4 Methods for Setting Realistic Writing Goals
“If you don’t write two thousand words every day, you’re not a real writer.” How many times have you heard that little chestnut?
Well, in this post, I am going to give that idea a big middle finger.
Writing is hard, it takes a lot of time and energy to do it. It takes even more time and energy to do it well. Unfortunately, for many of us, time and energy are two things that can be in pretty short supply!
If you’re trying to write while juggling a day job, school, family, mental or physical health struggles, or any combination of those, this post is for you.
What’s The Point of Setting Writing Goals?
If writing is a hobby you’re doing just for fun, you might not need to set writing goals! You can just write when you feel like it and stop when you’re done feeling like it, rinse and repeat.
However, if you’re trying to pursue writing as an endeavor or a career—looking to write full novels, edit them, and share them with readers—you might need some type of goal-setting system to keep yourself on track.
Of course, the ultimate goal of every project is… finishing it. But a novel is a huge undertaking. It takes thousands of hours to write and edit one. When your end goal is literally months or years away, it can feel impossible to reach it. That’s why incremental goals are so important.
Let’s take a look at a few different methods I’ve used to set my writing goals over the years. Hopefully one (or a few!) of these methods will help you finish your next project!
Method 1: Daily Word Count Goals
The first method you can use to track your progress toward finishing your novel is the most common one I see writers use. Daily word count goals. If you’re using a daily word count goal, you’ll set a number of words that you want to make sure you hit each and every day (or at least every writing day).
The great thing about daily word count goals is that they are super flexible. The example at the beginning of this post (2,000 words per day) might work great for quicker writers or full-time writers, but if you’re a turtle writer like me, and/or someone who has a day job or any number of other life things that tend to get in the way of writing, trying to hit 2k every day is just a recipe for stress and disaster.
You can set your daily goal as high or as low as you want. When I’ve been in depressive episodes or super busy with my day job (or both… shudder), I’ve set my daily goal as low as 250 words per day. When I’m feeling great, I might kick that up to 1,500 words per day. What matters is that you’re keeping yourself on task and making sure you’re always moving forward, even if you’re doing it slowly, sometimes.
The downside of word count goals is that this really only works when you’re drafting. If you’re editing or outlining, your progress isn’t necessarily able to be measured by the number of words you put on the page.
Method 2: Weekly Progress Goals
The next method you may choose to use is a weekly progress goal. This type of goal is even more flexible than the last method. Weekly progress goals work really well if you have an irregular schedule or a day job that makes you wholly unavailable on certain days of the week.
When you set weekly progress goals, you’ll set a goal for the entire week instead of a goal for each day. Your goal can still be word count-based (for example, if you want to write 7,000 words each week), or you can set slightly vaguer goals like finishing a scene or chapter.
I find this type of goal really useful when I’m editing. I’ll set goals like reaching a specific scene in the story or knocking a specified number of changes off of my edit list by the end of the week.
The main downside of weekly progress goals is that they can be easy to procrastinate. When you have a goal for each day, you know you have to make time for your writing work. If you’re setting a goal for the whole week, you may end up leaving everything until the last day… when it’s next to impossible to get everything you planned done. If you tend towards procrastination, weekly progress goals might not be the best fit for you!
Method 3: Sprint-Based Goals
Now, let’s talk about one of my favorite methods—sprint-based goals. Writers know that drafting can be hard to schedule. Sometimes it takes an hour to write a thousand words. Sometimes it takes an hour to write two hundred words. If you are working with a jam-packed schedule, this inconsistency can make it really difficult to stick to progress-based goals.
With a sprint-based goal, you’re not worried about your daily word count or how many scenes you churned through this week: You’re purely worried about the time you’re spending working on the book.
I used sprint-based goals during NaNoWriMo last November and it worked out beautifully for me. I held myself to two thirty-minute sprints each work day of November (one on my lunch break and one after work), regardless of how much or how little I had written, when the timer hit thirty minutes, I would stop.
Writing sprints won’t work for everyone, I’m sure, but if you are short on time and want to make sure you’re prioritizing writing however you can, this is a great way to keep yourself on track!
Method 4: Nontraditional Goals
Lastly, you can set nontraditional goals! What does a nontraditional goal mean? For me, it’s any goal that you can’t easily quantify. With a nontraditional goal, you’re not tracking word count or hours worked. Instead, you may be setting goals surrounding your mindset and mental health, or around your research and business processes.
I include this type of goal because some of the most important writing work is done when you’re not writing. That sounds like bullshit to some of you, I’m sure, but if you’ve ever burned yourself out writing, you’ll know it’s true. Besides, there’s a lot more to being a writer than just putting words on paper.
A nontraditional writing goal might be more like a reading goal if you want to read a few specific books to get in the right headspace before you start your next project. Maybe this goal is related to your writing community—building relationships with critique partners or beefing up your social media presence. Maybe this goal is related to researching agents or penning the perfect query letter.
Basically, I include this section to remind you to be nice to yourself, make space for breaks and time off from writing, and don’t beat yourself up if you have to take a few weeks off from drafting or editing while you’re focusing on the other parts of your writer life.
The Most Important Thing about Writing Goals
Are these four methods the only ones for setting writing goals? Nope. I’m sure if you asked a hundred writers how they set their goals and finish their projects you’d get a hundred different answers. However, these are the four methods I’ve used throughout my writing journey so far! Hopefully, they can serve as a launchpad for your own processes and help you reach the finish line!
The most important thing about setting writing goals is to set a pace that works for you. The pace that works for your critique partner or your best friend or your favorite author might not work for you. Everyone writes at a different pace. Setting goals based on someone else’s pace is going to stress you out at best and make you doubt yourself (or even give up!) at worst.
Whatever method you choose, make sure you’re setting goals that stretch you but don’t make you want to curl up into a ball and cry. Sometimes, it’s a delicate balance, but if you approach your projects with passion, determination, and a bit of grace, you’ll be able to knock it out of the park!