Are Writing Targets Useful?

It’s time to talk about targets. I’ve seen a lot of conversations on twitter and writing blogs lately about writing targets. Many of us (including myself) joke about the days our targets seem out of reach. I’ve posted a long thread about this on twitter (with questionable success, I might add; I’m still trying to figure that platform out) but I thought I’d put it all together here in an easier-to-read format.

Missing writing targets can feel devastating for anyone, but I think it can be especially hard on new writers who are still finding their footing in the game. It can leave them feeling down, less-than-successful, or maybe even rethinking their writing aspirations. This is counterproductive, and NOT how targets should work, and I’m left with the question of whether or not writing targets are useful. The answer isn’t simple. It depends on how you use them.

When not writing, I’m a senior analyst for the Canadian Government. My job involves helping international development actors (think the UN and its various agencies and bodies) plan and manage projects, including setting and using targets to improve project performance. Long story short, I know a little bit about the subject. Without going down the rabbit hole, here’s some useful info:

  • Target: an estimated value or range of values for an indicator at a set point in the future
  • Indicators: a means of measuring actual results and outputs
  • Result: a describable or measurable change
  • Output: Direct products or services stemming from activities

Targets are a management tool, used to paint a picture of what success in achieving CHANGE will look like. Thing is, as writers, I think we sometimes get hung up on measuring the wrong things…or on measuring just one thing, and not seeing the whole picture.

I’m going to make two interconnected arguments, so bear with me here. The first argument will look at what we measure ,and the second will look at how to use targets effectively.

Argument 1: What we measure:

Writers don’t write (at least, I don’t) because we want to put words on the page. We write because we want to tell stories, and we want those stories to be shared and enjoyed by other people.

To put it another way, we want to see “Increased enjoyment among people who have read our work.”  This is a change, or result. To get to this, there are other changes we would need to see along the way: things like “More readers read our book/stories”, “Improved quality of our writing”, “Improved writing, plotting and character building skills”, “Increased networking ability”, and “Increased knowledge of (insert whatever topics you need to know to write your book well)”…etc. etc… You get the picture. Finally, there are the outputs we produce to make these changes happen, such as research conducted, conferences attended, books read, contacts made,and yes, words written.

Obviously, this is a ridiculous simplification of a theory of change, but I hope it goes to show that there is a lot more to being a writer than simply putting words on the page. Thus, when we measure and set targets ONLY for words written, we are doing ourselves a huge disservice. Not only are we only measuring our outputs (and not the changes to which they contribute…a huge no-no in results-based project management) but we are only measuring one of the many outputs required to write a novel or short story. We do so much more. Think about your own process. Have you done research? Taken a writing course or attended a conference? Have you blogged, tweeted, or read current books in the genre? Studied pitching, or how to write a query? Read the whole Query Shark blog? (And if you haven’t, you should!) All this is useful work too, and it all counts.

Words written is just ONE of the many indicators that we can use to assess our progress as writers. An important one, yes, but only one. And if you are feeling down about meeting your target for that one indicator, maybe it’s time to look at the broader picture of the work you’ve done.

Argument 2: How to use targets effectively.

Like I said before, targets are a management tool. They should not be arbitrary. They need to be evidence based. If you do decide to set writing targets, make sure you are setting realistic ones. As much as I’ve just finished saying it’s only one of the many indicators possible, I’ll take “words written” as an illustrative example, simply because it is so commonly used.

The first step to setting targets is to be aware of context. Are you a full-time writer, or do you have a day job? Do you have other responsibilities? Do you have health constraints? What is your writing style? Do you edit as you go, or just get it all down and go back later? All of this plays a role in setting a realistic target.

The next step is to benchmark – in other words, do some research and see what others in the field with a similar context are doing. This will give you some evidence as to what is realistic. In “On Writing” Steven King says he likes to try for 10 pages, or 2000 words a day. Other authors have given their daily word counts as 600, 1000, or 3000. The average (among authors who write full time) seems to be around 2000.

Once you’ve determined context and conducted some benchmarking, you can set a (hopefully) realistic target and start writing.

Unfortunately, as we all know, life happens, and sometimes targets get missed. So what happens then?

When I see a report for a development project with a missed target, there are a few things I look for:

  • 1st, I want to see an analysis of WHY the target was missed.
  • 2nd, I want to know about corrective action taken during implementation, and
  • 3rd, I look to see if the implementer has put in place a plan to ensure it’s not missed again.

