Moving Your Own Goalposts: Why Writers Need Deadlines.

Alarm Clock

Procrastinators beware, I’m about to talk about deadlines.

If you’ve been following this blog for a while you’ll know that when I’m not discussing important topics like the best movie robots or the worst science fiction sitcoms, I write stories. Recently I’ve even taken to calling myself a writer in conversation and selling my work on Amazon. This has been my goal for a long time, but there was a lot of dithering on the way because I could never stop moving my own goalposts.

Let me give you an example.

About three years ago I found myself in something of a rut. I was a year out of University, I was working at a supermarket and I lived in the most overpriced rental house in existence. Writing began as a necessity. I didn’t have the confidence to go for a more rewarding job, I didn’t have the money to move to a better house and I didn’t have the sanity to keep going with things as they were. I sat down with a pen and paper, and made a list of roads I could take out of the personal hell I had found myself in. I settled on writing for a few good reasons. Firstly, I knew I was a competent writer. Secondly, I enjoyed reading fiction which helps. And finally, the eBook self publishing boom was just beginning.

I set my first goal. I would write a series of science fiction novels.

Unfortunately, problems started to seep in soon after. While I knew I was a competent writer, I’d also been hoping to discover I was a very good writer. A natural, with oodles of instinctive talent just waiting to bubble to the surface. I discovered my first painful truth in the very first week. Writing is hard work and it takes a lot of practice to get good, and here I was trying to plan out five or six of the things with barely an idea of how to write the first. So, I suffered a crisis of confidence and moved my goalposts. I set myself a new goal to write a single novel.

I started from scratch. I planned a completely new novel and hit the first page running. I wrote every day for weeks before I discovered I had written myself into a corner and I couldn’t find a way out. Still, I thought, I had all the time in the world. I set myself a new goal. I went right back to the beginning, but this time I planned out the novel beginning, middle and end. Only then did I realise just how much writing one has to do to write a novel. I changed my goal again.

And again, and again, and again…

Three years later, I have a much better handle on my writing. My current project is the third short story in my Timewasters series. Each one was written with a clear goal, a plan and a deadline, but the latest looks like it’s going to be late. It got me thinking about all those false starts and dead-ends in the last three years, and I realised that if I’d just kept to my first goal, I would probably be further along the road now. While it’s true that I started my writing career ill-prepared and totally ignorant to the challenges involved, part of my problem has been continually changing my targets. That first novel, of a series of novels, might not have been great had I pushed it out three years ago, but the experience to be gained from sticking with it would have benefited me hugely two years ago.

Becoming a writer is not easy. Like any art, ultimately you answer only to yourself. Being a writer is unlike a day job. There is no contract, no clocking in machine telling you when you start and when to leave. You must set your hours, and you must set your goals. If you ever want to have your work finished and packaged up into a product you can sell, you need to have deadlines and targets that should not be exceeded. This is essential because without them you could spend an eternity seeking the literary perfection that you can never, and will never achieve. If you’re anything like me, you might find yourself investing large amounts of time in over ambitious  projects only to shift your targets when the scope of the task becomes obvious. It might feel like you’re moving closer when you aim yourself at something more manageable, but every time you change tracks you are sent right back to the beginning.

I have learned a few valuable nuggets of writing wisdom in the last few years. The most useful has been that writers need deadlines, particularly when they’re just setting out. You can take all the time in the world to make a book perfect, but you need experience and encouragement too, and this can only be gained by completing your work and putting it out there. Take time to think out your goals, set realistic deadlines and then stick to them come hell or high water. You might find yourself in over your head, the results might not be what you expected, but you will have results.

My upcoming story Hybrid will be missing it’s Sep 30th deadline, I’m sure, but I will be sure to set another immediately.

  • The most useful has been that writers need deadlines, particularly when they’re just setting out.

    I am bad at doing this and I know I need to set some.

    Other than a daily word count, I have set no other goals for my writing. I simply write, study writing (through articles and free courses I find online) and then post up my work for feedback.

    I have a vague, fuzzy idea that I want to self-publish in the future (some 2 years down the line from now), but right now all I want to do is write.

    I am bad at this,

  • I think a daily word count is a really good first step. It helps you get into a daily routine, and everything else falls into place much easier when you have that. Even now, I find my biggest problem is forcing myself to sit down and actually write every day. My other weakness, and why I needed deadlines so badly, was that I could never actually bring anything to completion because I was always changing what completion meant.

  • I’m completely horrible with procrastination (not just in my writing mind you). What’s worse, is after writing a paper for school, it gives me some sense of accomplishment so the thought is my personal stuff can wait till another day. You can see it on my site, I barely update it, and the past few times have been with old poems. The problem I find with setting goals for myself, is that I can’t make myself care if I break them until it’s far too late. And then, like you were saying, if only I had done better then I’d be better off now.
    Currently, the most I do is dash off a few hundred words on my phone when an idea pops into my head.