Setting Goals for Your Writing Life

Written by Emily Harstone | October 16, 2014

When I finished my first novel, at 15, my goal was to get it published within a year. I never even considered self publishing it, at the time that was not as common as it is now. During that year I finished the 10th grade, had a part time job, and completed my swimming lessons. I never even submitted the book to a publisher.

I tell you this story not just because it was something naive I thought as a teenager, but because many writers have similar goals, not in terms of specifics, but in terms of the goal not being within their control.

Even two years ago I had similarly unrealistic goals. I wanted a manuscript length book to be published by the time I was 30. Now, if I was willing to make compromises about the quality of the publisher, that might have been possible, but even then it was not a guarantee. So many manuscripts are submitted every year and editors have their own established tastes.

However during that year, when I was struggling with that unrealistic deadline, I read a book called Succeed: How We can Reach our Goals. The book is by Heidi Grant Halvorson. I found some of the writing itself a little off putting, but the research based core of the book was fascinating. Heidi Grant Halvorson focuses on concrete ways that you build willpower to focus on your goals and to avoid the kind of positive thinking that actually encourages failure.

What I realized quickly was that it was most important to set realistic goals and to focus on what I could control. It seems very common sense now, and when expressed bluntly it seems obvious, but it wasn’t for me.

However when I told people this, many interpreted this as just being about focusing on my writing, producing more, and making it as good as possible. However that is not how it is meant to be interpreted.

Instead I focused not only on writing and editing, but on submitting my work for publication, writing query letters, and writing proposals. In short I focused on making sure that my writing had a lot of opportunities to reach the right people, the people who could get my book published.

I wrote down concrete goals on a white board and monitored how close I was to reaching these goals. For example, I made a clear goal of getting my manuscript out to 6 publishers during that first year, and I did. I also made it a goal to get my poems out to at least 100 literary journals that year, which I achieved.

Now I feel a lot less stressed and more contented with my life. I know that I am putting a lot of effort into the factors I can control, and not focusing on those I cannot.

Now I might still not have a book, but I have received a complimentary personal rejection letter from one of my top choice publishers, and I am still not yet 30. I have also had quite a lot of work published in literary journals that I greatly admire.