How does this apply to writing targets? It’s pretty much the same. Step one, figure out why you missed the target. Was there an emergency? Did someone get sick? Did something extraordinary come up that ate up your time? If it’s a one-off kind of occurrence, don’t sweat it. Chances are you’ll make up the lost ground on another day. Also consider that while you may have missed your target, you may also have prevented missing it by a larger margin through corrective action taken at the moment. For example, maybe you had an appointment, but you took your laptop with you to the doctors office and got some work done there.

In project management, we talk about something called the triple constraint. It refers to the relationship between results (or scope), time, and money. When one slips, it will impact the others.

For writers, we could make a new triple constraint: words written(SCOPE), time, and life.

When you realize that something is slipping, you need to decide which of the other two elements is most important to you, because one will likely have to be sacrificed. A simple example would be a budget cut to a project. The project manager would then need to figure out which was more important — TIME (which would require a pared-down version of the project) or SCOPE (which, with less money, would require more time to deliver).

For writing, we could look at the following example. Let’s say you usually write for four hours a day and produce 2000 words. Today, however, you feel a bit sick (LIFE is slipping). Is it more important to write for four hours (TIME), or to complete 2000 words (SCOPE)? Because you feel sick, the 2000 words may take a bit longer than usual. If you decide to prioritize words, you might have to work for six hours. If you decide to prioritize time, you may only produce 1000 words. Remember also that if you were to manage your writing like a project, you’d be using multiple indicators to assess success. If you force yourself to write for six hours to get 2000 words, but what you write is of such poor quality that you end up having to scrap most of it, it may not have been the best use of your resources. A better choice may have been to prioritize “life”, acknowledging that both time and words would slip that day, and put in place a plan to make up the difference when you feel better.

If, on the other hand, the reason you missed your target is not a one-off thing, you may need to take more dramatic corrective action; i.e. adjust your planned activities so as to meet your output (words per day) target. Do you need to write in a different place, or at a different time, to avoid distraction? Do you need to renegotiate chores with a partner or roommate to get the time you need? Add music, change clothes, repair computer, get away from internet? Figure it out and do it.

Once you’ve taken corrective action, keep writing and see if anything has changed. If you are now hitting your targets, great. If you are still consistently missing your targets, it’s time to go back and have a look at the target itself. Once again, targets are management tools. They are not meant to be punitive. If you are consistently missing a target and corrective action has not helped, it likely means that the target itself is unrealistic and needs to be adjusted to fit your circumstances.

Changing targets after thorough analysis and attempts at corrective action is not failure…it’s good management.

I’ll use myself as a quick example to wrap it all up.

I am a writer (as well as a long-distance runner, which comes with its own set of results and targets). For my writing output indicator, I’ve chosen “# of hours worked per day”, and set myself a target of 2-3 hours. How did I come to that target? Through analysis of my context, benchmarking, and evidence-based adjustment. I used to work full time and wrote in the evenings, which only allowed for 1.5 or 2 hours if I wanted to spend any time with my family (which I did!). For the last 1.5 years, however, I’ve been off work with a TBI. While this change in context means I have more time for writing, I also have new limitations like fatigue and frequent appointments. On a good day I can write for 6 hours, but on a bad day, I’m exhausted after one. After some trial, error (and adjustment), I’ve found that 2-3 hours is a realistic expectation for a “work-day” for me right now. In addition, I include blogging, research, networking, querying, and short-story writing etc. as “work”, so if I’m having trouble with my novels on a given day, I have the flexibility to do one of my other writing-related tasks and still be productive without guilt. If I have bunch of errands or social engagements, my fatigue ramps up and I need to take corrective action to ensure I meet my target. I try to get to bed earlier, take additional naps, and move my work-outs and runs around to allow for both sufficient rest, and sufficient writing time. If my symptoms are still acting up, I may adjust my target for a short period of time. I manage my writing to ensure long-term sustainability and success.

Long story short, when used correctly, targets can help you become a better writer. They help you define success, measure progress and enable you to better manage your work. But when used incorrectly or punitively, they can inspire guilt and feelings failure.

Writers, please don’t use targets to beat yourself up. Management of anything is meant to be flexible…that’s the whole point of it. If your targets aren’t’ working for you, figure out why. Take corrective action, and if all else fails, adjust, adjust, adjust!

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