setting realistic writing goals

The Writer's Guide to setting realistic writing goals (set yourself up for success!)

One of the most difficult parts of establishing your writing routine is setting realistic writing goals and making measurable progress every day (or week, if you don’t write every day). Just because you’re sitting down in front of your computer does not mean that you’re making a significant dent toward finishing your story. You can, in fact, spend several hours of ‘writing time’ in front of the screen and only write a handful of words (whether that is a problem of self-doubt or social media abuse is a post for another day.)

“Alright!” You say. “So we’ll have a tangible goal – a word count goal! Now I can’t spend all my allotted writing time watching cat videos!”

Great. That is definitely a step in the right direction. But now you have to decide on what, exactly, your word count goal will be.

I think the immediate instinct for a lot of writers is to set a high goal – the definition of ‘high’ will vary from writer to writer. For some it might be 500, for others, 1000, 2000, or even 5000 words in a day. This can be compounded if you’ve just finished NaNoWriMo, which requires you to write on average 1667 words a day. But there’s a reason NaNoWriMo only lasts for 30 days – and there’s also a reason why many complete the challenge, and then don’t write again for an entire year.

This is only human nature. Let’s look at one of the most common examples – losing weight. It’s always tempting to set crazy diet restrictions and exercise regimes in the hopes of speeding up the process. The problem is that this usually has the opposite effect – you might stick with the program for a few days, but eventually you’ll be so stressed and hungry that you spend an entire week pigging out on pizza and ice cream on the couch while binge-watching the entire run of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The writing version of this is that, you may have been able to stick to your astronomical goal of writing thousands of words a day, and maybe they’re pretty good words. You’ve probably set these goals after a period of not writing in order to ‘jump start’ yourself, so you’ve had time to plan out the beginning of the story in great detail.

“Great!” You think to yourself, “Just another X number of days, and I’ll be finished!”

But then you get to a point in the story where you don’t really know what happens next. You’ve been so busy typing all those words, you haven’t spent any time planning. Or, maybe you’re just tired. So you stare at the page for a moment, maybe you even type a few half-hearted words, even though you know you’ll just delete them later.

So you minimize the word document. You’ve been writing like crazy – you deserve a break. You type “yo-” into the search bar, and before you can even type “-utube“, you’re autofilled into a swirling black hole of cat videos, movie trailers, and this year’s most epic fails!

You’ll write again tomorrow, you tell yourself.

Except you don’t. You don’t write again for a long time. Not only have you delayed the achievement of your goal, but you’re instilling a bad habit in yourself – the habit of not sticking to what you’ve started.

And that word document will still be there at the bottom of the screen, reminding you of that.

Setting realistic writing goals

If you had been more honest with yourself about your realistic productivity levels, this story might have taken a very different path.

Remember when you’re grandmother used to tell you, “Rome wasn’t built in a day?”

Well, she was right. Both literally and figuratively.

And I’m not talking about your WIP, either (though the metaphor can be applied to that, too). I’m talking about building your writing habit. That’s right – we want to get you addicted to writing every day.

You can’t just start off expecting yourself to whip out ten pages before lunchtime like Stephen King. No – you need to set a reasonable word count goal. This is the tricky part, because each writer will have a different optimum word count  – it depends on several factors, including how quickly you write, what else you have going on in your life, and whether you’re aiming for quality or quantity of words.

Here’s the secret to setting realistic writing goals (and realistic goals, in general):

Your word count goal should be as high as possible while still being easily attainable. A number you think you can achieve even on days where you don’t feel like writing at all. I suggest undershooting for the first couple weeks – start out with a small number, something you know you can achieve with little effort. You may find yourself writing more than this target number. That’s ok – just don’t force it.

For me, my magic target number is 500 words. For you, it might be significantly less or more.

When I first lowered my goal, I thought it would slow down my progress. Surprisingly, the opposite happened.

I realized that back when I was aiming for thousands of words a day, I was spending more words on certain scenes, extraneous words that I knew would be cut later. I was spending all my time and creative energy on producing words, and none at all on planning and mapping out subsequent scenes. So in order to meet my goal, I stretched out scenes and included things that weren’t plot-relevant.

Raising your goal with positive reinforcement

What my dog taught me about realistic writing goals - learn why a lower daily word count goal actually helps you write more in the long run!

This is my dog, Jupiter. Isn’t she pretty?

One of the things I like to do with Jupiter is teach her tricks. Recently, I’ve been teaching her to jump through a hoop. Do you think I started out this process by holding the hoop high over my head and yelling at her to jump? Heck no! If I did, she would look at me like I was crazy, get frustrated, and go find a couch cushion to destroy.

What I did was break the trick down into the smallest possible steps – first I would reward her for simply looking at the hoop, and once she was doing that regularly, I raised the criteria to touching the hoop with her paw, then putting two paws through the hoop, then walking through the hoop, then I raised the hoop inch by inch.

(On a side note: If you’re not familiar with positive reinforcement training, check out Don’t Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor and Culture Clash by Jean Donaldson. Positive reinforcement is easier, more reliable, and more humane than traditional aversive training methods like shock collars, spray bottles, and choke chains. And you can use it on your human friends and family, too!)

This process took several weeks. Now, she’s jumping through the hoop at waist height. If I had ever raised the criteria too fast, she would have gotten frustrated and given up.

You are both the trainer and the dog in this scenario. You need to set yourself small enough goals that your success is guaranteed. You must be kind and honest with yourself about your current capabilities.

And once that becomes easy, raise the criteria. Add an extra fifty words to your goal. Then in a few weeks, add another hundred. Don’t be afraid to take a step back if you need to.

You’ll find that accomplishing a goal is a reward in itself, and setting realistic writing goals takes a lot of pressure, guilt, and stress out of the writing process. Which makes writing more pleasant, and something you are more likely to stick with.

And before long, you’ve formed a writing habit.

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H. Duke
H. Duke writes fantasy, horror, and more. Her works include the weird west / urban fantasy serial mashup, Jeremiah Jones Cowboy Sorcerer and the Christmas horror collection, Things on the Shelf: Three Tales of Christmas Terror, as well as the forthcoming Pagewalker series. She wrote the first season of Jeremiah Jones Cowboy Sorcerer while living in Arizona with her husband, Giru, and a shiny black dog named Jupiter. To see what she's up to now, visit her website.

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