Here’s the twelfth episode of the Writing Talk Podcast.
Today we are looking at the subject of writing faster and achieving your goals.
I hope you enjoy listening.
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Now let’s get this straight, right from the outset, there is much more to writing than hitting a bunch of arbitrary word count goals. One of the problems with word counts, and with making them public, is that many writers feel like failures when they compare themselves to the word counts of prolific writers. Also, the word count target can feel demotivating, and can even be used as a stick to beat ourselves up with.
Since we are trying to establish a positive mindset in which to produce our best work, any anxieties about word counts are very destructive.
So why do so many people make a big deal about word counts?
Here’s the reason, and it’s a simple one. It’s almost impossible to improve on any given practice, unless you have first spent some time on seriously evaluating that practice. And this means that we must focus down on exactly what we are doing with a reasonable degree of precision.
In other words, we have to know exactly what we are doing, in order to improve. And this presents some difficulties when you consider that almost all writers work in isolation for significant portions of their writing time. This is especially true when it comes to creating their first drafts. Also, most of our analysis at this stage would be qualitative, i.e. any judgement of our success would be subjective and dependent on how we were feeling at the time. I doubt that there’s any writer who hasn’t looked at a draft at some point and declared it to be the worst thing that they’ve ever written. And yet strangely, the same piece of work was perfectly acceptable at the time of writing.
Now we can either throw our hands in the air and say that the whole writing process is magical and mysterious and completely beyond our control and understanding, or we can focus on one of the few quantitative aspects of our work and use it as a kind of benchmark to judge our progress. The number of words that we can produce in a given time is easily the most accessible data that we can gather.
It’s all we’ve got, so let’s use it.
Added to this, is the well-worn argument that the only way to improve our work is to produce more work. And the only way to produce more work in a given time is to write faster.
I have avoided tracking my output for as long as possible, because I felt that mailing all the details down in some hideous spreadsheet would totally spoil my enjoyment and prove to be a massive distraction. But after a considerable period of time, I realised that despite all my ad hoc methods of tracking on calendars and sheets of paper, I didn’t really have any idea of how fast I could write. Even worse, there was no reliable system for me to fall back on and compare my progress. So for all I knew, I might still be writing at the same speed as when I began several years ago. And this complete lack of knowledge seemed absolutely ridiculous.
If we asked a group of Olympic sprinters about their practice times, they would no doubt give us chapter and verse dating back over their athletic careers. It would seem very strange to us if any world-class athlete simply shrugged his or her shoulders when asked about their personal best performances.
So having decided that I needed to track my word counts and follow my progress from day-to-day, I searched online for reliable methods. Most of the apps I looked at seemed to be over complicated and I worried that they would be just another distraction. There is of course a dedicated word count app built by Chris Fox (chrisfoxwrites.com ) but it is only available for Apple devices. Chris Fox also provides a spreadsheet in his book 5,000 Words per Hour, but along with all the other spreadsheets that I found online, it did not match my requirements. I wasted quite a lot of time researching before I admitted that all the spreadsheets I’d found were either overcomplicated or far too simple. So I set about building my own spreadsheet.
I’ve kept the spreadsheet fairly simple and I put the emphasis on making each individual entry very easy to complete. On my spreadsheet, the rows are fairly free-form so that it doesn’t matter if you write for one session in a day or you write for five or six. You can set your own word count targets and some of the columns will change colour to highlight your successes.
To get your free word count tracking spreadsheet, scroll down to the end of this post.
I’ve included some instructions on the spreadsheet itself. I recommend that you keep a master copy of the spreadsheet unused so that you can duplicate it in the future. I referred to this resource as a spreadsheet, but actually it is an Excel workbook with one sheet to keep as a master sheet which you can then copy within the same workbook to suit your needs. I plan on using a separate sheet for each project.
There is space on the spreadsheet to record notes, so if you’ve had a very good day you could jot down the factors that made your writing session so productive. Similarly, if a writing session doesn’t go so well, you could make a note of what went wrong, e.g. were you distracted by social media or interrupted by background noise. Acknowledging the factors that slow you down is a first step in dealing with them. And rewarding yourself for your good days is a great way to formulate productive habits.
As it stands, each sheet in the workbook has 100 rows because I felt that 100 was a nice manageable number. Rather than scroll through very long columns, I’d rather start again on another sheet, but if you prefer to stay on one sheet, it’s easy to drag the formulas downward by clicking on the handle in the bottom right corner of each cell and dragging it down the column to extend it.
I will be recording a screen cast soon to demonstrate how to use the spreadsheet and posting it up on you tube. As soon as I’ve got that completed, the video will be here on the website.
That wraps it up for now. I hope I’ve convinced you to track your work and to use the progress in your word count to reward yourself and to reinforce good practice.
Download my wordcount tracking spreadsheet by signing up for my newsletter or find your own method, e.g. an app or alternative spreadsheet. Stick to using your method to track EVERY writing session for at least a week. At the end of that time, review your progress and decide if there’s anything you can do to build toward your goals.
5000 Words per Hour by Chris Fox – well worth a read for lots of practical advice on increasing your word count.
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