Why writers should use a secret sauce — tracking

writing tracking

Reading time: Less than 3 minutes

Have you ever kept a writing tracking record? This simple document — you can create it easily in your own word processing software — will revolutionize your productivity….

When I wrote my first book, 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better, I made so many mistakes.

  • I didn’t have a daily writing goal that was specific enough
  • I allowed myself to edit while I wrote
  • I didn’t track my output

Fixing all three of these problems partway through the process helped me to finish my book and reduced the amount of time I spent yanking out my own hair. But when I consider the challenge/benefit ratio (how hard did I have to work to change my behaviour and what benefit did I get from doing it?), tracking my output was an extraordinarily beneficial change with almost no pain. You have to love that.

Here’s how tracking your output — specifically, recording how many words you write each day or how much time you spend editing — can help you.

It will reduce your stress. You’ll always know exactly where you are in your writing project and you can both celebrate your achievements or, if things are going awry, change your game-plan quickly.

It will improve your motivation. It’s tempting to have a vague idea that you “want to write a book” or “finish the annual report one week before deadline.” But if you don’t have a plan, you’ll never be able to accomplish either of those tasks. Seeing what you’ve done every day, however, will help make the project more “real” to you. And when your tracking chart shows lots of activity, that record will give you a big shot in the arm. And when it shows inadequate activity, this finding will help motivate you to make some changes. It’s just like wearing a pedometer (which I also do) — the act of tracking causes you to do more.

It will alert you to problems ahead of time. If you miss a day of writing because your car broke down or the babysitter was sick, that’s understandable. But if you miss five days of writing, you have a bigger problem. Tracking your word count will force you to be honest with yourself, acknowledge your shortcomings and, most of all, make a plan for doing better the next day.

It will keep you focused. If you’ve developed the habit of working only in “spurts” or binges you likely take off many days, or even weeks, between writing sessions. As a result, you’ll forget at least some of your research or your plans, and you have to spend a good chunk of time catching up every time you resume work on your project. With tracking, however, you’re more likely to feel comfortable writing for small amounts every day. Bonus: you’ll remember what you’re working on and won’t have to spend any time getting reacquainted with the project.

It will help you recognize that your feelings about writing are irrelevant. One of the key findings from my tracking chart was that how I felt about my writing (that it was great and I was the next Susan Orlean or that it was an abysmal failure and I should reconsider my career) bore no relationship to how many words I could produce each day. I could write 500 words on days when I felt terrible and, conversely, squeeze out only 350 on days when I felt terrific. In other words, writing is just a job, and my self-worth bears no relationship to it. This discovery is freeing.

Here’s how to track your writing:

I’m sure there is software that could handle the tracking job, but let’s keep this blissfully simple and affordable.

Open a Word document and click on the “insert” pull-down menu. Select “insert table.” Make it five columns and 35 rows for about a month’s worth of tracking. (Different computers may have slightly different instructions for inserting tables. Do whatever works for yours.)

  • Give the first column the title, “date”
  • Give the second column the title, “feelings”
  • Give the third column the title, “words”
  • Give the fourth column the title, “cumulative”
  • Give the fifth column the title “remaining”

Here is the only tricky bit. You need to calculate the total number of words your project will require. If this project is a book, let’s say that’s 75,000 words. Put that goal in the header with the word “remaining.” (See a photo of my own tracking record at the top of this post.)

OK, you are now the proud owner of a tracking record. Fill it in every day, tracking the date (column 1) how many words you wrote (column 3) and your feeling about that writing (column 2.) When you’ve finished that, calculate the cumulative number of words you’ve written to date (just add today’s total to the cumulative number in yesterday’s column 4). And, finally, wrap up your tracking by subtracting the new cumulative total from the number at the top of column five. Then you know exactly how much more work you have left to complete.

Here’s what I discovered: Once I’d hit the halfway point, the writing became markedly easier and faster with words accumulating like snow on a fence during a storm. I know this is illogical and unscientific, but that’s the way it worked for me.

