Abstract vs. Concrete Measures of Success
If you ask a room full of writers why they write, you will get a range of answers, but they fall somewhere along a spectrum of abstract to concrete. Abstract motivations involve self-expression, personal growth, exploring a difficult issue or time in one’s life, learning something new, and other intangible ways to find satisfaction and fulfillment by putting words on the page. They are those things that can be difficult to define, which makes them impossible to really measure in a traditional sense.
(If you missed the intro post to this series, you may want to read it first.)
These motivations are vital for getting you started down your writing path, but they can’t always see you through the rough times. Or in some cases, can actually hold you back. For instance, if you are trying to work through grief by writing about the death of a loved one, those same big feelings you want to exorcise can also keep you from ever starting. To move past pain, we must confront it, and that is incredibly intimidating. It is much easier to shy away from putting pen to paper than to push yourself through the discomfort unless there is some sort of outside force to push through it.
Remember, our overarching goal is to take a piece of writing from idea to completion. That is a ruthlessly concrete goal, but will arguably bring the greatest satisfaction at the end. Smaller-scale, concrete motivations are more akin to making x amount of money to buy something specific or quit a cruddy job and write full-time. When cash or other external measures become involved, questions of speed and efficiency come into play in a different way than abstract motivations. In other words, if the number of words you write has a direct effect on the amount of food in your mouth, your metrics for measuring success won’t line up with the writer who is working through the death of a loved one. And that’s okay on both sides.
Goals could also fall somewhere in between, such as getting a story into a certain prestigious anthology. This has a measurable end, but also gives an intangible satisfaction of helping you to win the respect of other writers and potential editors. This could possibly have tangible effects of more paid work along the line.
Mastering your Motives
Before you read on, set a timer for 60 seconds. During that minute, I just want you to think about abstract reasons you want to finish your work of fiction. In other words, what about writing makes you feel things. Don’t worry about recording your answers yet, but I do encourage you to talk yourself through the minute rather than keeping it all in your head. If you have a writing buddy or group, this could turn into a wonderful opportunity for discussion as well. But fair warning, you may find your own motivations surprise you. You are a creative person, so allow yourself to apply that creativity to this situation, too.
(There are no wrong answers, even if you find satisfaction from the thought of sticking it to that stodgy English teacher who said you’d never amount to anything! Just focus on the feelings for now.)
When your minute is up, it’s time to record a list of abstract motivations. If setting a timer helps you, give yourself another 60 seconds, but you can take as much time as you need on this step. Understanding your motives is essential to setting individualized goals, so you can’t really spend too much time thinking about them at the outset.
Once you’ve got a list of abstractions, grab a new piece of paper or start a new page in your word processor. Take another minute to think about your concrete motivations for finishing a piece of fiction. Remember, these are going to be things that can be measured in numbers. If there’s some overlap in your lists, that’s totally fine.
After you have items on both lists and you feel like you’ve exhausted your brainstorming, put those lists side by side. Is one much longer than the other? If your motivators are mostly concrete, you’ll want to focus on metrics that can be measured in numbers. Instead, if you find your motivators are more abstract, things like word count won’t be the best way to set your goals.
For instance, if your main goal is “improvement”, as in bringing all of your writing to a higher level, you may want to look for a critique group or find a writing partner who can help give you feedback on your drafts rather than just wondering “am I getting any better?” If you know that you want to improve something specific, such as making dialog flow better or master commas, make sure to have that on your list. Something like “improve” is a great motivator, but also so amorphous that you can’t really be sure if you are accomplishing that goal without breaking it down into smaller pieces.
One of my on-going abstract goals to try not to get bogged down too much in what I think readers (and agents and publishers) will want vs. developing my own ideas and having FUN during the creative process. I can’t really do anything concrete to measure this, but I can do more than just think about once and forget about it, too. A well-placed post-it in my line of sight can help me mentally check in with a variety of things on a regular basis. If you don’t want to hang your hidden desires where everyone can see them, a designated “check in” page in a notebook and an occasional reminder on your calendar to peek at it on a regular basis works, too. Never underestimate the power of a visual reminder, even a casual one.
That’s it for now, but I hope you’ve got a better handle on what drives you to succeed, as well as some ideas for reaching that success. In my next post, we’ll take a look at the next step in setting and meeting your goals for 2020!
If you missed the first post in the series and you want to take a look, read it here. And don’t forget to hit that follow button so you never miss a post.
Until next time, stay splendid!