Have you ever had a great book idea, or started a story but failed to finish it? Did you try setting writing goals to finish your story, but couldn't keep up with your giant ambitions?
Did failing to meet your writing goals end in your giving up?
Goal setting is not as straightforward as it seems. Bad goals reinforce bad habits. If you want to become a writer and finish your writing projects, you need to set goals that you can meet—while also pushing you to complete your writing projects.
In this article, you will learn the two types of goals every writer can set and accomplish. You'll also learn four major reasons every writer needs to actually finish their writing projects—along with tips on how to do this.
Determining A Writer's Definition of Success
Have you ever participated in NaNoWriMo?
National Novel Writing Month (November) is when writers around the world attempt to achieve 50,000 words within the thirty days of the month. You can join this challenge as any type of writer because the ultimate goal is the same for everyone. I have done it (and completed it, I’m proud to add) at least five times. Whether what I produced was of any passable quality … well, that’s a whole different question.
The significance of NaNo is that for a lot of newbie writers, it’s the first time they experience having to stick to both a time and word count goal. It was certainly my first time. Before my first NaNo, way back in 2005, the idea of having those goals had never even occurred to me. But once I tried it, it was a game changer.
You see, when you have no goals or finish line, it can feel like you’re spinning your wheels. You can spend a whole day writing, or a week, or a month. But what kind of progress have you really made? Are those words useful? Do they contribute toward what you’re trying to achieve?
It’s pretty hard to answer those questions if you don’t know what you’re trying to achieve in the first place.
In order to accomplish something, you have to first define what success looks like to you. Like NaNo, when it comes to writing, you need a defined goal. Without one, writing a story or book probably won't feel satisfying.
2 Types of Goals to Boost Your Writing Process
There are two types of writing goals that you can set to boost your writing process:
- Action goals
- Result goals
Action goals are the actions you perform on a regular basis.
For example, to complete NaNoWriMo, you must write about 1,667 words per day. This is your action goal for each day.
Action goals are the baby steps, or the bite-sized goals. They should be defined with concrete parameters, such as a set number of words or quantity of writing time: X number of words, X number of hours, X number of times per week, etc.
Result goals are how you “win.”
This usually means finishing a project of some sort. For NaNoWriMo, the result goal is to have written 50,000 words within the set time of thirty days. The result goal can also be something a little more abstract, such as finishing writing a book, making a writing plan, or completing a short story.
Results goals are larger goals than action goals. They are what let you say, “I’m done. I did it!”
You need both goals if you want to finish a writing project.
How to Make a Good Goal
Believe it or not, goals are not created equal. A weak goal, one that is poorly defined or impossible to complete, will only leave you disappointed. It might even discourage you from writing completely.
If you want to design a good, measurable, and effective goal, you could start by setting SMART goals:
You can read more about SMART goals, but I want to go one step further and say that a goal should also be within your control. This is a concept somewhere in between “attainable” and “realistic.”
The fact is, new writers tend to set goals that overreach or they have no control over.
Goals like “write a bestseller” or “get 1000 fans” are tempting, but these are not accomplishments you can control. You can’t help what people like or don’t like.
Becoming a successful author involves a lot of luck, and you can’t control when and where that luck will strike. What you can do is modify your goal to something you do have control over.
For example, look at these two goals:
An uncontrollable goal: write a bestseller
Controllable goal: write a book that is hard to put down and fits criteria for commercial success.
Do you see the difference?
You can’t control whether the book sells well, but you can write a book that stands a good chance in the market.
Instead of a goal to get 1000 fans, set a more achievable goal to expose the book to at least 1000 people through conversation, social media, or ads. While you can’t control whether people become fans of your work, every person you expose the book to has a chance to become the next fan.
When you can control your goals, you can figure out strategies to meet them. Their SMART, and it's far more likely that you'll accomplish them.
4 Reasons You MUST Finish Your Writing Project
There are two aspects to finishing a writing project: completing your goal and completing your project.
Anyone who’s done NaNoWriMo knows that these two things are often separate. Achieving your goal doesn’t mean you’ve finished your project. Many of us have gone written a large chunk of words only to let the project itself sit unfinished, never returning to it despite all the work we’ve put in.
Completing word count goals is a challenge, but it’s easier than finishing a writing project. Anyone can bang out 50,000 words with some determination. Finishing a story is something different.
