We live in a goal-infested society. Books promise to supercharge your goals or how to focus on them. Apps track a variety of goals from steps to calories to sleep. I can buy planners with drawings of water glasses to track water consumption.
For writers, a typical goal is “Have a best-selling novel” or “hold my book in my hand.” Many writers focus on word count goals.
But did you know goals have elements of critical voice?
If you look at the business books on setting goals, they’re cheerleading books just like time management books were. The writers make extravagant promises. Many focus on why you can’t achieve your goals (critical voice). It’s like everyone’s scrabbling for the answer of how to be successful and no one knows.
Here’s the problem with goals:
They have emotion wrapped up in them. That makes the stakes higher if you succeed, or if you fail.
What if you succeed in the goal?
Let’s suppose my goal is to write 3,000 words in one day. So I accomplish that. Now what? Is it fun? Or was it a struggle because critical voice took control to aim at the number?
This is common for people who focus on the metrics. They check the box but don’t get any satisfaction from the accomplishment. It can also turn toxic. We’ve seen that with diets and also with exercise.
For a brief time, I walked 10,000 steps a day. It was fun at first, seeing the numbers bounce up, and then reaching the top. I also liked to walk, get sun, and pet the dogs I ran into.
One day, I looked at the step count, and it was 7,000. My reaction was dread because I wanted to stop. I have problems with my feet and this was just starting to show up.
Critical voice jumped in: “You have to get 3,000 steps or you’ll miss your goal!”
So I’m walking, checking my step count, rinse, repeat.
I know someone will say it’s good to push through. But no, walking had evolved into checking the box rather than being fun. My range now is 3,000-7,000. Occasionally I’ll hit 10K. Critical voice zooms back in and says, “Let’s start doing 10,000 steps again.” It’s a cheerleader but ignores the fact that with my feet, I shouldn’t be doing it daily. It also entirely forgets that walking should be fun.
What if you fail to reach the goal?
With every goal, there’s a fifty-fifty chance you won’t accomplish it. We’ll take the same word count goal of 3,000. For whatever reason, I don’t reach that goal. Maybe work exploded into chaos and my brain is short-circuiting. Maybe I hit a traffic jam coming home (combined with ice, this can be all night issue). Maybe the writing took longer because it was a challenging scene or skill. But I do write 1,021 words.
Critical voice runs in, sneering, “You failed! You didn’t write 3,000 words. You’ll never be a writer if you can’t produce!”
What if it’s the wrong goal?
This is also common. Sometimes goals are simply wish fulfillment. “If I won the lottery, all my problems would be solved.” Writers cheerfully set a goal of being a “best-selling author”—and have no clue what that means. It isn’t even a true goal because it relies on other people making it happen.
It can drive you into doing things that maybe you shouldn’t be doing. We’ve seen writers have meltdowns on the internet over four-star reviews because they fear their entire writing career hinges on that single review.
When I broke up with my co-writer, my next book became an unintentional event. I felt like a failure, believing I would never write anything but short stories. So I had to write my get-back-on-the-horse book.
If you haven’t guessed, the goal of writing this book had a lot of critical voice reasons behind it. I felt like a failure in my writing. I felt like I’d reset myself back to square one with the breakup and hadn’t learned anything. I thought if I couldn’t write this book I was doomed to write short stories forever.
As I result, I wanted to push through and get it done. At the time, I’d dropped off cycling. I’d naturally drifted into cycling when I started writing. But I saw advice on the message boards saying to push straight through.
I picked up a book on writing a novel in thirty days. The book had tasks every day to help with the writing of 1,667 words. I started writing and followed every task.
At first, it was fairly easy to hit my 1,667-word count every day.
Halfway through, the author did a sudden left turn. I skidded to a stop. One of the tasks she assigned was weird. Not weird like I’d have fun with. Weird, like, “wait, have you lost your mind?”
She introduced a movie technique that had no business being in a novel. It made me question the author’s credibility.
I read the author’s biography. Not a lick of fiction. My desperation to get a novel finished in thirty days had led me to violate one of my own rules. I’d always checked the biographies of the writers before I bought writing books. This time I hadn’t.
Still, I’d finished so much of the book already. So I plowed through my 1,667 words a day until about the last week. Suddenly, it became apparent I was writing to meet the word count goal. The story? My wheels were spinning on thick ice.
I stopped before I finished the story. It was also apparent that I’d fixated too much on the number of words. The story was sloppy. It needed to be revised. Then I ran into the second problem, as my critical voice gleefully informed me.
The sloppiness meant writing came out. Some were caused by the tasks the author introduced that didn’t fit how I wrote. There were days when my progress was a negative number.
Critical voice jumped in, saying, “How can you possibly write and get negative numbers?”
I was frustrated. I still wanted to be published traditionally then, and my books were barely hitting 50K. Revising brought the word count down more, so it fed the critical voice.
Since then, I’ve wrestled with word count. I’ve tried weekly goals instead of daily. Nope. I can’t do pages…doesn’t work with Scrivener.
And tracking it? I tried spreadsheets. They would self-edit. I’d find them later, with only one or two entries.
Yet, critical voice sits right on my shoulder waiting to point out that I haven’t done enough.
So, are they needed?
Yes, no, maybe.
The answer’s not that easy.
Without a tiny bit of structure, it’s easy to write fifty words and then stop.
After looking at two books I wrote concurrently—this one and a novella, Space Dutchman—it was apparent that I’d let word count steer me. I started both around the same time. The non-fiction book had more words, while Space Dutchman lagged at about 10K. My critical voice said, “Yes, we got word count.”
But it wasn’t on the novella where I needed it.
I decided to break the hold word count goals have on me. I started a 90-day challenge of writing 800 words of fiction Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. If I wrote non-fiction, I had to do 800 words and write 800 more of fiction. If I was cycling, I didn’t count the words.
As a result, I reframed how I thought of these metrics. Most writers will either pick a number that’s too high (3,000 a day) or a number that’s too low (250 a day). Instead, I considered what was doable, given my day job and the time available. Then I added onto it just enough to make it a little uncomfortable, The number was 800 words.
I also had to change my thinking about what the word count meant to me. The culture is success or failure. The culture brings in the critical voice.
It turned from a goal into a task. A task can be important. But it isn’t emotional.
Thinking of it as a task allowed me to focus on the writing itself, instead of having to get a certain word count. Some days it was hard. I struggled with critical voice saying, “Are we there yet?” I’d check and find I’d done 300 words. It was 450 when I checked again. Then 600, and then 700.
So I shifted again, a little. I set a timer for 30 minutes. I couldn’t look at the word count until the timer went off.
I’ve also debated how to record them. Many writers put too much emphasis on tracking. I’m just plugging it into a bullet journal. No spreads, nothing presentable for Instagram to show off. More simply for a record.
Do I need to actually record the word count? I don’t know. It might be that if I don’t make my task’s number or don’t do it, I have to explain to myself why I didn’t.
But my focus is on getting the writing done, not on a number.