How to Set Writing Goals for Novelists

Doug Landsborough
April 20, 2023

Before I wrote my first book, I wasn’t a goal setter. In fact, I’m pretty sure I scoffed at people who touted the values of goal setting.

And it took me five years to take my book from idea to reality.

Then I started setting goals for my writing, and the next book went from idea to market in less than a year and a half.

With my latest (admittedly shorter) project, it only took a few months.

I’m not saying all this to brag, I promise. Instead, I want to highlight how much of an impact setting goals and establishing routines has on writing. And guess what? You can use goals to do the same.

But not all goals are created equal. In this article, we’re going to set you up for success when it comes to your writing goals. This includes:

  • Setting reasonable writing goals
  • Strategies for goal setting
  • How (and why) to track your progress

Let’s get goal-ing.

Setting Reasonable Writing Goals

There’s no point in setting bad goals. In fact, setting goals that don’t make sense or are unreachable will do a heck of a lot more harm than good.

Worst case scenario? You get so discouraged by failing to reach your goals that you stop writing. It happens a lot more than you think.

So let’s ensure we’re starting with our best foot forward by establishing some reasonable writing goals. 

Good Ol’ SMART Goals

If you’ve read any DabbleU articles involving goals and habits, you’ve probably read about SMART goals at least once. Even if you haven’t browsed our articles on characters, themes, or making money from your writing, you might have heard this term before.

If you’ve never heard of them or just need a refresher, SMART stands for the following:

Specific - You don’t want a vague goal. It will be too difficult to measure your progress or make meaningful changes to help you along the way. “I want to write a book” isn’t a specific goal. “I want to write a novel about a revolution in a mining colony on Io” is a much better start, though we will add to it along the way.

Measurable - A goal isn’t good if it can only be complete or incomplete. The most effective goals can be chunked into smaller pieces you can recognize and celebrate along the way. “I want to write an 80,000-word novel about a revolution in a mining colony on Io” adds an element you can record and monitor with every word you write.

Attainable - Setting a goal you could never accomplish is another way to end with disappointment. If you’ve never written before, maybe write a short story first. Or, if you are writing a full-length book, make sure you learn about structure, character development, and everything else you need, and give yourself enough time. Now our goal will be “I want to write the first draft of an 80,000-word novel about a revolution in a mining colony on Io.”

Relevant - If you want to be an author, setting a goal to write a screenplay isn’t helpful. Likewise, make sure you actually want to be a writer if your goal is to write a book. Consider smaller goals that are relevant, too. This could include establishing your author brand, learning more about the writing process, etc.

Time-bound - This might be the most critical aspect of a SMART goal. Set a deadline. Establish milestones and checkpoints. Without time to hold you accountable, it’s easy to push your goal back over and over again. Let’s make our goal “I want to write the first draft of an 80,000-word novel about a revolution in a mining colony on Io in 180 days.”

Establish a Realistic Timeline

Writing a book takes time—there’s no way around that truth. The time it takes depends on the writer, the book’s length, and all the prep work you need to do. 

Your timeline for each book will grow shorter as you write more books. But, early on in your writing career, give yourself more time than you think you need.

Your timeline will depend on the ultimate end point of your goal. Is your goal to finish your first draft? Query an agent or publisher? Self-publish?

Whichever you choose, your timeline might involve the following:

  • Researching
  • Outlining
  • Writing the first draft
  • Revising
  • Getting beta reader feedback
  • Working with an editor
  • Querying
  • Publishing
  • Marketing

For the purposes of our goal (I want to write the first draft of an 80,000-word novel about a revolution in a mining colony on Io in 180 days), it’s clear that finishing the first draft is our goal. There can be goals after that, but let’s focus on finishing the first draft.

A big part of this goal, and the goals most writers will set, is establishing your writing pace. This will help create a timeline that’s personalized to you.

An easy way to do that? Write for 20 minutes, then take a 10-minute break. Repeat, so you’ve spent a total of an hour. Consider this your working “words per hour” rate to account for interruptions, breaks, or rough days.

Let’s say you write 1,000 words in that time. An 80,000-word book will take 80 hours, not including researching and outlining. With consistent effort, your words per hour will increase, too.

Choose a Deadline

Establishing a realistic timeline allows you to choose a deadline to complete your writing goal. 

Deadlines have a lot of power. For most people, they can provide constant motivation. For some, they can be too stressful.

If you set a realistic timeline, your deadline should be set so that it doesn’t make life stressful. The key term is “realistic” here. Consider days you won’t write, weekends, vacations, etc.

Dabble is so helpful with this. Use the Goals and Tracking window to choose a deadline, select your days off, and let Dabble automatically calculate how many words you need to write each day. If that number doesn’t seem doable with your working words per hour rate, push your deadline out and let Dabble recalculate.

Achieve Balance

Writing a book is hard work, but your life can’t just be filled with hard work. Most of us don’t have the luxury of writing full-time. That means you have your day job, family, hobbies, and everything else life throws at you to balance along with the hypothetical 80 hours we need to write our space miners’ revolution.

And you need to consider these things when setting a reasonable goal. Ignoring a good work-writing-life balance will lead to burnout, affecting every aspect of your life.

If you’re working eight hours a day and your working words per hour is 1,000, don’t expect to write 2,000 words daily. That’s two hours each and every day. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but consider everything else you have going on.

Goal-Setting Strategies

We’ve established what makes a reasonable writing goal, but how do we make those goals easier to attain? Here are three goal-setting strategies to help with your writing.

