My Writing Journey

7 Tips to Survive a Group Writing Critique

In January, I started attending a Meetup group for area writers. It's the bomb, and the group has quickly become an important tool and monthly boost for me as I continue to grow as a writer.

Last week, I participated in my first group writing critique. Broken into two groups, twenty people spoke one-by-one about my submission and told me everything that was wrong with my writing. Each individual critiqued my story live, in front of me, and in front of everyone else present. 

Leading up to that night, I was scared out of my mind. My previous experience with writing critiques was pretty much nonexistent prior to joining this group, and while I knew I would receive helpful feedback, I also knew that the process would be overwhelming for me. Anxiety and verbal processing do not mix well with this sort of exercise!

Now that I'm on the other side of the critique, I can celebrate my own courage in submitting at all, as well as my composure throughout the evening. Seriously, maintaining my composure was a victory worth noting. There were some challenging moments--more on those below!--and I believe I managed to maintain most of my dignity despite some awkward comments. Huzzah!

Overall, I learned a lot from the critique experience, and in this post I share some tips for any of you who may be considering a group critique submission in your own writing journey. 

7 Tips to Survive a Group Writing Critique

#1: Participate Before You Submit

Before I submitted my own piece, I attended four Meetups and participated in all four critiques as a reader. In doing so, I got a good sense of what to expect in terms of both process and people.

I had four opportunities to hear the rules, and to see how closely people followed them. From participating as a reader, I knew I would be sitting in a circle of individuals in a tight space, and that I would feel exposed as a result. I knew that some people would offer more constructive and helpful criticism than others. In particular, I knew there was one individual who would be unhelpful in his critique, regardless of his intentions. I knew I could expect him to offer unnecessarily harsh personal comments instead of constructive, respectful criticism. And I was ready for him.

Because I attended and knew what to expect, there were fewer surprises. I had more capacity to listen and take notes, and was less blind-sided by the logistics. 

#2: Provide Context

Though the rules may vary, you will generally have an opportunity to introduce your work. This is your golden opportunity to describe your piece, define your audience, and ask for what you need. Explain the intended impact, and name any concerns you have that you'd like the critique participants to address. For example, if you're worried that your main character is boring, say so!

As a part of this context, you need to know the intended audience for your submitted piece. This helps for a number of reasons, and quite frankly, you should know this long before you submit! If a piece is ready for group critique, it should be in good enough condition for you to describe the ideal reader. Have a sense of age/demographic/genre for your piece. Know and name that audience as you introduce your piece. 

You might even find it helpful to categorize your experience with writing, or your level of comfort with the critique process. For example, after introducing my story I added, "Also, FYI this is my first critique, and I'm scared." Vulnerable? Yes. Helpful? Probably. In most cases, I believe I got critiques that were tailored to my experience as a writer and were easy to digest at this point in my career. I would say that 95% of the participants respected that context and adjusted accordingly. 

In the future, I look forward to sitting down with my critique group, explaining my piece, and saying "Lay it on me! This is a solid draft. I know what I'm doing and I want all the constructive feedback you can give me. Do your worst." Until then, there's no harm in saying that I'm new to this and need the "big problems" identified more than the less severe nit-picked offenses. 

#3: Capture the Comments

This goes without saying, but for the sake of appropriate and thorough preparation, be ready to take notes! You can sort through the individual comments later, but be sure to capture all that is said. Bring a laptop, write notes by hand, capture audio (with the group's permission), or whatever works for you. Regardless of the medium, come prepared, and make sure you have what you need to get all the details down. 

If you're like me and are freaked out by the prospect of submitting for critique, taking notes is a particularly helpful tool for you. The act of taking notes allows you to disconnect emotionally from the process. You have a job to do, so you can focus on transcribing notes instead of letting the comments sink in too much. By taking notes, you might even protect yourself from overanalyzing what is said, or taking unhelpful comments too personally.

On top of that, you walk away with a good record of the group's feedback which you can reference after the critique is over, when the adrenaline has settled. 

#4: Look for Common Threads

Twenty individuals served up a LOT of feedback during my critique sessions, and it was a little overwhelming to sort through, even when I was home with my notes. To help analyze and organize the feedback for application, I found it helpful to look for common threads. What was consistently named as an issue, by multiple participants? Sure, one line of the text may not have registered for one or two readers. A reference flew over somebody's head. But the majority response is what you want to focus on, especially when considering comments from participants within your "ideal reader" demographic.

Depending on the quality of your critique group and the specific feedback you get, some of these common threads might be drawn for you. During the conversation, pay attention as participants build upon one another's perspectives.

For example, a member of one group noted that several people expressed varying levels of responses to the emotional tone of my story. He accurately diagnosed the issue by pointing to the lack of situational context at the beginning of the piece--that was a gap that I left for the audience to fill in, but the gap didn't serve me well because the responses were so varied. By providing more context up front, I could more effectively contain and direct the reader's response to the character's emotions, thus eliminating the varying concerns that participants expressed about the emotional range of the story. 

If nobody is drawing these connections for you, that's ok! Look for them as you read through your notes. What threads can be tied between comments that fall into the same category, even if they might not be presented from the same perspective? What is the root of the obstacles your readers butt up against? Find the common threads, and note those as the most prevalent issues. 

#5: Celebrate Your Strengths

One of the most beneficial outcomes of my experience is that I know I'm doing some things right! Having never shared my writing for critique before, it was difficult to gauge my own abilities.

Through the critique process, I learned that I have a good grasp of humor and voice. I learned that I have some solid pacing instincts, and naturally incorporate devices that serve the story well in terms of theme and pacing. I learned that the quality of my writing is good enough that people weren't hung up on grammatical issues and mechanics. Finally, and surprisingly, I learned that I can write about sensitive and divisive subjects like faith without alienating readers of different viewpoints. 

If I hadn't participated in the critique, I would never have known these things for sure! It is affirming and encouraging to have these strengths noted, and to have that opportunity to celebrate my "wins" as a writer. 

