Image: Matthew Loffhagen
For most writers, professional writing is the goal. They may not want it to be their main source of income, they may only plan to write one or two things, but they still want the quality of their work to rival that of professional authors. There are a number of ways to do this, but there’s one glaring absence that makes it harder – most amateur writers don’t have a boss.
Now, if you have a boss in another area, you might think that’s a good thing, but a skilled superior isn’t just there to keep you in line; it’s their role to help you grow, to provide feedback and ensure you’re following the right path to enhance your skills and pursue areas in which you show promise. Most writers don’t get that, especially not before they’re published, and it means that all progress is self-guided.
Well, that might be the case, but it doesn’t mean we can’t share tools. In this case, the tool that’s on offer is an end-of-year review – a way to look back at your year of writing, define it in ways that are helpful going forward, and plan out how the coming year is going to be one in which you excel.If you want to be a professional author, you need to take a professional approach. Begin with an end-of-year review.Click To Tweet
In this article, I’ll be suggesting some questions you can ask yourself, as well as sharing some tips on making plans that actually yield results. These are questions you can ask yourself in the shower, but for the full effect, I recommend investing in the process; print the questions off, sit with them a while, and then either write or ‘perform’ your answers (if you have a friend to call on, you can even set up an interview roleplay). This is something that’s often lacking from the creative process, but taking is seriously can lead to real reflection and, as a consequence, real results. The first question, then, is…
Your end-of-year review
What were your key achievements this year?
The important thing about this question is that it’s asking about positives. You may have had a lousy year in which you got next to nothing done, but here you’re asking yourself for achievements. If it was a lousy year, what did you get done that could easily have been missed? Did you write anything that you were proud of, even though it didn’t go anywhere?
Our achievements and our setbacks are contextual to the situation in which they occur. Negative thinking is a poor motivator and tends to place evaluating failure over planning growth. What are you proud of from this year? Don’t accept ‘nothing’ – even if you had the year from hell, you got through it, and that took grit. Grit’s going to come in pretty useful in a lot of other situations.
If you don’t struggle with this question, great! Sort through the things that went right and pick out the ones that matter the most. Why are they your choices? What did you achieve materially and what qualities did you demonstrate?
Did you meet your targets? What barriers did you encounter in doing so?
Again, the intent here isn’t to get negative. Instead, we’re assessing the barriers you faced as predictors of future obstacles. What got in the way that you couldn’t have foreseen? What got in the way that you could?
Next, consider the useful categories of knowledge this suggests: the things you can prepare for in the future and the things you can’t. Here’s the thing: if there’s something you just can’t prepare for, like a bout of illness, then the best thing to do is accept that fact. Obstacles we can’t change are a waste of our focus – there’s no point obsessing over them, especially when that time can be better spent. Instead, focus on the obstacles you can prepare for.
Not enough time, nowhere to write? These are issues you can address, at least partially. And here’s the thing: partially is good enough. Improvement is the name of the game. If you go from having nowhere to write last year to having the kitchen table to yourself on Tuesday nights next year, you made progress. Consider what you can see coming, exactly why it’s a problem, and what you could do to prepare if someone could assure you next year would be exactly like this one.Progress made in small increments is still progress, and sometimes it’s the only sort that sticks.Click To Tweet
What are the main signs that you’re working at peak performance? If you were working at peak performance, what elements of your attitude, methodology and environment would indicate that was the case?
If you’re trying to keep things simple, go ahead and consider this three questions: attitude, methodology, environment.
The idea here is to reverse-engineer potential improvements from an ideal state. Most of us don’t have a regular day and then realize near the end that we got three times as much done as normal; we have a day in which we feel productive, in which there were no distractions or something inspired us.
Once you know the signs of your own productivity, you can set about creating them. Of course, we’re all different, but the way humans process things tends to be pretty similar, so here are a few cues to get you started:
Attitude: High productivity tends to come from an optimistic, realistic attitude, judging the situation by its own potential, not an objective standard.
Methodology: High productivity tends to come from having defined goals broken up into manageable steps.
Environment: High productivity tends to come from working in a delineated space free of distractions.
Of course, you may be one of those people who thrives in a messy workspace with no clear goals. If so, note it down: this is the working situation you need to try and create to meet your potential.
In what specific areas would you like to improve?
This one’s pretty simple: if you’re going to set goals based on your answers, those goals should be personal. What aspects of writing do you want to improve? Better dialogue, fuller characterization, more engaging description? Or perhaps your aims are more material: do you want to make specific progress with a project or just increase your weekly word count? Maybe you even have vocational goals like winning a competition, attending a literary event, or taking part in NaNoWriMo.
Whatever your answer, now is the time to be specific, because the next question is about formalizing your aims.
What do you hope to accomplish in the coming year? Through what quantitative means can this be measured?
Here, it’s time to set a goal, and not just any goal. As we talked about in 8 Steps That Will Help You Start (And Finish) Your Book, concrete, measurable goals are the ones that stick.
Find a way to make your intent measurable. If you’re aiming for increased word count or to attend an event, this is easy, but how will you know when your dialogue has improved? It may be as simple as giving your work a score from 1–100, allowing you to measure at least your own perception.
In the next section, I’ll talk about how to set effective goals, so revisit this question with that information in mind.
What do you hope to achieve over the next five years? Through what quantitative means can this be measured?
