Columns > Published on February 24th, 2020

15 Traps That Could Hurt Your Writing Goals

Original photo by Skitterphoto

It’s that time of year when we fail at all our goals!

We set our goals and make resolutions in the safety of that weird time between Christmas and the New Year, when time disconnects and anything seems possible. Then, we go back to real life patterns and our new goals don’t fit as neatly as we hoped. We hold on and struggle with our new plans for a while, but by the Spring months, we are in a good place to just quit, because we have fallen short of our ideals so many times.

Writing goals are particularly tricky. Writers know what they need to do. The path to success, though allusive, is right in front of you. You can get there using your keyboard, just like the most famous of writers. Sometimes, though, we develop incorrect patterns and do it wrong. These bad habits and traps found in plain sight can trip up any writer, even those who set their goals with the best of intentions.

One good podcast I use for writing goals is The Mando Method with hosts Armand Rosamilia and Chuck Buda. In addition to giving valuable writing information, they track their personal writing goals throughout the year. They also track the writing goals of a number of listeners and conduct mid year check-ups on progress. They join together online on Sundays, usually on Twitter, with the hashtag #MandoMethod to encourage each other’s writing. It's good to have a community to keep you accountable.

But before you throw away the half-finished novel or tear your goals off the wall from where they mock you, let’s look at 15 traps that might hurt those goals. Knowing about them may help you create a plan to avoid them, without having to quit.

1. Not Setting Wordcount Goals

Writing is more than just the number of words you put down on a page. But is it? Every time I have read a book it is words on a page that the writer wrote before I read them. We don’t want to reduce what we create to the smallest particles, but the truth is there are few writing goals that are going to be met without first typing or writing the words that comprise the thing. If your goal is to finish the novel and you fail, it is because you didn’t write the words. Having a daily wordcount to achieve feeds into all your other goals. How high you set that minimum number, how many days off you give yourself, and so on will depend on a lot of factors. Having no connection to wordcount can be a trap that hurts your goals for finishing work.

2. Setting Wordcount Goals

Wordcounts can be a trap that discourage you. When you finish something, you have to edit it. If it is novel length, that editing can take up a lot of time. Then, even though you completed something and you’re continuing the work of writing, you missed your word count a couple days and feel like a failure. If you have a weekly wordcount, a couple bad days can make you fall short. These few bad days can add up to leave you way behind on a yearly wordcount. Some writers, such as myself, get all up in our heads about wordcount, and it hurts our morale and our overall production. You’re producing words, but because you’re behind your goal, you still feel like you’re failing.

There is a prevailing theory that at a certain point an author is no longer making the work better, just making it different.

Sometimes daily wordcount minimums are good, but then maybe don’t track those totals. Start over fresh each day so that a couple bad days doesn’t become a bad week or month. Tomorrow is always a new day. Sometimes word goals without a count are good. You can complete a chapter or a certain number of pages a day, and that might serve the same purpose for people who get sidetracked by running wordcounts.

3. Focusing on Quantity Over Quality

This is partly related to the previous traps and is partly about the comparison game. We sometimes measure success by output. 15 novels or novellas completed is more successful than say 2 or 3. Production is important, but one more novel than the next writer probably isn’t that strong of a metric of success. Completing any work is immeasurably more successful than not finishing anything or never starting. Producing your best work may be better than producing the most work. We may have peers who are pulp writing machines who put out a book a month in their genres. We’ll never feel adequate in our accomplishments if that becomes the bar of success or failure.

4. Focusing on Quality Over Quantity

The number of drafts an author does varies as widely as can be imagined. There is a prevailing theory that at a certain point an author is no longer making the work better, just making it different. Some authors paralyze themselves by editing in their heads as they are writing. Some very successful writers ponder over each sentence, producing every line to perfection during the first pass. A ton of unsuccessful writers try the same thing and get nowhere. Ray Bradbury advised that writers produce a story a week because it is impossible to write 52 bad stories in a row. I’ve tried to write 52 short stories in a year more than once. I succeeded once, but produced a lot of stories each time I tried. Some made me money and some were nominated for awards despite many, many others being only okay or plain bad.

5. Thinking in Absolutes

All or nothing means that if my goal is 5 novels finished in a year, but I only complete 4, 3, or 2, I have failed. Maybe my goal was too ambitious/ unrealistic, or maybe the perfect is the enemy of the good when it comes to your goals. The point is to strive harder, achieve more, and make more progress than you would have without the goal. If you think in absolutes, you could be working on your second novel, do the math to see you can’t possibly complete 5 by the end of the year, and then just give up even though you are making real progress as a writer.

