Do you know what you want from your writing?
Yes? Good. Now take a pause, and a pen, and a piece of paper, and write it down. It shouldn’t take more than a few seconds.
The interesting thing I’ve found is that whenever someone asks me that, I think “yes, of course I know.” And then I try to put it in a sentence. And I end up with a thousand-word article that throws up a hundred tangents. And the easiest thing to do is shrug, convince myself “I know really, deep down” and carry on.
Which is the opposite of what I should do. This isn’t like a toothcomb edit that’s best put aside till the first draft’s fully down. If you don’t know what you want from your writing, what on earth are you doing writing anything? How can you possibly tell whether your words do what you want them to?
It’s actually not that hard a question. It rests on a more fundamental one. Why do you write? Only we think it doesn’t, because in our head we think we can separate them out. “I write because I have to” is what most people will say, then continuing, “but I’d like to make a living.”
That won’t do. Why you write is always the key to what you want from your writing.
How do you find out why you write?
In many ways, finding the real reason why you write is a similar process to putting together a traditional submission pack for your book. It’s the same kind of exercise in getting right to the heart of the matter.
Many how-to advisors will tell you that you should have an elevator pitch for your book—a single sentence that captures the essence of what your book is about. I’ve always been skeptical about this—in large part, I’m sure, because I write the kind of sprawling, multi-narrative blancmangey books that seem to defy such distillation (that’s what I tell myself, anyway!). But when it comes to the reason you write, this is exactly what you want. A one-sentence elevator pitch.
Why just one sentence? Because if you allow yourself more, you will—just like you do with a not-thoroughly-edited-enough book—find yourself including everything you want to include, everything you think you should include. Because doing that avoids having to think about the one thing that matters most of all. The problem is that the lack of clarity will come back to haunt you later in your writing life, especially when faced with choices and opportunities and dilemmas the answer to which will mean pursuing one part of your goal but neglecting another, and then coming to rue the results.
Techniques for creating your one-sentence goal
One of the things that has been incredibly helpful for me, under the expert guidance of Orna Ross, was free writing—taking a subject and simply running with it, with no restraint, until I’d burned myself out on it and got to the real roots of what I thought about it. You might set yourself an exercise such as writing a letter to your future self, telling yourself what you want. Or you can write it from an older and jaded version of yourself to an imagined therapist, telling them why you are so disappointed with what the writing life has turned out to be. The key is that once you start, you keep writing. Once you have gotten all the things out of your conscious mind onto the page, you will be amazed what else follows.
Brainstorming and mind mapping are also techniques I’ve used with great success. They are not to be confused with one another. Brainstorming involves taking a blank piece of paper/notebook/whiteboard/untrammelled wall and a pen/pencil/crayon/can of spray paint and writing down everything that you think of on a subject. There are no rules, no techniques, just an orgiastic splurge of aphorisms that you will then, in a subsequent session, analyze to see what recurrent themes and surprising twists have been unearthed.
Mind mapping, on the other hand, is a more systematic approach to digging beneath the surface to find out what’s really driving you. I would highly recommend Tony Buzan’s seminal The Mind Map Book as an essential tool for every writer. It will take you through all the techniques involved in using mind maps to organize your thoughts.
Mind mapping is the perfect technique to use if you know what your general aim is—an aim such as “delighting readers”—but want to make that more specific, to find out exactly what kind of readers you want, and exactly how you want to delight them, what it will be like to be a reader intoxicated by your work.
The biggest enemy of goal setting: generality
There are two big problems with dreams that are too general:
- A broad goal will encompass things you don’t really want as well as things that you do, which can lead to disillusionment. A really obvious example would be stating that you want “fame.” The chances are that what you mean is when people think of books, they think fondly of you. You don’t mean that you want the paparazzi camped outside your house waiting for you to fetch the milk on a bad hair day. So don’t say you want “fame.” Say you want to be a “top of mind” writer, someone whose name is synonymous with literary wonderfulness.
- You never know if you’re living the dream or not. “What would it look like if I achieved my goal?” is a really important question to answer. But without a very specific goal, it’s unlikely that you will be able to answer it. The result is that you can end up spending years floating along, not feeling terrible about what you’re doing but not feeling fabulous either, just going from one thing to the next.
It’s only by spending some high-quality time narrowing down your goal to the level of the specific, the imaginable, the concrete, that you can avoid the pitfalls of the vague and general.
Whichever technique you use, or if you use them all together (which I’d recommend, as well as throwing in anything else you come across), the actual process itself will start to solidify what you really want from your writing in your subconscious.
When are you done with the process?
As you revisit your lists, maps, and free-written splurges, ideally a few days after you have finished creating them, this subconscious compass will guide you through the process of crystallizing your thoughts into a single sentence.
How do you know you’ve really reached an end point? For any goal you set yourself, is that the actual goal you are striving for, or does it matter to you for some other reason? If the latter is the case, then that other reason is actually your goal. For example, “I want to be heard” is what a lot of people say. That’s not very specific. For starters, by whom? But the real problem is that, in most cases, writers want to be heard for a reason. That reason might vary from “I want someone to understand my story” to “I want someone who’s a professional in the creative world to say I have talent.” Both of these specific goals could manifest themselves as the general goal “I want to be heard,” but they are very different, and achieving them will look very different. Which is why getting to the real goal is so important to avoid disappointment later.
Imagine what it would be like if you achieved your goal. Often, the very fact that you can do this easily, or the trouble you find with such visualization, can be a clue as to whether or not this is actually what you want. Difficulty in visualizing what life would be like if you achieved your goal may mean that goal is still a little too general.
Crie de Coeur
By the end of the process you should have a single, specific thing, the thing you really want from your writing, the thing for the sake of which you want everything else. Your task now is to express that goal in a single sentence. Get it right, and make it punchy. It’s the single most important sentence you will ever write. It is your crie de coeur, your battle cry. It will sustain you and provide a compass for your entire writing journey.
Once you have written that sentence, write it out (or print it out but writing is better, it makes you more connected to it) on a piece of paper, laminate it, and pin it to the wall above your desk. Make yourself business cards with that sentence and put them in strategic places. Customize a skin for your tablet or smartphone with that sentence written on it. Remind yourself of it whenever and wherever you can. You can even make it the tagline of your website. This is your definition of success, the only definition that matters to you from this moment on.
Dan Holloway is a performance poet, novelist and journalist. In 2010 he won the international spoken word event Literary Death Match and in 2011 his novel The Company of Fellows was voted favorite Oxford novel by readers of the world famous Blackwell’s bookstore. He is the host of the spoken word show The New Libertines which has toured festivals across the UK for the past three years and writes about avant garde literature and self-publishing across the internet including regular contributions to the Guardian Books Blog.