Organizing: Targets vs. Goals

[This article is reprinted by permission. See credits at the end.]


It’s traditional at the beginning of the year to define what you’d like to achieve in the coming twelve months.

That’s a good thing and I highly recommend it. This week I’ll be writing my own annual plan for the coming year.

However, I’d like to point out an area where just about everybody uses fuzzy thinking in their planning.

We don’t control our future entirely.

Some things we can control, of course. But some we just can’t. It’s crucial to know the difference.

If you’re looking for an agent, you have complete control over how many queries you send out. But you can’t force an agent to agree to represent you. All you can do is make yourself an attractive client, send out those pesky queries, and hope that one of the agents sees how brilliant you are.

What we need are two different words, one for goals that we can control, and one for goals that we can’t. As far as I know, we don’t have those words. We could make some up, but I don’t think that’s necessary.

Instead, let’s just define a “Goal” (with a capital letter) to be something we have control over, and let’s define a “Target” to be something we only have partial control over.

  • “I will write 10,000 words every week” is a Goal.
  • “I will become the best writer in my critique group” is a Target.
  • “I will attend one major writing conference this year” is a Goal.
  • “I will get two editors at conferences to request manuscripts” is a Target.
  • “I will send out 20 queries to agents in March” is a Goal.
  • “I will sign with an agent by July” is a Target.

Goals are good. Targets are also good. But they’re not the same thing.

You can make a list of Goals for the year that is 100% achievable. At the end of the year, if you haven’t reached all those Goals, then you have a right to hold yourself accountable.

You can make a list of Targets for the year, but you just can’t assume they’re achievable. It’s OK if they’re a bit of a stretch. It’s OK to aim for a spectacular year and end up with a merely great year. (For some people, the only way to achieve their best is to shoot for the impossible.)

But it’s a mistake to confuse Goals with Targets. That only sets you up for self-flagellation at the end of the year, if you don’t reach all your Targets.

An important point is that Targets usually depend on Goals. So set your Targets first. Then figure out what Goals you must meet in order to make your Targets as likely as possible.

Steps to Make This Work

Let’s see how that works out in practice. Suppose one of your Targets is “I want to sign with a major agent this year.”

If you’re a first-time novelist, then you probably can’t get an agent unless your manuscript is complete and polished. You also can’t get an agent unless you pitch to at least one (and probably several).

So here are five reasonable Goals you can set in support of your Target:

  • I will complete my manuscript by the end of March.
  • I will hire a professional freelance editor to evaluate my manuscript, with a deadline to get the evaluation back to me by the end of June.
  • I will polish my manuscript to the best of my ability by the end of August.
  • I will send out a minimum of 10 queries to suitable agents in September.
  • I will attend a writing conference in September or October and pitch my work to two suitable agents.

Now if you hit all five of these Goals, there is no guarantee that you’ll sign with an agent. But the odds of signing with an agent are vastly higher if you achieve all five of these Goals than if you achieve none of them.

Targets depend on Goals. But Goals don’t guarantee Targets.

Here is a five-minute exercise that you can do right now to create a reasonable set of Targets and Goals:

What are your Targets for the coming year? A good Target is concrete, objective, and difficult. But it’s not necessarily achievable. There is a part that depends on other people.

For each Target, set one or more Goals that depend on you alone. Goals should be concrete, objective, difficult, and ACHIEVABLE.

Do you have any other Goals for the coming year (besides the ones you need to reach your Targets)?

Write down all your Targets and your Goals and post them above your workspace. Make it clear which Targets depend on which Goals.

Look at your Targets and Goals every day before you start work. If you need to revise your Goals throughout the year, that’s OK. It’s fine to be flexible. If a great opportunity comes up during the year, change your Targets and Goals to include it.

A year from now, review your Goals first and then your Targets:

  1. Did you hit all of your Goals? If not, then figure out why. You may not have given yourself enough time. Or you may need to improve your work habits. Or it may be that your writing has a lower priority than other things in your life.
  2. Did you hit any of your Targets? If not, was it because you failed to achieve the required Goals, or was it outside of your control?

Planning your year doesn’t need to be complicated. But it does need to be clear. You control your destiny with your Goals. You don’t completely control it with your Targets.

Knowing that can help you keep your head straight on the long, long road to publication.


This article is reprinted by permission of the author.

Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, “the Snowflake Guy,” publishes the free monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 32,000 readers. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit

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