Write Daily

There is no better way to become a better writer and reach your goals than to write daily. It takes regular, consistent effort to reach a big goal, like 80,000 words.

In an ideal world, you can commit the same hour or so every day, at the same time, in the same place to write without interruptions.

But in the real world, schedules change, we’re in different places, get interrupted, and don’t have the time. In cases like this, sneak in half an hour of writing at lunch. Ten minutes before breakfast. Five minutes in the parking lot before work.

You might not think five minutes is worthwhile or long enough to get the creative juices flowing. But writing daily, even for five minutes some days, starts to add up to considerable progress and gets those juices flowing more easily over time.

Break Down a Project into Manageable Parts

Have I mentioned that writing a book is a big task? Maybe once or six times, but who’s counting?

The thing is, big goals can be daunting. That’s why the measurable aspect of SMART goals is so essential; visualizing your progress and celebrating milestones is vital to keep you motivated.

While planning your goal, consider the different parts that come together to paint the bigger picture.

Writing a first draft could be broken down like this:

  1. Outline the plot
  2. Develop the main characters
  3. Summarize each scene
  4. Write your story

Suddenly, it becomes easier to visualize the novel-writing process and track your progress toward your ultimate goal.

Set Mini-Goals

Once you’ve broken your project into manageable parts, use those to set mini-goals. Take everything we’ve covered so far to make these mini-goals, ensuring they’re SMART, have reasonable timelines and deadlines, allow for balance, and can be broken down into their parts.

Let’s look at those four parts of writing your draft above.

Outline the plot - This can be a goal itself, broken down into researching structure, coming up with your three acts, the story beats, any subplots, etc.

Develop the main characters - Again, this could be a goal in itself but can be broken down even further into each character or the components (backstory, arc, interview, profile) of each character.

Summarize each scene - Writing an entire scene list can be one goal, or you could make a goal to summarize two scenes each day to finish in a week (or however long it would take).

Write your story - The nice thing about novels is that they’re naturally broken up into chapters, and chapters are broken up into scenes. You could aim to write two chapters per week, as long as your working words per hour makes that realistic.

Tracking Progress

Finally, your goals will be more successful when you can track your progress toward them. Not only does it let you reflect on how far you’ve come, but it allows you to watch your remaining work get whittled away through your regular effort.

Putting in work without visualizing the results stinks.

That’s why Dabble has built-in progress trackers. In fact, you can have up to three going at once: one that tracks your manuscript’s progress, one that tracks your project’s daily goal, and another tracker that you can use to track daily writing across all projects, including notes and outlining. As you write, your progress bar fills to give you a straightforward visual representation.

But there are other ways to use progress tracking to help with your goals.

Keep a Log

Whether through pen and paper or a spreadsheet like Google Sheets, you can monitor your writing progress throughout your book. I’d suggest setting up columns for Date, Words Written, Time Written, Average Words Per Hour, and Notes (where you can record anything exceptional or difficult). 

If you’re feeling savvy, you can set up the Average Words Per Hour cells to calculate your writing speed automatically. This would be “=*Words Written cell*/(*Time Written cell*/60)” if your spreadsheet skills are as basic as mine.

This has two beneficial effects. First, it allows you to reflect on all the effort you’ve put into your book. Feel proud of yourself every time you look at it. 

Second, it lets you monitor the speed increase in your words per hour. It’s very motivating to watch your efficiency increase week after week. You watch yourself becoming a better writer.

Note: This words per hour rate differs from the “working words per hour rate” we mentioned before. In this case, we’re monitoring your efficiency as a writer. With the working rate, we intentionally made it smaller to account for interruptions and other things that can slow your speed.

Celebrate Small Wins

As you track all the hard work you’re putting in, celebrate your small wins along the way. Remember those manageable pieces and mini-goals we talked about? Congratulate yourself every time you reach one of those.

This could be as simple as saying “I’m freakin’ awesome” out loud or having your favorite snack. For bigger goals, like completing 25% of your goal, treat yourself to dinner or have a fun night in. Do whatever you think is worth all the effort you’re putting in.

Celebrating small wins keeps your morale up. You need things to keep you motivated and fight against burnout when you’re in this for the long haul.

Identify Areas of Improvement

Finally, tracking your progress helps you figure out where you can improve. If your words per hour rate is lower than usual, reflect on your notes to figure out what held you back.

If a common obstacle pops up each Wednesday, that’s something you can address to help boost your writing. 

Be as honest as you can, too. We all tend to make excuses for ourselves, but excuses don’t help you improve as an author. I mean, don’t be hyper-critical for no reason, but don’t sugarcoat things.

What’s Your Writing Goal?

Who would’ve guessed that so much went into setting your writing goals? Life coaches and teachers, most likely, but writers don’t tend to think about goals all that much. 

I hope you’ve seen how setting effective goals can help you write your book, get published, or whatever else you want to achieve. Goals can be powerful tools—if you use them properly.

If your goal is to write your first draft, we’ve written a free, 100+ page e-book for you. It covers everything you need, from mindset to writing. Click here to grab your copy and start working towards your goal.

Doug Landsborough

Doug Landsborough can’t get enough of writing. Whether freelancing as an editor, blog writer, or ghostwriter, Doug is a big fan of the power of words. In his spare time, he writes about monsters, angels, and demons under the name D. William Landsborough. When not obsessing about sympathetic villains and wondrous magic, Doug enjoys board games, horror movies, and spending time with his wife, Sarah.