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Collecting Data On Your Writing

Black and White Wireless Keyboard by TheHappyCactusIf you have any sort of science background, one of the most surprising things about trying to achieve success as a writer is the lack of metrics to gauge your progress. We live in a world of numbers, whether they be sales targets, exams scores, or measures of efficiency. Therefore, stepping into a world where a rejection doesn’t come with a grade telling you just how close you came to having your submission accepted can feel a little disconcerting at first. There’s good reason for this. Your vampire techno thriller may have been the second one of the day and the editor subjectively liked the other one better. Maybe they have an irrational hate of unicorns. And just because you make yourself write five hundred words, that doesn’t say anything about their quality.

When you take a moment to think about it, it’s easy to see why the process of writing is so devoid of a lot of metrics and statistics. But that doesn’t mean that meaningful information isn’t available. In fact, collecting the right sort of data and interpreting it correctly can actually be useful and help some writers.

A Thoughtful Life by Deborah DeWit (detail)So why collect data? First and foremost, it can provide vital insight into your processes. You might be the type of writer who is happy with the way they work and see no need to change, but if you’re the type who wants to be more efficient – worker smarter rather than harder – data can give you a view of just how well your current processes are working. Even if your aim is not to become a more efficient writer (again, getting five hundred words written quicker doesn’t mean those five hundred words will be better), at least the knowledge will allow you to better understand the way you currently work and make an informed decision on any changes to your approach to getting projects done. And lastly, with writers naturally tightly focused on work they are currently writing or have yet to complete, it can be a handy reminder to be able to look back at what you have accomplished so far.

The trick to data collection as a writer is to remember that you can’t measure quality. That can be a particularly difficult realisation to make – especially if your submissions appear to be sent back time after time with nothing more than a standard rejection – but it is one all writers have to come to terms with eventually. Instead you should aim to measure those things of which you are in control: time writing, number of words, that sort of thing.

Pencils by MadThreadMost importantly, any data collection should not detract from the actual writing. Thinking that you can’t write anything until you have created a master spreadsheet with a hundred different fields to be filled out and a pivot table serves no purpose other than as a procrastination activity. Keep it simple and try to make it a part of your ritual of sitting down to write.

Keeping a spreadsheet with a log of your writing can prove to be incredibly useful though. There are many examples available on the internet, some with complicated macros and drop down boxes. There are even mobile phone apps starting to appear with inbuilt stopwatch facilities to collect this data for you. But at the most basic level all you need to collate is the date, the time you started and finished writing and how many words you wrote in that time. You can create simple formulas to work out how many words an hour you are writing or a note of which particular project, or stage of the project you are on, but even at its most elaborate, a writing log needs little more than that.

You obviously need a large set of data before you can start making any conclusions but many writers have found that after a few months of writing daily they’ve been able to establish which times of day they appear to write the quickest . You can also get an idea of the average speed that you write at, which makes it easier to work out when that two hundred thousand word novel you’re writing is going to be complete. You can start to recognise trends. Perhaps your Monday writing sessions are a little slow because, you realise, you are still tired from a hectic weekend, or you discover that your pace picks up towards the end of writing a novel. You can also make changes to your process and see if it has any impact on your efficiency. And don’t forget, having a record of how many words you’ve written over the past year can sometimes bring things into perspective when you’re at those sticky parts of a novel where the words come like treacle and you feel disheartened and ready to quit. It can even be a motivator to write each day so that you don’t have any holes in your spreadsheet.

Write More Pencils by thebigharumphDepending whether you are a pantser or a plotter, the data you collect will have different importance. Understanding what’s more efficient in your personal writing process doesn’t mean you need to change. Monitoring your progress can be a motivator. It allows you to experiment with your writing and see what works for you. What it won’t do is necessarily make the actual writing any easier or reduce the number of rejections. The hard work of actually writing still has to be done.

What data do you collect on your writing and has it helped you? If so, how? Let us know in the comments below.

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4 Comments

  1. kj01a says:

    >Maybe they have an irrational hate of unicorns.

    Fiends.

  2. Rebecca says:

    I think there’s a lot more data that you can find in your writing. You can text mine your writing – it might not tell you the quality of your work but it can probably help you figure out what the work is ABOUT, or if characters develop over the course of your work, or if the season change appropriately.

    Text mining has been used, for example, to chart the evolution of plant species by text mining botanical academic journals. If you can chart evolution with data from writing, you can do a lot of stuff!

  3. Very well written. I am going to start using spread sheets to record my data and track my progress!

    I think a lot of writers shy away from this, because as you said, they know that their output is subjective. But their inputs can indeed by tracked, recorded, measured, and improved.

    Great piece!

    —Vic S.—

  4. […] pushing myself.  At the core of that is metrics.  I wrote a little about metrics back in a Fantasy Faction article last year but I’m making a real point of logging all my writing so I can track not only progress […]

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