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Exercise—S.M.A.R.T. Goals Self-Assessment

Writing and assessing your SMART goals.

This self-assessment can be found in Appendix A of Good With Words.

[Note: I give the assignment below to students at the beginning of the semester. But it works as a helpful exercise at other times as well, even if you are not on an academic calendar.]

This assignment is designed to help us figure out where you are as a writer now and where you would like to be as a writer by the end of the semester. With that goal in mind, please write one or two single-spaced pages that will accomplish several tasks:

Tell a little bit about yourself as a writer.

This part of your Self-Assessment might include past writing experiences, whether pleasant or unpleasant, rewarding or frightening—or some combination of all four. It might also describe what you go through as you are preparing to write and as you are actually writing:

  • Do you start with an outline?
  • Do you end by reading what you have written out loud?
  • Do you do your best writing in the library? At home? In the morning? At night?
  • Do you have no idea where or when you do your best writing because you kind of just write whenever you have to and usually only because a deadline is fast approaching? (If this last question describes you as a writer, don’t worry: plenty of great writers would not be great writers without deadlines, real and imagined.)

Finally, this part of the assessment might address the different kinds of writing you have done in school, before school, or perhaps while contemplating doing something other than school.

  • When, for example, was the last time you wrote something that you yourself actually wanted to read?
  • What conditions helped you produce that piece of writing?
  • What obstacles, in your mind, prevent you from producing something like that again given your current schedule, habits, and level of preparation?

Share some of your strengths and weaknesses as a writer.

What do you think you do well as a writer?

What do you think needs work?

This discussion can include not just an analysis of your finished product but other aspects of the writing process as well, such as getting through a first draft, editing down a final draft, or simply procrastinating to the point where you have written more words on Twitter in the past hour than you have on whatever project you’re supposed to be working on.

Conclude by identifying two goals for yourself as a writer this semester.

The first goal should be a “S.M.A.R.T.” goal: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound.

Your S.M.A.R.T. goal could be something like trying out a good writerly habit for, say, the next 30 days. Here are some examples of habits my students have picked. (Their check-in date is usually halfway through the semester.)

  1. Carry a notepad with me wherever I go and jot down ideas when they come to me. An electronic version of this goal can be fulfilled with the “Notes” function on an iPhone or similar device. But I encourage using a physical pad because something magical often happens when you take the time to put pen to paper. Your mind slows. Your thoughts crystallize. You might just produce a second idea by the time you write down the first.
  2. Draft in one place. Edit in another. The geographical distance between these two places need not be massive. Draft in your apartment. Edit in the library. Draft in your bedroom. Edit in your living room. The point is to separate the sometimes chaotic outpouring of ideas that is drafting from the necessarily careful shaping of ideas that is editing. You do not want to edit a piece of writing through the eyes of the person who drafted it. Instead, you want to edit it through the eyes of what the novelist Zadie Smith calls a “smart stranger.” Geographic distance, however minimal, helps you become that.
  3. Call a friend or sibling or parent during each writing assignment and try to explain to them what I’ve already written and what I still have left to write. Writing often comes down to having a conversation on a page. Only, first, that conversation usually needs to happen with another person. So talk to people about what you are writing—and then thank them profusely.

The second goal should be a “Stretch” goal: a more ambitious goal that, even if you don’t fully achieve, could lead to some beneficial outcomes and discoveries. Here is how a 2017 article in the Harvard Business Review described the two key characteristics:

  1. Extreme Difficulty – “Stretch goals involve radical expectations that go beyond current capabilities and performance. Consider Southwest Airlines’ early stretch goal of achieving a 10-minute turnaround at airport gates. A familiar task was involved, but the target was a drastic departure from the industry standard at the time, which was close to one hour.”
  2. Extreme Novelty – “Brand-new paths and approaches must be found to bring a stretch goal within reach. In other words, working differently, not simply working harder, is required. To get gate turnarounds down to 10 minutes, Southwest had to completely overhaul its staff’s work practices and reimagine the behavior of customers. The airline did, however, famously figure out how to reach this goal.”

Stretch goals are not for everyone. And they are certainly not for everyone during any kind of school. But for the purposes of this exercise, assume that a stretch goal is appropriate for you right now. What would you pick? What is something that is extremely difficult and extremely novel that you’d love to try to pull off by the time you graduate—or even by the end of the year or semester?

Here is a list to help spark some ideas. Michigan students have done each of them. (Don’t let that fact make you think pursuing something similar wouldn’t be novel enough. The novelty would be in the change you would have to make to your current way of operating—not in the originality of the goal.)

  • Publish an op-ed in a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper
  • Start a business
  • Create a new student organization
  • Get a Skadden or Equal Justice Works fellowship
  • Win a national writing competition
  • Win a national moot court competition

Note: Becoming a better writer would help with each of these goals.

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