So You Want to Be a Writer: Dreams vs. Goals
If you don’t know where you are going,
you will probably end up somewhere else.
~Lawrence J. Peter
When you say you “want” to be a writer, is that a dream or a goal?
Wait, aren’t those basically the same thing?
Well, let’s talk about the differences between writing being a dream and writing being a goal.
What Is a Dream?
Search for the word dream in any dictionary and you’ll find something similar to the following:
- a visionary creation of the imagination
- a state of mind marked by abstraction or release from reality
- a cherished hope; ambition; aspiration
- a vain hope
Do you dream of being a writer? Or do your dreams lead you to actually write? I have had someone say to me, “I want to be a writer, but I hate writing. What advice can you give me?” My answer? “Try dental school.” Okay, so maybe I wasn’t quite that harsh. But if you don’t like writing, how are you going to be a writer?
In other words: Do you want to be the noun, or do you want to be the verb?
Having dreams, being visionary, cherishing hopes, having aspirations is necessary to living. Don’t ever stop doing this. But just as having a dream of being a millionaire won’t fill your fridge or fuel your car, the dream of “being a writer” won’t fill the blank page or get you published. As Walt Disney once said, “All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.”
What Is a Goal?
- the result or achievement toward which effort is directed
Do you notice a difference in the words that define these two terms? The definitions for “dream” are largely passive while the definitions for “goal” are active. Noun vs. Verb. An object vs. an action.
In other words, a goal is a dream with marching orders.
The difference between goals and dreams is that goals come with actionable steps and measurable results. You need both long-term and short-term goals—driven by your overall dream. Unlike dreams, goals must be realistic and personally achievable.
You can dream of being a traditionally published author. You can set goals toward the pursuit of becoming a traditionally published author. However, you cannot control the decisions made by publishers to reject or accept you. By setting goals for ends that are out of your control, success is also out of your control. This is what I mean by realistic and personally achievable—you must be able to affect and control the outcome in order for it to be a viable goal, not just a dream.
Vague Goals vs. Specific Goals
- Vague: “By the time I turn 35, I want to be well on the way to getting published.”
- Specific: “By the time I turn 35 I will: finish my bachelor’s degree, start graduate school, finish at least three manuscripts, join a writing group, attend a regional or national writers conference every year, find critique partners, enter contests, pitch to at least two agents and three publishing houses.”
The first was my “goal” that I set for myself at the age of 30, shortly after I’d returned to finish my undergrad degree and right after my first writing conference in 2001. Then, after I’d been a member of ACFW for a few months, I sat down and wrote down the second set of goals—the specific actionable ones so that I knew what I needed to do in order to achieve that vague goal (dream).
In 2002, I attended my first national writers’ conference and I entered a writing contest. In 2003, I not only finished my bachelor’s degree, I found and started working with my first critique partners—and entered two more manuscripts into contests. In 2004, I started grad school. I became an officer with ACFW, serving in two successive positions in which I got to know many publishing industry professionals who would, years later, become vital cobblestones in my path to publication. I went to the ACFW conference every year. I started my own local writers group here in Nashville.
I turned 35 in May 2006. About a month after my birthday, I walked across the stage, got “hooded,” and received my master’s degree. A few weeks after that, I learned Stand-In Groom (my master’s thesis novel) was a finalist in the ACFW Genesis contest. In September, I went to the conference for the awards banquet and, while there, asked two agents if I could submit my book proposal to them. I’d already pitched the book a few years before (when it wasn’t ready), and over the next year, I’d pitch it and the Ransome Trilogy to two other houses.
Actionable. Personally achievable. And completed.
In January 2007 (while I was still 35), I signed with MacGregor Literary. Then, in early December 2007, a little more than six months after I turned thirty-six, I signed my first book contract.
The result of my setting/achieving specific goals was attaining my dream of becoming an agented/published author.
Actionable items give you a measure for success—specific items to achieve give you the benchmarks by which you can tell if you’re achieving your goal or not.
- “I want to be well on my way. . .”
With a vague goal, there’s no specific measure of success. “Well on my way” is vague—it has no specific benchmark.
- “I will do X. . .Y. . .Z. . .”
Specific goals have a built-in measure of success—items to be checked off as they’re accomplished. A dream/vague goal is a good starting place. But it is just a starting place, not the end of the process.
Short-Term vs. Long-Term Goals
Setting a goal is a lot like writing a book—you must break it down into small pieces so it doesn’t overwhelm you. And you must write it down.
Start with a specific long-term goal:
–I want to have a publish-ready manuscript submitted to agents and editors by XYZ date.
Break it down into specific short-term pieces:
–I will write 1,000 words a day, get crit partners, join a writing group, attend a conference. . .
The only way to be sure you never fail is to never try. Yes, setting goals leads to the fear of failure; but how much more of a failure is it not to have goals? Writing down your goals makes them more real—and gives you the opportunity to review them from time to time and helps you remember them in their specifics. And if you set timelines with your goals, you can help minimize the risk of failure.
But once you write them down, don’t look at your goals, long-term or short-term, as written in stone. Circumstances change; your goals and timelines need to change to accommodate them. Keep your written goals somewhere they’re easy to refer back to and in a format that’s easy to updated and revise.
If you don’t write your goals down, how will you measure your success? There is nothing like the feeling of crossing things off of that goals list as you accomplish them!
Should You Make Your Writing Goals Public?
Some goals should be kept private. Sometimes, though, we need accountability to help us meet our goals:
- Family members
- Critique partners
- Writing group
- Blog/social media
It is a very personal decision, whether or not to make a goal/a set of goals/a dream public. When we do so, we make ourselves vulnerable to criticism (for the goals themselves or for our thinking we could achieve them) or to ridicule if we don’t reach the goals—or if we have to change them when circumstances change. So be sure that if you go public, whether to one person or hundreds through a blog or social media, you know you will be able to handle any negative comments that may come your way. Don’t go public and then let the naysayers keep you from working on achieving your goals so that, one day, you can attain whatever dream it is you have for your writing.
Have you set specific goals for your writing?
Do you have both short-term and long-term goals?
Have you written your goals down?
Have you kept your goals private, or do you have a support group you’ve shared them with?