Goal Tending

A year ago, when I started writing fiction after a long hiatus, I decided I’d write a thousand words a day, every day. Minimum.

Less than six months later, I was spending more time in the physical therapist’s office than in front of my desk, trying to subdue pain in my fingers, thumbs, wrists, forearms, biceps, triceps, shoulders and neck.

I’m happy to say I’m more or less healthy again. I still have occasional pain, but I can usually tame it with techniques I learned from the PT. Unless I overdo it–and then LOOK OUT.

So aside from about six million different stretches and a whole lot of strengthening exercises, what have I learned?

I’ve learned a LOT about goal-setting. Here are some things to keep in mind when you’re setting writing goals for yourself.

1) Goals are not just about forcing yourself to get work done but about knowing when to call it quits. You may need to set an “upper limit” on your daily production (or weekly) production, or never let yourself work after a certain time of day. A pace that seems sustainable may work for many days, weeks, or even months, but ultimately you need a pace that will work for the rest of your life. Setting upper limits also helps psychologically–if you don’t give yourself minimum and maximum goals, you may find that you always feel like you haven’t done “enough.”

2) Goals that work when you’re writing a first draft don’t necessarily work when you’re revising. That’s because the primary thing you need when you’re drafting is word production, and the primary thing you need when you’re revising is ruthlessness–which often means net word loss. Try figuring out what your average number of words per scene is, then set your revision goal as a number of scenes (or pages) per day. For example, if your typical scene is 1,200 words, and your daily word production is 2,500, revise two scenes/day.

3) How you meet the goal matters, too. There’s a big difference, from your body’s perspective, between writing for two hours straight and writing in four half-hour bursts separated by breaks to eat lunch, fold laundry, take a walk, or play a board game with a kid. You might be happiest if the goal you set for yourself is something like “three good forty-five minute” butt-in-seat sessions. Regardless of what goals you do set, make sure you take at least a ten minute break every forty-five minutes and at least a thirty second break every ten minutes. (There are applications you can install on your PC or Mac to help you be disciplined about break-taking. I use Time Out for Mac.)

4) Challenges like Twitter’s #1k1hr (a thousand words per hour) are a *great* way to meet daily goals, but there are two things to watch out for. One is to make sure you’re approaching the challenge in the spirit of bonding, not competition. The idea isn’t to compare yourself to the other participants and then hate yourself if your production doesn’t measure up. The idea is to meet and “hang out with” fellow writers, instead of slaving in artsy solitude. The second thing to watch out for is the temptation to sprint and sprint and sprint. Three consecutive #1k1hrs equals three hours in the chair–see rule number 3.

5) Make sure that you build in plenty of time for thinking. If you use all your time to write, you will end up with lots and lots of words that may not add up to much. It takes a lot of pre-planning, as well as hashing and rehashing as you go, to put together a longer work like a novel. You don’t want to finish weeks of sprinting to discover that you have thousands and thousands of words that don’t *quite* gel.