Think Small to Reach Big Writing Goals
How the Stepping Stone System Can Get You Where You Want to Go
Someday, you tell yourself, I’m going to write that novel, finish that screenplay and complete that essay. Of course you are. Who wouldn’t want to do that? Oh, that’s right. There are non-writers in the world.
But we’re not talking about them. We’re talking about us. We’re writers who want to die happy. We want to complete our writing goals before we kick the literary bucket. We want our tombstone to read “Novelist—Screenplay Writer—Essayist Who Died in Peace at Her Desk.”
Whatever your writing goals are — maybe poems or short stories are your shtick — achieving them requires one thing: completing a string of small, specific tasks.
Yes, it’s time to think small and specific, not big and vague. That doesn’t meant there’s anything wrong with having big writing goals. In fact, knowing what you want to write is important (and not necessarily easy to determine), but it isn’t enough. After deciding what you want to accomplish, you have to make it happen.
Hoping it will happen or talking about it happening or complaining about it not happening aren’t going to cut it. You have to have a plan—a plan that includes a series of small, specific tasks.
Experienced writers know how to convert a big goal — such as writing a memoir — into a series of tasks that can be completed in one sitting. One day the memoirist might research the history of her hometown. Another day she might draft that anecdote about the day her brother brought home a mouse.
Each day writers need look no further than that. It’s like walking across a stream one stepping stone at a time. To arrive safely on the other bank, the walker need only keep his eyes focused on the rock ahead. True, some rocks may be slippery (how am I going to show the character’s meanness?), or even dangerous (how much should I reveal about myself?). But who said writing is easy or safe?
Say you want to write a novel. What might a small, specific task look like?
What it wouldn’t look like is this: Write Chapter One. That task is too big and vague.
Instead, a more helpful task would be: Draft the opening scene of Chapter One.
If you’re working on an essay, a small, specific task might be: Make sure verb tenses are consistent. Or Find and remove passive voice.
Confession time. I need to be honest. After completing one self-assigned task, you may end up completing additional tasks that same day. But giving yourself one small, specific task serves two purposes: (1) It keeps you focused so you’re not overwhelmed by your project, and (2) because the task is doable, you’ll approach your writing feeling relaxed, which will improve the quality of your output. Tense writers produce tense copy. Now forget what you just read and continue to assign yourself individual, small tasks.
As you may have guessed, I’m not a big fan of binge writing (think National Novel Writing Month), although that approach might work for some writers. A putzer and chipper by nature, I find that binge writing smacks of trendy diets and New Year’s goals that never pan out. In my experience, it’s more helpful to find a way to write a little bit all the time. Be a tortoise. Be a putzer. Chip away at your writing projects. If you do, before you know it, you’ll have arrived.
More examples of specific writing tasks:
- Find a strong opening scene.
- Draft the main character’s backstory.
- Finalize the ending.
- Re-read what you wrote yesterday.
- Use a pen to mark up a print-out of your story.
- Enter handwritten edits into computer.
- Research markets.
To increase the chances that the stepping stone system will work for you, consider these additional tips:
Don’t talk. If you’ve just started a new writing project, keep it to yourself. Don’t talk about it except in a class in which the instructor facilitates any feedback. Why keep a new project to yourself? Because in its early stages it’s like an egg, an embryo. It’s vulnerable, susceptible and easily affected. The tiniest little comment can stop it cold or throw it off course. Until it’s more mature and can defend itself, it needs the protection of privacy. Only later, when the writer is sure she knows what the project is about will it be ready to face the world.
Check in with yourself. Each day, take a few minutes to ask yourself “Am I on track with my writing? What specific task do I need to complete today to move toward my goal?”
Focus on what you can control. You may not have control over whether your poem gets published but you do have control over whether you complete that day’s task.
Use passwords as reminders/mantras. We all have to come up with multiple computer passwords. So annoying. Unless you use them to remind yourself of your literary goals. Some examples: TitleofYourNovel342277, Essayist!*457.
Expect the worst. I don’t expect the world to move out of the way so I can write uninterrupted. I realize stuff happens. Good stuff and bad stuff. We’re not isolated machines. We’re real people living real lives. One day the cat throws up on the rug, requiring a trip to the vet. Another day a spouse wants to have “a talk.” Or an out-of-town relative shows up unannounced at the front door. Some days it may seem as if life is a sinister novel plotted to prevent you from writing.
The solution isn’t to move to a desert island. The solution is to bounce back. Be resilient. Laugh. Cry. Fail up. (To “fail up” means to try and fail, over and over again, until you get what you want.)
Lighten up: Figure out what you enjoy about writing and use it to your advantage. If you like to write in noisy coffee shops, go for it. If you like to write alone in your car or late at night when the rest of the household is asleep, do that.
Remember that writing matters. Don’t forget that writers have value. They add to society and culture. Don’t hide your gift. Bring it out. You’ll benefit from doing so and so will the rest of the world.
Own it. Whatever you write, stand firm. Readers don’t want hesitant. They don’t buy confused. They’re attracted to writers who convey a sense of calm confidence without being obnoxious. In short, be yourself.
Write first thing in the morning. If time goes by and you’re not completing your writing tasks, try doing them first thing in the morning before the rest of the world presses in.
Reward yourself. Creating a new habit is hardest at the beginning, so reward yourself for each completed task. Choose healthy, affordable rewards: a special cup of coffee, an issue of a favorite magazine, or a walk through a park with a friend.