How to Set Goals That Will Actually Make You Write

Last month you said you’d have 50,000 words by the end of the summer. Last week you said you’d finish your story by the end of this week. Yesterday you said, for the 100th time, “I’ll write tomorrow.”

Sound familiar?

I’ve been there—making promise after promise, scribbling an arbitrary word count on a post-it note like it was going to force my fingers to the keyboard.

And I’ll be honest: sometimes I’m still there.

It was worst during the year that followed turning in my MFA thesis. Now that deadlines no longer breathed down my neck, there was nothing constantly driving me—or my writing—forward.

Nerd that I am, I researched my heart out. I read up on productivity, on goal-setting strategies, on the writing habits of famous authors. I dove so deep into the work of others I forgot my own, and every time I tried a new strategy, I gave up almost immediately.

I was thinking a lot about how to get myself to write, but I still wasn’t writing.

Why wasn’t I writing?

And it wasn’t just me.

This was an issue plaguing many of my friends and fellow MFA grads—and it continues to be an issue for a lot of writers.

The problem with the way we set writing goals is, most of the time, we’re not doing so in a way that will actually get us to sit down and write.

We make the mistake of assuming that because so-and-so famous writer produced a thousand words a day, or followed such-and-such specific schedule, that we have to operate within the same goal-setting framework. As though all writers are wired the same!

Which is crazy, really, because something that often defines writers is how not like everyone else we are.

We pride ourselves in thinking outside of the box, in seeing the world differently—and yet we try to fence ourselves within these arbitrary parameters because, hey, it worked for Hemingway/King/Woolf/insert-famous-author-here.

The key to setting effective writing goals is recognizing that different writers write differently—and should set their goals accordingly. When I struggled to set writing goals that worked, I failed to consider a crucial piece of the equation: me.

I’ve outlined three goal-setting styles below—along with how to decide which approach is the right fit and how to modify them to make your goals work for you.

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1. Word Count Goals

This is what most people talk about when we talk about writing goals (and yes, I’m going to own that Carver reference). I hear writers throw out numbers like “500 words a day!” or “2,000 words a week!” as though these are some magic number.

And for them (if it works) it probably is magic.

Once you find a goal that keeps you writing, it’s like having a wand straight from Ollivander’s. POOF: the project progresses, little by little, every day.

But “500 words a day” only works if you actually write 500 words Every Single Day. And because of this, this style of goal setting is not for everyone.

For some writers—and I include myself in that number—word count goals feel like a chore. I become a whiny teenager: “Sure, I’ll write 500 words, but they’re not gonna be good.” *sticks out tongue, slams bedroom door.*

My other issue with word count goals is they don’t take into account the writing activities that don’t produce words—things like brainstorming, outlining, journaling, and other practices that happen on paper, without a word count tracker. These are valuable moves for many writers, and word count goals simply don’t capture them.

But for others, especially during drafting, word count goals offer a clear benchmark for success—it’s a quantifiable achievement, a gold star at the end of the day.

Progress is constantly visible.

How to tell if this goal-setting style is right for you:

If you like quantifiable goals, or goals with a clear “achieve”/”did not achieve” indicator, this could be a solid option for you.

This is also a good style for people who respond well to “tough love,” as it’s easy to get someone else to hold you accountable to such a simple metric, or even to give yourself a kick in the pants.

(This also may work well for you if you’re a fan of written kitten.)

It’s important to note that this strategy can work for some projects better than others. Daily word count goals can be quite effective for endeavors like NaNoWriMo, which is driven by number of words, but they may not be very useful if you’re writing, say, a book of poems.

How to make the most of this goal-setting style:

First, implement this goal-setting strategy only when in deep drafting mode—when the important thing is getting words on the page. It doesn’t make sense to track word counts when you’re outlining, brainstorming, or even revising.

Second, start small. Don’t try to go from 0 to 1,000 overnight.

Instead, make yourself write at least 100 words every day; once you knock this out for a full week, bump the goal up to 200/day, and so on, until you find your sweet spot—the goal that is achievable with effort—not so easy that it doesn’t feel like you’ve accomplished much, but not so out of reach that it feels impossible.

Adjust as you go; it may take some experimentation, and that’s okay. The most important thing is to be patient—with yourself and with your goals.

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2. #AssInChair

Excuse my language, but the #AssInChair goal is exactly what it sounds like: get your booty in the chair and get writing.

There are a couple approaches to this style of goal setting.

The first is similar to word count goals, only you’re counting amount of minutes/hours spent writing per day, rather than number of words produced. The advantage this has over word count goals is the capability of capturing a broad spectrum of writing-related activities.

