Last week I put up two polls to find out what your best and worst habits as writers are, and which attitudes you’d like to change. Thank you all very much for taking the time to vote and comment, it was very informative!
As I promised, today we’ll discuss the results. I must say I was surprised. The biggest problem reported to make writing lives miserable was:
“I make plans for my future, but don’t act on them” (22% of all votes)
And the best quality that most everyone shared was:
“I strive to improve my skills every day” (21% of all votes)
But… The solution—it’s right there! The way to beat that awful sensation of never being able to stick to what we KNOW is good for us, to what we’ve devised for ourselves and our futures—is right there in that result: “I strive to improve my skills every day.”
Okay, I see your eye-rolling. Allow me to elaborate.
How do we stick to the goals we set for ourselves?
I believe everyone knows what the SMART model of goal setting is, right? Our goals must first and foremost be very specific and make sense. Nothing like “I wanna be a Jedi one day”. Sure, I’d love to be a Jedi, but that’s not a goal, it’s sweet geeky daydreaming. Our goals must also be timed, with a clear deadline. “I wanna be a Jedi before my fortieth birthday” is a bit better, but “I want to finish writing my first draft by December 2013” is a definitely clearer goal. (The pen is mightier than even a lightsaber. What do you say about that, Obi Wan?)
As a counter-example, “I want to win the Pulitzer before I die” is a bad goal, because you can’t influence the vote on who gets the Pulitzer even if you write the best book you could possibly imagine, and also because you have no control and no certainty about the deadline. Unless you want to shorten it, but let’s not go there.
The most important aspect of goal-making, however, is measurability. A goal is nothing without a plan to reach it, and a good plan—one we can see through to the end—must allow us to measure our progress along the way. Every time we set a goal for ourselves, but omit to devise a plan to reach that goal and track our progress as we go, we essentially surrender our goal to chance, and will most likely fail.
For a goal like “I want to finish the first draft of my novel by December 2013”, a good plan would be to write every day or week, and to track our progress by wordcount, or based on a detailed outline we have for that novel. This way we always know where we’re at, and how much we still have to do. We can adjust our methods to get there (write more often, write faster, expand the plot or cut out a subplot, etc.) or we can adjust the deadline, extend it or contract it to push ourselves.
But what about other types of goals? What about… “I want to be a successful writer by my fortieth birthday”? Or “I want to have a solid fan-base for the novel I’m publishing this year”. This type of goal also involves other people, more precisely an anonymous mass of people.
Let’s take number one. A good plan should start with having a clear understanding of what kind of success we want. Do we measure it in money? Then besides writing a good book, we must vend our book every way we can, track our sales and tweak our prices. Do we measure it by the number of five star reviews? Then we must cater to the needs of our target audience first and foremost. Do we measure success in the appreciation of our role models? Then we must write according to their standards. We can’t set success as our goal, without looking deep within us and figuring out what exactly we define as success, and then adapting our work ethic and our effort to that specific criteria.
For the second goal I mentioned, the measure of our progress is dependent on how we define a fan-base. Do we mean a handful of die-hards that know our story inside out, are defending us online like an army and maybe even write fan-fiction based on our story-world? Then we must channel our efforts toward creating an extraordinary (i.e. unique) and open story-world, and toward reaching exactly the kind of people who are ready to engage with it. We can then measure our fan-base-making success by how this specific target audience reacts (even by how often our story elements or characters are mentioned in Google searches), and we can deepen their dedication with all sorts of interactions, from freebies to exclusive extended material, etc. If, however, we define fan-base by sheer number of people talking favorably about our book, then we must see to it that our story appeals and reaches a wider, moderately or even superficially engaged audience. Marketing will look very different, depending on what we’re after.
So, to cut a long story short, in order to actually stick to our goals, we must make sure they’re obtainable, within our control and limited in time, and that our progress to get there is easily measurable. The rest is perseverance and motivation, and a little bit of luck after our work is out in the world.
We are all reading about writing, trying out techniques, laboring at our manuscripts every week. We get better at writing every single time we sit out butts down in front of that screen. Instead of improving wherever we get the chance, why not channel our efforts toward our specific goals?
You guys already do the hardest part of it. You become better writers every time you finish a scene, every time you read a book and go “Whoa, I see what you did there!”, and every time you read a writing book or go to a writing seminar and learn how a specific technique has the effects it does. You already improve your skills every day. Put that incredible learning potential to the service of your goal! Focus on the skills that actually bring you closer to those clear results you want.
Put your best habit, your strong side, to the service of overcoming your weak point. And always keep your eyes on that goal. You WILL get there. Trust me, I’m a Jedi.
Okay, fine, I’m a Padawan, but still.