You Get What You Measure: Fiction Edition

In grade school, I was the youngest and smallest in the class and always chosen last for any team sports. The boys groaned when the even-odd count resulted in me on their team.
You Get What You Measure, Fiction Writers!On the other hand, for the 7,583 times we were forced to play prison ball in the guise of physical education, I was the last person standing on my team more than fifty percent of the time. I was nimble, so the bell rang before anyone managed to cream me with the ball.

How did I achieve this? The boys’ goal was to win the game by smashing the ball into people as hard as they could. Most often they picked off the girls first, but forgot about me till the end. My goal? Never touch the ball and never let it touch me. I had no other concept of “winning.”

When I worked as a technical writer on product software, we had specific measures for productivity and quality, plus an external schedule, milestones, and job-related incentives for innovation and creativity. It’s a world in which it’s relatively easy to track success as a writer.

Now that I work full-time as a fiction writer and publisher of non-fiction, I need different markers for success in my writing. For me, daily word count is not an adequate measure of productivity.  However, I was also formerly a manager known for creative definition of realistic measures for productivity and success. So I’ve been thinking about how to understand my own productivity as a fiction writer without focusing only on word count and number of publications per quarter. I’m sharing some of those ideas here for other fiction writers, especially those who don’t write fiction full time as their principal income.

One caveat: I’m assuming that you’re committed to a dedicated, professional approach to writing fiction. The reflections here do not apply for aspirational but non-actualized individuals who aren’t actively writing fiction. If you want to write, but it isn’t part of your everyday activities, then please turn instead to inspirational books like If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit by Brenda Ueland.

Issues for Word Count Goals

The key issue related to high targets for daily word count: What’s your overall goal?

  • Shouldn't you be writing?Seriously committed to a writing career that requires high daily productivity for frequent publication deadlines?
    You go, girl! (or guy)
    It’s a great goal. You probably already have a lot of information about how to:
    — Reduce distraction.
    — Write in timed bursts.
    — Avoid rewriting during composition.
    — Develop habits and learn tools for managing notes, composition, production, etc.
    If you haven’t already found other resources, Rachel Aaron’s 2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love is a good  starting place.
  • Seriously committed to writing a heart’s story, or finding out whether you can realize your dream of writing fiction? An excellent goal—but don’t start with daily word count as your prime measure of success. You need to learn a lot of things while realizing your dream:
    — Pre-writing tactics.
    — Basics and rules for your story’s genre.
    — How to use research and writing tools.
    — How to develop characters, conflict, scene-and-sequel pacing.If you’re just starting out as a writer, getting the words down is a challenge. Focusing on daily word count as the sole measure of your success can create problems—highlighted in the following sections.

The second key issue for daily word count targets: Where are you in your life?

  • Everything is due at once!Small children? A challenging job? Health issues?
    You have a strong ego if you’ve undertaken a major writing project. But if you’re already playing SuperHuman in everyday life, adding superhuman word-count to your daily chores might not be the key to your success. High word-count aspirations might be similar to undertaking a daily 10K run to launch a fitness regime.Instead, focus on carving time out of each day and week. Build an activity pattern that includes pre-writing time, research, techniques for organization, and smaller scene-by-scene writing goals. You want your writing time to feed your core, not drain it.
  • Jobless? Recently retired? Awarded by your partner with the freedom to write full time?
    After the initial rush of energy and joy—when writing is preferable to eating or sleeping—you’ll hit a speed bump (or already have). Especially if you departed a high-intensity work situation, or have remaining family or community duties, or you’re over 40: you need a break.
    See comments above about adding high word-count targets to your SuperHuman profile.

The final issue: Does word count ring your bell? Make you tingle?

  • This isn’t school or a job where someone else declares the grading rubric.
    If daily word count doesn’t stimulate you to greater action, ignore it.
    You might choose to track it like the time of day—a data point, but not the actual metric.
  • Does a shouting aerobics instructor inspire you to sweat harder?
    Or does she incite homicidal thoughts? If your personality doesn’t match well with the drill-sergeant effect of word-count measures, then your less-conscious self is likely to rebel.
    In incorrect conceptual drawing
  • Does a word-count measure match what you’re writing?
    — Category romance written to publisher guidelines = yes.
    — A reflective meditation on war and death = not so much.

