I’ve got a list for you that’s got all sorts of writing success strategies in it. But here’s the thing, no list of how-to’s and what-to-do’s will help you reach your writing goals if you don’t do them. It seems obvious, but this gets at the heart of accountability. The writing accountability items on this list are easy to do. They’re also easy not to do. Being accountable as a writer means taking responsibility for the thousands of small steps that make possible your breakthrough, your success, your satisfaction. If you’re ready to commit to making progress, I’ve got some ideas.
1-Plan your week ahead of time
I once worked with a health coach who convinced me of the importance of planning what I was going to eat ahead of time so that I didn’t grab food on the go that would leave me feeling crappy later. It’s a simple concept. But most of us fly by the seat of our pants when it comes to planning our writing time. If we haven’t made an appointment with ourselves to, say, finish the second scene in chapter three today from 7-9 p.m., then we’re just as likely to use that time to post pics of our garden on social media or head to T.J. Maxx to browse for cheap skincare products. I like to take the first hour on Monday mornings (or sometimes Sunday nights) to plan what I’m going to work on that week. I dump out everything I’m considering doing and then I pick the most important tasks and schedule them in my (writing accountability) planner. Treat your work as a not-to-miss appointment with yourself.
2-Break it into manageable tasks
If your writing task for the day never gets more detailed than “work on novel”, your plan of action could benefit from some slicing and dicing. Assess how long of a block of time you have and then fill it with a task that’s reasonable. Choose specific and attainable goals like finishing drafting chapter three, typing up your research on 1950’s recording studios, revising the fight scene. Your to-do items should be things you could actually cross off the list. Vagueries like “write” are less helpful than specifics like “write 500 words.”
3-Set a word count
Finally, after years and years of procrastinating on a long project, I have started setting word count targets for myself. This is a rocket-science move, I know. Not everyone needs or wants to set daily word counts for themselves, and that’s fine. But for people like me who are prone to jumping from project to project or mulling over a book idea for a good part of a lifetime, we need this simple kick in the butt. Some writing software programs will allow you to set word count goals and keep track of it for you. But a pen and sticky note is all you really need.
4-Set a time-limit
When I first started writing blog posts, finishing one could take me days. I still often default to thinking I need major amounts of time to accomplish a writing task. A consequence of this thinking is overwhelm and lack of action. But what I know is that I can accomplish a lot in a short amount of time if I focus. So now I budget a specific amount of time—say two hours to write a blog post—and when that two hours is up I move on to the next task I’ve scheduled. This writing accountability strategy also helps me assess if I need to plan more time on this task for the next go-around, or whether or not I squandered the time I set aside. Many writers also like to participate in “writing sprints” (alone or with others) in which they set a timer for say 15-60 minutes and write as much as they can with no editing.
5-Know how you work best
Don’t feel pressure to approach your writing projects in the same way others do. Some folks are 5:00 a.m. writers and some of you are night owls. Some people need daily methodical progress and some people write in long spurts close to deadline. Any writing accountability method can get the job done if it’s a method that suits you.
6-Execute on your endgame
Here’s where we tend to fail. Millions of us buy gym memberships in January only to quit going altogether by March. We want to see quick progress and results and we feel dissatisfied with the small incremental advancements that getting healthy actually entails. In the same way, we’ll set a goal—like writing a book—but because the finish line is so far away, we lose sight of how to behave day by day to reach that goal. Decide what you want to accomplish this year and then figure out what you’ll need to get done each month to get there. Now decide what you’ll have to accomplish this week. So, what must today look like? You’ll be stunned at what you can do in a year if your days are leveraged toward your goal.
7-Plan to fail more
If you’re querying agents, submitting to literary magazines, or trying to publish your freelance articles, I’ve got some positive math to share with you. If you want to double your chances of success, you’ll need to double your failure. Have you noticed those folks on social media who go for 100 rejections a year? Well, they’re onto something. What’s the worst that can happen if you put yourself out there more? That your piece won’t get published? Well, it’s not published now! That you’ll feel rejected? Think of rejection as a short-term negative feeling that passes through your body. It’s bearable, I promise. One of the secrets of writing success is getting good at rejection.
8-Review your progress
What have you written and finished in the past year? What long-held idea did you finally start working on? What positive habit have you started incorporating? Take time to notice your writing accountability accomplishments and celebrate them. Are you working hard but spinning your wheels? Maybe you need to assess your idea/project and make sure you’re executing on the right thing. Have your systems/habits been giving you the writing results you want? Double down on the approaches that work for you and jettison those that don’t.
9-Take a writing class
If you want to be a published writer and you’ve never taken a writing class, look for one immediately. One of the best things about taking a class is that someone else is going to force a deadline on you. Look for a class that contains a workshop element so you can get feedback from an experienced teacher and fellow writers. Learning to critique the writing of others will help you so much with critiquing your own. And learning to accept feedback is a tremendous skill that will serve you well. If you don’t live near a city large enough to offer some sort of adult education classes, google “literary centers” and you’ll find plenty of organizations offering online workshops.
10-Join an online “writing date” group
One of the best things about living in a Zoom world is that it gives us the chance to easily meet up with people from anywhere without leaving the house or putting on real pants. Many writing organizations now offer “writing dates” or “write-ins” where you can connect online with other writers for writing time that doesn’t involve sharing work or even talking about your work if you don’t want to. In the daily group I’m in, we log on, say our hellos, then mute and turn off our cameras and write. I can’t tell you how much more I’m getting done now that this “date” is on my calendar. As in finding a writing class, this could take some googling. Or consider reaching out to writing friends on social media and starting your own writing accountability group.
11-Exchange work with your writer friends
Back when I was writing and publishing a lot of poetry, I met up regularly with a group of my best local poet friends. We’d exchange and critique work and it was probably one of the most productive writing times in my life. However, if your little collective isn’t well-structured, these groups can also devolve into simply wine and gossip groups (they’re your friends—hello!) or can become lax when people quit bringing work to turn out or show up less-than-prepared to give feedback. My advice—decide how much “accountability” you want the group to provide and then set the rules accordingly.
12-Get off social media
At least for a few hours. Social media scrolling is one of the biggest time-stealers for, well, for pretty much everyone. This activity will steal your dreams if you’re not paying attention. I advise scheduling in your social media time. Maybe you’d enjoy checking all your social platforms and getting your own posts up early in the morning with a cup of coffee before the workday starts. Maybe you’ll give yourself some scroll time over lunch or maybe stick a 15-minute block on your calendar during a work break. However you choose to handle your social media time, keep it brief and stay accountable for the amount of time you’re spending there.
If your writing has become a burden to you, take a step back right now. I can’t think of a new or better way to say life is short. There’s nothing wrong with spending your life being kind to others and giving most of your attention to observing the world around you with awe and gratitude. You are not obligated to write a book (seriously, even if you’re under contract with Penguin Random House). Give yourself the option to quit. If you won’t quit, as I suspect most of you won’t, then I advise you to optimize your writing life for having fun. One of my new mid-life mantras is, If it’s not fun, I’m not doing it.
Here’s the truth, and James Clear states it well—“Professionals are the architects of their habits. Amateurs are the victims of their habits.” You do not need to do all the things on this writing accountability list to be a successful writer, but there’s not one thing on this list you can’t do relatively easily. The secret is in doing the easy things, day after day after day.