Try tracking and tell me if it does the same for you.

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My 4-minute video last week aimed to help fiction writers improve their focus. See it (or read the transcript) here and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email,   Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.

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Do you track your writing? Why or why not? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Nov. 30/17, will be put in a draw for a copy of Metaphorically Selling by Anne Miller. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.

Posted November 14th, 2017 in Power Writing

  • D.N.Frost

    Hi Daphne! GREAT topic – I’ve been tracking my writing in detail since halfway through editing my first novel, and now I’m wrapping up the editing in my second novel. My spreadsheet is pretty in-depth, tracking all sorts of times/word-counts from Draft Prep (time spent doing mind-maps, planning, etc) through actual Draft time, Revision prep time (read-through and more mind-maps), and actual Revision. Since I’m a fantasy author, I make cartography maps as part of my writing process, and I track that time, too!

    You are exactly right about how tracking your time/words makes you feel more motivated and honest about your progress. I recommend it to EVERY writer who asks me for advice.

    But though I’ve tracked quite a bit of info, it never occurred to me to track how I FELT about each day’s progress! I do have a “Success” sheet where I track extracurricular accomplishments, but not an actual log of my sentiments on the day’s writing. I’ll be adding that “Feelings” field in short order.

    Thanks again for this post, and for your blog as a whole. You are a great resource and I refer writers to your blog all the time.

    • Charles Broming

      I’d love to see your template. I’m going to set one up for me and could and would use some ideas. cbroming@icloud.com

      • Sending it to you, Charles but just FYI, it’s no different from the photo on the top of the screen.

        • Charles Broming

          Thanks. I copied yours before I got it. I added two input data fields: estimated total pages and estimated words per page. Your 75,000 words represents 250 pages of 300-word pages, for example. With this change, I could automate the progress calculation on a words-written basis and a pages-written basis.

    • Thanks for all your referrals, DN. Glad to hear that writing tracking is working for you.

  • wissensagentur

    I’m in the nanowrimo this year again and here is tracking your words a very big part of the whole thing. Like I commented on another post I don’t write a novel but blogposts. Today I hit the milestone 25.000 words and it feels almost like cheating because it is so easy this year. I really thought about it and came to this conclusion: one of the biggest reasons why it went so well is because of the tracking. And secondly I write in sprints over a distinct period of time. And the only goal is to write forward and not to correct any typo. There is a Twitter account which is so much fun to join this sprints together and you share your tracking with other people. So for me is the daily goal of words and the tracking one of the secrets to win.

    • Writing tracking is an extraordinarily powerful tool. As you describe it, it can even make writing a novel seem “easy.”

  • Robert Haas

    Dear Daphne,

    I
    have been reading your e-newsletter for years. I always look forward to
    your email and read it with great interest since you write it in such a
    relevant and appealing way 🙂

    In
    today’s newsletter you pointed out that hitting the halfway point of a
    writing project has a motivational effect. There is a scientific theory
    behind this effect by the name of “goal-gradient hypothesis”. A research
    study from 2006 states that “the goal-gradient hypothesis, originally
    proposed by the behaviorist Clark Hull in 1932, states that the tendency
    to approach a goal increases with proximity to the goal”.

    The
    bottom line is that a reminder/visualiser/reward, such as your
    calculated word total each day, can propel us forward towards our goal.
    It is a nifty little “tool” to know and can work in many settings.

    Interested readers can find a nice little summary at this website: http://coglode.com/gem/goal-gradient-effect

    Looking forward to your next e-newsletter.

    Best wishes
    Robert

    • wissensagentur

      Thank you for sharing this study! Very interesting and helpful.

    • Thanks for sharing the science behind my observation, Robert. I really appreciate the link!

    • Fred

      Excellent! Thank you.

  • Fred

    Hi Daphne,
    This is another of the many, very practical, helpful writing productivity ideas you share with us. Like D.N. Frost and Wissensagentur below (above?), I have also found it helpful to track my progress. Mine as been a very simple spreadsheet with two columns, date and what was accomplished, such as number of new words.

