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Set Up Strong Writing Goals by Using SMART

Writers know that good writing comes from being clear and specific. Your own goals as a writer should be treated the same so the goals feel real, defined, and most of all attainable. By using the acronym SMART, you’ll strengthen your writing goals and go from identifying what you desire to taking specific action that will help you achieve real success.

As a writer, you know that being concrete with your details on the page is the key to arresting your reader’s attention.

A sentence like, “There was an accident” is weak (and therefore skipable) because there’s nothing to see or experience in the line itself.

However, paint the scene with details, and your reader will be right in there, thrust almost physically into the situation if it were happening in front of them: 

A trailer truck from Ricko’s Produce overturned on Highway 132 near Modesto, California at 8:08 p.m. on Thursday. The truck was carrying a load of organic bananas when a front tire blew out, causing the trailer to tip onto its side, pelting a caravan of motorcyclists with the fruit.

truck on highway beside green fields on sunny day

Detail is everything; it’s what makes a situation pop sensorially, come to life, and resonate in the mind and body.

A personal goal responds to the same treatment. When it’s unspecific, it’s basically as effective and “sticky” as hot air. Yet once it’s defined by its details, it becomes a contender. That’s where framing your writing goals with SMART is key to helping you strengthen your goals and achieving them.

How to Set Up Strong Writing Goals with SMART

SMART is an acronym that stands for:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound


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SMART pushes you to be accountable to yourself for your goals by making them defined. Where some people may announce their goals aloud to let their community bear witness, or to set their intention with a coach or accountability partner who then helps hold them to their goals, using the framework of SMART enables you to be accountable to yourself.

Using SMART for your writing goals is the ultimate commitment because you’re taking the time and care to lay out how you will fulfill the goals all the way to their end.

Strong Goals Are in the Details

To put the details theory into action, check this out.

If your writing goal is, for example, “I want to write a book this year,” there’s a high likelihood you won’t be writing a thing.

Why?

This goal is vague. Watery. Wishy-washy. Without details to anchor it in reality, it’s basically hot air. 

If however, you:

a) begin with a clear objective

b) set up this goal using SMART, you will very well have a book manuscript in your hand by year’s end.

SMART Case Study: Writing a Book

Going further with the writing a book idea because it, like other large and complicated projects, is one that needs to have planned the minutiae of the day-to-day as well as the overall project plan from inception to realization to completion. The more defined the process on the front end along with the project parameters, timeline, action strategy, and the supports you’ll need, the more you will be successful at completing the book manuscript.

jar with string lights beside a plain notebook and pen

How to apply the SMART criteria to writing a book:

This one you’ve already got in your pocket since it uses the writer’s toolkit of Wh questions. Who, what, where, when, why, and how are what a writer uses to interrogate a situation in order to tease out the details.

Using “I am going to write a book this year,” you then ask the following:

Who & What: I am going to write my [novel, memoir, self-development book] this year to finally tell my grandmother’s story as she hid from the Nazis as a child and made it to New York to start a new life with an elderly aunt in Brooklyn as her only contact in the new country.

When & Where: I will write every morning before the kids wake up from 6:15 a.m.- 7:15 a.m. in the kitchen by candlelight because that’s romantic, won’t wake anyone with bright light, and because it’s a nice way to enjoy the writing.

How: I will wake up at 5:55 am to make sure I have my coffee and the computer both warmed up and ready so I can start writing at 6:15 a.m. I will do this Monday-Friday and take the weekends off.

Why: I will write this book to enhance my life creatively, professionally, and spiritually. Also I want to honor my grandmother and my family legacy by telling her story and my relationship to it.

[You can see how SMART can be applied to other types of goals HERE.]

 

If your goal is not specific, it has no urgency. This makes it easy to put it off or continually move further down your priority list.

WH Questions to Ask Yourself

What is your goal this year? Are you going to write a book? Short story? Personal essay for a mainstream magazine? A poem or poetry collection? Screenplay?

Once you know what your goal will be, go deeper:

What kind of project/genre will it be?

(Tip: if you’re not sure, think about the books you’ve read that have inspired you or that would be “comparable” to what you’d like to write).

Why will you write this project?

Fame/fortune, notoriety, creative stimulation, soul satisfaction, career enhancement, etc.

Whom is the project for/who is your target audience?

You, colleagues, potential clients, people who love women’s fiction or crime thrillers, etc.

When will you write? Do you have a time frame? Do you know what time of day will be your writing time?

How (in two parts)

(Macro How): How will you make it happen?

When you consider surrounding yourself with support, accountability, or people to help guide the process and nurture you through the ups and downs, will you write the first draft with a mentor/writing coach, with your workshop group holding you accountable, do it during NaNoWriMo, or make room over the summer along with a friend doing the same?

Micro How: How will you make sure you get into your writing chair at your appointed time for each writing session? What will you need to do to make that happen?

Wake up earlier, go to the library, duck into a café near your workplace before you start your workday, get a babysitter to mind your toddler for 2 hours, etc.

