doing to improve.

But by recognising this, I already began to see a new strategy. In fact I found a very focused new goal: to try to get some professional feedback on my work.

I now had a new goal and a way of achieving it.

4. Achieve your goals by focusing on behaviour and strategy

o, going back to my goal of 2016 – to ‘get out there more’ on social media and I can immediately see this is a poor goal. It’s not specific, doesn’t identify a single obstacle I am trying to overcome and won’t give me any measure of success.

What can I do to make the goal a step that will be contributing to my overall goal?

1. Make goals about active progress

I want to appear more professional and be taken seriously as a professional writer, not just as someone who writes as a hobby.

2. Make goals a starting point

I really enjoy reading about other people’s writing journeys and I want to build a website with a blog that gives me a platform to share my joys of reading other writers’ work through book reviews, and network with other writers.

3. Make goals about overcoming obstacles

I also want to share writing tips with people who are along on the same journey as me and maybe about the same place and finding similar difficulties and share ideas and triumphs (and failures).

4. Achieve your goals by focusing on behaviour and strategy

I wish to write what is hopefully fun for others to read – which is why I want to write in the first place.

Oh yes – Tip Number 5.

5. Write down your goals

Any Golden Rules surely always end with one final tip and here it is. Do write down your goals. Perhaps in the front of your nice new pristine 2016 diary. There is no better way to ensure that the end of the year you’ll be able to see how far you have come and that your big goal has definitely got nearer and is less of just a dream. And you can start to plan your goals for 2017.

Thanks for reading and helping me to achieve the first step on my first writing goal of 2016.

(P.S. I wasn't joking about a new diary, I'm a big fan of Moleskine, and this article shows the surprising benefits of using a notebook in a digital world)