Writing in itself is fraught with opportunities for self-criticism and self-doubt. We read what we wrote yesterday and feel like banging our heads against the wall because it's so terrible! So even if you only get a small number of positive comments, or maybe there's only one thing you do well, I invite you to marinate in that reality for a few minutes. Celebrate what you got right, and delight in the fact that you are not starting from square one!

#6: Disregard the Haters

As I was preparing for my first critique experience, I was nervous as hell. One of my dear writer friends offered a bit of advice that was tremendously helpful: "It's easy to critique somebody else's work and tear it to shreds. It's much harder to produce that work, much less share it, so you have already succeeded by writing and submitting!"

While you might be tempted to call that advice sentimental, it is also entirely true. We live in a critical, self-centered culture that has been raised on internet comment sections. People are downright careless and disrespectful online, and that attitude occasionally translates in a live critique. From one perspective, I see why. The framework is set up for it; as a critique participant, you literally have permission to openly and thoroughly criticize someone's work. Why wouldn't some people run with that permission?

But it's also true that writing is profoundly personal. In my case, the piece was extra personal; I submitted an autobiographical essay about a challenging day when I was fed up and emotionally wrecked (based on a previous blog post). I introduced the piece as being 100% true, and about me. I set up the context and hoped that people would respect it.

For the most part, everyone did. But there was that one individual I knew would take it too far, and even though I expected some negativity, his comments caught me off guard. To be fair, I believe his intentions were good and that he simply does not understand how to critique effectively and respectfully. Whatever his motives, without accurately naming the problem or providing a constructive comment, he stated that my 'character' (AKA me!) was completely dislikable because she was a brat and had the emotional range of a 9 year-old. Ouch!

Yes, that was a pretty major burn. But it was also laughably unprofessional and useless as a critique. I don't know what inspired him to frame his critique so personally and harshly, but I made a solid effort to disregard his comments entirely. I redacted his comments in my notes and highlighted more constructive, related comments from other participants. Thanks to the other feedback I received, I identified the underlying issue that his comments were rooted in without having to linger on his specific wording.

As with many things in your writing journey, take what is helpful and leave what is not. Your work is not defined by the haters, and there is no value in lingering on that 'feedback.' Instead, focus on what you can actually do to improve, and on the comments that were presented in the appropriate spirit of constructive criticism!

#7: Identify Growth Opportunities

After the sweating and note-taking is behind you, you come home--blessedly alone!-- with your mountain of notes. You sort through the stack of comments and pull out common themes. At that point, it's time to translate those major points into growth opportunities.

Yes, by all means edit your submission according to the critique feedback! Fix the problems, and improve the piece. But what can you take away from these comments that will translate across the full spectrum of your work? What are the overarching "bad habits" you've developed, and what is submission-specific? 

From my critique, I learned several valuable lessons that apply beyond the scope of my submitted story:

  • I learned that autobiographical writing is particularly prone to gaps on the page -- because the entire experience is in my head to begin with, it's easier to leave out crucial context or information.
  • I learned to avoid text devices that frustrate the reader, like blocks of all-caps text rants.
  • I learned to provide the appropriate context so that I have more control over the reader's response.
  • I learned that it is dangerously easy to offend people regardless of my best intentions, and that I need to amp up my caution or prepare for some backlash.
  • I learned that I utilize good storytelling devices, but don't necessarily carry those through the full piece. I have a tendency to let those devices fall away, and do not maximize their effectiveness as a result. 

That's a good amount of feedback that I can apply to my future work, and those are just the highlights!

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Yes, critique groups can be scary, but if you can find one that has some ground rules and captures a good variety of perspectives, the feedback is invaluable for you as a writer. I invite you to take the plunge and share your writing for critique. Use the tips above to get you ready for the experience, but believe that you will walk away with some fruit for your efforts.

Trust me...if I can do it, I promise you can get through it, too! 

5 Things You Should Understand About Self-Employment

I debated about whether or not I should write this post. The title and content inherently scream 'rant,' and that's truly not my jam. I don't want to eat up blog space with that sort of negative content, whining about whatever is bugging me the most in any given moment. There's plenty of that to go around already. 

But feelings aside, it is objectively true that I run into a lot of professional obstacles because people simply don't understand what it's like to be self-employed, especially as a creative. In an effort to educate, be vulnerable, and explain some of my most frequent professional and personal decisions, I created the list that follows.

From my experience as a self-employed writer and career communication coach, these are the 5 most important and misunderstood realities of self-employment. These are the the most abused characteristics of my professional life, the things I so wish I could get you to grasp in our daily interactions as friends, family members, acquaintances, or strangers. I hope that the items listed will challenge your existing perspective on self-employed professionals, and help to improve your relationships with others who share my professional status.  

5 Things You Should Understand About Self-Employment

Photo by  Laura Ockel  on  Unsplash

Photo by Laura Ockel on Unsplash

 

1. Routine is vital, especially for creative work. 

Being self-employed requires a great deal of self-discipline. I am CEO and worker bee, Marketing Director and Writer, HR Director and Finance Director. I am personally responsible for balancing every single aspect of my work, and as a result, I wear a bunch of different--and competing--hats on a daily basis.

On top of that, creative work has its own set of rules, and there are unique challenges that come along with it. The capacity for creative work comes from a different internal space than more straightforward tasks like running data in a spreadsheet, or drafting emails. The effort to produce creative work requires a crap-ton of intellectual and emotional fuel, especially at the beginning of a writing session. This was earth-shattering for me at the beginning of my writing journey. I was totally caught off-guard by the fact that creative work takes so much fuel. 

Both of these issues--multiple hats and the nature of creative energy--are most easily managed by a consistent daily routine. I work from home, and am surrounded by my personal to-do list every time I get up to use the restroom or get a snack from the kitchen. I see errands that need to be run, and laundry that needs to be washed. Routine keeps me focused, productive, and more empowered to separate my professional and personal responsibilities. 