What will it be about?

This is often a tricky one. If you’re working on a nonfiction project or even a memoir, you may have a clear idea of what your book will be about, but if it’s a novel or other creative work, you may need to write into your project for a bit or journal on it to be able to answer that question.

Importantly you wrap your head around as much of the concept and genre as you can to give your upcoming writing shape and definition.

 

measuring tape

Measurable

Here is where you will need to do two tasks:

  • Create a project outline (a working outline is fine though a detailed outline if you’re at that point is highly useful)
  • Create a process outline by breaking down your “How” into measurable milestones.

 

To create a project outline, you would need to know the overall purpose and plot of your creative work and the purpose and outcomes of your nonfiction work.

Starting with identifying what your work is about in an encapsulated way (often called an “elevator pitch”) is helpful, and building your outline into a 3-act structure from there will make you at the very least feel you have stepping stones across what is otherwise the equivalent of a river shrouded in fog.

Those stones may not be the ones you use to ultimately build your project upon, but having them there, at least as placeholders at the outset, is a comfort and something from which to build.

To create a process outline, you could set out for yourself a daily word count (or a weekly word-count goal), chapter completion targets, or specific research tasks, such as travelling to locations, interviewing people, or reading through source materials that need to be done before you start the actual writing.

Achievable

Goals are exciting, motivating, and fun- but only if you can see results along the way.

Set your goals reasonably, and you will be able to meet your markers, which will fuel you to keep going.

Set your sights too high, and you may end up feeling overwhelmed and possibly quit.

For example, you’ll always hear about people who wake up at 4:30 am to do yoga or write their books, but if your lifestyle or physiology will make that difficult, try something else that is more realistic for you.

Also consider what you’re good at and capitalize on your strengths.

If you’ve never written a book, get an accountability buddy or meet with a coach for light regular sessions to help you manage your emotions and to give you tools and strategies.

If you’re a seasoned author, you can enjoy knowing your first draft will be awful and simply plow through, perhaps fast-tracking your first draft and knowing you’ll need more time in revision.

Also set up a self-check-in after a few weeks: how is your timeframe working for you? Realistic or lofty? Re-jig it as needed so you stay on top of it and feel like you’ve got it going on.

open three ring notebook

Relevant

How is your project personally relevant to you? If you’re writing a book because you want to use it as an income stream, because people have told you that an idea you had would make a great book, or because you know it’s the “right” thing for you to do for your business or work, you might want to revisit whether this project is a goal you want to achieve in the first place.

However, if you will feel deep personal satisfaction from not only having the finished book in hand and all that will bring you (heightened reputation, status, income, etc.) but that the day-to-day process will reward you and feel meaningful and make you feel stronger and more agented, then you’ll know you’re on the right track!

Checking in with your project after you’ve been at the writing for a while to make sure it is in line with the genre and/or target audience is also key. Particularly relevant for people writing business/self-development/self-help books or nonfiction thought-leadership books, finding your book’s niche is vital for its success both in acquiring a publisher and in the marketplace. 

 

alarm clock

Time-Bound

Human beings are so predictable; if we have all the time in the world to do something, we will take all the time in the world, but if we have a deadline, feel a sense of urgency, or are aware of scarcity, boy do we ever hustle!

A deadline is imperative for achieving a goal. Set deadlines for each phase of your writing process. This includes deadlines for creating and refining your outline, getting through your first draft, refining the draft in revision, editing, and then either submitting the manuscript to agent or publisher or self-publishing your work. Nothing focuses a person like a deadline. If you find you’re having a hard time meeting those you’ve set out for yourself, it’s time to revise them so they’re realistic (see “Achievable”)


See SMART in Action

Encapsulating your project in an elevator pitch is a great tool for yourself and to describe your project to others, and it’s highly useful when you consider your goals using SMART.

Example: I will write the first draft of a self-development book about X this winter from January 15-May 30 by writing 5 days a week in the mornings before work from 6:00 am-7:00 am.

Why this statement is SMART:

  • Specific (first draft of a specific type of book on a specific subject)
  • Measurable (in 4.5 months)
  • Achievable (an hour a day 5 days a week means going to bed somewhat earlier, but it’s not unattainable)
  • Realistic (it’s an ambitious yet doable timeline for a first draft)
  • Time-bound (by end of May).


(Adapted from Asana’s “What are SMART Goals? Examples and Templates”)

Regardless of the kind of project you’re writing, it’s very much a creative process, subject to twists and turns: life getting in the way, difficult emotions, or other challenges.

By using SMART to refine and anchor your goals, you’re best able to help yourself navigate the variables, stay afloat, and stick with your work.

Check in with yourself to revise your SMART goals as you go along to make sure you’re on track, and share your goals with a peer writer or writing coach who is trained in helping you find your focus, zero-in on your goals, and ensure you get your best work done.

You can achieve any goal you set out to achieve. Use what you know as a writer, set up your goals with SMART and you’ll be well on your way to making waves with your writing.


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