NaNo What Now?

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Setting smaller, specific goals with wiggle room is the secret to good writing resolutions

by Jan 1, 2017Evergreen, NaNo What Now?, National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), On Writing: Craft and Commiseration0 comments

It’s a brand new year which means it’s the traditional time of setting new goals and resolutions for the year ahead. For us writers, that can mean setting deadlines or striving for new writing habits in the coming year. I think taking a few minutes to write down concrete goals is a great way to keep you focused on what’s important to you as you move into the next few months.

“But, Hillary, statistics show that New Year’s Resolutions don’t work!” you protest. “People just abandon them after a few weeks!”

It is true that a lot of people struggle to keep their new goals on track but the problem there is not the setting of goals itself. The problem is the kind of goals they set. You can set yourself up for failure by setting the wrong goals but the good news is that almost any goal can be tweaked into something better.

There are just three secrets to setting a good writing goal:

  • Narrow it down. Always aim for the specific over general.
  • Break big goals down into smaller benchmark goals.
  • Leave room in case the unexpected happens.

Let’s look at a common writing resolution as an example. 

Your Goal: Finish Project X

This is a goal at lot of us have. Whether that mystery project is a book, novel or screenplay, we want to finish it this year. But “finish” can mean a lot of things when we’re talking about writing. Is your goal to finish the first draft? Complete another editing pass before sending to beta readers? Or move an idea all the way from inception to publication by the end of the year? All of these goals could fall under the heading of “finishing” a project even though they are all wildly different processes.

Add to this that all of these goals are HUGE. You might be able to do a final editing pass of a publisher’s proof in a week but that first revision can take months to years depending on what you’re writing and your experience level. A goal so large you can barely conceptualize how big the project really is makes it that much harder for you to effectively figure out how to approach it.

What do you actually mean by finished? Your first step is to narrow down exactly what you hope to do with Project X this year and to break that down into concrete, specific steps.

Let’s say I already have a first draft of Project X that I wrote during NaNoWriMo. I want to finish that book by the end of the year which in this case means I hope to have that novel ready to self-publish by the end of the year. What does that goal mean exactly? Narrowing it down to the specifics, I’m looking to revise that first draft until the book is ready for beta readers (will likely be multiple revision passes), revise again after beta feedback with intent of either getting it ready for another round of beta readers or my content editor depending on how strong the revisions were, then doing one or more final rounds of editing based on content editor feedback before moving into copy editing and publication.

Making my goal more specific immediately makes a few things clear. The first is that this really isn’t one goal, it’s many smaller goals all under one umbrella heading all of which will have their own sub-goals and need their own deadlines. The second is that any one of these steps has many variables that can effect how long it will take and exactly what I need to do to achieve that goal. For example, any given revision pass can take weeks to years depending on many factors including how many times you’ll need to revise and rewrite everything from sections to the whole book and you’ll need to build time for things like waiting on editor and beta feedback into any deadlines you set. For me, factors also include having only a small amount of unpredictable and unreliable writing time and juggling dozens of other projects between freelance work and other writing obligations.

At this point, I’m realizing this goal is way bigger than I thought it was. While I probably could get it all done in a year, it’s overwhelming to try to think about how long it will take and how much work is involved. I’m incredibly likely to look at this long journey ahead of me that I don’t even know how to begin and decide it’s easier to just quit, which is exactly what happens to most people who set resolutions and fail at them.

But instead of quitting, I revise my goal into smaller, more specific goals. 

I keep “Finish Project X” as a goal I’ve got my eye on, but I don’t set a deadline for it. Instead I make a To Do list of things I need to fix in the first draft of Project X and make each item on that list a goal. Then I focus on getting at least one item on that revision list crossed off a week, even as I add to the list as new issues crop up during revision. Once I’ve revised until there’s nothing left on my list and nothing left to add, no matter how long that takes, I know I’m ready for Beta Readers and start sending it out. Once I get that feedback back in, I use it to make a new To Do List of goals for the next revision pass and repeat the process.

Could I still have the book finished by the end of the year this way? Absolutely. But by focusing on setting smaller, more specific goals and then adding new ones as I hit those, the project feels more manageable and I’m more likely to stick with it through each small step than I would if I was only looking at the long haul. Sitting down to your desk to attempt the To Do item “Rewrite Entire Book” is much more overwhelming than something like “add mention of her faulty cell phone battery in Chapter 4” that you can realistically check off as finished in a given writing session. Crossing the little things off your list keeps you engaged in the process without the overwhelming crush of the project as a whole. By thinking small, you’ll reach those big goals step by step.

You’ll noticed something else about my new goal. It doesn’t have a hard deadline. No exact date. Instead, it leaves me lots of wiggle room. If I’m on a roll and want to cross a dozen little goals off my list in a single week, great! But if I have a week with no time to write or a One-in-a-Lifetime freelance opportunity crosses my desk that I can’t say no to, I can just do one measly little thing on my list and still be on track.

There’s two reasons to build wiggle room into your writing goals whenever you can afford to. The first is because the unexpected (both good and bad) will always happen. You’re better off expecting to be thrown off schedule than putting all your hope into everything going perfectly (which will almost never happen).

Secondly, most of us are terrible at judging how long things will take. Things always take longer than we think they will and then we end up discouraged and frustrated when we can’t meet the deadlines we set. Instead of endlessly setting and snoozing deadlines, giving yourself a goal that focuses on consistently working on your project can often result on getting said project done faster than if you set a deadline and had the calendar looming over you.

(For more of my tips on revision and editing, BTW, you may want to check out my book, NaNo What Now?, where I go into this in more detail.)

This philosophy works for any writing goals you’re looking to set. “Write at least 250 words a day” is a more effective resolution than the general “Write more.” It’s easier to focus on a goal like “query four freelance pieces to Field and Stream magazine before February” instead of the vague “Publish something this year.” “Send a play to at least one submission opportunity a week” is far easier to take action on than “Get my plays produced more.”

Whatever your writing goals are for the year ahead, take a minute to narrow them down as much as possible. Define exactly what you hope to accomplish with each resolution and how you can translate that into a concrete task you can focus on in the short-term that can lead to long-term success. Then do yourself the favor of building in space for the unexpected to happen without throwing you completely off track and you’ll be well on your way to achieving your big writing goals one small step at a time.


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About the Author

Hillary DePiano is a playwright, fiction and non-fiction writer who loves writing of all kinds except for writing bios like this.

Books and Plays by Hillary DePiano


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