1 March 2009

Writing goals 2: Short-term targets, long-term goals

The first post in Write for Your Life’s ongoing ‘Writing goals’ series encouraged you to aim high, but manage your expectations. Now, it’s time to look at how you approach your writing once you’ve decided what you want to achieve.

I’ll use my own writing as an example. It took me a long time to write my novel, partly because I also had to hold down a full-time job, but also because it took me the best part of a year to work out how to set achievable goals.

The problem was, I never did set myself goals, as such. Instead, I had just one singular objective: write a novel. That’s all I wanted to do. It’s what I was working towards.

In 2005, with 10,000 words under my belt and some handsome feedback, I took two months sabbatical from work and moved to a friend’s house in Bath. My goal was to complete my novel, in peace, while I was there.

On leaving Bath, I had just 24,000 words. I would go on to write another 35,000 over the next two years before finally achieving my ‘goal’.

The reason I wrote so little in that time was a lack of planning and foresight. I had a goal, but no idea about how I was going to reach it.

What I needed, was short-term targets.

Writing targets and writing goals

Okay, so what’s the difference between a target and a goal? Here are a couple of relevant definitions from dictionary.com.

Target: a goal to be reached.

Goal: the result or achievement toward which effort is directed; aim; end.

So yes, I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right. A target and a goal is pretty much the same thing. Well, okay, they’re definitely the same thing.

Actually, that doesn’t matter, because it’s what goes on in your brainbox that counts. It’s you who defines what a target is and what a goal is.

This is how it works for me:

A goal is a long-term project with a definite ending or result to aim for, such as completing a novel. A short-term target is an event or milestone that seems achievable and has a clearer time-scale, such as completing a chapter.

A goal, therefore, is made up of a series of targets.

The dictionary might not recognise a difference between goals and targets, but you can. Truth is, the words themselves are irrelevant. You can call them what you want. If it’s easier, or just more fun, you can call your targets bananas and your goal a fruit salad and no one’s going to stop you.

The important thing is to think short-term to achieve your long-term objective.

Step by step by step by step

There are obvious advantages to working with short-term targets. When I was in Bath, without realising it, I put myself under enormous pressure to write.

I wanted to finish my novel so much, that I didn’t think clearly and my creativity dried up. Instead of waking up each day and setting myself a target of, say, 1000 words, I simply got frustrated at my lack of progress towards ‘the end’.

By setting short-term targets, you adjust your mental approach to your writing and gain more freedom by focusing your energy on what you’re doing in the here and now.

And although my example is something very long-term, writing a novel, the theory works for shorter pieces of writing too.

For instance, I’ve just spent the best part of a month on a copywriting job that saw me and a team of writers craft around 200 case studies in pretty quick time.

It was a frantic process with tight deadlines. A case study was between 350 and 380 words. To make sure I got the work done, I forced myself to break each case study down in to paragraphs – physically and mentally.

I knew that if I started thinking, ‘Arrrgghhh, I’ve got to research and write all this in an hour,’ I wouldn’t get it done. So I took each case study one paragraph at a time, working step-by-step towards a whole (or goal (or fruit salad!)).

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes!

So, short-term targets help you achieve long-term goals because they give you focus and help you adjust your mental approach to your writing. Lovely stuff.

However, I think there’s also another benefit that’s equally, if not more important.

To go back to my novel, once I started working short-term, I was able to better understand what my long-term goal actually was. I could appreciate the task more. I had respect for it.

When you approach any meaty writing project, you never exactly know what you’re letting yourself in for. All manner of things can happen along the way: writer’s block, lack of motivation, pregnancy. I had problems with at least two of these things.

In terms of time, long-term goals are often subject to change. If you don’t have short-term targets, you can end up losing your way and find yourself forgetting what it is you’re aiming for.

By approaching a project as a step-by-step process, you can manage it more effectively. You can recognise patterns in your writing and predict where you’ll be at any given point in the project’s timeline.

Essentially, short-term targets allow you to manage your writing, so that your writing doesn’t manage you.

Share and share alike

So now you know how useless I used to be and how unrealistic my goals were, it’s time to tell us your objective-setting experiences.

Can you work long-term without short-term targets? Do you gave an ingenious technique that allows you to structure your workflow? Are you a bit confused by the fruit salad bit?

13 Comments

  1. As much as I know I need to do, it, I’ve never been much of a goal setter. Irish Setter or Scottish Terrier? Maybe.

    Ok, sorry about that. I do think I will try the target method and see what happens.

    Thanks for this great primer on eating that elephant.

    Cheers!

    George

  2. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time :)

  3. I’ve been setting myself writing goals and targets then totally ignoring them giving myself excuses.

    Today I’m getting back into the writing mode without the excuses. And targets are a big part of that.

  4. Hello writing chums,

    As with all things, different methods work for different people. I think the trick is to gather ideas then experiment and find a method that works for you and not worry too much about how other people do things.

    This is what works for me…

    Next to my computer on the wall, I’ve got a Sasco compact year planner chart. I’ve also made some chapter magnets to chart writing progress (see Appendix at the end for the method if you’re interested in making some.)

    Assuming that the mental prep work has been done, I type out and print a chapter plan of the book, with a line summarising each chapter. Then I know roughly how many chapters the book will have. This chapter plan is organic and mutable, not fixed! The idea is to allow it to breathe, change and evolve as the book progresses, which I reflect by updating the plan and printing it off every time there are changes (marking at the top the date of the latest amendment.)

