How to set realistic writing goals

I've set big writing goals for myself several times in the past. This year, my goal was to publish 100,000 words between books and blog posts. Prior to that, I'd tried setting daily word count goals, like writing 500 words a day, and time-based goals, like writing for one hour every morning.

But I'd never thought to do a reality check on those goals to see if they were achievable. I just made them up because they sounded good and somehow inspired me in the moment.

Of course, I always fell off the wagon, which led to a downward spiral of self-recrimination and reduced productivity, until I wasn't writing anything at all on a regular basis.

Well, I'm trying again, but I'm doing things a little differently this time. Instead of arbitrary “stretch goals,” I'm trying to keep them realistic.

My previous goals weren't based on anything other than wishful thinking. One lesson I've learned this year is that it's a bad idea to set concrete goals for yourself when you start out on a new venture.

My long-term dream is to become an insanely productive writer. But let's say I set myself an ambitious goal that I think will help me achieve that dream, like this: “Every day, I will write 500 words a day on my latest book project.”

Seems like a solid, concrete and achievable goal, right? 500 words a day doesn't sound like much. Trouble is, I'm setting the goal without any data to back it up. What's my average writing speed? Dunno. How much time per day can I devote to writing? No clue.

Without answering those questions, it's impossible to tell if I can ever hope to hit that goal consistently.

So this time, instead of setting myself a goal at the outset, I spent some time studying my schedule and observing myself while I work.

I do my writing in the morning, before checking in at my day job. The evenings don't work—I've tried that before and I'm just too fried after a full day of programming. I can put in a few extra hours on the weekend, but that's also my time to catch up on chores and miscellaneous tasks that crop up during the week.

My schedule and energy levels provide a natural set of constraints. After taking them into consideration, I realized that I have a maximum of 12-15 hours available during the week that I can use for writing.

The next step was figuring out how fast I'm able to work. I'm a decently fast typist—I can crank out 80 words a minute or better on a good day. And when I'm writing stream-of-consciousness, the words spill out pretty quickly.

But when working on my book, it seemed like my productivity was slowing to a crawl. How fast (or slow) was I actually going? To find out, I spent a month recording the blocks of time I spent working on my book.

The book I'm writing is a technical manual for Sublime Text, a code editor that's popular with programmers and web designers. For this project, I spend a lot of time experimenting with the editor and taking notes on how particular features work. I might not write anything for a few days at a stretch, and then I'll finish researching and write it up. Or I might learn something new that required me to whack a big chunk of what I'd written the previous day. This uneven pace had to be factored in to determine my average working speed.

The solution I arrived at was to calculate my writing speed once a week. I use the Pomodoro Technique when I'm writing, and I usually log three 25-minute time blocks per day working on my book. I kept a record of my daily pomodoro count, and every Saturday I checked the word count on my manuscript and did the math to figure out my average words per hour.

The results surprised me. In the first week, I produced 240 words per hour. That's got to be too low, I thought. But like clockwork, my averages in the following weeks hovered between 220 and 240.

So that was that. Given the time I have available and my current writing speed, I have a ceiling of around 3,500 words a week. And that's assuming that I'm able to get in 15 hours of writing time and that I'm at peak productivity all week and that I don't run into any unusually difficult problems that I have to research.

Most week days, the best I can hope to achieve is around 300 words.

It was eye opening. That's not enough to allow me to get where I want to go, but it's where I am now.

But how can I work faster? My focus now is on leveling up my writing by breaking it down into a series of skills and improving them one at a time. More on that another day.