Writing goals 1: Don't expect the unexpected

A new year has arrived and us writers have been pondering over our plans for the coming 12 months. Everyone's been at it. Writer Dad tells us to set achievable goals and commit to seeing them through, while Leo Babauta at Write to Done suggests 2009 as a time for expansion and new projects.

Meanwhile, Joanna Young at Confident Writing and Maria Schneider at Editor Unleashed just come out and ask us all: What are your writing goals in 2009?

Personally, I do think it's important for writers to set goals. Apart from the obvious glee when a goal is met, they also:

  • help us structure the writing process
  • give us something tangible to aim for
  • provide useful milestones that separate projects.

So yes, clear goals are a positive thing and I've been setting some of my own over the last couple of weeks.

However, as writers we need to tread carefully. We have a tendency to confuse our goals and expectations. I've done it myself and ended up disappointed and a little red-faced. It was most unpleasant.

Writing goals versus expectations

Before I go on, I want to make one thing clear. I think all writers should aim for the stars.

If you want to write a bestselling novel, go for it. If you want to have a six-figure income as a freelance copywriter, go for it. If you want your blog to top the Technorati tables, go for it.

Heck, why not? With talent, hard work and a dollop of luck, you might just get there.

Just don't expect it to happen. Aim for it, but don't expect it. The moment your goals become expectations, both you and your writing risk complacency.

It's absolutely vital that you make the distinction.

Goals are goals. They provide motivation, guidance and something to work towards. Expectations are simply about what you think you know. They serve no useful purpose. All they do is slow you down and cloud your thinking.

I write, therefore I am

The problem is, there are so many writers who fail to make the distinction. They don't aim to succeed - they expect it.

I've met writers who believed that they were destined for greatness. In truth, they'd barely made it to the first rung of the literary ladder, and are probably still there.

This is what writers often forget:

If you write a novel, you're not guaranteed publication. If you're a freelance copywriter, you're not guaranteed a sufficient income. If you start a blog, you're not guaranteed a readership.

These things will not happen if you expect them to happen. They take planning, patience and a great deal of fortune.

Free your mind (with structure)!

You see, before you can go about what's actually a very real and life-affecting process of setting goals, you need to rid yourself of all expectations.

Without expectations, you have greater freedom to write. There is less pressure because you don't have a pre-determined idea of what you should achieve.

Setting goals can give you the structure you need to liberate your writing. Expectations can restrict you and make you feel stupid, especially if you fail to meet them.

Aim high. Expect nothing.

Share your thoughts

Okay, lecture over. Deep breath.

The second part of this double-header post will give you some practical advice for setting writing goals. There are lots of things you can do to make sure you get them right, and it's always a worthwhile process.

In the meantime, I'd like to know your thoughts.

Have you ever been complacent through making assumptions about your work? Can you make a distinction between your writing goals and expectations?