Work the Process, Not the Outcome

You can dream about all the adulation you'll get once you cross the finish line, but it'll never happen if you don't start making your way forward.

One of my favorite newsletters is The Half Marathoner, even though I don’t run much. Actually, these days, I don’t run, period; I’m more of a distance walker. But I always like to see what Terrell Johnson and his collaborators have to say about maintaining a steady running practice, because (as I’ve mentioned before) I frequently find very useful metaphors for talking about a writing practice in what they write.

Take, for example, a recent post from Hollie Sick on process goals, performance goals, and outcome goals.

Nearly all writers, I think, start with outcome goals: I want my memoir to be published. I want to write a bestselling novel. I’d like to be able to support myself with my writing. I want people to recognize how talented I am. (That last goal may be less materially focused than the other ones, but if we’re being honest, it’s definitely an outcome some of us have hoped for at some time in our lives.) If we cling too strongly to these outcomes, though, we may forget that we cannot make them happen on our own. A publisher has to decide to publish our book. Consumers have to want to buy it. People have to make up their own minds about our talent.

You could produce an absolute brilliant manuscript—only to have publishers fail to see its commercial possibilities. Or to have it be crowded out in the marketplace by all the other new books, so that sympathetic readers never discover it.

So it’s okay to fantasize occasionally, but you have to learn to concentrate on your performance. I will complete this manuscript by the end of the year. Heck, I will write a complete 50,000-word story in a single month! I will take the feedback I’m getting from my beta readers and incorporate the best of it into my next revision. I will submit my finished work to a literary agent for consideration.

As Hollie Sick writes, these sorts of performance goals should scare you—they should be tied to things you can’t do right now, things you’ll need to push yourself to accomplish. They will take you as far as you can go on your own, if you’re willing to apply yourself to the process over a period of time.

Process is the basic building block of a writing practice. I will write X words today. I will write for X minutes/hours today. A little further down the road, perhaps, I will research literary agents to find the ones with whom my work is most likely to resonate. Depending on what type of book you’re writing, I will spend X amount of time reading for research.

These are the basic things you know you can do. You may not feel 100 percent confident about writing a 50,000-word story in thirty days, but if you know you can write 1,700 words (about twelve or thirteen double-spaced pages) in a day, you can challenge yourself to do that for thirty days straight. If that sounds daunting, well, one, it should, but, two, how do you feel about producing a single double-spaced page in one writing session? If you can do that for 320 days, that’s a novel-length manuscript! (Technically, you could have a novel-length manuscript after just 280 days, but let’s not get into the vagaries of the “ideal” manuscript length today.)

If you know you can sit down and write, then you understand the way you’ll get a book done is to sit down and write. Maybe you don’t know that, though; maybe you want to do it, but you haven’t figured out when, in the span of your waking hours, you can find the time to sit down and write. You’ll have to make some critical decisions, if that’s the case. Either you need to move your existing commitments around on your schedule to create gaps of time in which you can commit to writing, or you need to identify things that you are doing with your life that really aren’t as important as sitting down and writing so you can share your story with the world one day… and then stop doing those things as often as you’ve been doing them, maybe even stop doing them altogether.

It will feel weird at first, especially if you haven’t clearly identified your performance goals yet. Once you become accustomed to spending time on the process, though, once you’re comfortable writing regularly, you’ll probably come to realize what it is that you’re writing toward, and from there it’s a matter of continuing to write regularly until you hit that benchmark.

You will fall short some days, and that’s fine. You have plenty of time. You can come back to the process again and pick up where you left off. Don’t worry so much about finishing “on time,” if you’re not under contract. In fact, remember that theoretical goal of finishing the manuscript “by the end of the year”? Ignore the deadline; just concentrate on finishing the manuscript.

I have probably just appalled some of you with that last bit of advice, and I get where you’re coming from: Deadlines can be very helpful, in forcing us to buckle down and get the writing done, instead of endlessly noodling. So: not a firm rule! Use your best judgment. You may not always be able to recognize with certainty when you’re making progress with your writing, but you almost always know when you’re dawdling, avoiding the challenge that awaits you on the page.

One other thing: You’ll probably never be able to wean yourself from contemplating your possible outcomes, either, especially if you get within striking distance of them. I have a book coming out in a few months, and of course I have hopes and dreams for its success. None of those dreams will pan out, though, unless I’m willing to put in a certain amount of hustle, and my publisher puts in a certain amount of hustle; even then, I could catch more bad breaks than good, and I have to be ready for that.

It helps that I’m keeping my aspirations reasonably modest—I want something more than to simply have a book I can hold in my hand and call my own, but I am not expecting to make the New York Times bestseller list. Although you are welcome to prove me wrong.

In my experience, if you can manage your process to such a degree that you’re able to hit your performance goals, you’ll find enough personal satisfaction in that accomplishment to mitigate against the majority of any “failed” outcome goals you confront. I can’t guarantee that publishers will feel as sanguine about supporting you as you continue to work the process, and I definitely can’t guarantee that it won’t bother you, just a little, if they don’t.

Ultimately, though, that process is the one thing fully within your control, so you might as well give it your best shot.

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