When I wake up, I put on my CEO hat and tackle strategy for big-bucket priorities. For the next couple of hours, I put on my Consultant hat, making sure my clients' needs are met with excellence. If client work is slow, I put on my Marketing Director hat to develop communication plans, blog about my services, and share success stories. I do what I can to identify new clients, and reach out to new people whom I believe I can provide a meaningful service for.

After lunch, every single day, I put on my Writer hat. As much as I want to fight it because the work is challenging and vulnerable, I sit my butt in my office chair and make myself write. And at that time, every day, by body recognizes that it's time to write. The creative mind 'wakes up' and responds naturally. When I start writing at the same time every day, the hardest part is over, and the words flow freely. Some days are better than others, but the consistency of sitting down to write at the same time every day is huge. 

Disruptions that seem minor--like a doctor's appointment at 1:30 PM--are anything but minor. Trying to write at a different time of day is like trying to push a semi truck uphill, by myself. The next day, when I have no disruptions, my body is not in its usual rhythm. It requires a great deal more effort to get the creative wheels turning, to 'reset the machine,' so to speak. 

That effect is multiplied for larger routine disruptions like vacations. Being away for several days creates an avalanche of mental clutter that I have to clear out upon my return. On top of the time spent away from my desk, I lose a significant percentage of my returning productive time because it takes so much effort to reset the clock. It's true that commitments like doctor's appointments and vacations are inherently good things--of course they are! But that doesn't change the impact that these appointments have, so it is absolutely fair to name them as disruptions for my professional routine. 

2. Professional self-worth is a constant challenge.

The world sends me constant messages that my work is invalid because I haven't sold a book yet, or don't make a certain amount of money each year. We'll explore that more in Item #4. But on top of that, there are little voices in my head while I serve my clients or work on my novel, whispering lies about my professional identity:

You have nothing important to say.
You aren't really helping anyone.

You will never finish this book.
You have no idea what you're doing.
Nobody will ever buy this.
You are a terrible writer.
You are wasting your time. 

This is daily, people. Independent of anything you might say or do, I am already doubting my own professional self-worth. I have to fight the lies every day, and remind myself that the work I'm doing has a significant impact on the people I serve. I have to remind myself that writing touches lives in a way that is beautiful, and profoundly mysterious. It is a constant, uphill battle.  

As hard as it is to admit, your requests for me to ditch work for a few hours, or hop on an airplane and leave for a few days aren't helping. These requests imply, however unintentionally, that my job isn't a real job, and that it isn't as valid or valuable as someone else's. I can pick up and leave whenever I want. Yes, it is technically true that there is flexibility in my situation. But is it right to stop working whenever I want, just because I technically can? Isn't it good to pursue work that matters, to commit myself professionally, to hold myself to a certain number of work days each year like everyone else? 

This leads me right into my third point. 

3. I am at the top of everyone's daytime help list.

This is absolutely the hardest point for me to share with you, because I don't want you to get the wrong idea. I WANT TO HELP! I hope you'll keep that in mind as I explain.

I get a constant stream of completely legitimate requests for my time, ranging from a couple of hours to a full day. I am at the top of everyone's list, because I am flexible, technically available most of the time, and I don't have young children at home.

These requests span a variety of needs:

  • Babysitting
  • Rides to the airport
  • Hanging out at your house to meet contractors or deliveries
  • Dropping you off at the auto shop, then taking you home, then bringing you back later
  • Providing emotional support on a hard day

Well-meaning friends often ask me for my time during the day, frequently for a commitment spanning half a day of work including travel time. As I mentioned above, the hardest part is that I WANT TO HELP! The requests are coming from you, after all--a friend, a loved one, someone I desire to support and serve. But I also have a job, and these requests do--however unintentionally--imply that my work is less important than your current need. Where do I draw the line? At what point do I say 'no' to protect my professional self-worth, and when do I set my work aside to serve others? 

This is a balancing act that I have yet to master. I have no idea how to get it down to a system without feeling like a selfish jerk most of the time. But for now, until I figure it out, I practice saying 'no' a lot. I say 'no' because I get too many of these requests, and I just can't manage them all. I say 'no' because routine is vital, and professional self-worth is a daily challenge. You may see a massive blank-spot in my schedule because I'm not accountable to a traditional supervisor, but that isn't the case. I'm accountable to myself, and to my work, just as much as anyone else is. My husband goes to an office every day and works his tail off so that I can stay home and do what I love. I have a responsibility to him, too, to honor his sacrifice and not waste the opportunity he gives me every day.

The best advice I can give you is to be specific--give me all of the details when you ask for my help, including the specific time range, why you need help, and what you expect of me. In the case of an emergency or extenuating circumstance, I'm more likely to say yes. But you have to tell me that's the case in order for me to know. I am not a mind reader, and I cannot meet every need that comes my way. 

Don't stop asking for help because you've read this, but don't assume I'll say yes because I work from home, either. Identify some other people to rotate through when you have a daytime, weekday need. Maybe acknowledge that my work matters, and that you realize you're asking me to give up something more than just time.

Above all, know that I care about you and your families, even when I say 'no.'

4. Success isn't measured by annual salary.

On occasion, people literally laugh when I tell them what I do. Others are more subtle in their disapproval and skepticism. I've had people follow up with, "Are you successful?" This is code for "But do you make money, and if so, how much?" I mean, think about that for a second! Imagine meeting someone at a cocktail party. You ask what she does, and she says she's an accountant. Is your follow-up going to be "Okay, but how much money do you make?" How do you think that would feel, on her end? Would you consider that approach to be polite, or respectful of her as a professional?

I know that many people don't understand the reality of creative work, or the value of it at all. I understand that many people are accustomed to working a 9-5, getting a regular paycheck with benefits, and having a certain number of PTO days. Everything is neat, orderly, and data-centric. My work is admittedly different, but that does not make it less valuable. There is no valid reason to be suspicious or disapproving of my profession as a creative. 

