If you want to buy a house or a car, it's common practice to create some kind of strategic plan for getting there, right? You save up some money, you do some research, and eventually, you accomplish your goal -- you buy the house, or you buy the car.
So, why is it that when it comes to writing, so many people fail to approach their projects strategically? Why don't we treat our writing practice like our finances? Or like any other big thing we want to accomplish or achieve in life?
Creating a strategic plan for your writing projects and your writing career is key when it comes to achieving the big goals you have like writing a book, or submitting stories to publishers, or whatever it is that you're hoping to do.
In this post, I'm going to walk you through how to plan out your writing projects for the next twelve months. Specifically, I'm going to walk you through five steps that will help you figure out what you want to accomplish in the next year and then exactly how you'll do it.
No matter how the last year went for you – whether you crushed your goals, barely made it through the year, or landed somewhere in the middle – there’s something to learn from each and every bit of it.
So, before we start planning forward, we need to review where we’re coming from. To properly do this, I want you to ask yourself a series of questions.
When it comes to your writing practice:
As an example, I'll share two of my answers that came up when I did this exercise. Last year, I really loved working on my Story Grid analysis of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Every time I worked on it, I felt invigorated because a) I'm a huge Harry Potter fan, and b) it taught me so much about the craft of writing.
Something I wish I spent more time on was my own fiction. Now, part of the reason why I wasn’t able to spend the ideal amount of time on this is that I was busier in my editing and coaching practice than I had anticipated.
So, although that’s a good thing, I didn’t have a solution for how to maintain my own writing practice when business picked up. But now now I can make adjustments (aka block out time for my own writing) going forward into the next twelve months!
So, hopefully, you can see how looking back on your last twelve months will be key in planning for the year ahead. This step can be a little painful but the amount of insight you’ll get from doing this exercise is crucial so, don’t skip this step!
Next, it's time to get clear on what a successful writing year looks like for you. So, what would you do in your writing life if you knew you couldn't fail? If I could wave a magic wand and make anything happen for you, what would that be?
Dream big here! I want you to get excited about what a breakthrough year could look like when it comes to your writing.
In order to help you out, I want to give you a few examples. And the way I like to think about this stuff is in terms of seasons.
If you’re in the writing season, your list might include things like:
If you’re in the editing season, your list might include things like:
If you’re in the publishing season, your list might include things like:
Once you’ve made a list of all the big things you WANT to accomplish, go ahead and highlight (or circle) the 3-5 projects that you want to focus on the MOST in the next 12 months.
Now, you might be thinking... Wait, why just 3-5 things!?
We’re trying to build a REALISTIC plan for your writing practice. Realistically, it's hard for most of us to focus on (and accomplish) more than 3-5 things at a time.
Later on, when we start to put things on the calendar, you can always add things in if you decide that you have the time and space. But you might find that 3-5 projects is enough to fill up your year so, just stay with me here.
Once you’re done with that, I want you to think about your non-negotiables. So, what are you not willing to do and/or what are you committed to doing as you move toward creating a more productive writing year?
To figure out your non-negotiables, ask yourself things like:
For example, maybe you're committed to not writing on "date nights." Or maybe you're only going to focus on one story at a time. Or maybe you're going to finish a first draft before you go back and revise anything. Or maybe your non-negotiable is that you will no longer watch two hours of Netflix every night.
The cool part about this step is that there are no wrong answers. Your non-negotiables can and should look different from mine and everyone else’s.
Understanding your non-negotiables is one of the most important things you can do to create the writing life of your dreams.
And that’s because it forces you to take into account what’s important to you so that a) you don’t go without these things, and b) you can then create a realistic plan for accomplishing your goals around your non-negotiables.
Back in step two, I asked you to pick 3-5 main goals you wanted to focus on in the next twelve months. Now, I want you to put them through the SMART test.
If you’ve never heard of the SMART acronym, it stands for -- SPECIFIC, MEASURABLE, ATTAINABLE, RELEVANT, AND TIMELY.
So, basically, it’s a way to take your big (and probably vague) goals and make them into smaller, more actionable goals. Here are a few examples:
Let's say your goal is to finish a first draft. How can we make that goal more specific and actionable? Well, you can ask things like:
And this is where most writers get tripped up or off track. A lot of writers don't think about the number of words they can write per week -- or even if they do, they don't think about what going back and revising scenes will do to that plan.
For example, I recently worked with a writer who really wanted to have a first draft done in six months. I said okay, sure, but to do that, you’ll have to write 3,000-4,000 words per week. And not only that, but you won’t be able to go back and edit anything if you write at that pace.