That said, the potential disadvantages remains similar to the word count strategy. Cue, whiny teenager: “Fine, I’ll sit here for thirty minutes, but I’m not writing anything.” *crosses arms, sticks out tongue, slams bedroom door.*

The second approach is much simpler: I’m going to sit down to write (#AssInChair) at least four days this week.

This differs from the other strategies we’ve discussed so far in that there’s no end point to your writing day—you must simply begin.

What I’ve found, though, is that once I sit down and start, I can keep working for a good long while. The simple act of sitting down to write is enough to propel me, and many other writers I’ve worked with, forward.

How you manage your time once you’ve got your booty in the chair is a subject for another post.

How to tell if this goal-setting style is right for you:

If you get easily absorbed in activities to the point where you lose track of time, #AssInChair is perfect for you. (You just may want to set a timer so you remember to eat/bathe/etc.)

If your schedule varies a lot from day to day, this strategy offers flexibility in terms of how you distribute your writing time.

This is also a great strategy to start from if you’re not sure which goal-setting style fits your work ethic; simply getting yourself to write is a great way to begin observing how you write best.

How to make the most of this goal-setting style: 

As with the word count strategy, the key is to start small—don’t go from spending zero days writing to a goal of writing every single day.

Start with a goal of, say, three days a week, and once you’ve hit that for three weeks in a row, kick it up to four, and so on.

There is an exception to this: for a few people, this strategy only works if they go all in and commit to #AssInChair every day. A non-writing example is myself and exercise: if I don’t do it every morning, I won’t do it at all. You’ll figure out pretty quickly if this is you.

As with word count goals, some experimentation will be necessary:

  • Do you write whenever you have time and then check it off your to-do list?
  • Or do you set aside the same hours every day?
  • Do you plan ahead which days you’re going to write?
  • Or adjust your schedule day-to-day?

Trial and error is your friend—don’t be afraid to attempt a few approaches before settling into a writing pattern that makes sense.

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3. Editorial Calendar

This strategy is more project-based, and the writer works toward specific deadlines.

The approach here is less about amount of time spent or amount of words written, and more about progressing the project toward a particular point by a particular date.

You might strive to post on your blog every week, or write a new short story every month, or edit a chapter of your novel every two weeks.

You might also have a larger project with a distant future deadline; your editorial calendar could consist of smaller deadlines for various steps in the project.

There is a lot of flexibility with this strategy. How you lay out your calendar, and how detailed that calendar gets, is entirely up to you. One of the things I help my writers do is set an editorial calendar that works for them—the aim, after all, is setting a goal that will actually motivate you to do the work.

How to tell if this goal-setting style is right for you:

If your project is easily divisible into distinct parts (chapters, articles, blog posts, etc.) this might be a natural goal-setting strategy.

You can also use this strategy for large projects by dividing the huge task into smaller parts.

This style of goal setting works best for people who are easily motivated by deadlines and like having specific tasks to work on during each writing session.

How to make the most of this goal-setting style: 

Break the large tasks into small pieces so you have clear tasks to tackle. That way—whether you’re researching, outlining, drafting, or revising—you always know what you need to be working on when you sit down at your desk.

Pro tip: scheduling your tasks from your deadline and moving backward in the calendar is often easier than moving forward into the abyss that is The Future.

Revisit your calendar as you discover what pace works best for you, and make adjustments as needed.

BONUS: Combo!

woman-791185_1920These strategies don’t just operate separately—they work great together.

For example, I have an editorial calendar, but I use #AssInChair to make sure I’m sitting down to work through said calendar.

You might also combine #AssInChair with a word count goal—say, committing to three days of writing a week, and producing 500 words each of those days.

A word count goal can also help you make an editorial calendar: if you need to finish the draft in three weeks, how many words a day do you need to write? Etc.

You can even combine all three!

The key is to not pick a goal at random because someone said that was what you “should” be doing—you’ve got to develop a way to stay on pace with your writing that works for you, and that may not be exactly what everyone else is doing.

Be honest about (1) how you work, (2) your attention span, and (3) what gives you joy. Because if it’s not making you excited to write, it’s probably not going to motivate you.

It’s okay if you don’t get it right the first time—I certainly didn’t, and I know very few writers who did.

Give yourself permission to experiment; give yourself permission to fail.

Once you find what works, it will feel like magic.


If you need help setting goals (and sticking to them), join our free community on Facebook and get support from myself and your fellow writers.

2 thoughts on “How to Set Goals That Will Actually Make You Write

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