It all comes down to how we, as a culture, define and measure success. If you measure success by your paycheck, I'm so, so sorry. That is a narrow, shallow definition of success that leaves your professional self-worth and success dependent on the economic success of your employer. Instead, I try to define success more broadly--by the impact that I have on individual lives with my clients, and the future impact of the stories I write. I measure hours, effort, client satisfaction, and words on the page. 

You may not believe me to be successful--fair enough. But I would ask that you consider why you feel that way. What is it that makes you so determined to measure someone's professional value in dollar signs? What truths do you believe about yourself, about the people around you? I invite you to explore your own perception of identity, and at the very least, to assume the best when you do not understand someone else's job. Ask questions, and be curious. 

5. My work is just as challenging as yours, every day. 

Though the schedule and individual components are radically different, self-employment is just as challenging as a 9-5. These challenges are consistently present, and they are 100% real. 

Here's a quick summary of my greatest professional challenges, with some reiterations of the points above:

Self-Discipline
Doing my job every day, even though nobody is making me do it. When I'm tired, getting up early with no external accountability or appointments. Putting words on the page every day, even though I might never sell a book. 

Boundaries
Saying 'no' to laundry and errands, and 'yes' to my work. Sticking to a schedule, because my work is valuable. Saying 'no' to friends during the day, because eventually I have to get something done. Working a full day, even if my husband comes home early from work.

Isolation
Being alone most of the time, especially during the winter. Managing Seasonal Affective Disorder with the realities of working from home. Finding ways to be social and counter loneliness, without dramatically sacrificing my work time. 

Creative Energy
Understanding the realities of creative work, and how that energy is best fostered. Giving my creative mind what it needs in order to succeed. Being satisfied with 3 hours of creative work, because it takes a lot of fuel to make it happen. Balancing the reality of creativity with my desire to get a project done. Being patient as I learn to understand my creative self.

Self-Worth
Refusing to believe that I am defined by dollar signs. Daily affirming that my work is valuable, no matter what the world says. Charging a fair rate for my coaching services, and having the guts to charge friends or family members. 

Inconsistent Work Flow
Managing busy seasons of multiple clients, and adjusting to slower seasons. Identifying new clients, and maintaining a routine despite seasonal fluctuations. Setting goals when I can't predict how many clients I'll actually have. Budgeting for an unknown amount of work. 

This is not an exhaustive list, of course. There are challenges I'm not even aware of, or items I've forgotten to mention. The point isn't the specifics of each challenge, even--it's the fact that these challenges exist, and that they are significant. I'm not lazy, and I'm not sitting at home every day watching Netflix, even though I'm regularly tempted and able to do so. 

My work is not a playground. Yes, my work is fun, and I love what I do! But it's still work, and it's still broken, just like more traditional jobs. 

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I hope these points are illuminating for you. I hope you learned something, and that you came away with an understanding of self-employment that you didn't have previously. That said, this is absolutely not universally applicable to every self-employed person in the world! Don't assume that my perspective is the same as someone's else's. Instead, ask questions, get to know your self-employed friends, and challenge your own assumptions about their work.

Above all, let your self-employed friends--especially the creatives--know how much you value their work. Remind them know that their work matters, and that it's freaking awesome that they get to pursue something like fiction, photography, or dance. We need to hear it. We need to know that there are people out there who don't think we're foolish dreamers, wasting time and wasting space. 

We need people who are willing to read this blog post all the way through, who care enough to ask questions. Thanks for making it this far, my friend! If you have any follow-up thoughts or concerns, let me know in the comments below, or reach out directly

The Freedom to Choose

The holidays always prove to be a busy season, and this year is no exception thus far. After returning from our river cruise in Europe, I was sick for more than a week. Then we traveled to Indy for Thanksgiving, and I got to enjoy a week-long visit with my family. I came back home feeling well-fed, rested, energized, and ready to work.

Unfortunately, while I was away, I came to an unsettling realization about my current work-in-progress: I had to start over. Yes, all the way over. 

Writing the project had been challenging, more so than I expected, especially the further that I went into the story. While I was away, I realized the problem: my main character was too far removed from the action of the story. My current project is a love letter of sorts to Jim Butcher and The Dresden Files, but I wrote my own main character to be a reporter--not a magician, like Harry Dresden. As a result, the pace felt slow, and I found it difficult to get my heroine believably engaged in the action of the story. 

Reluctantly, I sat down on Tuesday afternoon and made a pros/cons list about starting over. The pro side won overwhelmingly, and I started a draft of a new Chapter 1. Fortunately, the writing has been quick and smooth as a result, and I seem to have accurately identified the problem. But I had to step back and make that decision in order to move forward.

Working from home and being my own boss creates a stream of decisions that I have to make, choices that guide my day, and determine the fruit of my efforts:

When my alarm goes off at 6:20 AM and I technically have no appointments to be up for, will I dismiss the alarm, or get my butt out of bed on time? 

When I do eventually get my butt out of bed, how will I start my day? Will I immediately check the news, which almost always puts my in a sour mood? Will I make myself a hot mug of tea, eat a good breakfast, and do a little morning yoga to wake up my body and mind gently? 

Will I prioritize time with God and the Word so that I am firmly planted in the truth of the gospel, and my identity as a daughter of the King? Or will I rush into my to-do list, frantically trying to tick as many boxes as I can before I have to be in the writing chair at 1:30 PM? 

When I get moving, will I let the dirty dishes, dusty floors, errands, or home improvement projects take priority over my own work? Will I choose to value myself professionally, to value the words that I write, or flee to the immediate gratification of more immediately 'productive' activities?

When I set the new window treatments down in the kitchen, break something, strip the screw for the mounting hardware and subsequently cry all over the clean dishes in the right side of the sink, how will I respond? Will I acknowledge the choices that led me to this moment, and the choices I'm actively making in my response? 

Will I step back, breathe, smile in the knowledge of grace and an eternity in heaven, and thank God that I don't have to have a perfect day, a perfect home, or a perfect manuscript?

When I make the wrong choices and do all the wrong items on my list, will I decide to actively redirect my day and get my butt into the writing chair anyway?