Now for the ideas that speak to this article’s headline.

Measuring Progress

CorvaxConsider a writer’s guide like 2k to 10k by Rachel Aaron. The techniques that Ms. Aaron offers are not about the act of writing 10k words every day. Rather, she describes how to plan your project so that the direct composition portion is focused and you don’t have to stop, revise, or research. The amount of time such planning takes is considerable—it’s not a single casual Saturday with a stack of sticky notes and an erasable pen.

Here are some ideas for measuring your progress as a writer that go beyond word count, page count, and predictable rhythm for publishing. These measures all count as productive writing time.

I’m not recommending you do all of these, merely offering a menu for selection.

1. Never Lose a Thought

  • 001Create a sturdy-yet-flexible system for collecting, preserving, and organizing notes.
    — Use EverNote or OneNote in the cloud, available on all your devices.
    — Email yourself, with a system for titles, so you can collect notes into other documents.
    Or send the same email back to yourself repeatedly, with additions.
  • Structure your project files so you can track notes as you plan and write.
    — Use outline view to add notes to chapters or scenes.
    — Put character and scene details at the end, so you can reference them easily.
  • Measure:
    — The time and effort you spend ensuring that your note system is functioning well, and that you spend improving your processes.
    — The time you save not hunting for what you already thought.
    — How often you find that your well-structured notes contribute to effective pre-writing, productive composition, and efficient revision.

2. Map  the Internal to the External

  • If you plot using sticky notes or note cards, match that physical map of your thinking in your working file.Wringing a Novel from Word
    — I offer some suggestions in Wringing a Novel from Word.
    — Some writers use Scrivener for this. (I’m not one.)
  • Build file and folder structures that support your mental categories for your fiction and other activities.
  • Measure:
    — The time and effort you put into mapping what’s in your head in your writing system.
    — How often you have successful writing sessions because your structuring activities paid off.

3. Dig and Fill Holes

For me, writing the easy parts—which can lead to high daily word count—isn’t what creates a good story. Also, what’s the key trick for fast-first-draft via high-daily-word-count? Do not revise while writing the first draft.
I can resist about 90 percent of the time, then I fold.

  • Word-wakkerIn your project, identify clearly what you know versus how much you have to learn by writing.
    — Rate the difficulty of scenes or concepts you have to write.
    — Rank the order in which the unknown and difficult scenes must be resolved.
    — Set writing targets in relation to completing the unknown elements.
  • Once in a while, spend focused time on usage and sentence structure sins:
    — Create checklists for finding and fixing common problems with wordy and imprecise constructions.
    — Check that you are choosing active verbs instead of convoluted verb phrases.
    — Read down a few pages of your draft and identify how often you start a paragraph with the same words or sentence construction. Resolve.
    — Apply craft guidelines from other writers, like The Word-Loss Diet (Writer’s Craft) by Rayne Hall
  • Measure:
    — The time and effort you put into identifying and resolving issues in your project.
    — The number of difficult scenes written in a week, a month—whatever time span you choose.

Once I was complaining to a musician about creativity blocks. I’d completed a project two weeks earlier and hadn’t yet made another project catch on fire.

Have a cookie“You need a cookie,” he said.

“What?” I was so confused by his answer that I didn’t even query the gluten-free nature of the cookie.

“You’ve been working hard, and the rest of the world didn’t celebrate what you completed. You need a reward. Choose a cookie and take a break.”

I learned over time that I need a reward about every three months, which toward the end of that timeframe drives me to complete any hard scenes or other difficult tasks I’ve avoided.

You have to find the measures that work for you, and have a cookie once in a while when you meet your success milestones. Please add your ideas in the comments: what works for you?

Credits: The “never lose a thought” icon is from The Art of Illumination, first published by Dover Publications.
The cookie recipe is right here.

About anniepearsonOK

Author of the Rain City series, managing editor of Jugum Press, and writer/project manager for eclectic technical communications projects.

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