It’s easy to fall out of love with a story. Maybe it has a harder time gaining traction in the beginning and you find yourself trapped in a swamp of boring narrative. Maybe you hit the slog of the middle and just can’t find a way to speed up the pacing. Maybe your characters don’t want to listen to what you have to say and insist on doing something different.
It took many years for me to realize how important it is to actually finish a writing project, after leaving a number of half-written books in my wake. Advancing a writing career is awfully hard when you never finish anything.
I’ve made it as far as 60,000 words and as little as two pages before abandoning a project, and I still wonder about these projects sometimes—even though too much time has passed for me to return to them.
These days I make a point to finish every project I start. There are four very important reasons to do so.
1. Define the Ending
We all start with an idea of how our book should go, but the first draft rarely turns out exactly the same as you imagine.
The process of writing is an exploration in and of itself. You learn about your characters, you learn about how the events turn out and how they connect to each other. You may know what your story is about. But you won’t ever know exactly how things play out if you don’t finish writing it.
For help on planning an ending for your story, learn more from this article: Ending of Stories.
2. Discover a Story's Potential
I don’t know any writer who loves every moment of book writing. Even a bestselling author has their low points. Almost everyone goes through the slog and questions their work at some point. Those lows during the writing process are usually how we end up abandoning a project.
However, how will you ever know if your story is good in its entirety if you never see it in its entirety? A finished story may or may not be good, but an unfinished one definitely isn’t any good.
Until a book is finished, you can never look at its story as a whole. The missing pieces will always leave questions.
If you don't write the ending, how do you know if the other events logically lead to it? If you skip a number of middle scenes, how do you know if your characters are adequately developed or if your story pacing is appropriate?
A story is like a bridge: it cannot bear weight or transport anyone until every piece is in place.
3. Improve Your Book
Here’s a secret: the way to make a book good isn’t writing it; it’s rewriting it.
A story gets better every time you rewrite it, the same way a painter layers paint on a canvas. But when you paint a painting, you can’t put on a second layer without a first layer, and you can’t add a third layer without a second.
If you don’t finish that ugly first draft, you will never get to the second or third, and you work will never get a chance to become the beautiful finished product.
The magic of a story doesn't come to life in draft one. Even the greatest writers need to plough their way through multiple drafts before discovering the book they dreamed of writing.
You can learn more about ways to improve your book in a future post I'll write on plot treatments. For now, take a look at this article on developmental editing to learn more about what an editor looks for when editing a book.
4. Practice Writing (Every Part of Your Story)
It’s important to practice all aspects of writing, and the fact is, when you have a pile of unfinished products, there are certain things you hardly ever get to practice.
Writing endings, for example, or how to really make that saggy middle exciting. Maybe you miss out on learning to build a good subplot. Every writer has that area they need help working out.
When you abandon your stories without finishing them, you end up practicing a lot of beginnings and almost no endings. Not to mention the more you don’t finish your stories, the harder it is to finish the next one because, you guessed it, you’ve never practiced finishing so you’re forever rusty.
For more on how to practice, check out this article about four practical exercises to improve your writing skills.
Set Your Goals, Then Finish Your Project
Finishing a writing project is never easy, but once you complete that first book, the next one will be a little easier to finish—and the next one even easier.
By setting SMART action goals and result goals, you're more likely to finish a writing project that brings you joy instead of stress.
If nothing else, you should finish your current book for the sake of the next one. No time spent writing is wasted. Every minute you practice writing, you become a better writer.
Don't believe me? Start with a small writing project, like a short story, and take it from idea to published product. Then, take some time to reflect about the kind of writer you were before and after you wrote that story.
Are you the same? Or has something changed, about you, about your writing?
What writing goals do you use to finish your writing projects? Let us know in the comments!
Consider your current or next writing project and set one action goal and one result goal.
Your action goal should be quantifiable, such as a certain number of words to write per day or number of hours to write per week.
Your result goal should fit the SMART criteria from above, and most important of all, be within your control.
Take no more than fifteen minutes to set your goals. Make sure that they are goals you are able to stick to.
When you're done, let us know your new goals in the comments. And if you have time, give some feedback to a fellow writer's comment!
J. D. Edwin is a daydreamer and writer of fiction both long and short, usually in soft sci-fi or urban fantasy. Sign up for her newsletter for free articles on the writer life and updates on her novel, find her on Facebook and Twitter (@JDEdwinAuthor), or read one of her many short stories on Short Fiction Break literary magazine.