Yesterday was a bad day. It was bad all the way through the kitchen incident where I broke a food storage container, and cried on the clean dishes. It took me all the way until 3:35 PM to take a deep breath, and take a hard look at the day I'd just lived out:

I didn't set myself up for success in the morning.
I made some unfortunate choices about how to spend my time, and ran around like a basket case trying to get things done.
I didn't eat enough food, the rookiest move of all. Hangry people are never happy people.
After several spectacular failures, I still decided to pursue another house project involving power tools and balance, in a storm of raging emotions.

But at 3:35 PM, I made a choice to step back and slow down. I put the power tools away and opened my Bible. I focused my sights on heaven, and got an appropriate and accurate perspective on my life. I reminded myself of the magnificent, mysterious blessing of grace. Because God showed me how, I forgave myself.

I chose to have a better day.

 When life gets frustrating or chaotic, it's so easy to sit back, scream at the heavens, and forget how much control we have in our own circumstances. There is freedom in the decisions that we are able to make for ourselves each day. Even if I make those choices imperfectly, I still have the ability to choose. 

The holidays seem like an ideal time of year to remember that. I can choose to focus on the right messages this season. I can choose family and relationship over busy-ness and material junk. I can choose to do my work, even when it feels like I should be doing a million other items on my list instead. 

And I can choose to have a good day. I invite you to do the same, my friends. 

Measuring Progress: Thoughts on Effective Goal-Setting

'Type A' is a little bit of an understatement for me.

My Passion Planner—a gift from my intuitive, thoughtful friend Rachel—is a goal-tracker’s playground. There is enough structure to get you focused and to encourage reflection, but there’s also enough blank space to make it your own and have some room to play. It's one of my go-to tools for goal-setting and progress-tracking, another being the Gleeo Time Tracker app. 

At the beginning of every month, I dedicate some time to reflect and project; I review my progress on goals from the previous month, and then set my goals for the next month, breaking the larger goals into weekly segments. I feel like I’m constantly re-evaluating these goals; at first, an approach seems like it will work, but in practice something about the goal is off, and I end up tweaking something for the following month. 

Honestly, it’s a little annoying. But I also believe this is a process worth digging into. 

Here’s why:

When setting and tracking goals, we get the most accurate picture of our progress when we’re measuring the correct goals with the appropriate units.

Let’s use my previous goals as an example. For July, I set the following targets:

  • Read 3 books
  • Write 20,000 words for my work-in-progress first draft
  • Write and share 1 blog post per week

At first glance, this is a perfectly reasonable list of goals. As a writer, I should definitely be reading and writing; these tasks are my bread and butter. Blog posts are also a logical step for developing my business while simultaneously getting some additional writing practice.

It all sounds good, right? But in practice, these goals were not working at all. Why? What got in the way? 

As I took a closer look, the major issues related to my goal-setting fell into the following categories: the motivation behind each goal, distinguishing action items from goals, and measuring success appropriately and accurately. Let’s break these down individually.

Goal Motivation

Why? Why is the tool with which we determine goal motivation. 

Reading is important to me; I want to be consistently absorbing the work of other writers, learning from their techniques and developing my vocabulary and writing toolbox. I chose the goal of at least 3 books per month because that would allow me to more-or-less reach my reading goal for the year: 40 books. 

Here’s the rub: establishing a reading goal measured by the number of books completely fails to support my motivation for reading! The goal that I set encourages me to read for speed over depth, to select shorter books, and to read without really dedicating much time to unearthing the nuggets of wisdom in the text. 

So how can I repair the issue? I go back to my original motivation for wanting to read regularly: to develop my own writing abilities, and improve my vocabulary.

When examined in this light, my truest, most motivation-aligned writing goals would be to 1) read the right books and 2) read them slowly, with space to take notes and absorb the information.

KABOOM. All of a sudden, my title-hungry reading goal has no business sticking around. With a clear purpose at the forefront of my planning, the goal becomes reading the right books, and reading them well. Is this goal still measurable? Sure! All I need is a list of books worth reading, and consistent time spent reading them with intention. 

One might even go so far as to argue in favor of the following effort: Spend as many hours reading a good book as possible. 

Goals vs. Action Items

Oh, reading...you sneaky little fiend.

Guess what? Reading isn't one of my goals at all -- it is an action item. By incorrectly viewing it as a goal, I lost on two fronts: 1) reading received more priority and weight than it deserved, and 2) the actual goal that reading is related to was distorted and did not receive an appropriate amount of attention and effort. 

Try this exercise that helped me get my goals and tasks in order. 

Make a chart with three columns, or whatever organization works for you. In one space, list all of the professional goals you want to achieve. Don't worry about being specific or giving a timeline for the goal just yet -- really dig deep and lean into the heart of what you want to do. 

To make sure that you're really listing goals, ask yourself WHY you want to do each item on your list. If there is an answer to that question, the answer is probably your goal. If your response is "Because that's what I want to do," you've probably arrived at an actual goal.

Here is my version:

Core Goals

  • Serve my existing clients with excellence, meeting their needs efficiently and effectively.
  • Practice and become a better writer.
  • Serve more people via career communication services.
  • Complete my current work-in-progress trilogy.

Now, in the next space, translate these general goals into SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Time-Bound versions of what you've listed on the left.

This is where things get interesting.

Core Goals

  • Serve my existing clients with excellence, meeting their needs efficiently and effectively.
     
  • Practice and become a better writer.



 

  • Serve more people via career communication services.


     
  • Complete my current work-in-progress trilogy.

SMART Goals

  • Effectively prioritize any existing client to-do items over other tasks on my list. When client-related work arises, address it ASAP.
  • Average 3 daily hours of writing time, not including blogging. Read something of high-quality, daily. Spend at least 1/3 of my writing time "playing," writing outside of my work-in-progress.
  • Identify 3 referrals or new clients every month through network conversations, web-based content, webinars/workshops, or other outreach efforts. 
  • Finish the first draft of Book One by the end of November. 