    I decide how long I’m going to set aside to write the book. In the case of the second half of My Adventures In Cyberspace II, I’ve set aside February – May.

    I divide the chapter magnets amongst the weeks and months on the chart. A
    challenging chapter will have an entire week set aside for it. Most weeks will have 2 chapters scheduled.

    If I fail to achieve my targets, I move the chapter magnets onwards to the next weeks, so that all the time I have a fixed schedule in front of me and targets to achieve. Failing to achieve targets happens all the time and these failures are ignored and not dwelt upon. All I mark up on the chapter plan is the successes – the chapters written get ticked off and the word count written next to them.

    This way, I’m working constantly in a positive environment. Currently I’m a couple of weeks behind schedule with the writing on My Adventures In Cyberspace II, as proof-reading My Adventures In Cyberspace (the first one) has taken longer than planned. Hopefully that will be on sale on Amazon next week!

    For me, the key is to understand that all successful people fail. The trick is to not let those failures impede your onwards progress. Success is about learning to handle failure, in other words.

    Appendix: How to make chapter magnets -

    1) Buy some glass pebbles from a craft shop or on eBay.
    2) Type some random numbers from 1 to 50 in word, print off in draft to check the size of each number will fit behind a glass pebble, then write from 1 to 50 and print off in high quality.
    3) Cut out a roundish shape round each number.
    4) Use transparent sealant (the one in a long squeezy tube with a trigger gun, from hardware shops) to seal each number to the base of each glass pebble.
    5) Use sealant to attach a small magnet to the base of each number – you can buy craft magnets in bulk on eBay for a couple of quid.

    You can see the glassy chapter magnets on the wall chart behind me here in this shot from 2008, showing the writing schedule for Mother-in-Law, Son-in-Law. I ended up finishing it in 3 months.

  5. I forgot to say – I stick the wall planner on a metal sheet screwed to the wall, which is how come you can put magnets on it.

  6. Chocolate lover

    I agree that it is vitally important to set yourself short term goals with marathon projects such as novel writing, otherwise it just drags on and becomes a ten year project. I am currently doing a rewrite and edit of my novel manuscript and have set myself the goal of having it ready to send out to publishers by 30 June this year. I also find it useful to tell as many people as possible about my goal, as (a) their enquiries about my progress and (b) my desire to tell them that I’ve achieved my goal, keep me motivated and writing into the wee hours of the morning when my eyelids feel as heavy as a ball and chain.

  7. > I am currently doing a rewrite and edit of my novel manuscript and have set myself the goal of having it ready to send out to publishers by 30 June this year.

    It may be better to get yourself a copy of The Writers and Artists Yearbook 2009, find out the requirements of each agent, and start sending the required query package to each agent (I used to query 5 a week.) Publishers generally don’t accept query packages directly from writers nowadays, you have to go through an agent. I spent a couple of years on and off researching how to get published and the best piece of information on how to get an agent I found was here:

    http://www.agentquery.com/writer_hq.aspx

    Be warned, there is a LOT of utter shite posted on the net by wannabe “I’m a published author donchaknow” writers who waste their time yakking about writing instead of doing it, and taking their advice can sometimes set you back for *months*. Writers forums are *full* of these patronising know-it-alls. Just as in the climbing world, the really passionate climbers are out on the crag climbing, there are others who’d rather sit in front of a computer attempting to score points off others in little online battles about how you’re meant to climb. See what I mean?

    You will get the very best advice in The Writers and Artists Yearbook. I wish now I had read more of that before I started.

    > I also find it useful to tell as many people as possible about my goal,

    Yes, yes yes. :) Good luck :)

  8. Iain (Author)

    Jude’s right, the Writers and Artists Yearbook is the place to go and you’re much more likely to get published with the help of an agent, rather than going to a publisher direct.

    The Writers and Artists Yearbook is in our Bookshop, by the way, to save you searching for it: The Bookshop.

  9. Amy

    The distinction you make between a target and a goal is a good one. To divide a long-term goal into short, achievable tasks is empowering and gives one a sense of control and accomplishment. It’s extremely important to have evidence that you’re moving in the right direction, especially when your goal (like writing a novel) is going to take some time to complete.

  10. The very nature of my own writing means I’m often writing lots of little short sketches, plays or monologues, which I then attempt to record, film, submit, perform or force other people to act in. To stop myself getting too distracted as I give birth to these projects; any other ideas I have during these times I tend to write down to focus on at a later date.

    However, I’m sure like many people here. When I come to peruse these ideas at said “later date”; they make no sense to me whatsoever. Some of the ideas I’ve written down recently (no, really!) are: “Lots of needles in a single arm”, “Captain Scarlet makes a podcast” and “man in a business suit puts on a silly costume”.

    I remember having a really good reason for writing these things at the time, but can’t actually remember what those reasons actually were (if anybody thinks they know what I did mean, please do tell me).

    So really my future plans must be to make better future plans. Also clearly, I need to be less insane…

  11. I didn’t know Ron personally but watched him on ‘How’s Your News.’ I had to write to tell you how Ron made me laugh and cry and gave me so much hope for our .

  12. This post asks writers to make the distinction between short-term targets and long-term goals to improve productivity and make difficult …

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