In prior posts in this series, we discussed limiting distractions and alternating writing, reading, and resting during writing sessions. In this post, our focus is on setting writing goals. How do you choose and write down those goals?
To start, there are no right or wrong goals. Your goals depend on where you are in the research and writing process. Unquantifiable goals might include, for example, desires about your writing process, e.g.,“feeling happier about what I write.” Or goals might be objective and measurable. As you write and then assess your goals, keep in mind that you are also managing your intentions or expectations. Your expectations during your writing session should be high, but not impossible to meet.
Your expectations and goals fit the length of your writing session
If you are revising a paper or writing a first draft, you will set different goals. Your goals should be attainable within the time frame you set for writing and sessions should include time for writing, reading, and resting. And make sure to set aside time to set your goals at the beginning and to plan your next session at the end.
For example, if you only have 45 minutes to write, then planning and assessing your goals might take only 5-10 minutes, and you may only need 5 minutes in the middle to stretch or get something to drink. A goal for a 45-minute writing session could be to rework the first paragraph of the introduction to align with discussion content or incorporate a relevant paper you’ve read recently.
Break your goals into small steps
If you’ve written a draft of your methods section reporting the results of a clinical trial, one of your goals for a 2-hour writing session might be “review CONSORT reporting guidelines and ensure I include all checklist items in the methods section.” As you review the CONSORT reporting guidelines, take notes. Then, when you look at the methods section in your paper, compare what is there to what should be there and add the missing or take out the extra items. Take more notes as you work because these become to-do lists for future writing sessions.
You can scribble these goals on a piece of paper or post-it note, type them at the top of the document, or write them in comment bubbles in the document margin. When you reach the end of the day’s writing session, review your session goals. If you met them, great! Now you can choose new goals. If you didn’t meet goals, don’t worry! Just decide where to start at the beginning of your next writing session.
Sustain your momentum by starting a new session with an unmet goal from the last
Sustained momentum prevents you getting stuck and keeps you on track. It’s a great method for avoiding writer’s block. Start with an unmet goal from your last session and end each session by noting your next unmet goal: this will keep you writing “peak to peak” rather than “valley to valley.” Starting at the top with a clearly defined goal keeps you rolling downhill from the peak and helps you build up enough momentum to get you out of the valley and onto the next peak. This technique prevents you from running out of goals and inspiration.
Understanding your personal writing process takes some time and work. Be patient and curious. Write down your insights as you learn about your writing process. The more you learn about your writing process, the less mysterious writing becomes and the easier it will be for you to be productive during each session.