5 Steps to Set Writing Goals You’ll Actually Achieve

by Jeff Elkins | 14 comments

It’s that time of year again. The holiday parties are done, visiting family has gone home, and normal life has resumed. Coming back makes us question, “Is this really what I want my life to look like?”

5 Steps to Set Writing Goals You'll Actually Achieve

So we set New Year’s resolutions. We tell ourselves, “This year, it’s going to be different! This year I’m going to write more, finish that book, put out a short story a week, finally edit that manuscript, etc. . . .”

Unfortunately, most restarts fail. I always eat too much over the holidays and by the New Year my pants no longer fit, so I join a gym. While joining the gym makes me feel better about myself, it doesn’t actually help me lose weight.

Building a routine time in my schedule to exercise would help me lose weight, but that is hard. Joining a gym is easier and it makes me feel better and only results in me buying new pants in March.

It’s not enough just to say that things are going to be different. If we want to see real change in our lives, we need to be disciplined and strategic about the changes we make.

Newton's First Law of Motion and Writing

If you are like me, your writing life is something you wish you could change. I never feel like I’m spending enough time writing or hitting the word counts that I want. I have a pile of unfinished projects and a journal full of unwritten ideas.

Newton’s First Law of Motion applies here: “An object at rest will remain at rest unless acted on by an unbalanced force. An object in motion continues in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.”  Our writing life will stay exactly how it is until we are inspired by our encounter with some exterior force.

Good news! The New Year is an exterior force you can use to get you moving. It’s a time we’ve adopted as a culture that we’ve agreed on marks the start of new things. We can use this moment to get us moving.

The question then is, how do we keep the pressure on so that we will stay in motion and not be slowed down by the weight of all our other responsibilities? How do we make the push of that initial unbalanced force last?

5 Steps to Set Achievable Writing Goals

We need to remove all the friction that will slow our movement. We need to clear the road for our new writing goal so it can glide easily to success. I’ve found the following five steps have helped me build goals that last. These steps are designed to limit things that will keep you from accomplishing your goals.

Step 1: Take Inventory of Your Current Writing Life

What is your current writing life like? When do you write? How much do you write? Is it consistent or inconsistent? Before we can start talking about what you want it to be, we need an authentic assessment of what it is.

As silly as it sounds, it’s tempting to lie when we do this step. Exaggerating what we actually accomplish makes us feel better. It eases the pain of reality.

Unfortunately, this is not the time to make yourself feel better. Be honest.

There are a couple of ways to do this.

  • If you are a numbers person, estimate the time you spend writing each day, week, or month. Then estimate the number of words you average on a good day.
  • If you are more of a concept person, write down ten adjectives that currently describe your writing process.
  • If you are a “Lists are Stupid” person, write one paragraph that describes your current writing life.

Step 2: Identify the Small Routines You Need

Now that we’ve looked at what your writing life is, ask yourself what you want it to be. For this step, start by dreaming big. If you had your ideal writing life, what would it look like?

I recommend doing this in the same way you did step one. For example, if you made a list of adjectives describing your current life, now make a list describing the life you want to have.

Once you have finished your dream, take a step back. While the big dream is exciting, it isn’t necessarily helpful. Often the chasm between who we are and who we want to be is too big to jump in a single leap. It’s going to take several cycles of change to achieve the dream.

Think about what it is going to take to have the writing life you want to have.

  • What does the normal routine of that writer look like?
  • What does he or she accomplish every day?
  • What are the disciplines he or she has that you currently don’t?

Now pick one or two of those smaller changes to make. Ideally, you will be able to identify a few small routines you can begin practicing. These are the goals you need to achieve. Once you’ve established them as part of your ingrained writing routine, you can move on to adding more.

Step 3: Acknowledge the Barriers

We know the writing life you have. We know the writing life you want, and we know a few small things you can do to get you moving in the right direction. Now let’s talk about what is going to slow you down.

What forces in your life are going to push back on your progress? What is going to make maintaining these changes hard? Where is the resistance coming from?

  • You may find they are motivational problems like a lack of time or energy.
  • You may find they are emotional things like self-doubt or hopelessness.
  • You may find they are practical issues like a lack of knowledge or the right writing tools.

Know and name your enemy.

Take a sheet of paper and write down on the left side all the things that are going to keep you from establishing your new routines.

Step 4: Mitigate the Friction

Look at your list of barriers. What can you do from the outset to lessen the effect of these barriers?

Go back to your sheet of paper in step three. Next to each barrier, write something you can do to lessen the impact of that issue.

  • If your problem is a lack of time, what is something you can give up that will create more time in your schedule?
  • If your problem is self-doubt, what is one way you can encourage yourself on a routine basis?
  • If your problem is that you don’t have the right tools, what are you going to do to get them?

Step 5: Find a Community

Change can happen in isolation, but it is difficult. Something that will make it easier for you to become the writer you want to be is getting in a community of writers who are working toward similar ends.

Not only will they serve as a resource for you, seeing their struggle and progress will be a continued unbalanced force that will keep pushing you out of your resting state.

If you don’t have a community already, we invite you to become a part of ours by clicking here.