    Now I’ve added a column for feelings and one for progress-to-goal. If it turns out, that like you, my feeling about my writing session are not very correlated to quantity or quality, then I may drop this column.

    The idea of a progress-to-goal column is brilliant. I’m collapsing “cumulative” and “remaining” into one fraction. And, rather than fix the goal on the total book, I am setting the more proximal goal of where I am in completing the current chapter I am working on. In my non-fiction book of biographical profiles, the chapter length and structure is pretty clear for me now. My hopes are that this “progress fraction” will help be be more efficient in completing each chapter.

    Thanks and I’ll let you know.

    • Adding a column for “feelings” is a good idea because it really hammers home the point that your feelings are completely unimportant. (Once you’ve learned this point, you can consider dropping that column.) Still, I continue to record it becuase it’s a good daily reminder that writing is all about showing up day after day, no matter how you FEEL about it! (I also track my word count by chapter, but felt that was too complicated to get into here. I just have a separate column at the bottom of the spreadsheet, echoing what’s above)

  • Lesvie Archer

    I used to track my writing on Sriviner and after reading this article about how tracking helped you, I believe I will start using it again. Thanks.

  • Antoinette Morgan

    I signed up to your newsletter and already your tips and ideas fascinates me.

    I just have one question for now: is there a particular reason as to why one does the tracking in Word and not Excel?

    I like to make my computer work for me, hahaha.

    Ps: the mind mapping booklet and
    concept is amazing, thank you

    • Many writers are allergic to math, which is why I suggested a Word table. But if you’re comfortable with Excel, you’re right — it will do the basic arithmetic for you so would be a better place to do it.

      • Charles Broming

        Word can do calculations in tables. Try it out.

  • Charles Broming

    This is a good one. I hadn’t considered tracking my output quantitatively, especially with your “feeling” about the day’s work ahead. Btw, did you notice that your feelings about your work each day don’t correlate with your output: Bad Day-389 vs. Went pretty well-396? One might infer from this tiny sample that the tracking drove the output despite the way you felt about writing that day.

    This idea is really good for first, crappy drafts (crappy, first drafts?). I suppose that one could use it for editing by tracking editing time separately and counting pages, too.

    To estimate pages using words, one might estimated divide total word count by estimated average words per page, e. g., 75,000/300 = 250 pages (at 300 words/page). Different forms of content would indicate different averages and totals (technical vs. fiction, say), and different content forms have different norms for book-, essay-, and story-length.

    I love it. I’ll create a spreadsheet right after I finish this post.

    • That’s EXACTLY why I started tracking feelings — because I could see they bore no relationship to my actual output. We can all understand this point intellectually, but the value of seeing it in a tracking document is so much more powerful!

      • Charles Broming

        I find that once I start, my feelings just before I started are pushed out of the way by the force of my concentration. The next problem is stopping.

  • Lesley Grainge

    Hi Daphne. I have set it up on my computer. Thanks

  • Charles Broming

    Here’s a quote from Rachel Toor quoting Graham Greene:

    “They know that a lot of important stuff happens when they’re not “working.” I love this passage from Graham Greene’s novel The End Of The Affair: “I was trying to write a book that simply would not come. I did my daily five hundred words, but the characters never began to live. So much in writing depends on the superficiality of one’s days. One may be preoccupied with shopping and income tax returns and chance conversations, but the stream of the unconscious continues to flow, undisturbed, solving problems, planning ahead: one sits down sterile and dispirited at the desk, and suddenly the words come as though from the air: the situations that seemed blocked in a hopeless impasse move forward: the work has been done while one slept or shopped or talked with friends.”

    Productive writers have been through the cycle enough to know it’s a cycle, and sometimes you figure out problems while you’re walking the dog. They know to trust that and don’t get twitchy when the pages stop piling up.”