August 25, 2021

How I write - measuring effort

This is the first in an occasional series of posts about writing process stuff that has worked for me. This time I’m talking about METRICS.

For the first time in many, many months, I’ve been feeling as though I have a tiny bit of emotional and mental capacity for something other than grim routine, so I thought I give the website and blog a bit of a kick and see what’s been percolating lo these many months.

I’ve been writing fiction for most of my life, but it has been a stop-start, wildly inconsistent affair. However, since December of last year, I think I’ve finally hit on a mixture of working habits, motivation and measures that really works for me.

I’m going to write a few posts (rather than one gargantuan one) in a loose blogchain of writing habit posts. These are going to be practical, routine-focused posts rather than particularly about craft or what I’m writing (recently finished a far-future SF novel, and just completed extensive edits on a near-future SF thriller for the record).

First - the classic disclaimer - all writing advice is personal and contingent. What works for me might not work for you. But if you recognise yourself in any of this, give it a go and see if it helps. If you get anything useful out of this, give me a shout on Twitter. I don’t post much there (2014-2020 burned me out hard on Twitter) but I do respond.

How to measure work

I’ll start by noting that I thoroughly believe in measuring things in order to improve them. However, for me it’s rarely as simple as what gets measured, gets managed’, which I’ve heard in many an office context.

Personally I’ve often found that what gets measured becomes a weird, mono-dimensional, often inaccurate proxy for a whole host of things, good and bad and, if chosen or measured poorly, can subtly twist and distort behaviour and outcomes in really strange ways - but that’s not quite as pithy and doesn’t fit in an email signature.

For me, with the creative writing that I’ve done for years, I’ve seen first hand that what you pick as a metric has to align with what motivates and engages you personally. Pick the wrong thing and you’re likely to make a painful rod for your own back and be less happy and productive than if you measured nothing at all.

Make the numbers go up

I started, as many do, by not measuring anything at all. For many years, I wrote when I felt like it and that was that. That was enough to produce a slew of short stories in my early twenties but not a lot more. Then I took part in NaNoWriMo and managed to crank out 50,000 words in a month.

The magic NaNoWriMo number, as anyone who has taken part in that wonderful, affirming event is 1,667 words per day. At the time, this seemed like a truly epic accomplishment. I was in my first graduate job and it was a genuine struggle to get those words on the page, often late at night after a long day. But I did it, despite missing at least a couple of days.

What I thought that experience taught me was that hard word counts were the best motivator for me. I made spreadsheets, tracked averages and rejoiced when I hit my goals of 1,000 words, 1,500 words, 2,000 words a day. When I was in the mood, full of energy and excited about a story, it was great. And when I hit my word count early, heard the PING that Scrivener will make if you set it up for word count goals and realised I’d done what I set out to do and could finish up early, I was delighted.

But (far) more often, I crawled towards those word counts, hating it and feeling like it was self-imposed homework. Sometimes a thousand words would take two hours. I would put it off all day. And it didn’t feel fun or interesting or exciting.

Isn’t this supposed to be fun?

The thing is, writing isn’t supposed to be painful all the time. Sure, sometimes it’s complex and can be mentally taxing and often you’d rather do something undemanding instead. But at its core, it should really be something you want to do. There’s zero guarantee of extrinsic reward like getting published, winning awards or even having literally anyone care about what you’re doing.

So it has to be its own reward in some way.

Hard daily word counts, I realised, completely sucked the joy out of writing for me. They work for a lot of people. But I’m simply not one of them.

Focused time

Instead of focusing on the outcome, I decided to try focusing on the process and, most importantly, the resilience of that process. For me, that meant that the goals I set for myself would need to be achievable, repeatable and flexible. And that meant focusing on the hours I dedicated to writing, rather than the output of the writing process.

In December of 2020, I experimented with writing for an hour a day. Over many years of trying out different times of day, I’ve come to the clear realisation that the best time for me is early in the morning, before my working day. And I’ve also realised the smaller the number of activities and tasks between me and writing, the more likely I am to do it. I can sometimes have an extreme resistance to the act of starting to write, but I generally find that once I get going, I can continue with few issues or distraction. So it makes sense for me to avoid putting too many moments between myself and my keyboard where I have the opportunity to indulge in that resistance.

In practice this means getting up, getting showered, dressed and appropriately caffeinated, then sitting down to write, edit or (occasionally) do writing adjacent things. For example, right now, I’m assembling query letters (blog post on that soon). My phone goes on the other side of the room and I set a timer on my watch. Most days, I get to the end of the hour and I’m surprised when the alarm goes off.

Using time as my target has several benefits:

Achievable

First of all, it’s very achievable. I started out at seven days a week, then went to six, then finally just weekdays. So that’s a commitment of five hours a week. Five hours of writing, for me, with my schedule and commitments, is a completely doable minimum.

Committing to effort, rather than outcome

Second, focusing on the effort I put in, not the results I get out, means that I can do it even when morale is low, when I don’t really feel like it, and when I’m deeply doubting my own ability to write a readable sentence. As long as I show up and stick around for my minimum time, I chalk the day up as a win.

And what I’ve found is that consistency really adds up over time. It means a lot more words drafted and (crucially for me) a lot more words edited into something readable.

Repeatable and resilient

The lovely thing about writing on a regular schedule and committing to time is that it’s not possible to fall behind’ - when you’re working to a word count target, every day you miss feels like incurred, self-imposed effort debt’. You didn’t hit your target today wordminer! You must work harder tomorrow!

But if I miss a day with this approach, meh, I miss a day. No targets are missed, no debt is incurred. I just try to get back on the horse again. If I’m really not feeling it, I might read for a couple of days until I do. Being kind to yourself turns out to be a far more resilient and effective strategy than beating yourself up. I promise, it’s true. It shouldn’t be a huge revelation to me that this is true, but I spent a long, long time assuming that DISCIPLINE was the answer, with TARGETS and SCHEDULES.

But it really isn’t, at least for me. The key is time and kindness.

Give it a try

If you have written to a word count target for a long time, I urge you to give time-based working a try. You might find it surprisingly effective. I know I have.

Next up in this blogchain, I’ll write about editing. It’s something that I think I’ve just recently cracked a sustainable method for doing, so I’m keen to share it.

As ever, any questions, tweet at me.


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