Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Taking your goals seriously

Last September I set a personal writing goal of 500 words every weekday and 1000 on weekends. (Okay, I said 200 and 600 publicly, but that was only because I was worried I wouldn't hit 500/1000 and didn't want to set myself up for failure.) However, even though I had a goal, I did not keep track of whether or not I was hitting my target each day. This was stupid. I was sabotaging myself and my efforts to get back on track as a professional writer. Not just because I wasn't holding myself accountable, but because by giving myself permission to not keep track I was telling myself the goal was not that important. If you do not take your goals as a writer -- do not take yourself as a writer -- seriously you will always be someone who wanted to be a writer. Or in my case, someone who was once a writer.

Not surprisingly, while not holding myself to my word count goals, I did not produce as many stories as I had intended. Something had to change.

So beginning January 1, I posted my daily word count on my Live Journal. This has perhaps made my journal a little more dull than usual, but it has definitely made me accountable. It shouldn't need to be said, but the key to accountability is honesty. There were three days in January when I didn't write anything, and I have to admit that on those days I was tempted to "forget" to post my no-word count. But I figure I'm in a staring contest with my own career as a writer, and I'm not going to be the one to blink.

How did I do in January? Better than I'd expected going in. My worst days were of course the zeros, and I also had a couple of days that came in around 200; on twenty of those thirty-one days I wrote fewer than 1000 words. But I also had five uninterrupted hours one Sunday to produce 4900 good words; very close to one thousand words an hour. In total I wrote 32,750 words in January -- call it an average of 1000 words a day.

But producing words means nothing if those words are not the building blocks of a finished product. It might be more meaningful to say that in January I produced two short stories (a 12,900-word science fiction tale that took two weeks and a 2600-word mystery written in a single sitting); four articles of various lengths; two Novel Spaces columns; and the first 9,000 words of a novella that will probably run in the neighborhood of 30,000 words when finished. The completed works have all been submitted to markets.

Goals have to be meaningful and they have to be taken seriously if you are to succeed as a writer.
What are your personal writing goals? And what are you doing to hold yourself accountable?


Anonymous said...

I find it interesting that so many writers realise that they need better management and organisation of their work, but so few of them seem to truly apply it. None of these things are new; there are plenty of well-documented project management methodologies out there in the business world. Writers could easily look at these and come up with a suitable lightweight version for themselves. I did.

Another thing that continues to amaze me is that writers are always talking about daily word counts, as some kind of measure of their output efficiency. In my opinion, that metric is much too fine-grained (did someone say "micro-management"?) to be of real, quantitative use. This is especially true if a particular day's words do not end up in the final product.

In my last permanent job, a good manager would ask me things like: how far through the list of features have you got with the latest software? A poor manager would be more likely to ask: how many lines of program code have you written in the last two hours?

Do you see what I'm driving at? Metrics are only worth measuring if they are useful. If you must have a word rate, why not set it as a weekly one rather than a daily one? Which looks better, several zeros mixed in with one or two days "on a roll", or regularly achieving (say) 6,000 words every week?

A better goal, in my view, would be to have a target number of scenes, sections or perhaps chapters to achieve per given unit of time. Measuring that would give a more realistic indication of progress.

Katrina said...

I use a calendar and write down a word count objective to hit, five days a week.

This really helps in the beginning of my work, but when I hit that 40,000 word mark I generally have to do start going by scenes or chapters, like Captain Black suggested. This helps me get through the middle, the hardest part of the novel. (For me anyway...)

Farrah Rochon said...

I've always had to give myself page count goals, Kevin (can't do time goals because I can sit and stare at the computer for 1 1/2 hours and only write two paragraphs).

I do everything possible to hit that goal. If I can't complete it in my morning writing session, then I have to sacrifice TV watching time or reading time at night. I try my hardest to reach it in the morning. :)

This past week I started a Farrah-as-a-full-time-writer experiment. I have very ambitious page goals, and so far have hit them all. Need to get off the web so I can get started on today's goals.

KeVin K. said...

An average page double spaced is about 250 words; single spaced is 500. So to my mind a page goal is a word goal.

Time goals do not work for me because it's too easy for me to rationalize time spent researching is "just like" writing time. I use a word count goal because it's a tangible I can document. (For example I realized there was a structural problem with "Faeries of Firenze," my current project, and spent my morning writing time rearranging scenes so the antagonist is on stage earlier and one long expository sequence became two much more digestible scenes fifteen pages apart. Maybe gained 200-300 words making the adjustments and smoothing transitions, but I don't count that as writing. More like brushing the sawdust off the chair I'm building. Writing will come tonight.)

Kevin, you're right about not all words making it into the final product. I wrote 16,800 words of "Bad Water" but only 12,900 made the final cut. Because I continuously revise as I write, it is not unusual for me to write 3000 words and throw out 1000 or 2000 before calling it a day. My daily totals are always "good words" -- words I'm happy with. (If I counted all the words I wrote and threw out in the course of a writing, not just the daily totals, "Bad Water" would come in somewhere north of 20k.)

My writing style prevents me using the scene counting method. I always stop for the day in the middle of a scene. This ensures I spend at least part of my non-writing time thinking about what comes next and eliminates the sit-and-stare-at-the-blank-screen start to the writing day.
However, I always have a pad at my elbow with key plot points listed; I check them off as I hit them (but I don't set goals as to when I plan on hitting them).