It was SUPER tempting to put action/task items into the SMART Goal column. For example: blog weekly. I had to add and delete "blog weekly" from the SMART Goal column next to "Serve new people" more than once during this exercise. Why? Because blogging weekly isn't my goal. Finding new people to serve via communication services is the goal--my goal is to identify new clients or referrals. People I can serve is the unit I'm measuring...not blog posts. Blog posts are just a task that I will schedule that will actually support 2 of my SMART Goals: becoming a better writer, and identifying new people to serve. 

Closely examine your lists, verifying the connection between Core Goals and SMART Goals, and ensure that no action items have snuck their way in.

Got it? Okay--now you actually get to translate goals into action items. Time for Column 3:

Core Goals

  • Serve my existing clients with excellence, meeting their needs efficiently and effectively.
     
  • Practice and become a better writer.






 

  • Serve more people via career communication services.






     
  • Complete my current work-in-progress trilogy.

SMART Goals

  • Daily prioritize any existing client to-do items over other tasks on my list. When client-related work arises, address it ASAP.
  • Average 3 daily hours of writing time, not including blogging. Read something of high-quality, daily. Spend at least 1/3 of my writing time "playing," writing outside of my work-in-progress.
  • Identify 3 referrals or new clients every month through network, web-based content, webinars/workshops, or other outreach efforts. 



     
  • Finish the first draft of Book One by the end of November. 

Action Items

  • Block client-specific time into the first two hours of my schedule, daily. Create daily to-do lists and ensure client priority.
  • Schedule 3 daily hours of writing time each afternoon. Identify writing prompts or "play" topics. Log writing time in Gleeo.


     
  • Make a list of people to speak to and get in touch. Blog weekly, cycling in career communications content. Plan, promote, and execute free webinars. Offer free workshop for job seekers.
  • Add to the draft daily, resisting the temptation to edit yesterday's work -- use comments in Scrivener instead to make notes for future edits. 

Neat, huh? Suddenly, we are left with a thorough breakdown of SMART goals with corresponding, ready-to-go action items. It's super tempting to drop this blog post right here and get all of this incorporated into my Google calendar and planner; in the name of productivity and follow-through, I will resist!

Measuring Success

The last hiccup that I identified in my goal-setting was that I wrote my goals in such a way that I was measuring the wrong thing, or at least measuring inaccurately. Let's look at writing as an example.

My July writing goal was 20,000 words for my work-in-progress draft. As I began writing and editing, I realized that I was being cheated in my progress tracking--often, I came in and started working from a mid-way point in the text I wrote the previous day. Because I'm human, I found sections or words that I didn't care for at all, deleted them, and re-wrote them. But because I was measuring the amount of words added to my draft that day, I didn't get any "credit" for the work that I did on top of existing text. 

Writing isn't easy, folks. Don't make it worse by minimizing what you've managed to achieve.

There are a couple of ways to solve this particular problem. One option would be to completely refuse to edit any of yesterday's work, and only move forward in the draft. For me, that just isn't feasible. For the sake of continuity and sanity, I have to be allowed to back up and overlap my efforts each day.

So in my case, the answer is to stop measuring words and start measuring time. After all, writing is not all about typing out words -- thinking, staring into space, visualizing a scene, having out-loud imaginary conversations with your characters, Googling facial expressions as visual aids, and various other insane strategies that we utilize as writers do not get included in your progress when you only measure word count. What is the one thing that all of these tasks have in common that is measurable?

The time that I spend working. Voila. If I measure time, I measure success.

Friends, I hope that this reflection is helpful for you today. If we know what our target is, we can identify what actions we need to take to aim appropriately; ready, aim, fire.

Now all that's left is to get moving! 

Recent Read - Mistborn Trilogy

Somehow, in the midst of preparing for our move (9 days away--eek!), I managed to keep reading. Perhaps it was a sweet, sacred hideaway from the moving chaos. However this miracle came about, I managed to read the Mistborn Trilogy this month, and have some pretty strong mixed feelings about it.

If you're unfamiliar, the Mistborn Trilogy is a fantasy series by Brandon Sanderson composed of three books: The Final Empire, The Well of Ascension, and The Hero of Ages. He later bridged this series with a second trilogy set, all staged in the same world, but at a later point in time. I have yet to read the second trilogy. 

WARNING: My "Recent Read" posts generally do NOT contain spoilers--just general impressions and takeaways. From this point forward, I begin discussing specific plot elements for the entirety of the first Mistborn trilogy. DO NOT CONTINUE if you are trying to avoid spoilers! If you'd like to read my general impressions without spoilers, scroll to the bottom and look for the Summary. 

Now that I've covered my bases and nobody can yell at me for ruining their reading experience...let me be clear. I am a Sanderson fan. If you hop over to the For Writers portion of my website, you'll notice multiple resources that are provided by Brandon and/or his writing group. He is an incredible fantasy writer, and a phenomenal instructor. The Stormlight Archives (thus far) are masterful and delightful to read, and those along are evidence of his skill as a writer.

Despite all of that, no author is perfect, and I had a mixed experience reading The Mistborn Trilogy. 

Pros: If there's one thing that Sanderson does consistently well, it's magic systems. Mistborn is no exception: the magic systems are complex, restricted by rules, original, and downright cool. I particularly love his ability to tie magic systems into the setting, a trend that I first observed in The Stormlight Archives, and definitely saw parallels to in Mistborn. The result is a personified setting...the world becomes a character at the forefront of the story as much as the characters themselves.

In addition, Sanderson is skilled at balancing a diverse crew of characters. There are multiple perspectives represented, and various characters to root for. In the early stages of reading this series, I was pleased to see Vin, a female character at the forefront of the story, and arguably the heroine of the series. While the kick-butt ninja assassin female trend is not my favorite way to make women strong in fiction, Vin is a total badass, without a doubt. 

Con #1: Pacing. This hinges on preference in part, but for me, the pacing of the series was way off. My husband Andrew loves to say that Sanderson writes at a super slow pace until the last 10% or so of the book/series, and then he sprints to the finish. There's nothing in between.

