by Chris Mandeville
At the start of a new year, it’s common to take stock of where we are in our careers and set goals for the year to come. If you made a writing-related New Year’s resolution six weeks ago, right about now you’re likely taking stock of your progress. Are you on track to meet your goals?
For me, staying on track begins with setting my writing goals in a “S.M.A.R.T.” way that’s well-defined, and measurable. (Learn how in my previous blog here.)
Bestselling author Todd Fahnestock also uses the S.M.A.R.T. system to help him define his writing goals. Each week he puts them on this worksheet to keep them top-of-mind and to hold himself accountable.
“S.M.A.R.T. goals help me clarify what I want to accomplish with my writing time, so that I can achieve what I really want to achieve. Putting my goals down on a worksheet each week is quick, simple, and effective—now whenever I feel like I’m straying from task, one glance at my worksheet guides me back to my purpose.” Todd Fahnestock, The Wishing World
I love the idea of using a weekly worksheet to define what I want to accomplish and lay out how and when I’m going to do it. The worksheet Todd uses is both simple and effective. Let’s take a look at it.
The first thing on this worksheet is “Intention,” which is your big overall hope or dream for the period to come. You can think of this as your end-goal of the process. An example would be “to publish a new book.”
Next, “Targets” are milestones on the way to reaching your end-goal. With an end-goal of “to publish a new book,” Target #1 might be “complete the rough draft.” Target #2 might be “secure an agent.”
The next section is where it gets meaty. Here you identify specific measurable tasks (i.e. S.M.A.R.T. goals) that help you reach your targets. For example, a specific task geared toward Target #1 could be to write three chapters that week. For Target #2: send out two query letters. Key here is that each S.M.A.R.T. goal for the week should be aimed at getting you closer to a particular milestone (i.e. Target), which should ultimately help you reach your “Intention” or end-goal.
The final section of this worksheet is a calendar you can use to block out time for achieving your weekly goals. This may seem simple, but having dedicated time set aside for working toward your goals can make all the difference in whether or not you complete them.
At the beginning of 2017 I decided I was going to improve my writing productivity and I filled out one of these worksheets. However after a few weeks I found that I wasn’t doing any better meeting my goals than I had been in 2016. So I started asking successful, productive writers I know how they stay on track.
One person I spoke with was author and freelance writer Wendy Burt-Thomas. Like Todd, Wendy uses a worksheet for her writing goals. Back in 2003, Wendy launched her fulltime freelance career—a career that is still going strong today—and she credits her “Accountability Worksheet” with contributing to her success. For Wendy, the essential part is not the worksheet itself but rather meeting with a small group to go over the worksheet—and her progress—each week.
Photo by Sahar Shirazi, courtesy of Creative Commons
Wendy says that she formed this group for the express purpose of enabling fellow writers and artists to provide goal accountability to each other. She tailored her group to people who were looking to make a living as a writer or artist—those trying to go from “wannabe” to “actually doing it.” She stresses that this was not a social group, although she did end up becoming close friends with many of the participants.
About the worksheet itself she says:
“The Accountability Worksheet is a way for people in the group to set goals on paper so we have a reference to use at the actual meeting, as well as during the week on our own. It also serves as a way to determine what is really blocking our work or slowing us down. It helps us figure out where we’re making excuses versus what’s really interfering with the ability to meet our writing goals.” Wendy Burt-Thomas, The Writer’s Digest Guide to Query Letters
Wendy’s Accountability Worksheet is in two parts: the first part focuses on reviewing the prior week, while the second looks at preparing for the coming week. You can download the actual worksheet here, but these are the essentials:
REVIEWING LAST WEEK:
- On a scale of 1 to 10, my writing production last week was:
- If I’m being honest, I wasted too much time doing:
- How many of my weekly goals did I accomplish?
- What did I accomplish last week that I’m proud of?
- Did I do my DREAD last week? Why or why not?
- What did I NOT accomplish last week that was on my goal list and why?
- Who or what was my biggest obstacle to writing this past week?
- Did I do my STRETCH last week?
- Did I drop one unproductive habit? If yes, what?
- What keeps getting pushed to the next day’s to-do list? Why?
How do I feel about myself right now?
PLANNING FOR THE NEXT WEEK:
- My BIG goal for the month, quarter or year is:
- What 5 things can I do this week to work toward that goal? 3. What is my DREAD for the week?
- Why am I dreading it?
- What BABY STEP could I take to address the dread?
- What is my STRETCH for the week?
