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Why Mastery Goals Matter to Writers

I realize it’s a major cliché to start my first Creativity Matters installment of 2023 by talking about New Year’s resolutions, but I’m going to do it anyway. So, stick with me. I promise you this isn’t going where you think it is.

Here’s the thing: I think the New Year’s resolution concept is fundamentally flawed. If it’s your thing, great. You have my blessing. But for a lot of people, it just leads to a lot of failed expectations and self-loathing. You know who you are.

Sometimes you pick a resolution and, for whatever reason, you lose interest. Life happens, or you get busy with work or a new series premieres on Netflix or you’re just tired out from daily responsibilities, and then you end up feeling like a failure because you spent all that money on your new gym membership and only went twice.

Or maybe life throws you genuine curveballs that you didn’t factor into your plans. Maybe your kids have a particular need or a family member gets sick, or you get sick or you need to divert your time to other things. Even if this isn’t your fault, though, you can still end up blaming yourself for not prioritizing yourself.

My point is that for many people, what starts as a genuine attempt at self-improvement can end up being a source of overwhelm and shame.

And if your resolutions center around your writing, this can become extremely dangerous to your creativity.

For some reason, creative people are fantastic at having a performance-based mentality. I wrote about this in my post from a couple of weeks ago—if you aren’t reaching the artificial benchmarks you set for yourself, it’s easy to plunge into self-doubt and wonder whether you’re even a real writer.

It’s also kind of like NaNoWriMo. For some people, it’s invigorating and addictive. For others, it brings a feeling of failure if the goal of 50,000 words remains elusive.

I experienced this with my Goodreads 2022 reading challenge. I set an ambitious goal but did not expect the months of August to November to leave me with very little time to read. I was willing to show myself some grace in this, at least until Goodreads rubbed in the salt with a message that said, “Better luck next year.”

Screw you, Goodreads.

The point is that many writing-related goal-setting endeavors, like NaNoWriMo and New Year’s resolutions, are based on concrete, measurable results with key performance indicators . . .

. . . and I would argue that this manner of creating objectives is at odds with how many creative people’s minds function.

Why Performance-Based Goals Often Don’t Work for Us

Think about it this way: writers invent things. Whether we’re creating new worlds or trying to put true stories and experiences into engaging narratives, our commodity is the unknown.

The writing process is often like this, too. It’s why axioms like “write every day” frequently don’t work.

Performance-based goals demand that you produce certain results, when in reality, there are just too many variables with writing, not to mention real life, that can get in the way of this.

After all . . . how can you quantify your project when in many cases, you’re still working on it and the thing doesn’t even exist yet?

The editing process can also bring many surprises. The discovery of multiple ways to improve your work or errors in your story can add weeks and months onto your timeline of finishing something, and it’s easy to fall into despair when this happens.

Again: it’s the result of applying performance-based thinking to an art form that can’t always use this method to measure success.

So, what do you do? What kinds of goals can you set to avoid feelings of shame or failure?

Let me introduce you to an alternative.

Mastery Goals and Creative Writing

A mastery goal is a type of objective that focuses on the desire to become as good at a particular activity or art form as possible.

The thing about mastery goals is that once you set out to improve your skills, you’re less likely to give up. A mastery mentality doesn’t focus on mistakes or not being far enough along in a self-imposed timeline. Instead, it views mistakes and setbacks as necessary for developing your abilities.

This means that if you “fall behind” or “aren’t as good as you should be,” it’s okay. In fact, it’s great because it shows you where you need to direct your attention.

You get to set your own parameters for what it means to become the best you can be.

For readers who are fully invested in a performance-based mentality, this concept may be frustrating. After all, how do you measure something like this?

Answer: you don’t. Not at first, anyway.

Mastery goals are something you constantly work to achieve. They don’t stop at the end of a year or a month and then magically reset. You’ll be pursuing them for the rest of your life.

What will change, however, is what actions you need to take to improve your skills. You’ll be continually raising the bar because what you want is to be a better writer today than you were yesterday.

Mastery goals also work because they put you front and center. It’s not about making a product, reaching an achievement, or having something to show for yourself. It’s about you mastering your art form on your terms.

When you realize that you are in control of how to become a better writer and what mastery looks like for your work, it makes goal setting empowering instead of deflating.

To put this in new year’s parlance . . . you want to be a better writer at the end of 2023 than you were at the end of 2022.

What Kinds of Mastery Goals Can I Set for My Writing?

Here are a few goals you can set for 2023 that fall in line with this concept of mastery:

Take a Writing Class

One of the positive outcomes of the pandemic is that online writing classes are a lot more common. As a result, there are many opportunities to sign up and learn alongside other writers with an experienced teacher or writer at the helm. With in-person classes having largely returned, you can also contact a local college or university English department to see if you can sign up for or even audit a creative writing class.

Find a Writing Group

If a traditional learning environment isn’t your thing, a writing group can allow you to learn with others and receive feedback on your writing. Many libraries have writing communities that you can be a part of.

Read books about writing

A great way to improve your craft is to learn from the masters of the art form, and books they’ve written about writing can help. If you’re relatively new to writing, a great place to start is Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, who describes her writing process and the various experiences of the writing life in an entertaining, meaningful, and encouraging way.

I also recommend the recent George Saunders book A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. It dissects several short stories by classic Russian authors, examines why they work, and gives tangible tips for applying those techniques to your writing.

Become better at self-editing

Once you understand what good writing looks like, you’ll be able to criticize your work more objectively. This does not mean beating yourself up and finding all the ways your writing is “bad.” Instead, it means you’ll be able to quickly spot your weaknesses and become more aware of ways to fix the problems in your writing.

You’ll eventually be able to measure your progress because you know what good writing looks like. Then, gradually, you’ll see the things you struggled with before becoming less of a problem.

Schedule a free consultation with Inkling Creative Strategies

This isn’t just a cheap plug for my services—a free 30-minute Zoom conversation with me will help you flesh out your strengths and weaknesses and how to tailor your mastery goals to fit what your writing most needs.

It’s the fastest, easiest way to begin reaching your full potential as a writer so you can impact and inspire your readers and still have an expectation of success.

Click here to grab some time on my calendar, and together, we’ll determine where you want to take your writing this year!

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1 Comment

HL Gibson
HL Gibson
Jan 05, 2023

My first favorite comment was, "Screw you, Goodreads." My second, and most favorite, was, ". . . our commodity is the unknown." The unknown can be so frightening, but you've made it manageable with this one simple statement. I love how making myself a better writer is very much like working on my soul, an ongoing process. The comparisons go a long way as encouragement.

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