How to reach your writing goals in 2018

Why understanding your “writer self” is the crucial first step to moving your writing forward

Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

In my work as a writing coach — and as a writer myself — I know what a powerful hold our writing goals can have upon us. In fact, the cold sterility of that word “goals” feels almost too small to encompass how many of us feel about our writing lives. We have dreams, ambitions, and heartfelt wishes that we can be hesitant to share. We feel vulnerable even whispering our desires to write our stories, share our words, and take up space in the big wide world.

But when we move toward making these dreams into reality, something beautiful happens. There is a deep joy in creating the work we are called to create; an unparalleled satisfaction in telling our stories. It’s a feeling that I’m often chasing as a writer, and one that I love seeing other writers achieve.

But: getting there can be hard. You know this, I know this. Every author you’ve ever heard of knows this — and some of them have turned this knowledge into a sideline of writing “How to” books on writing. Everyone’s got a theory. Write at 5am! Write every day! Never write less than a 1,000 words a day! Chain yourself to your desk and don’t leave until you’ve hit your daily target!

I’m not a fan of this genre as a whole, even though some of the advice and insights can be helpful and it can be interesting to know how other writers work. But the big secret is this: there is no one way to reach your writing goals. Each writer has to find their own path, has to discover what works for them, for their current project, and at this time. The plethora of writing advice and how-to guides can end up producing huge amounts of shame for people who are unable to fit themselves into another writer’s mould. I know because I’ve been there — feeling like a failure because I couldn’t force myself to churn out large word counts on the daily or assuming that I wasn’t a “real” writer if I couldn’t follow the advice of these published greats. And if there’s one thing that’s antithetical to a productive writing life, it’s shame.

Asking the right questions

So given all this, why am I here, in the midst of an article that promised to tell you how to reach your writing goals? Well, because I do believe that we can all ask ourselves questions and take steps that can help us move our work forward. Understanding ourselves as writers is the first fundamental step to building a more productive and satisfying writing life.

To start at the beginning, ask yourself: What is your writing goal? It’s a big question — why do you write? Are you writing for professional purposes? Are you hoping to publish? Are you looking to explore and share your personal experiences through writing memoir pieces? Are you looking to feel more connected to your creativity? Are you planning to cultivate a journaling habit as a way of meditating on the everyday? All of these goals are valid and worthy, and all might demand different ways of being with your writing. Understanding why you want to write, and who you want to write for can illuminate a lot about the kind of writing practice that might feel good for you.

Once you have your goal in mind, it’s time to for you to explore how you work best. For example, what will motivate you to get moving? For some people, deadlines are key. As soon as they have that date set in mind, they get moving. For others, they need some kind of external accountability — maybe a writing buddy who is expecting to read their work on a weekly basis, or perhaps a writing class with set assignments. (Gretchen Rubin’s “Four Tendencies” framework can be a really useful tool for thinking through whether external or intrinsic motivations are going to be more useful for you).

One thing people often forget to do is to remind themselves — what has worked well elsewhere in your life? We often think of writing as a separate endeavour from our work or personal lives, and yet when we do this we run the risk of ignoring all the experience and skills we already have at our disposal. Sit down and think through all the times in your life when you’ve had to meet a tough goal — maybe writing papers when you were in school or university, or perhaps training for a marathon, learning a new skill such as a language or an instrument. What tactics did you have you used to succeed in the past? How can you translate this knowledge into your writing life? For example, I know that for me breaking a goal down into lots of smaller chunks, and rewarding myself as I work through my little mini-goals, is key for me staying the course. What lessons can you take from your personal or professional life and bring to your current writing goal?

Another key question to ask yourself is what are you going to do when the going gets tough? Because if you’re setting out on any substantial writing project I can almost guarantee there will come a time when you want to give up, or you will feel utterly lost. There’s no shame or failure in that. It seems to almost be a fundamental part of the writing process for most of us. Is there a support system you can have set up before you hit a rough patch? Who can you bounce ideas off of? What activities inspire you when you get into a rut? How do you regenerate your creative spark? Figuring out the answers to these questions before the rough patch hits can give you a roadmap that makes that patch feel more manageable as you move through it.

And these questions are only just the beginning — you can start analyzing your writing preferences down to the minutest detail as you begin to develop your writing practice. Night owl or early bird? At home or away? Music on or off? Computer or notebook? Long interrupted stretches of writing time, or short snatches of scribbling furiously between meetings? As you refine your understanding of who you are as a writer, you can start creating the conditions that are most likely to move you towards reaching your writing goal.

Spending the time getting to know yourself

At some level, these questions might sound simple. Perhaps even as you’re reading this you’re thinking you already have the answers in mind for yourself. But in my experience, when we’re first asked these questions a lot of us respond with what we think we “should” say. We loudly proclaim that a daily writing practice is what would best suit our goals, even if it’s never something we’ve achieved before, doesn’t fit in with our lifestyle, and will inevitably lead to us feeling like a failure when we end up skipping a day a week, a month, or six months down the line. We think because we once read somewhere that Philip Pullman works in a shed down the back of his garden we too should have a similar dedicated space, even if our apartment is already crammed enough as it is, and we actually love writing in coffee shops.

Spending the time to be with these questions — to really understand ourselves and what works for us — is part of the process of deepening your craft as a writer. Figuring this stuff out is not wasting time, or procrastinating but rather laying the foundations for future success. Just as your writing will only improve with practice, gaining insight into your preferred writing practices will be an ongoing process of discovery — and you might learn that these things change over time or with different projects. Allow yourself the space to be curious, to explore, and most of all to have fun in the process.

What are your writing goals in 2018? How do you define your writing self?