Effective Goal Setting for Writers

by Cat Rambo

Something I work on with my coaching clients is goal setting, which is made up of several parts:

  • figuring out where they want to be in six months to a year
  • figuring out what the milestones of that goal are and mapping them against the schedule
  • figuring out the monthly goals they need to hit in order to achieve that schedule
  • figuring out the weekly goals necessary to achieve those monthly goals

For example, if someone wants to have the first draft of a novel ready for beta readers by year’s end, we might break it down into this rough list.

  1. Figuring out what they want to write
  2. Outlining the book
  3. Writing a rough draft
  4. Editing the rough draft

Milestones are markers that show you’ve reached the end of one of these steps. Just as physical road markers tell you how far you’ve journeyed, these milestones help you mark progress. Here the four milestones are:

  1. Having a description of the book, one that sets out enough information to create an outline, such as main action, setting, and protagonist. Some writers may want to have more than this, along the lines of thorough character workups detailing preferences and past history or setting maps, but this is something that should be figured out beforehand. I would ask the goal setter: what do you need to have created in order to be able to move to the next step, the outline?
  2. Having a complete outline. Here again, length and thoroughness are a matter of personal preference, though I can say as someone who has moved from pantser to outliner, the more thorough the outline, the faster the writing part will go.
  3. Having a rough draft. Establish what rough means, For example, are missing scenes that just have notes about what they will contain? That sort of definition might prompt me to insert another step, along the lines of Having a complete draft.
  4. Having a rough draft that has been edited to the point where it is ready to go out to beta readers.

Once you know the milestones, you can figure out the schedule, which is, unfortunately, more complicated than just dividing the number of months by the number of milestones. Some milestones will take longer to achieve than others. With the above milestones and a time period of a year, I might map things out like this, depending on the person’s writing speed.

  1. Figure out what you want to write = two weeks. That’s a good bit of time for thinking about it and even doing some pre-writing stuff like describing characters, places, and things.
  2. Outline the book = one month. That’s a pretty generous amount of time, and so I’d expect it to be a pretty thorough outline of at least 5-10k, depending on one’s process.
  3. Write a rough draft = six months. For me, this is again a generous amount of time, but I write faster than many other writers do. If someone is an incredibly slow writer, in fact, this might be unrealistic, in which case we might adjust the overall goal in order to be realistic. This lets you set a weekly word count target as well. Set an arbitrary overall target that fits your chosen genre and divide by the number of weeks. I usually go with 90k for SF, 100k for fantasy. With the former, that means 15,000 words per month, which is a little under 4k each week, which seems super-doable to me but again, mileage will vary. If you only write 100 words on a good day, this will probably not work well for you.
  4. Personally, I feel a long piece needs to sit without you thinking about it for at least a month, so I would build a month off into the timeline, and perhaps figure out something productive to do during it. If you absolutely must continue focusing on it, then try writing a short story set in the world that you can use for publicity purposes, either by selling it to a short fiction market or releasing it on your website or elsewhere as a teaser.
  5. So we’ve used up two weeks (figuring out what to write) + one month (outline) + six months (draft) + one month (time off). That’s eight and a half months, which leaves another generous three and a half months for editing. Here I might figure out some sub-editing passes, because my revising process splits itself into three parts.

Now we’ve got a timeline and can start figuring out monthly and weekly goals. With monthly goals, make sure there’s a point each month where you check progress and see if you need to readjust your schedule.

With both kinds, have a point at the beginning where you formally say to yourself in some fashion, “These are my priorities for this week/month.” I am lucky enough to have a lovely community of fellows via my Patreon and chat server, and so I post my goals for the week each Monday on both and invite others to do the same.

You also want to check back. On Friday I look at my goals and say how I did. A goal that didn’t get hit is either going to get discarded or it becomes top priority for the next week. For example, the novel edit I’ve been working on has been a slow slog for various reasons. But this week, I’ll finish it, I swear….

Be generous with your timeline. Shit happens in a variety of forms, and having a little buffer built-in for illness, grieving, or changes in life circumstances is good. If you come in ahead of schedule, good for you! (Though if you’re doing that every time, you might be a little more aggressive in your next round of goal setting).

Figure out ahead of time the celebrations to mark each milestone. I personally feel such celebrations should be something that is actually special and that you wouldn’t do for yourself normally. I indulge myself in a particular kind of collectible (Breyer horses) and I have a number of them that are special to me because of the target that they represent, such as completing the first draft of the book I later sold to Tor Macmillan. Indulgences, however, do not have to be financial. Letting yourself take time off to enjoy something is just as valid.

Build in rewards — but don’t build in punishments. Chastising yourself for not writing is one of the best ways to make yourself hate writing. Learn to be joyful about your successes as you blossom, and use the failures as mulch, so you can bloom ever stronger.

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A two-term President of SFWA, Cat Rambo’s most recent novel is Hearts of Tabat from Wordfire Press, while space opera You Sexy Thing appears in January 2021 from Tor Macmillan. Her novelette Carpe Glitter is a 2019 Nebula Award finalist in the Novelette category. Her 200+ publications include stories in Clarkesworld MagazineAsimov’s SF, and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Check her website for links to her fiction and info on her online school, the Rambo Academy for Wayward Writers, which features live and online classes from writers such as Ann Leckie, Seanan McGuire, and Fran Wilde.

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