What if by this time tomorrow, you were dead? (I’m not being glum — just honing in on your goal-setting.) If you could look back on what you’ve written, would you know what you’re about? Could you sequence a few words into a sentence and say, “I wanted my writing to do X?” Could you define your life goal as a writer?
It’s important to know the end from the beginning, to set your motives before you get to your means. But we can all too easily ignore these things when we’re rushing to craft a message.
Why not take a moment, right now? Before you plan your next piece, try to fill in this blank.
I want my writing to ________________.
Here’s mine: I want my writing to draw readers into the presence of God. That phrase, “the presence of God,” is always what I’m after. It’s what I’m about. If I do that with an essay, article, or book, I’ve done my best. If I don’t, I was better off not writing whatever it was. That doesn’t mean I can’t have more precise goals for a piece of writing. Certainly, you should! But that overarching goal, that life goal, is always there in the background.
If you’re having trouble filling in the blank, you don’t have to stay in the quiet country of introspection. Consider what your readers have said to you about something you’ve written. What has it done for them? Reader responses will give you a concrete sense of the effect your writing has had (though you may not anticipate their responses perfectly and may even be disappointed).
Now, what do you lose if you don’t have a life goal as a writer? Does it make any difference?
How a Life Goal Can Shape Your Writing
As I see it, there are a few ways in which your life goal as a writer profoundly shapes your writing in the long haul.
- Without a life goal, you may be wasting time. If you don’t know what you’re about as a writer, you’re probably about many things. That’s not bad at all . . . unless you haven’t thought deeply about those things. It’s taken me several years to understand what I really want my writing to do. I’ve considered the possibilities, played out scenarios of reader-effect and application, and tested out the waters. When I’m not trying to draw readers into the presence of God, I’m not at my best; I’m just dabbling in other areas that I wish I had more experience with. And that’s a waste of time.
- Without a life goal, you may struggle to shape your writing. It’s no secret that the key to great writing is re-writing or re-shaping. And that re-shaping happens with a goal in mind. You want to shape your prose according to your desired effect on readers. If you don’t know what that effect is, or if it varies all the time, you’ll be less confident (and thus less proficient) in your shaping. Historically, most artists know the shape they’re after when they start creating. And that has an obvious effect on their creative efforts, on the shaping of their medium. The same goes for writers. Ignore your shaping-giving goal, and you become less equipped to shape your own writing, and, through it, your own readers.
- Your life goal defines your legacy, but your legacy begins right now. As writers, we have to be intentional about our legacy. I don’t mean that leaving a legacy should be our priority; it shouldn’t be. But, when you think about it, a legacy is simply a string of work with common themes and values. You’re leaving a legacy already, so you might as well be intentional about it. And the thing is, legacies don’t just show up 20 years after you start writing. Legacies start right now, in the moment: with the blog post you’re writing, with the article you’re putting together, with your current book project. Legacies are built one piece of prose at a time. If you have a life goal in mind, it will help you define your legacy today, not just keep hoping for one tomorrow.
So, think about what your life goal is as a writer. I promise you this: it’s going to color your words in profound ways and help others identity what you’re about.