A significant part of successful, sustained writing is goal setting. Whether I’m working with faculty at a week-long writing retreat or collaborating on a co-authored manuscript, regularly setting goals keeps the writer(s) on track. Yet, not any old goal will do. There’s an art to setting feasible, productive goals, and it hinges on an awareness of your own writing process and a recognition that you can’t go from zero to finished in one fell swoop.
At week-long writing retreats, I ask participants to set a goal for the week. At the end of four dedicated days for writing and eliciting feedback from faculty colleagues, what do they hope to have accomplished? Faculty goals often include: a completed article/chapter draft, a significant start on a manuscript and a timeline for completing it during the coming summer or semester, a coherent literature review, or revising a full draft for a new target audience.
Faculty make progress towards, and typically complete, these goals because they also publically set daily goals. The daily goals break down the larger task into manageable pieces, and sharing them publically with others at the writing retreat makes faculty accountable for completing them.
Setting successful daily goals takes some practice, though, and requires writers to know a bit about their own writing processes. Writing 1000 words might be a good one-day goal for a binge writer who can get everything down on paper or the screen without stopping to edit continuously, but a writer likely won’t meet the goal if her writing process involves completing and revising a section at a time. Similarly, anyone who has a tendency to keep reading the literature and who struggles to stop reading to write, needs daily goals that both work with that habit and help the writer move past it. Therefore a one-day goal might be writing summaries of and pulling key ideas from a specific number of viable sources. The next daily goal, though, should push the writer to begin synthesizing what she’s read, without looking for more sources; looking for more sources to read can become a reward for identifying actual gaps in the literature review after the writer has completed an initial draft. These daily goals keep the writer on track to meet the larger goal of composing a coherent literature review or even completing an article draft.
These same goal setting strategies transfer to writing projects throughout the year. For my own writing, I set weekly writing goals and write them on a small (1 3/8 inch by 1 7/8 inch) sticky-note. I post the sticky-note on a filing cabinet next to my computer, where it remains visible throughout the week. Then I create daily to-do lists on larger (3 inch by 3 inch) sticky-notes, incorporating smaller writing goals into those daily to-do lists. (See “If It Won’t Fit on a Post-It, It Won’t Fit in Your Day” for a strategy for prioritizing your to-do list.) My daily writing goal is always the top item on my to-do list so that it doesn’t get lost; even if I can’t start working my way through my to-do list until after I’ve taught three classes, the placement of my writing goal at the top of the sticky note reminds me to make time for my writing.
Finally, these daily writing goals take some pressure off. That might initially sound counter-intuitive. Yet, if I write every day, working towards small daily goals, I make steady progress towards the weekly goal and longer-term goals. Therefore even if one day’s work isn’t as strong as I would like, I can look at four other days’ worth of work for the week and know that the quality balances out – and I’m making progress. I’m not forcing myself to be super productive and on task to meet my entire writing goal in one- or two-day binges. If I write for one hour each day for twenty work days, even with a less productive day here or there, I end the month with more productive writing hours than I could squeeze into a binge writing session.
So since it’s the start of a new week, here’s a peak at my weekly writing goals and my Monday to-do list: