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Joshua Reynolds, Colonel Acland and Lord Sydney: The Archers
Defining Your Own Success

Dec 15, 2021

What do you want to achieve as writer? Your reasons for writing in the first place are what got you started, but success is what keeps you going. Success can—and should—mean different things to different people; what I class as success as a writer will likely be very different to your own definition. But what is your definition?

Ask most writers what success looks like to them and the most popular responses are usually: finishing something, getting published, seeing my book on the shelf, or becoming a full-time writer. Whilst these are sensible and valid directions, they are not destinations. Whatever your answer to the same question might be, consider this: How will you know when you have achieved it? What, in fact, are you talking about, specifically?

A goal is more than just a vague idea of where you are headed, but instead is a fixed destination that you must reach in order to succeed. A goal should be a clearly-defined point of achievement. When setting your own goal for success, ensure that it is both definite and quantifiable; it needs strict parameters and, when queried, should result in a yes/no response.

Finishing Something

What exactly are you attempting to finish? If it is a novel, which novel—the one you are writing now, or another yet to be written, or one you have half-finished and put away? How many words will it be, to the nearest ten-thousand? If it is a short story, again which one? Is it a poetry collection? How many poems are you planning on including, to the nearest ten? For any or all of those, are you just aiming to complete a first draft, or several redrafts? Are you planning on giving it to others to read and critique? Are you aiming to just get to the end of the last page, or do you want to create the best thing you possibly can by yourself, or even with help from those around you? Identify what finished means and then you can set your goal effectively.

Getting Published

There are two parts to this. Firstly, what do you want published? Is it a book-length piece or a single-sitting piece (such as a short story, article, or poem), or something in between? Secondly, where do you want it published? For a book, are you looking for print or just ebook? If it is a shorter work, are you looking for print—such as a magazine or newspaper—or online? Do you want to publish it yourself or would you prefer to be published by a publisher, in which case is it a small, medium, large, or even Big Five publisher? Are you aiming for anywhere that will take it, or do you have a clear idea of the type of thing you want? Would you like input on the font, the cover or associated images, the layout, or are you happy to trust professionals who do this as their job? How much of the market share are you aiming for, and which territories? Work out exactly what you want published and where, and then you will be able to state your goal.

Seeing My Book on a Shelf

I have one question: which shelf? If you mean your shelf at home, then theoretically you just need to finish it and print it out yourself. If you mean as a book, then you could just upload it to a self-publishing platform and order one print-on-demand copy for yourself. If, however, you mean a shelf in a bookshop, you then need to consider which one. An independent bookshop may well stock your book if you self-publish—if you ask them nicely—or if it is put out by a small independent publisher. The larger the publisher, the larger the reach. If you want to see it on a shelf in Waterstones, or in your local supermarket, then you are going to need a bigger publisher. Define the shelf, and then this goal becomes much like one of the two previous ones.

Becoming a Full-Time Writer

Working full-time on something does not mean getting paid for it, but that is usually what people mean. How much would you need coming in to be able to give up your current job, your security, and your long-term future? Once you have set an amount you need to make each week/month/year, how are you going to earn it? Book sales are not a guaranteed income, and writing articles or selling short stories or poetry will not likely pay the bills unless you get very lucky, as the few markets that do pay generally offer small amounts, so what else can you do to make money? Could you run workshops? Would you like to spend a large portion of your time marketing? Most full-time writers do not write full-time unless they have the luxury of an alternative income or savings they can manage on. Even then, it is not a long-term plan, and eventually you will have to come up with a way of generating an income. Can you hustle and, at times, live on a lower budget than you are accustomed to? Work out what you actually mean and then clearly set out your boundaries, including whether you want to just quit work, or if you want to have been a full-time writer for a year and proven to yourself you can do it.

These are just the four most common answers I have heard from asking writers I know, and your response may be very different. More importantly, your response may already be definite and quantifiable, in which case: carry on and make it happen. If, however, your answer does not have a clearly-defined point of achievement, then perhaps you need to reconsider what you are aiming for.

Setting a solid goal helps focus the mind and will allow you to develop a strategy to achieve it. Once you know where you are going, you can work out how to get there, and then you can enjoy the journey.

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