What Do You Want From Your Writing in 2014—And Beyond?

by viZZZual.com / via Flickr

by viZZZual.com / via Flickr

Today’s guest post is by author Dan Holloway (@agnieszkasshoes), and is adapted from a chapter of his recently released e-book, Self-Publish With Integrity

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Posted in Guest Post, Writing Advice.

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.

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Dina Santorelli

This is a terrific post. Without thinking too much about it, I would say this is my sentence: “I want to be a top-of-mind thriller writer who tells stories that are real, entertaining, smart and meaningful, stories that not only help readers escape, but also to understand something about themselves, the world around them and, perhaps, me.”


Thanks, Dina – that sounds like my kind of story!


once again a practical, useful and timely article – many thanks Jane to you and your guests. You’re going to keep me on track in 2014 (well, you and Stephen Fry). Happy 2014.


that’s excellent company to be in!

Bob Mayer

A goal requires one sentence, one action verb (a positive one), and a time lock. Without a time lock it’s the never-ending goal that’s always out there. In Write It Forward and even in business consulting, I always start with the strategic goal written down in one sentence. When I work with authors on their manuscripts, we start with the one sentence idea. As such, looking at the previous comment, I’d say Dina’s goal is too vague. There are no concrete milestones by which to judge accomplishment. Nor a time lock. Not being picky, I’m just pointing out that most… Read more »

Dina Santorelli

How interesting! I can’t imagine assigning a time lock to it. Thanks for your comment, Bob!


Bob, yes I agree completely – and go into considerable detail on how to make your crie de coeur specific in the book. I’m not talking about time-specific goals here for obvious reasons – I want to help people to maintain their passion throughout their writing life – but again, for many goals that’s key. In terms of Dina’s sentence, if I were running through it with you, I’d say that you’ve melded several sentences together, which means that you may not be clear which is the overriding priority for you. Top of the mind thriller writer is a separate… Read more »

Dina Santorelli

Excellent questions! Definitely a very helpful exercise.



Christine @ BNP

This is an interesting discussion. I didn’t realize how easily I slip into generalities too with my goals.

Shirley Hershey Showalter

I benefited from this post — as I inevitably do with anything Jane chooses to feature. I chose a mission statement in 2003 for my life: I want to prepare for the hour of my death, one good day at a time, and to help others do the same. All my work, including my writing, now follows from that mission.

My memoir was written to help myself and others find simplicity and leave a legacy.


Very very best with bringing your message to people 🙂


I work at making goals as specific (and measurable) as possible. Otherwise, I’d never get anywhere. Love this post and now going to write a few things down. 🙂



Judith Sears

This was a very thought-provoking post and I’m going to do the exercises and come up with a one-sentence ‘what do I want from writing.’ As I was reading, though, I thought an example would be helpful. Dan, do you have your own one-sentence you’d be willing to share or can you think of some hypothetical one-sentences – something for comparison purposes?


Thanks, Judith. Mine is:

“Help those whose identities are marginalised or confused to figure out who they are, and then to be that person and no one else.”

I write poetry, literary and experimental fiction, non-fiction and thrillers, but that’s the one thing that runs through everything. Any time I have taken a wrong turn in my creative life it has been not paying attention to that. I outline how I came up with it here


Leanne Dyck

Thank you for this thought provoking article, Dan.


As writers and as people, we will grow and develop overtime. And thus I’d add that it’s very important to revisit our battle cry on a regular bases. When you do, ask yourself, does it need to be revised? If it does, revise it. Don’t crave your battle cry in stone. To remain effect it must be fluid.


Yes, absolutely!

Jim Geddes

Memoir is my passion. My goal is to write my own, and help others write theirs.


very best with the memoirs – it’s not something I’ve tried – I’ve always thought I lack the extraordinary editing skills I imagine are required but admire those who have them greatly

Pete Nikolai

Great post! I believe Ms. Showalter is on to something: Perhaps it makes sense to back it up even further and first answer the question: Why do you live? #Writing should support our ultimate purpose in life.


I absolutely agree on a personal level – if you look at my own mission, above , it’s very much an extension of what I live to do. I think extending it from writing advice to that kind of personal advice would be a subject for a different book which is why I haven’t made the extension here – definitely something I believe, though

Mariam Kobras

In 2014, I want to find out if I’m also a mystery writer. 🙂 Great article, Dan!


I’ll look forward to seeing your new direction 🙂


You had me at “blancmangey books”, which sounds glorious. This is great advice: the difference between a maybe entertaining enough story and something that grabs you and stays with you is the writer having something to say beyond the literal story, I think. If anyone wants me, I shall be pondering my sentence!


Thank you! When in doubt, apply a food-based descriptor is a generally sound rule 🙂

Lynn Balabanos

Great article! I always pick a career goal for the year but I never really have thought beyond that time frame. Still, a long term plan is so important. It’s like making a mission statement for yourself as a writer. That way when there are tough choices (and there may very well be) then you will always have your mission statement to look back at. Having an overall goal or direction to what you want to accomplish is necessary for every successful brand. Since we, as authors, are our own brand, it follows that a mission statement along with periodic… Read more »


yes, it’s when you have those tough choices that you really need it so you don’t end up pouring time and effort into something that it turns out (much later, usually, after you’ve spent much of both) takes you a long way from where you want to be. Sometimes, without having something to refer to, we can find ourselves not even realising we’re making these choices.

Margot Finke

I want to write books with words, characters, and plots that HOOK Kids on Reading. Reading is a major stepping stone to success in life – personal as well as business.

Books for Kids – Skype author visits

[…] Holloway asks: what do you want from writing in 2014?; Alice Leiper starts a new page for a new year; and J. Rose Allister shares 6 resolutions to make […]

[…] advice on articulating what you want from your writing from author Dan […]

Randy Evans

I want my writing to give me and others joy every day for life.

Yvonne Hertzberger

Good advice for life, not just writing.


Thank you – yes, I think you’re right – that’s a whole other post and a whole other book 🙂

[…] I read this blog a few days ago — What Do You Want From Your Writing In 2014– And Beyond. […]

[…] That won’t do. Why you write is always the key to what you want from your writing. (read the full piece here) […]

[…] am I, as a writer, and why am I doing this? Author Dan Holloway, in his recent essay, What Do You Want from Your Writing in 2014 and Beyond? at Jane Friedman’s blog, […]

M T McGuire

This is a great post, and having thought about it, I reckon my sentence is this.

“I want to be able to write with the action figures of my characters lined up along my desk”



[…] am I, as a writer, and why am I doing this? Author Dan Holloway, in his recent essay, What Do You Want from Your Writing in 2014 and Beyond? at Jane Friedman’s blog, […]

[…] Dan Holloway (@agnieszkasshoes) – writing as a guest blogger for publishing expert Jane Friedman  –gives great advice about seriously taking the time to pinpoint and whittle down that answer […]