Freelance Writing Goals - Why You Need Them and How to Reach Them

It happened. Again. I opened my feed reader this morning and saw yet another blog post telling readers to stop making goals and resolutions for the New Year. This one happened to be about health-related goals, though I’ve seen plenty specific to freelance writing goals too. But guess what…

This is terrible advice for freelance writers.

I get where it comes from. When you don’t reach your freelance writing goals, it can be disappointing. It can be downright discouraging.

But that’s not a good enough reason to stop setting goals. Freelance writing is not a hobby. It’s a lifestyle… it’s your livelihood… but it’s also your business.

Some bloggers give this advice because they’ve been discouraged themselves, and they figure there must be others in the same state. It’s about comfort and camaraderie. But it’s neither practical nor responsible, especially putting this on others newer than you.

Others do it just to be contrary because they think giving this kind of advice makes them edgy. It doesn’t. Stale (and bad) advice is never edgy. They’re just hoping you’re new enough that you haven’t heard it yet.

Here’s the issue though. Failing to meet your goals is A) your fault, not that of goal-setting, and B) “failing” is not inherently a bad thing.

So let’s talk about this – why freelance writers like you often fail to meet their goals, why goal-setting is important, and a better way to break things down to make even the biggest freelance writing goals more achievable.

Why You Keep Failing to Reach Your Freelance Writing Goals

Look. Some people are just lazy. They want X, Y, or Z, but they aren’t willing to work for it.

These are the writers who expect to earn a six-figure living doing nothing but trolling job boards or signing up for a content mill. These are the freelancers who expect clients to fall all over themselves to work with them when they haven’t even bothered to build basic visibility.

These are the “low-hanging fruit” folks.

They do what’s comfortable. They do what’s easy. And they assume that will be enough to get them where they want to go. But they fail to recognize that there’s only so much low-hanging fruit for them to pluck, and there are a lot of other writers out there reaching for the same things. These writers may be around a few years, but they either learn from their mistakes or they tend not to last long in this career.

I’m going to assume you’re not one of those writers – that you’re willing to put the work into building a foundation for a strong and sustainable career.

In that case, there are still some common reasons you might fail to reach your writing goals.

Maybe anxiety is crippling for you (I know how that can be, especially these past few years). That’s a special case, and it’s one I promise we’ll talk about in an upcoming post, probably in January.

But in most cases I’ve seen where freelance writers aren’t reaching the goals they’ve set for themselves, the problem isn’t in what they want to accomplish or a lack of overall effort. It’s more about them struggling with a system that simply doesn’t work for them. So they lose interest and don’t see plans through.

If you’re in that group, there’s a lot you can do to make the coming year different and take your freelance writing business further than perhaps you ever thought possible.

Where Freelance Writers Go Wrong with Goal-Setting

While I’d argue goal-setting in business is always the smart choice, that doesn’t mean there’s only one way to go about it. And sometimes a failure to meet goals is simply a result choosing the wrong strategy for you and how you work best.

Take me for example. I set a lot of goals. Far more than I share with you here in my yearly goal updates. I set not only a lot of goals, but lofty ones. I do so each year knowing I won’t reach all of them. I also know I’ll add to them, or some will change, as the year progresses.

This works for me because I’m not put off by failing to meet some goals. I need to set ambitious goals. The most disappointing thing that could happen to me as far as business goals go is to meet every one of them. That would mean I didn’t challenge myself enough. I didn’t push myself. For me, that’s what real failure looks like.

But that approach doesn’t work for every writer, and that’s okay.

I know colleagues who prefer to set only one big goal each year. Then they set a 3-point daily task list to inch them towards that goal (whereas I break my goals down into the ittiest bittiest action steps possible, so my task lists can become massive).

I do what works for me. They do what works for them. You need to do what works for you.

While there’s nothing wrong with trying different goal-setting strategies, ultimately if you try to force yourself to do so in a way that doesn’t suit your working style, you’re going to fail to meet your goals. It’s not sustainable.

This advice not to set goals or make resolutions always come back to “you might fail, it’ll depress you, so you shouldn’t bother, and you should just do what you want when you want instead.” And what a defeatist attitude that is.

This only has merit if you refuse to embrace failure for what it often is – a learning experience.

When you get a lousy score on an exam, the world doesn’t end. You learn what you don’t know. And you find ways to improve your study habits moving forward.

When a relationship fails, you learn something from it, put it behind you, hopefully become a better person for it, and that helps you be a better partner and build a more rewarding relationship the next time around.

It’s the same in business. When you fail to reach your freelance writing goals, you don’t just quit. You don’t stop making goals. You assess what went wrong.

Did you underestimate the time it would take to reach a certain goal? Maybe you haven’t failed so much as you need to continue what you’re doing a while longer.

Did you overestimate your ability in some area? Then you now know what you need to improve.

Did you forget to give yourself direction, and just blindly wander towards a goal when you couldn’t see the path in front of you? You can come up with a new road map.

The problem isn’t setting goals. Goals are important. They’re vital. They’re your reminder of why you’re doing this and what you’re working towards.

And failure can be a part of that. Sometimes you have to figure out the wrong way before you’ll sort out the right one. And that’s okay. They’re learning experiences.

As long as you actually learn the lessons you need to learn, leave your mistakes behind, and do better as you move forward, you’re still on-track. And there’s nothing to be discouraged about. Learning your weaknesses is a part of being in business. It’s how you grow, and it’s how you figure out where you need to seek help.

