What kind of writing goals do you set? Word count, revised pages, finished drafts, submitted stories, queried agents? These are examples of goals driven by measurable performance. Research has shown that when “a person is committed to the goal, has the requisite ability to attain it, and does not have conﬂicting goals, there is a positive, linear relationship between goal difﬁculty and task performance.” But is there more to succeeding than setting clear, attainable goals you’re committed to?
Writing is rarely as straightforward as setting a goal, working, and achieving it. You can set a solid goal. So why do you end up stuck at a blank sheet of paper or that lone, blinking cursor in a new document? There is a huge gap between a performance goal such as “write 1,000 words” and finishing a draft of a novel. Something as complex as a novel is more than a collection of word count goals. To address this gap, we need to address the shortcomings of performance goals.
The Perils of Performance Goals Like Word Count
We set performance goals because it’s easy to know when we’ve reached them. 1,000 words is 1,000 words. But a concrete ending can obscures a less clear beginning or the steps to get you to that clear ending.
“Performance goals can in fact impede performance. This [is] particularly the case when the task is highly complex or the goal is perceived as very challenging, and where the individual is not skilled or is low in self efficacy, or where resources are scarce.”
Likewise, from “New Directions in Goal-Setting Theory”:
“Focusing on reaching a speciﬁc performance outcome on a new, complex task can lead to ‘‘tunnel vision’’—a focus on reaching the goal rather than on acquiring the skills required to reach it.”
So how do we avoid tunnel vision and address the real complexity of what we want to accomplish in our writing? We need to think bigger than word count or other things that are easily measured. We need to make room for learning goals.
The Power of Learning Goals
What exactly is a learning goal? Wikipedia’s introduction to goal setting defines learning goals:
“There are times when having specific goals is not a best option; this is the case when the goal requires new skills or knowledge. … In situations like this, the best option is to set a learning goal. A learning goal is a generalized goal to achieve knowledge in a certain topic or field.”
Doesn’t each piece of writing require new skills or knowledge? Whether you’re reporting on a facet of our shared reality or inventing a new one, there’s always something to learn (and teach to your readers).
Unlike word count, learning goals relieve the pressure of immediate output. Focusing too much on outcomes and not giving things time are among the limitations of goal setting:
“Goal setting may have the drawback of inhibiting implicit learning: goal setting may encourage simple focus on an outcome without openness to exploration, understanding, or growth. A solution to this limitation is to set learning goals as well as performance goals, so that learning is expected as part of the process of reaching goals.”
Example Goals Beyond Word Count
The difference between learning and performance goals isn’t purely semantics—they have different psychological impacts on people:
“Learning goals tend to be associated with a range of positive cognitive and emotional processes including perception of a complex task as a positive challenge rather than a threat, greater absorption in the actual task performance (Deci & Ryan, 2002), and enhanced memory and well-being (Linnenbrink, Ryan & Pintrich, 1999).”
Consider the positive challenge of accomplishing learning goals such as:
- Get to know your protagonist’s emotional core
- Spend time with an interesting character. Take them out into the world to see life from their perspective.
- Journal or freewrite about what essential truth motivates this particular piece of writing
Get absorbed in writing about a setting that you’ve taken the time to explore and flesh out:
- Sketch or list all the items in the room or place where your story hits its peak
- Describe the street that made your antagonist the way he or she is today
- What’s one thing only the locals would know about this locale?
Find new energy in your plot or the story you really want to tell:
- Describe the story from the perspective of non-point of view characters in this draft
- How would your protagonist’s best friend summarize your theme?
- Convince yourself that your piece must start here and now as opposed to any other place or time in your character’s lives.
Returning to a piece of writing you’ve developed, learned from, and given yourself permission to discover is like coming home to a memory, a familiar flow, a waking dream.
Over to you. Do you have experience with learning goals? What are they, and how have they affected your work? If you haven’t tried learning goals, what might you consider moving forward?