How’s your new year going? Sadly, by today, most people have already broken their resolutions. Isn’t that crazy? Well, maybe not, and here’s why.
I’ve always been terrible at setting goals, especially writing goals. For years, I’d set them, claiming this time was going to be different. This year was going to be my year, the year that I’d finally write a book. And for years, I was disappointed.
Finally, I stopped trying to write a book. Instead, I did something different — a few things, actually — and they made all the difference.
Maybe you’re like me, and you’re great at setting writing goals but terrible at achieving them. If so, keep reading, because what I’m going to share next will help you avoid a lot of pain and frustration.
Why most goals fail before they start
Most goals get broken not because we lack the discipline to achieve them, but because we often don’t set the right kind of goals. As an example, let’s take a goal that many people set every year, one I’m well acquainted with and one you may have entertained yourself: writing a book.
Do you know what it takes to write a book? It took me several years of failing before learning how to actually do it. As it turns, out you can’t just up and write a book. Not really. You can write a word, a sentence, maybe even a paragraph. But that’s it. Not a whole book. Never a whole book. Not all at once.
You can’t write a book. You can only write a word, a sentence, a paragraph.
This is all anyone ever writes — a little bit at a time. As Hemingway once remarked on his writing process during those early days in Paris as a fledgling writer:
All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know. So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say.
Eventually, those sentences become paragraphs and those paragraphs become pages until what you are writing becomes something bigger than your latest thought, something we eventually call a book. But nobody ever sits down to write a book. It doesn’t work that way.
So setting out to write a book is a bad goal. That would be like saying “I’m going to lose thirty pounds” or “I want to pay off $100,000 in debt.” Of course, these are good things to say and great aspirations to have, but such changes don’t happen overnight. They aren’t good goals, because they’re just another example of measuring the results instead of measuring the process.
You have probably done this. I certainly have. And let me tell you this: we fail because the way we set the goal was doomed from the start. So what does it take to actually accomplish your goals as a writer — whether that means writing a book, selling a certain number of copies, or simply becoming better at the craft?
It takes a few things. Let’s explore them together.
1. Write at least 500 words a day
All any of us can do is begin, and the way we begin matters a lot. This doesn’t mean we’re powerless — quite the opposite, in fact — but we must understand what we can and cannot control in the creative process.
None of us has the ability to sit down and tackle a major project like a book all at once. What we do have the power to do is create daily habits that eventually allow us to accomplish our bigger goals. In other words, the work you do every day matters far more than what you do on the “big” day (e.g. finishing that book manuscript, publishing the book, etc.).
The work you do every day matters far more than what you do on the big day.
I’ve written before on the importance of habits, so I won’t belabor the point here. Let me just say this, though: If you want to write a book, the best way to set yourself up for success with that goal is to start by writing a least 500 words every day.
If you can write more than that, great. But the goal is to meet a minimum word count every day that adds up to something substantial over time. This was how I completed four traditionally published books, meeting the publisher’s deadline each time, and how I was able to publish a bestselling self-published book that sold over 10,000 copies in the first few months. It wasn’t by setting out to “write a book.” It was by first establishing a daily writing ritual.
Meeting a daily word count takes away all your excuses and puts you back in the driver’s seat.
Recommended resource: If you need some help writing 500 words a day, please check out my 31-day writing challenge and free online writing group.
2. Find a community to hold you accountable
If you’re going to succeed at writing a book, you can’t go it alone. This is ironic, because most of the work of a writer is done in solitude. But the truth is, as I like to say, every story of success is really a story of community. You need help.
Sometimes, we ask our fellow writing friends to hold us accountable. But this almost never works, and the reason for this is that no one can hold you accountable. Not really. Only you can do that.
I’ve had writing coaches and accountability partners and all that. None of them worked in helping me actually write my first book. You know why? Not because these people weren’t helpful or intelligent — they were — but because I wasn’t committed. I thought someone else could make me do the work, and I was wrong.
I tried doing it on my own, and that didn’t work either. I was stuck.
It wasn’t until I turned to community that things began to change. After establishing daily writing habits, I committed to the writing process and joined a community of writers who could help me when I got stuck, encourage me when I needed it, and call me out when I stalled.
If you are a part of a writing group, you won’t need someone to hold you accountable. You will hold yourself accountable.
Every story of success is really a story of community.
That’s why I started the My 500 Words daily writing challenge and group. It’s the best way I’ve found to get my writing done every single day. This is so much better than simply setting out to “write a book” without any transparency or visibility into the process. When I include others in the process, it makes me take the work more seriously.
Every story of success is really a story of community.
3. Follow a proven process
If you’ve never written a book, then how would you know how to write one?
This is the dilemma facing many first-time authors. You’ve never written a book, and yet you set out to accomplish something you’ve never done without the slightest idea or experience of how to do it.
Of course, you’ve read books, so there’s that. But that’s like saying just because you can drive a car that you can fix your own engine. I’m not saying that you couldn’t do that eventually; you just need some training.
The best way to do this is to follow a proven process, to learn from someone who’s already done it. That’s why I share my methodology in the Write a Bestseller program, which is an online course I teach on the 10 steps to write a book that you can be proud of and have confidence will sell.
Of course, you don’t have to sign up for that. You can read my article on how to write a book or study the 5-draft method I created and be on your way. But if you’d like some more help and to join a small writing community of aspiring authors who finally want to complete their book, we’d love to have you. (You can learn more about the course here.)
Warning: This won’t make you happy
So, it’s settled. Setting out to write a book is just a bad goal. That’s not how writing works. Not only that, but accomplishing such a goal won’t actually make you happy. I know, because I’ve written five books and each time I finished one, there was this surprising feeling of emptiness lingering behind.
Do you know what fills that void? Not launching a book or hitting the bestsellers list or any of that. The only thing that brings a writer satisfaction is starting the next book.
The only thing that brings a writer satisfaction is starting the next book.
Recently, I wrote about starting my next book, and the truth is that was an entirely selfish decision. I am at my best when I’m working on a project, usually a book. Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi calls this state of working on challenging projects that you are also good at “flow.”
When we are doing hard work that requires us to raise the bar for what we’re capable of, we are operating at our peak, creative states. And that brings us the greatest feelings of joy and accomplishment.
Not long ago, I was sharing with a friend how I’d forgotten I published a new book last year. It made me sad. My friend replied, “Well, that makes sense. That book was a slog, and it took a lot longer than you thought. So by the time it was done, you were kind of over it. The end was anticlimactic.”
That’s true, not just of that book but of most creative projects. The end for me is not the most exciting part. It’s just the final punctuation — the period, or maybe even an comma. It’s an important part but only in that it’s an excuse to start the next one.
What are you writing this year? What is your best advice for new writers? Share in the comments.