While I agree partially with Andrew's assessment, I think it's a little more complex than that. There is definitely action speckled throughout each book, but there are 2 major issues that slow it down:

  1. The action is described extremely slowly and specifically. Sanderson writes action for slow-motion cinema--he wants you to know where every punch lands, and every fighter spins. It makes action feel slower than it should and robs those moments of urgency.
  2. An inordinate amount of time is spent rehashing information we already know, or drawn-out, redundant naval gazing. I nearly threw the 3rd book across the room every time I came to one of Sazed's chapters. Yes, he was in a period of depression and wrestling with his own concept of faith. But he pretty much just STAYS there, for the 90% of the book. Meanwhile, action that you're itching to get to as a reader in other perspectives is delayed, slowing the pacing. 

It's completely possible that these pacing choices were made intentionally, but I didn't care for them at all.

Con #2: Twists for the sake of twists. I shudder to think how many twists were revealed in this text. When done correctly, they feel surprising and energizing. But the sheer number of them feels inauthentic and contrived. Many of them left me feeling suspicious of the story's logic, and the believability of the world. For me, the twists in this series were like an over-salted dish: a little goes a long way.

Con #3: The major pain-point that I have with Mistborn is about promises and characterization.

Reading a character like Vin is a triumphant victory as a woman reading a fantasy book, particularly one written by a man. I was so stoked and energized to read Vin's arc, and to get to her promised victory. 

When I finished the book, I was crying out of pure anger. My anger stemmed from the specific experience of reading this trilogy as a woman. Here are the issues:

  • In the crux of the big finale, Vin--having ascended to godhood with the power of Preservation--tells her counterpart Ruin that having lost Elend, she has nothing else to live for. What a missed opportunity to show that the strength and value of a woman is not dependent upon her significant other! Her subsequent sacrifice is minimized as a result, a Juliet-esque act of hopelessness instead of the selfless act to save her surviving comrades.
  • Vin's role is further minimized by Sazed's ascension to godhood, and he robs the reader of Vin's anticipated victory. Vin's sacrifice was only "step 1" in the save-the-world plan: Sazed finishes it with flair, owning the transformation and restoration of the entire planet, as well as the book's final words of wisdom to the survivors. 
  • The only major female character in this series is Vin -- Sanderson kills her, and minimizes her sacrifice. The other prominent female character Tindwyl is killed in battle in book 2, and establishes more in Sazed's story than in her own. Surviving female character Allrianne is annoying at best, and mostly forgettable. Ergo: no women of any demonstrated value or significance survive this series, while scads of men do.

So, this was a dissatisfying read for me, and one that left me feeling slighted as a reader. That being said, it is one of Sanderson's earlier works, and he has clearly grown in a lot of these "Con" areas since writing Mistborn

If you're a man, kudos for even reading this far. I'm guessing that your experience with Mistborn was largely different than mine, and it's awesome that you took the time to read and consider a female perspective.

If you're a woman and totally disagree, that's great too! Part of the beauty of creative work is the diverse responses, and the unique ways in which each piece speaks to our individual souls. Honestly, I'm vicariously glad that you didn't angry-cry at the end of this trilogy.

SUMMARY

I had a mixed experience reading the Mistborn trilogy. As always, Sanderson is a master of fascinating magic systems and writing from multiple character perspectives. But the pacing was disruptive, and made an otherwise interesting story feel painfully slow. Additionally, the promises related to some main characters were not fulfilled as expected, and left me feeling slighted, particularly as a woman. Regardless, I recommend reading the Mistorn trilogy (and all of Sanderson's published works) for a good study in multiple perspectives, magic systems, and world-building. 

Path to Writing

Looking back, I find it completely hilarious that I never saw writing coming. It has been sneaking up on me for years, and in my typical unobservant fashion, I had no idea. Completely, 100% oblivious.

Growing up, I was absolutely a reader. I devoured scads of books in record time. Late into the night, my parents would often find me on my bedroom floor with a box of Club crackers, a package of pepperoni, and my nose in a book. I couldn’t stop, and quite frankly, I didn’t want to. I read through meals, and periodically in the car on longer road trips, though it made me nauseous to do so.

Specifically, I was a delighted reader of fantasy. I was a proud member of the blessed generation that was the same age as Harry with each book release. Hermione was my homegirl...she understood me. At every opportunity, I hungered to be whisked away to another world, more magnificent and adventurous than my own.

I wept and rejoiced with my fictional friends, but never really thought of creating fictional stories myself. There was a brief period where I snuck my parents’ typewriter into my room and made up some two-page stories. The feel and sound of the keys was divine, but I struggled to come up with content. Frequently, I ended up with an unfinished and unsatisfying tale about an encounter with a cute boy at summer camp.

My first journal entry is dated October 12, 1998, which puts me around 10 years old. The diary itself is about 4”x4”, glossy white covered with rainbow colored hearts, and capped with a little gold lock and release button. I handle it with fondness even now, though the content is absurd. And I always hated the word ‘diary’ -- it was too frilly for my purposes. I took journaling very seriously. Which is pretty ironic, considering the rainbow hearts.

I have upwards of 20 journals spanning 1998-2016. Though the habit has died out a bit, writing has never ceased to be a cathartic and necessary part of my life. The format and content have gone through countless iterations: Xanga poems about middle school crushes; a blog about the challenges of being 15; notebooks full of song lyrics; another blog about restaurant and recipe critiques; thoughts on my experiences, fears, pain, joy, dating life, trauma, disappointments, and spirituality.

But all of this was happening in patches of spare time, while I focused on the “really important stuff.” I got a bachelor’s degree in music after studying to be a high school choir teacher for 3.25 years…a terrible, hilariously ill-suited career choice. Graduating with honors, finding Mr. Right, and figuring out how to pay my bills were my absolute top priorities.

