18 January 2009

Writing goals 1: Don’t expect the unexpected

A new year has arrived and us writers have been pondering over our plans for the coming 12 months. Everyone’s been at it.

Writer Dad tells us to set achievable goals and commit to seeing them through, while Leo Babauta at Write to Done suggests 2009 as a time for expansion and new projects.

Meanwhile, Joanna Young at Confident Writing and Maria Schneider at Editor Unleashed just come out and ask us all: What are your writing goals in 2009?

Personally, I do think it’s important for writers to set goals. Apart from the obvious glee when a goal is met, they also:

  • help us structure the writing process
  • give us something tangible to aim for
  • provide useful milestones that separate projects.

So yes, clear goals are a positive thing and I’ve been setting some of my own over the last couple of weeks.

However, as writers we need to tread carefully. We have a tendency to confuse our goals and expectations. I’ve done it myself and ended up disappointed and a little red-faced. It was most unpleasant.

Writing goals versus expectations

Before I go on, I want to make one thing clear. I think all writers should aim for the stars.

If you want to write a bestselling novel, go for it. If you want to have a six-figure income as a freelance copywriter, go for it. If you want your blog to top the Technorati tables, go for it.

Heck, why not? With talent, hard work and a dollop of luck, you might just get there.

Just don’t expect it to happen. Aim for it, but don’t expect it. The moment your goals become expectations, both you and your writing risk complacency.

It’s absolutely vital that you make the distinction.

Goals are goals. They provide motivation, guidance and something to work towards. Expectations are simply about what you think you know. They serve no useful purpose. All they do is slow you down and cloud your thinking.

I write, therefore I am

The problem is, there are so many writers who fail to make the distinction. They don’t aim to succeed – they expect it.

I’ve met writers who believed that they were destined for greatness. In truth, they’d barely made it to the first rung of the literary ladder, and are probably still there.

This is what writers often forget:

If you write a novel, you’re not guaranteed publication. If you’re a freelance copywriter, you’re not guaranteed a sufficient income. If you start a blog, you’re not guaranteed a readership.

These things will not happen if you expect them to happen. They take planning, patience and a great deal of fortune.

Free your mind (with structure)!

You see, before you can go about what’s actually a very real and life-affecting process of setting goals, you need to rid yourself of all expectations.

Without expectations, you have greater freedom to write. There is less pressure because you don’t have a pre-determined idea of what you should achieve.

Setting goals can give you the structure you need to liberate your writing. Expectations can restrict you and make you feel stupid, especially if you fail to meet them.

Aim high. Expect nothing.

Share your thoughts

Okay, lecture over. Deep breath.

The second part of this double-header post will give you some practical advice for setting writing goals. There are lots of things you can do to make sure you get them right, and it’s always a worthwhile process.

In the meantime, I’d like to know your thoughts.

Have you ever been complacent through making assumptions about your work? Can you make a distinction between your writing goals and expectations?

18 Comments

  1. Hi,

    Your site is adorable. Is it Ice Cream Dream? It looks really cozy. Great job.

    I like the line, “without expectations you have greater freedom to write.” It’s so true. When I was first discovering myself as a writer, I had no idea what I was doing or where I wanted to go. The creative bursts I had during that time were almost unparalleled in my life.

    Good luck with the site. It looks truly terrific!

  2. So far I’ve done little more than make assumptions about my writing. And I think I’m only just beginning to distinguish between my goals and my expectations. So your advice is timely, appreciated, and eagerly anticipated.

  3. Zoe

    The biggest assumption I made was that writing would be easy, because I love doing it.

    As much as I love it, I’ve found that goals, routine, and discipline — all those words that sound so UNcreative! — are actually endlessly helpful to actually creating things.

  4. “Aim high. Expect nothing.”

    This angle you take with your emphasis is very refreshing. You emphasize the hard work to get to where you want to go, instead of just believing you will.

    I like it.

  5. Hi Iain, I agree with this distinction, especially when it comes to publication or making money from writing. That’s a whole different ball game, requiring a different set of skills, attitudes, and yes, expectations.

  6. > Aim for it, but don’t expect it.

    Brilliant advice.

    What can you expect anyway? Many people are successful in their own lifetimes only to go on to obscurity after their deaths. Many others only achieve the recognition they deserve after their deaths (the author of the novel Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates, is a great example.)

    So I’d go further and say aim to do your best and enjoy every minute, because the doing is your ultimate goal. Winning prizes and accolades and being financially successful are ultimately irrelevant to your daily work and often prove to have negative effects in the long run. Fame and/or financial success should be perks, not goals.