How to Make Even Lofty Freelance Writing Goals Achievable

“Goals” are funny things in that people often confuse them with other areas of strategic planning. As a PR pro who’s managed quite a few different kinds of campaigns, I’ve had those stages of planning drilled into me. And I think exploring those differences might help you and other freelancers come up with more realistic plans to reach your goals.

Let’s break it down into four areas:

  1. Goals
  2. Objectives
  3. Strategies
  4. Tactics

Goals

When we generally talk about “goals,” we really mean a combination of the things I mentioned above. More specifically, when you hear “SMART goals,” you’re talking about a combination of a goal and objective.

But if we break things down as you would when planning a campaign, “goal” means something different.

Your goal is the broadest definition of what you want to achieve. It’s usually long-term.

For example, as a freelance writer, your goal might be:

“Become a leading and saught-after freelance writer for mid-sized companies in the X industry.”

It’s pretty vague, right?

Even if you haven’t formally laid out your goal or goals for next year, you can probably say you’re working towards something along these lines. It could even be as simple as “earning enough money as a freelance writer to support my family.”

“But…” I can hear it coming… “I thought goals had to be measurable.”

When you hear about “SMART goals,” you’ll learn to make goals specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-constrained. That’s not a bad system to follow. But as I mentioned earlier, SMART goals are really a combination of goals and objectives. The objectives are the measurable part. But first… you’ll need a strategy.

Strategy

Strategies are also somewhat broad, though not as much as goals. These are the ways you intend to reach your goal.

So, take the goal example I gave you about becoming a leading and sought-after freelance writer in your specialty area. Your strategy is how you’ll do that.

Sticking with that example, my own strategy might be to focus on building visibility and industry recognition using public relations tactics (think SEO and "content marketing" which are both actually subsets of PR tied to visibility and reputation management).

Next you’ll come up with your objectives. These are closer to the kinds of yearly goals I share here. And they’re closer to what you might know as SMART goals.

Objectives

Objectives are where you get more specific about your goal, and you come up with measurable targets.

For example, in the case we looked at above, you might have objectives like:

  • Have at least 10 new prospects contact you each month by the end of the year;
  • Have a specific number of new clients who sought you out for the year;
  • Be able to charge a certain amount of money per billable hour by a set date.

This is also where you might have a yearly income target, target traffic for your blog, a specific number of email subscribers. Anything measurable that brings you closer to your overarching goal. And “measurable” should include a deadline.

Once you have a goal and objectives that will get you there, and you have a general strategy you want to follow, you break it down into tactics.

Tactics

Your tactics are essentially your action steps. They’re the specific things you do to implement your strategy.

So, if your strategy revolves around content marketing to build visibility and build your reputation by showcasing your expertise, some tactics you might use include:

  • Launching a client-focused email newsletter with informational content demonstrating that you’re a real expert in your specialty area (not just sales emails);
  • Conducting keyword research and a content audit on your professional website to earn first page Google rankings for target keyword phrases (to build more search engine visibility and drive more prospects to your site);
  • Running a weekly professional blog where you can showcase your expertise to clients;
  • Submit articles to industry publications to build your bylines (I’m not talking about writing blogs, or well-known unpaid sites that accept people far too easily, but ones that will actually offer long-term proof of legitimate authority; So rather than HuffPo, publish in trade journals in your specialized industry – ones your clients read and trust to help them make business decisions.);
  • Publishing a quarterly white paper of interest to your target clients;
  • Add case studies to your professional site (and publish them with third parties where appropriate) to offer proof of results;
  • Create a niche microsite about an issue important in your specialty area or clients’ industry;
  • Conduct original research (such as surveys) and publish a report of the results and your professional analysis of them.

Can you see where your past efforts at setting and achieving goals might have gone off-course? I often see freelance writers neglect some areas of the strategic planning process. They either mistake a single objective for their broader goal, or they have a list of tactics but no strategy tying them all together.

Start broadly, then hone your focus until you can go beyond answering the question “What do you want?” and also answer “How are you going to get there?”

If you’ve toyed with the idea of skipping goals altogether in the New Year, I hope you’ll re-think that. The problem isn’t setting goals for fear of failure. The real risk of failure comes when you don’t bother hashing out a plan to find out if your goals are achievable, and to help you determine the best action steps to get you there.

So if you normally go broad and then just meander along, wondering how you ended up where you did after a year, try a more structured approach. If an overly-structured approach feels too rigid for you, scale it back a bit. If thinking long-term is intimidating, focus on goals and objectives for shorter periods of time (like monthly). And if you’re more of a “big picture” person, focus on those long-term goals and map out key dates and deadlines without as much nitty gritty detail week-to-week.

Figure out what works for you. Set goals that suit your personality and working style. And give yourself the best chance of getting where you want to go. “Don’t set goals” is lazy advice. Instead, set better goals. A bit of discipline and a little faith in yourself can help you tackle even the loftiest freelance writing goals you can come up with.

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Jennifer Mattern is a professional blogger, freelance business writer, and indie author. She runs numerous websites & blogs including All Freelance Writing, NakedPR.com, and KissMyBiz.com.

Jenn has 19 years experience writing for others, around 14 years experience in blogging, and over 11 years experience in indie e-book publishing. She is also an Active member of the Horror Writers Association.

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