I asked him if that was realistic and he just started laughing because NO, it wasn’t realistic. So, we needed to go back and adjust his goal.
The best part of this story is that he did finish a draft in ten months. But imagine if he stuck with that original goal of six months without taking everything else in his life into consideration -- he’d be setting himself up for absolute disappointment.
Now, let's say your goal is to send your draft to an editor. How can we make that goal more specific and actionable? Well, you can ask things like:
Not only is this information helpful for you to know when it comes to planning out your writing projects, but it also makes communication with editors easier, too.
Now, let's say your goal is to query agents. How can we make that goal more specific and actionable? Well, you can ask things like:
Doing this kind of work or planning upfront not only helps you get more organized, but it can also help take some of the pressure off, too. I can't tell you how many writers I talk to who suddenly decide to query agents and then put a huge amount of pressure on themselves to a) finish their draft, b) find agents to query, c) write up all their submission materials, etc. in a very short period of time. It's just not realistic -- and it causes a ton of unnecessary stress!
Anyway, you can probably see what I’m getting at here...
Until you know the specifics of what you want to do, you can’t really make any kind of realistic plan or track your progress or work toward any kind of real goal.
If you've made it this far, it's time to start putting everything on your calendar. And one of my favorite ways to do this exercise is to use individual calendar pages. I have a set of calendar pages that you can download with the workbook by clicking this link.
In the beginning phases of this process, you’re just testing things out and moving things around trying to see what will work and what won’t work so, don’t try to make things perfect here. Just start mapping out your plan and allow for changes as you go.
Tip #1: If you plan to write a book, make sure you have "writing time" on your calendar so that you actually have time to do the work.
If you’ve come up with a plan that says it will take you 10 months to write a draft and you need to write a certain amount of words per day to achieve that plan, don’t write down 6 months thinking you will somehow do it faster. It sounds obvious, but I see writers do this to themselves all the time!
Tip #2: If you plan to work with other people like editors or beta readers, make sure to add in the time it takes for them to do their work AND for you to process their feedback.
Most editors can give you an approximate turnaround time for completing their feedback. Make sure to include this time on your calendar and in your plans. Also, give yourself at least 1-2 weeks to process their feedback, go through their notes, and have some white space. If you need to revisit or rewrite your draft, make a plan for approximately how long that will take and add in that time on your calendar, too.
Tip #3: After a big project make sure to add in some white space or time for rest, relaxation, and projects that will refill your creative well.
For me, this looks like going back to read an old favorite book or going on a trip to take some time away. For you, this might mean taking a complete break from writing altogether or it might mean that you spend more time in the garden or that you binge-watch a new show on Netflix. There's no right or wrong answer as long as you have some of this white space built in. This white space is what will help you avoid burnout and overwhelm throughout the year.
Tip #4: If you’re going to participate in something like NaNoWriMo, make sure you include enough time to do the work before, during, and after.
If you're planning to participate in NaNoWriMo, you already know that you'll be writing during the month of November. You also know that the goal is to produce a 50,000-word draft. So, the goal in itself is already pretty specific. But, what kind of planning do you need to do before NaNoWriMo starts? Do you want to create an outline? Do some character sketches? Develop your story world? Something else? Then, let's say you do "win" NaNoWriMo, what's your plan? Are you going to take a few months away from your draft and work on something different? Or are you going to dive right into editing? Whatever your plans are, make sure you include those on your calendar, too.
Tip #5: Take note of holidays or any other special dates.
Now, this may sound obvious but holidays and special occasions are actually pretty easy to forget about when you're in the midst of planning. So, before you finish your plan for the year, make sure you take note of any big holidays or any special occasions that you know you'll be taking part in. And not only that, but don't book anything too close to these special dates, either. This can sometimes add unnecessary pressure and stress to your life -- and, it's really easy for writing to fall to the back burner when there's a lot of other 'stuff' going on.
Once you've got everything on your calendar, it's time to do a quick gut check. Ask yourself things like:
If everything sounds good and feels good, then you’re done planning! If not, feel free to go back and make changes until you feel comfortable with what you’ve come up with.
Now, you might be wondering... What if things change? What if things come up?
Well, here's my challenge to you: as a guiding principle, I'd like to see you stick to your plans 90% of the time throughout the next twelve months.
That leaves you 10% for the unknown, exciting opportunities, and tweaks and pivots that may be needed throughout the year. And, yes, I know 10% is a small margin for changes, but that’s the point.
When things get tough, or you get bored with “staying on plan,” I want you to remember the 90% commitment.
The most successful people stick to their strategic plans, even when they don’t want to in the moment. This very habit of sticking to your plan can literally be the catalyst for your most productive writing year yet!
Now go do great things!
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