Long-term goals aren’t just motivating, they help frame your achievements and setbacks as part of a wider picture. Improving your descriptive writing is a great goal, but it takes on new context if it’s one of the last things you need to master before you feel comfortable writing a book or entering a competition.
You might even have the eventual goal of just showing your writing to someone else. That’s a great goal, and you’re far more likely to reach it if you can treat all the necessary accomplishments prior to that as individual steps on a larger journey.Find a way to make your goals measurable, even if that just means quantifying your own opinion. Click To Tweet
Setting effective goals
Setting goals for yourself is hard, and while it’s something we’ve covered before, let’s stick with the theme of a professional review and look at two common methods of professional goal-setting.
The 4CF method
As defined by Dr Edwin Locke and Dr Gary Latham, the 4CF method describes five principles for setting effective goals. These are:
- Clarity – Your goal has to clearly, succinctly, and specifically express what you want to achieve. ‘I want to spend more time writing’ is wooly, whereas ‘I want to spend at least two hours per week writing without interruption’ is clear. This is beneficial because it allows you to realize more quickly when you’re facing barriers, making it easier to overcome them. If it’s Thursday and you’ve been invited out, it’s easier to ignore that you need to write ‘more’, but it’s harder to pretend you’re going to find those two hours of uninterrupted work you wanted without making a sacrifice.
- Challenge – Your goals need to scale with your abilities. There’s no joy or sense of accomplishment in meeting a goal you didn’t have to work to achieve. That doesn’t just mean you missed out on stretching yourself, it means the fuel of self-motivation is cut off. Make sure your goals are always contextual to your current situation; don’t over-stretch, but make sure you’re always having to make an effort to hit your targets. That’s what’ll keep you going.
- Complexity – When goals are too complex, we can find it difficult to keep them in focus. Because of this, your goals will be most effective if you can express them in one or two sentences, with bonus points if your methods fit on the end. ‘I will X by Y’ is a model to aim for, e.g. ‘I will increase the amount of time I spend writing by ensuring I schedule uninterrupted writing time three nights a week.’ Or, using everything we’ve covered so far, ‘I will increase my average self-assessed score for descriptive writing by 10 over the next four months. I will do this by searching for descriptive passages I admire, emulating their style, and studying the tools and techniques that make them work.’
- Commitment – Commitment to a goal depends on a lot of things, but let’s focus on achievability. This is the flipside of aiming high; your goals also need to feel, and be, possible. One way to look at this is via the triangle: the balance of speed, quality, and cost (for authors, ‘cost’ refers to the various resources – such as personal energy – that go into writing). I won’t belabor this concept here, but you can check out Nobody Beats The Triangle, But You Can Be Prepared For It if you want to really dig down into what it takes to make an accurate assessment of and sincere commitment to a goal.
- Feedback – Since you don’t have a boss, you’re going to have to give yourself feedback. This means checking in on your goals and confirming that they’re still everything you wanted them to be: with the benefit of hindsight, do you need to increase challenge, reduce complexity, or adjust clarity? Is your quantitative measure working or has it proved wooly in practice?
Sometimes used alongside the 4CF method and sometimes instead of it, the SMART approach is another method to keep in mind as you set your goals. It can offer a closer view of the process, so if the 4CF method isn’t your speed, it’s worth considering on its own. Like all the best approaches, the SMART method of goal setting is an acronym:
- Specific – This point encourages you to consider the fine details of what you want to accomplish, why you want it, where it will be carried out, which resources you’ll need to achieve it, and when you’ll see results. The more detailed your plan, the easier it will be to stick to it, and the more reasons you’ll have to resist temptation.
- Measurable – As previously described, goals that can be measured (especially in numbers) provide more motivation to succeed.
- Attainable – As with ‘commitment’ in the 4CF model, it’s important that you’re setting goals you can actually meet.
- Relevant – A relevant goal justifies the resources put into it (time, energy, other goals that could be pursued instead), fits into an overall strategy (like a five-year plan), and is contextual to the time and place in which it is pursued (dedicating three nights a week to writing might be a great goal, but if you implement it the year you have a baby, you’re setting yourself up to fail).
- Time-bound – A sensible timeframe helps turn a general goal into a specific need, giving you a better idea of when you have to knuckle down and make sacrifices to get things done.
Making it YOUR end-of-year review
Of course, this is only one potential model for your end-of-year review. You know your own goals, strengths, and limits best, so now’s a good time to modify the questions above and make them as relevant as possible to your own situation.
Whether it’s 4CF, SMART, or another goal-setting model, be sure to come out of your review with some concrete plans for the future. To that end, let’s end on a few examples of effective goal-setting.
- In the next eight months, I will enter four or more writing competitions, submitting unique work to each.
- I will improve my ability to write without interruption by creating a writing space within my home and effectively expressing my creative needs to my family. I will do this within the next three weeks.
- I will improve the average self-assessed score I give my dialogue by 15 (on a 100-point scale). I will do this by studying effective passages of dialogue (for at least one hour a week over the next four months), transcribing real dialogue and editing it into something that is satisfying to read (at least twenty instances over the next four months, with each different observed conversation of two minutes or more being one ‘instance’), and submitting my work to an editor with a request for feedback specific to dialogue writing (within the next six months, but researching the budget needed for this in the next week and saving a set amount of money after that point each week).
What have you learned from your end-of-year review? What are your concrete goals for the future? Let me know in the comments, and check out Useful Resolutions For A Writerly New Year and 8 Steps That Will Help You Start (And Finish) Your Book.