    The best advice I could give to any writer though is to schedule your days. You have to compartmentalise socialising (which includes talking about writing with other writers) and the actual work of writing and its attendant disciplines. I also think that the actual writing is a tiny part of being a successful writer. I’ve had to learn/am still learning the following skills which take up a far greater part of my work day than writing: marketing, web design, book cover design, html and css coding, typesetting, presenting, blogging, networking, business.

    Last year I spent 3 months writing a novel. This year I’m aiming to finish all the other work so that writing can take priority again between March and June. This is why I think scheduling, timetabling, wall planners and lists are vital.

    Look at the time. See? I’m 20 minutes late for work. Naughty me :)

  7. Iain (Author)

    @Writer Dad It is ICD – and thank you!

    @Crowth If your assumptions are based around your writing being rather spiffing, you’re very much on the right track.

    @Zoe Absolutely – we all need some sort of structure to work either to or around. It really does free us up to concentrate on other things – like creating stuff.

    @Joanna Yep, I think most of what I’m saying in this post relates to writers who want to, or do work professionaly. That said, the ‘aim high, expect nothing’ princple can apply to hobbyists too. In fact, it can apply to almost anything, I think.

    @Jude You’re right, there’s more to writing than simply the act of putting pen to paper (fingers to keyboard). I actually quite enjoy the necessary admin work (like writing this comment, I suppose!).

  8. Two points:

    1. I think you make an excellent distinction between goals and expectations. I never thought of it that way, and I think sometimes I don’t aim as high as I should for fear of being disappointed. But if it’s a goal — not an expectation, so what.

    2. I think what you’re saying applies to life in general and reallly any discipline, not just writing.

    Thanks for the pep talk.

  9. I really flip flop on having a rigid set of goals. I understand the concept, it get’s us focused, we have something by which we can measure outcome, yadda, yadda, yadda. I have a loose idea of what I’d like to accomplish. I remember what those things are without bashing meself over the head with them on a regular basis.

    I do think expectations are a different critter. If they shackle you, bind you and keep you from doing what you like, or if they inevitably provide a basis for your disappointment then toss the damned things.

    Give yourself permission to play free and loose with the system.. Work on doing the writing, do what feels right in your heart, and you’ll rarely go wrong.

    Cheers!

    George

  10. Manuela Boyle

    Iain – you’ve hit me like an express train. I’m in denial. I write to work, not work to write. I need to set myself some extra-curricular goals and get down to business. Thank you…keep the motivation close, and the new posts closer!

  11. So true…
    I am having a kind of productive blip at the moment, if that makes any sense.
    Last March I started writing my first full length novel. It was going great guns until my personal life started falling down around me.
    In July I started my blog. Between the two I didn’t really have time to write anything else, although I would dream of getting by book finished, maybe even being a published author.
    Recently, after totally neglecting my novel I decided to start working on it again and have got myself within a few pages of completing it.

    And now, suddenly I find myself hesitating to finish. It as though I am scared. Because once it is complete and I start looking to a few friends for their opinions then it will be out there and if it is rubbish – I think I will cry. I still find the idea of showing people my work very hard; I actually think I would be happier for them to see me naked than to read my work. Which kind of contradicts my dreams of seeing my novel on the shelf of my local bookshop.

    So to procrastinate and put off the necessary completion of my work I have been writing short stories like there is no tomorrow. I have been writing some days until 6am at which point my eyes feel like they are full of sand.
    I have even started a second blog. (http://16leggednightmare.blogspot.com/)

    So I think that I really should consider my goals and my expectations and possibly even get a little self belief.

  12. I’ve noticed the more I try to bring myself to focus on my writing the further my “schedule” tries to push itself away from writing and now that I am coming into adulthood I can feel the pains of not moving in the correct directions in a timely matter more than ever.

    Your article has given me some brain comfort as I have been trying to reach attainable goals placed into unreasonable time-frames. Reassessing my goals for the year, I would like to improve my writing and time management abilities on a daily basis, always taking a step forward and never backwards.

    Furthermore I also really enjoyed the portion regarding the difference between goals and expectations and if I can I’d like to eliminate all expectations I have and focus entirely on reaching those goals then maybe I can look back on my life and be proud of what I was able to accomplish.

  13. aniket

    I’ve noticed the more I try to bring myself to focus on my writing the further my “schedule” tries to push itself away from writing and now that I am coming into adulthood I can feel the pains of not moving in the correct directions in a timely matter more than ever.

    Your article has given me some brain comfort as I have been trying to reach attainable goals placed into unreasonable time-frames. Reassessing my goals for the year, I would like to improve my writing and time management abilities on a daily basis, always taking a step forward and never backwards.

    Furthermore I also really enjoyed the portion regarding the difference between goals and expectations and if I can I’d like to eliminate all expectations I have and focus entirely on reaching those goals then maybe I can look back on my life and be proud of what I was able to accomplish.

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