What Progress Looks Like

So after having a really bad year, when my heart was at its worst and my writing suffered just as bad as the rest of my life, I got back up on the pony in January of this year. By the beginning of February, I got bucked off again when my sister died unexpectedly. Dealing with the grief and the family stuff and the continued antics of a heart that isn’t running on a full deck cost me another 6 months.

So when I started back up in July, I decided two things – that I desperately needed a low stress on-ramp for the writing-as-career thing, and that I just as importantly needed some metrics to guide my efforts. I knew that I wanted a graphical representation of what I was tracking – something to look at my progress at a glance. Excel was the perfect solution – it does a lot more than simply track columns of numbers if you know how to use it. All the graphs on this post were created in Excel with just a few clicks, utilizing data I’d added daily.


Why ‘net’ words?

Rather than counting every word I drafted (Nanowrimo style), I decided to count only words that made the cut to go into the working draft of the project. My “cut file” has twice as many words as my working draft of any given project. The scenes in there are good, they speak to me and occasionally I reuse bits of dialog or description. Sometimes the whole scene ends up back in the draft. They’re usually good words, but they’re the wrong words.

So just tracking the count of how much I’ve drafted doesn’t really measure anything helpful for me. I decided to measure by simply doing a word count on my working draft at the beginning and end of each day and calculating the difference.

Sometimes, this approach ends me up in the somewhat irritating position of stopping with a negative count. Other times, I work the whole day, drafting thousands of new words, and end up recording 10. And I’m ok with that. To me, what matters is that the book is growing, changing, and getting better.

So how does this metric effect the writing?

Data doesn’t help anything you only collect it and let it gather dust. To make the data meaningful, you have to look at it from different angles. Manipulate it and let it manipulate your behavior to push toward your goal. The words per day graph keeps me on track, keeps me pushing for better numbers, but my high quality standards keep me honest with it. Those bars that fall below the line remind me, every time I look, that the goal isn’t words. Words are easy. The dictionary is full of them. My goal is a story, one that I love and am proud to share with the world, and that’s a lot harder.

That said, you don’t get story from stagnation either. So I’ve been pushing myself to get that average daily count a little higher each month. Sometimes life intervenes – July was only a partial month. August saw me playing doula and caring for a newborn while her mom was in the hospital. September started to pick up a little, October kind of rocked, and November is still a work in progress. It’s the trend over time that matters to me. Maybe 286 words per day average for the year isn’t a great count (certainly it wouldn’t be if I were counting all the toss-away words), but it gets me a 100k book in under a year, and these are the revised, polished, finished words.

And notice the trend – the sky is the limit. Now it’s just a matter of keeping myself on track, using my time wisely, and streamlining my process. All of which I’d be floundering to do without the data to light the way.

What metrics do you use to track your writing progress?

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