6. Focusing on Your Failures

You set three writing goals and met two of them. The next question is either: What did you achieve? or Which one did you fail at? We are very likely to obsess over the shortfall. It will overshadow the two victories and whatever progress was actually made on the third. On a micro level, if the one day you didn’t write as much as you wanted lingers during the days that you do, then you are more likely to quit.

7. Focusing on Your Success

It is important to celebrate victories. Small victories keep us going. Don’t get me wrong on this one. Always celebrate success. What I’m fascinated by are authors who meet a number of their goals during the first few months of the year, and then the progress for the rest of the year is minimal. We like to check things off. Then, we think things are good enough and use that as an excuse to relax. Nothing wrong with relaxing. But if checking things off makes you feel like pushing for other goals isn’t important anymore, that may be a trap you weren’t expecting.

8. Not Thinking About Your Audience

Not looking at your work through the eyes of a reader can lead to plot holes, unrealistic characters who only move by the demands of the plot, or books that read like the author doesn’t know what the story is actually about. In our effort to just get it done and out there, we miss ways we could make the story better by imagining the reader (someone who is not the author) reading it. If your goal is to get the book past publishing gatekeepers or to market your book to readers, this trap can make those backend goals tougher.

9. Thinking About Your Audience Too Much

It’s easy to fear what others will think and then begin creating formulaic and stilted work. You might be less likely to take risks with a story. You might talk yourself out of a book that is unique and original because you worry the audience isn’t broad enough or a certain publisher might not go for it. This sort of second guessing can also be a trap.

10. Not Exploring Who You Are

If you don’t yet fully understand your own voice, it can be tempting to stick within a particular lane that feels safe without questioning if you have more to say. You might find a default genre and paint by the numbers without ever learning about your talents and strengths by testing them and testing yourself.

Wait! Is writing just a crazy get-rich-quick scam you buy into late at night?

11. Exploring Who You Are Too Much

There is a lot to be said about learning the rules of the genre before going about breaking them. Just like not thinking about audience, you can get lost in your own head and miss a lot of important details that can be found outside yourself that inform your work and the worlds you are trying to build. Sometimes, it is important to explore outside yourself and your experiences.

12. Chasing Trends

This may be an extension of thinking too much about your audience. There is nothing wrong with paying attention to which genres have potential and which are a niche audience that might be tough to reach. Writing something you wouldn't otherwise write because someone else made big money is misguided at best. Writing something that does not interest you makes it tougher for you to write well and finish. When you inevitably face struggle chasing a trend that doesn't bring you joy, you will feel all the more discouraged.

13. Chasing Your Heroes

A common tactic for finding a mode of storytelling is to imitate our heroes. Sometimes we try to write like them. Sometimes we try to capture the way their books made us feel as readers. It can be jarring to find out that you are not the same writer as your hero or that a different way of telling a story fits your style better. Trying to write a new version of your favorite story by your favorite author leaves you feeling inadequate to the task because it isn’t really your story.

14. Chasing Your Dreams

Chasing your dreams … that’s how they get you! Chasing your dreams is good because the opposite end of that spectrum is a passionless life. How is it a trap? Dreams should be lofty. Lofty usually means long-term. Goals have to break down the dream into achievable benchmarks. Steps should be smaller than that to help you reach your goals incrementally over a period of time. If there is no happiness or satisfaction until you fully achieve your dream, the journey will be difficult and long. Dreams such as being a full-time writer, a best-seller, or a millionaire author are high bars, and if small steps aren’t enough to keep you happy along the way, you are setting yourself up for perpetual disappointment and a constant pressure to give up.

15. Not Chasing Your Dreams

Don’t forget that writing is your dream, if that is the case. It is work and it is a lifelong commitment, but you are still living out a dream. If the dream was just to make a ton of money fast, you would have bought into some crazy get-rich-quick scam off late night television instead. Wait! Is writing just a crazy get-rich-quick scam you buy into late at night? I’m going to push past this existential crisis to finish off the article.

Your goals are meant to serve your efforts to complete work and make progress toward being a better and more accomplished writer. That’s a worthy pursuit. It’s a dream that should bring you happiness and fulfillment along the way. Don’t let any of these traps impede that process.

About the author

Jay Wilburn lives with his wife and two sons in beautiful Conway, South Carolina. He is a full-time writer of horror and speculative fiction. Jay left his job as a teacher to become a full time writer and has never looked back. Well, that’s not entirely true. He wants to be sure he isn’t being followed, so he looks back sometimes.

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