What I’m Reading
What I Recently Read
Imagine you could be involved in NaNoWriMo every month, without having to worry about writing 1,666 words of your novel’s first draft every day. What if instead, you could write whatever you were able, on whatever project is important to you at the time, and get the added boost from a community of writers who are doing the same?
Perhaps a writing day might look like:
- 1,543 words of your first draft
- 678 new words on your second draft, and 5600 words reviewed/polished
- 9800 words polished in your fourth draft, 123 new words written
- 5 20-minute sprints focused on various levels of writing, 340 tracked new words written, approximately 3000 words reviewed
- 1275 words of first draft of novel A, 4500 words revised of novel B, 3×20-minute sprints pre-planning work on novel C
Depending on where you’re at in your process, and what kind of writer you are, you might fit into any one of those categories.
What if you could track that in a simple way, and join a club of writers who were doing the same so as to feel the same push and group accountability as NaNoWriMo, without the pressure of having to finish a novel in a month?
This problem is what led me to create the Awesome Writer Spreadsheet, which launched this month. Simply put, the Awesome Writer Spreadsheet allows you to track:
- Your new words written (“word count” in NaNoWriMo lingo)
- Your words edited (rounded to the nearest 100)
- Your time intervals (measured in 20-minute sprints)
It also rewards you for writing every day, and if you need to take a day off (or two), you also get residual rewards for your total days in (consistency over time). The formulas in the spreadsheet compute a “word score” which is a relative word count which assigns a weight to your writing time in on a given day. The more your write (on that day, and over time), the bigger your score.
I’ll talk about each part of the sheet in turn.
1. New words written
One challenge I’ve heard voiced from writers who have gone through NaNoWriMo is the pressure to just get words down and not think about them. While there’s value to pushing the words out, there’s also a lot to be missed by not allowing yourself to rewrite.
Most writers rewrite sentences as they go. The result is, after about an hour of writing, they might have 300-400 words to account for their progress. This is not tinkering. This is discovering. So, while you must write forward, sometimes to understand how to write past a wall, you must go back to where the writing went off track and discover just what you were trying to do. All in all, it’s a balance, which means thinking differently about “new words written”.
For the Awesome Writer Spreadsheet, you can keep track of the total new words you’ve written in a day by keeping a tally as you go. It’s not about the word count in your document but about the word count you’ve been keeping track of. I personally find doing this every time I have a creative burst and stop to think gives me an added boost because it’s a measure of my progress. (I simply highlight the text and copy it into http://hemingwayapp.com/ where the word count is automatically tracked on the right.)
2. Words edited
The needs of a given writing day might vary depending on where you are in your project. If you were doing NaNoWriMo and the novel you’re having published next year suddenly arrives from the first editor guess what? Bye-bye novel project, editing mayhem has begun.
The beauty of the Awesome Writer Spreadsheet is it allows you to keep track of the words you’ve edited so that, regardless of where your focus has had to shift, you have a sense of forward progress every day. Whether you’ve decided that in order to best ground yourself in where chapter 22 is going, you need to spend time reading over chapter 21 and a part of chapter 18 where the events you’re building on took root, or if you’ve had to start multitasking by dealing with edits and cutting back daily progress on your new novel, this feature is handy.
Because the amount you can go over previous words written and read/analyze much quicker than writing new ones, the “word score” for this one is set at 1/10. So, for example, if you read over chapter 22 and it’s 4500 words long, then you’d get 450 word added to your word score. If you managed to write 750 words of your WIP, you’d get 1200 words total in your word score for the day from these two contributions alone.
(You round your words edited to the nearest 100 to avoid decimal word counts.)
3. Time intervals
During NaNoWriMo, many writers motivate each other by going on “20-minute sprints”. I love these because everyone in a given group can coordinate and say “timer on” then they all vanish into their projects, coming back when the timer goes off. Rather than working for 2 solid hours, these sprints allow you to make solid progress in smaller units.