- What unproductive habit could I drop this week?
Wendy shares that discussing these “dreads” and goals within the group often brings up some pretty heavy issues, like realizing that a loved one may be undermining one’s writing success, or discovering that the writer him/herself is subconsciously self-sabotaging. Once a problem is identified, the other members of the group can provide support, suggestions, and a sounding board to help address the issue in a constructive and productive way. On the less “heavy” side, the group can also help with practical issues. For example, Wendy recalls one member coming to the realization that she wasn’t getting work done because she dreaded sitting at her desk…because it was so cold. Another member of the group loaned her a space heater—a simple solution that ended up making a huge difference in the member’s productivity and ultimately her success.
Author Courtney Farrell was a member of Wendy’s accountability group. She says about the group:
“As a new writer, I had to get used to setting my own goals and following a self-imposed schedule. Back then, I had no editor’s deadlines to meet, so I reported to my friends instead. Did I waste time that week? Did I do my most dreaded task? The accountability sheet kept me on track.” Award-winning author Courtney Farrell
Upon joining the accountability group, Courtney’s goal was to go from working a fulltime job to becoming a fulltime self-employed writer. During the course of her tenure she was able to accomplish this, and she credits her success in part to being accountable to the other members of the group.
Since I personally haven’t been holding myself accountable to meet my writing goals despite my use of a worksheet, I decided to take a note from Wendy and Courtney and try being accountable to someone else. My issue recently is that I’ve allowed my focus—and the bulk of my working hours—to shift to my part-time job, and away from my writing. It so happens that my boss is also a writer, and she’s not meeting her writing goals either. Since we’re both facing the same challenge, we teamed up to form an accountability partnership. Yesterday we filled out the goals worksheet, and we’ll meet weekly to review our progress, discuss challenges, and hold each other accountable.
My “Intentions” for 2017 are to complete a new fiction project and a new nonfiction book. Now that I’m working with an accountability partner to help me reach my goals, I’m betting I’ll be much more productive!
What are your writing goals? Are you accountable to anyone besides yourself? What tools do you use to stay on track?
Chris Mandeville writes science fiction and fantasy, as well as nonfiction for writers.
Her books include Seeds: a post-apocalyptic adventure and 52 Ways to Get Unstuck: Exercises to Break Through Writer’s Block.
Overall, this is a great way to keep yourself on track. I personally use a one-week miniature whiteboard on the door of my office plus a two-month laminated calendar. Sometimes it is useful to see how you’re advancing, particularly with word count. Thanks for your article!
I love the whiteboard idea, Guy! I think I’ll try it (must remember to copy down my plotting grid before erasing whiteboard…). Thanks for the comment and suggestion.
If you intend to stick with this method, use some black electrical tape to make a grid. Looks neater and it annoys you when you don’t update it 🙂
Great suggestion! Alternatively I’ve also used a “wet erase” marker for the grid, and then dry erase for the info I refresh.
Thanks for the post! I’m definitely going to try some of these things and see if they can help what I’m currently doing.
If anyone tracks their progress via word count (500 words a day, etc) I have a writing tool called WordKeeperAlpha (https://wordkeeperalpha.com). It lets you set up goals, create projects, gives you some neat metrics and graphs (NaNo style) and others. I’m always working on new features, and its free 🙂
I know that not everyone is behind the word count method, but it works to keep me always moving forward. In the future I’ll be adding other features for editing and other metrics to track as well as social features like writing groups to keep yourself and friends accountable. That’s a while off, but coming eventually.
What a great tool! It looks awesome. Thanks so much for your comments and for sharing WordKeeperAlpha. I’m going to try using it, and I hope others will, too.
Every year I have year goals, finishing one is mandatory, and,to be fair, I have yet to fail in accomplishing all goals per year. But, I never make my goals humongous. I think the problem many artists have is they go to far. Time is precious, delicate and can not be treated as if you live in a monastery. In modernity it is hard to be locked away and work on a project. One must live for various reason. I have three project this year. A poetry book, a choose your path, and a craft project. My poetry book is on course well and I am confident to finish. TO be fair, I shelved the choose your path for a new project that will kick into gear september but probably start late august. a series of collages:) lastly is my craft project for the local makers faire. In the year I started a audiobook series for my soccer thoughts and that took the time for the craft but that series is nearly done and served a purpose of growing my kobo activity and exposing my self in the sport genre which is to be blunt, not simple to get into. And when december come in I may want to sneak one or two more poem in but will go through the process to february of assessing work and et cetera.