You Can Achieve Your Writing Goals

You can have the writing life you want to have; it’s just going to take slow, steady, strategic changes. The New Year may be the push you need to get going.

Do you have any tips for setting writing goals you'll actually achieve? Let us know in the comments.


Spend fifteen minutes journaling through the steps listed above. I'm sharing mine in Becoming Writer, our online writing community. I'd love for you to join me there and share yours, too. Or, share your writing goals in the comments below. Don't forget to leave some encouragement for your fellow writers as we set out to make 2017 a year full of writing progress.

Jeff Elkins is a writer who lives Baltimore with his wife and five kids. If you enjoy his writing, he'd be honored if you would subscribe to his free monthly newsletter. All subscribers receive a free copy of Jeff's urban fantasy novella "The Window Washing Boy."


  1. Savannah Goins

    This is a great message! Challenge yourself, but don’t bite off more than you can chew. Start with a small improvement or two and once you have established that as a habit, add more to it. Don’t expect yourself to suddenly be a pro at managing your writing time just becauae it is a new year. I have been trying to do that for the past year, and with that experience I think I will be able to improve a lot this year! Good luck to all of you!

  2. helena1765

    i honestly feel like there is never enough time in a day! between school and all my classes. I have a really hard time getting inspired, but when i do i get really good ideas for stories but by the time i sit down to write them out all my ideas are gone.
    does anyone else feel this way? how do i over come this obstacle?

    • strictlynoelephant

      Jotting the keywords of your new ideas on a notepad will help. I had the same issue 🙂

    • Jeff Elkins

      I use two tools. I carry around a journal with me. When an idea strikes, I write that thing down so I don’t lose it. If I’m somewhere where I can’t write (like traffic), I use the voice memo feature on my phone. I find that if I record the idea somehow, even if I don’t go back to the note, I’m more likely to remember it.

    • drjeane

      Note taking is another challenge for me. I always think I’ll remember that inspired thought, but it rarely happens that way. Thanks for the suggestion of using the memo feature on the phone – I might actually do that. There is something about recording something outside one’s own mind (notepad, etc.) that makes it easier to remember. I think it has something to do with recording things in more than one mode. Jean Houston used to encourage dancing the idea, singing the idea, anything to record it on more than one neurological pathway.

    • Alicia C.I.

      One of my fellow colleagues (also a teacher as I forgot to mention) used to use her lunch breaks at work to do her writing, straight after dismissal time and her journey to and from work. I’m not sure if that works for you but its a start. Have a small handbag sized notebook that you can write random things in.

    • At Home With Grandma

      The previous replies are great, get organized and follow their advice about a notebook and finding a time slot each day to write. It doesn’t have to be hours, start with 30 minutes or even 15. Just start!

  3. TerriblyTerrific

    Thank you for this article. I am writing in a different genre, and, just thinking of new ideas. Happy New Year!

  4. At Home With Grandma

    Current writing life: A couple of hours in the afternoon, usually write close to 2000 words a day.
    Ideal writing life: Maybe double what I do now, 4 hrs a day and 4000 words
    Barriers: depression, distraction, inability to focus more than a couple of hours a day
    Overcoming those barriers is major. I can’t go back on the anti-depressants, they steal my creativity. Positive self-talk hasn’t worked/just isn’t believable. Anyone else know how to overcome depression/inability to focus because of it?

    • RAW

      G-Ma, I recommend you talk to your doc about your problem and try adjusting your meds. They have all kinds of stuff today for depression. But one more thing you can do to stimulate your brain… believe it or not… physical exercise. It’s good for the body too!
      It’s counter intuitive I know. But if you sweat a little, you can actually generate feel good chemicals in your brain. (Seratonins?) These can help counteract depression. I know a guy who tried to commit suicide by jogging. He thought he would generate a heart attack and it wouldn’t look like a suicide. But to his surprise, he didn’t die, and he felt better!!! So he kept it up and it improved his mood.
      True story.

    • liz

      Try subliminal hypnosis. You can buy a cd or make your own. Only you know what you want to fix. Good luck.

    • Jeff Elkins

      I know that perseverance can be an issue with depression. If this is part of your problem, I’d recommend breaking your writing times into four one-hour chunks rather than two two hour chunks. If you find the two hour is working, maybe try a 2 hour, 1 hour, and 1 hour pattern. Make sure you are active between the chunks (surfing the web, watching TV, or social media doesn’t count). Get up and walk around. Get away from what ever you are writing on. The break will ideally help refresh your mind.

      Also, you may want to try rewarding yourself after success. Find something you enjoy. Give it to yourself as a reward after you’ve finished a writing block.

      Hope that helps. Keep us posted!

    • At Home With Grandma

      Thank you Jeff, those are good suggestions I can use. In the last several weeks, my writing has been my therapist and I’m feeling more postive than I have for a very long time.

  5. drjeane

    This was a great exercise. I reached the 15 minute limit just as I got to the 5th step. This is very interesting as I’ve tended to be a loner, especially with regard to my writing. It’s difficult to open up to others about writing, especially something I’m currently working on. Becoming part of a writing community is a priority for me in this new year. I think my community needs to be in person at scheduled times. Online, it’s too easy to skip a day or simply read what others are writing and not post responses.



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