Goals vs. Achievements: How not to set yourself up for failure

There are more pitfalls to avoid as a writer than there are in a certain 8-bit Atari video game. I started writing sporadically a decade ago. I would finish a story, send it to a market and wait, my entire identity as a writer hinging on that response. You know that kind of anxiety I’m talking about. Learning the postal carriers route and schedule so you can check the mail as soon as it’s delivered and moping on Sundays.

I’ve seen many solutions offered to counter this problem; many I would describe as the fire-and-forget method — write, submit, and move on to the next story. Sound advice, but I don’t think it addresses the underlying cause of the problem: control.

Consider this list of goals that a reasonable writer may have:

  • Find an agent
  • Write next scene of story
  • Write 750 words/day
  • Submit two stories to markets
  • Get published

We try to set expectations upon ourselves for things that we cannot control and we don’t reward ourselves for succeeding in the things we do. When we fail — and we do — it gets increasingly harder to pick ourselves back up and start over again. This isn’t the same thing as dealing with rejection, which is another topic entirely. This is a problem of goals and achievements.


Goals are the things that you have the ability to succeed at through direct action or fail at through inaction. Did you write the next scene of your story? Did you meet your daily word count? Did you query the next five agents on your list? These are things you have control over. These are things you are responsible for. Everything else is outside of your control.


If you’ve played video games in the last several years, you may already be familiar with the concept of achievements. These are the things that you want to accomplish but you have less influence over. You may even have none at all, but they’re still important to you. Selling a short story or novel. Getting a request for a partial or full manuscript. Receive fan mail. Control? Not yours.

What’s important to you in your career as a writer? Make a list. Once you know what you want to achieve, set goals to work towards that end. Goals should be simple and achievable. If you’re socially oriented like me and want public accountability, post it online. My goals and accomplishments are available for reference.

If you don’t already own Booklife, by Jeff VanderMeer, I highly recommend it. Disclaimer: Jeff was one of my Clarion instructors so I am biased, but I bought and read Booklife months before applying. It helped me rethink the way I was approaching my career.

Remember the golden rule: goals are things only you can control. And revisit your list of goals and achievements regularly. Not only will it help you keep focused, it helps you stay accountable to yourself.

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  1. Sandra Wickham
    05/10/2010 at 5:57 pm Permalink

    You make some great points, Adam.

    I’m a strong believer in goals and I’ve been able to translate my goal setting in the fitness industry, into goal setting with my writing. I’ve found it even MORE important with writing since it’s a new venture for me.

    I’ll definitely check out Jeff VanderMeer’s Booklife. Thanks for the recommendation.

  2. tsanko
    18/10/2010 at 2:09 pm Permalink

    Wonderful ..thanks a lot for posting a good informitive blog