Then came depression, hopelessness, and a bittersweet end-of-the-rope experience that led me to Jesus. I won’t tell that story today. I doubt that I’ll ever be able to do it justice when I do.

Even then, armed with a better foundation for my identity and purpose, I flailed when it came to career direction. In the five year period following my undergrad studies, I held the following positions, most of them full-time:

  • Assistant Manager at a rock climbing gym
  • Sales Specialist at Apple
  • Executive Assistant to the General Director at an opera company
  • Admission Counselor at my alma mater
  • Director of Operations at a non-denominational church
  • Search Associate for an executive search and strategic planning consultant company

From 2014-2016, I had four separate careers. When I say that I “flailed” professionally, I am not exaggerating. I had no idea what I was meant to do with myself. I have always excelled in the broad base of skills one needs to succeed in the 9-5 world. My performance reviews were always sky high, yet I felt like a prisoner every time I tried to make that sort of traditional career “fit”. I took every career and personality assessment on the market, and time and time again, the professional involved would say, “Hannah, you just won’t be content until you work for yourself, or have a significant amount of freedom.”

“That’s super!” said Hannah at 23. “But I have bills to pay. So I’m keeping my 9-5 in the nonprofit sector because I can get behind the cause. I’m working toward something meaningful. I’ll be just fine.”

I was never fine. I lied to myself over and over again, and was bored out of my mind. I cried in the bathroom at work and wondered what was wrong with me. Why couldn’t I just suck it up and do my job like everyone else seemed to be doing?

I got engaged to my best friend and the best man I know in December 2014. I made a transition to working for the church, and he was also pursuing work in full-time ministry. I was elated. We were on an energizing, joyful path, and I couldn’t be happier.

That season leading up to our engagement was the closest I had ever come to professional contentment. When I was working for the church, I had a lot of flexibility in my schedule, I was treated as an equal even with my lack of experience, and I was surrounded by wonderful people. True to God’s nature, though, he had better plans. So havoc wrecked my world for the next 18 months.

In the time leading up to and following our wedding and honeymoon in September 2015, all hell broke loose. I am not exaggerating. One church leader called it “the perfect storm of awful communication, timing, and circumstances,” among other things. We have many colorful names for that particular season of life.

I lost my roommate and was having anxiety attacks. As a result, I moved once, and then again after six weeks. An important relationship in my life turned destructive, and I endured months of manipulation and psychological abuse. As a result, I was later diagnosed with complex PTSD. With no alternative employment, I left my job at the church, and Andrew left seminary to pursue his original line of work in the business world. We had no income. I quickly took on a job to pay the bills, but my PTSD symptoms made it impossible for me to continue on in that position. It just wasn’t the right fit, and I wasn’t ready to work. Full of shame and self-defeat, I resigned after four months. Andrew’s job search continued for an additional four months.

Needless to say, it was an exhausting season. There was a lot of crying, and a lot of Netflix. And fortunately, there was a lot of support and encouragement from our wonderful family and friends. Perhaps most fortunately, our marriage survived the madness. We joked often about writing a marriage book years from now, based on the absurdity of our first year and what we learned from it. Perhaps we’ll do that, someday.

In addition to vegging and binging our favorite TV shows, there was also a lot of reading in that season. The local library was suddenly a paradise of entertainment as a household with no income. I think I read the entire Dresden Files series in something like four weeks. We read the existing Way of Kings books, and many, many others.

On September 2, 2016, we sat on a picnic blanket in Lafayette Square watching one of the annual Gateway Cup cycling races. (Bless you St. Louis, and your abundant, free events!) It was a beautiful evening, and we were having a lovely date night. Andrew was quiet, as he often is, and then mused, “What would you write about if you could write a fantasy story? What would your magic look like?”  

It would be dramatic and wonderful if my response had been “Eureka! That’s it!”, but it really was more of a slow realization. A revelation that became more exposed by the millimeter, melting warmth and light over my life like a sunrise.

Our conversation continued for the rest of the evening, considering possible systems of magic, character backgrounds, possible underlying themes. And the conversation hasn’t really stopped since.

I’ve never been so thoroughly and pervasively eager to make something a reality. I bought a notebook 3 days after our date, and went to the library more times in those first few months than in the previous 5 years combined. As I always have, I devoured books on writing speculative fiction, and a number of prominent books in the field of fantasy and science fiction. I created my first system of magic for my first project, axed that system, and replaced it with a better one.

I spent 3 months brainstorming, researching, developing characters, and outlining plot. Then I wrote my First 350 Words. The project continued to grow into something surprising and wonderful, and it was a delight to wake up and make a story unfold every day. I finished my first draft of my first book on March 15, about 6 months after that first lightbulb moment. Subsequent (and more marketable) projects have developed since, which I continue to pursue daily, and I love it.

Not to say that it isn’t daunting. It’s daunting as hell. Initially, the writing process was literally just thousands and thousands of questions:

Who is my heroine? How old is she? What does she look like? What are her relationships like? How does she view herself?

Well, that depends…

Where does she live? What is her culture’s world view? What is the landscape like? What resources do they have? How does that affect trade? Is her region part of a larger world? Where is this world? Does it follow the rules of Earth?

What does magic do in this world? What can it do? What can it not do? How is it limited? What happens if you try to use it the wrong way? What fuels it? What is its origin? Has it existed in time before this story? Who can use it? How do they learn to use it? How do non-magical people respond to it?


And on, and on, and on, and on, and on it goes.

So yes, it’s daunting. And normally the lazy person in me would throw up her hands and say “Ugh, whatever! I’m taking a nap.” But I can’t get enough of the writing process. It feels as if the words are a part of my flesh… a subconscious biological process like breathing, and my body doesn’t consider stopping.

Thanks to these moments along my journey, I can say that I’m here today. I’m an author; I’m a writer. I haven’t been published, but I thrive on writing. I embrace the thrilling opportunity to craft a reader’s experience through fictional stories. I hope to have the opportunity to share those stories with you someday.

Do something you love today, friends. And whatever that may be, embrace the experience as the extraordinary gift that it is.