You might prefer working for a long block of time, but even so the point is sometimes focusing on time put in is a better way to measure your productivity. What if you’ve spent a good deal of time on a given day involved in analysis or problem solving while at a critical spot in your manuscript? The timer is on and you’re writing and you are making sure Facebook and other distractions are closed, but you haven’t made progress in terms of new words or going over edits, but you have made progress that just doesn’t compute to a simple word count.
The Awesome Writer Spreadsheet lets you put in your total time in (in 20-minute units, rounded to the nearest unit), and you receive a bonus accordingly.
This is probably the most complicated part of the sheet. But don’t worry! This is the part of the sheet you won’t even see happening because I did all the hard work in the background using the script editor, so all the mathematics and programming happens in a flash. You just have to put your time interval in, along with your words written and words editing, and presto, a word bonus appears and gets added to your word score.
Though I won’t go into the nitty gritty, I will give you a rough idea of what this computation does:
- Analyzes your total new words written and total words edited and measures them against your target word goal
- Compares total new words and total words edited to time interval and assigns a weight to the time based on how much you exceeded your target
- Assigns extra bonus based on the value of your streak
- Assigns extra bonus (but less than with streak) based on overall consistency of writing over time
- Gives you more bonus if you’ve written less new words and revised less new words, since it robustly assumes this means more of your focused time was spent on analysis
A few more awesome things about this spreadsheet
To use this spreadsheet, you only need to enter your new words written, total words edited, and number of 20-minute time intervals in a given day. You get a word score (and therefore you continue your day streak and add to your consistency score) even if you wrote for 20 minutes and managed 15 words. In other words, the goal of this sheet is to encourage you to put in the time more consistently and build a consistent habit, not to push for an artificial word count that can lead to strain in your personal life.
You can also set your target word score based on what you think is reasonable. If coming out with a word score of 500 words every day is meaningful then you set that. This way, you’re not comparing your score to everyone else’s and feeling like you’re not measuring up.
The spreadsheet also computes a suggested word score target for you based on how you actually do. So if you set your word score target to 500 words but daily your output is close to 700, you can adjust it based on this number.
The spreadsheet also is a great way to network with other writers. We put our social media and website information in our rows and you can feel free to connect with those whose progress you see every day you go in.
The best part: I’ll be managing all of this so you just need to show up and add your word count and I (and the formulas chugging in the background) will do the rest.
Do you want to get in on the Awesome Writer Spreadsheet? Let me know by email — email@example.com — and I’ll help get you set up to join.
You can also join us on Twitter at #AwesomeWriterClub.
I am an avid runner. I used to run 5 times a week and have done a full marathon, and a half. I sprained my ankle 3 years ago, and during the year it took for that to heal, I cut back on the frequency and soon got into strength training. Now, I run 2-3 times a week, and I get to the gym for a 40-50 minute strength training workout about that many times as well, depending on rest/recovery needs.
I used to be motivated by competition, but now it’s simply health. I push myself because I want results, but that isn’t so I can get better body or place in the summer Olympics. It’s because I know that if, week after week, I continue to either maintain or slightly improve on how I performed previously, overall my fitness becomes that much better. Most importantly, it’s enjoyable and attainable because I’m not pushing toward a synthetic goal, but rather, am working on how I can improve upon a previous result I know I have attained.
To do this, I need to keep track of my progress. I do this using a note in the Notes app on my phone. In a given 7-10 day period, I do about 30 different strength training workouts, which I break into 3 sessions. Over about a 12-17 day period, I do 5 different kinds of runs that target different intensity intervals. The reason for this variance in numbers is because I do not stick to a cookie-cutter workout of XX sessions per week. Instead, I follow a rule of alternating days between run / strength / run / strength and so on, breaking this up for 1-2 days of rest as needed.
For strength training, I track my reps in a given set. For running, I track my heart rate (I wear a Polar M400 monitor), speed, and distance of a given interval (the Polar has a GPS built into it, which tells me my speed). All these numbers go into my note in the Notes app.
Now, why am I getting at this and what does it have to do with writing?
The whole point of tracking myself is so I can measure my performance. My goal is not to strive toward a given result. For instance, I might wish I could run 10x 100-meter sprints at 17mph, keeping my heart rate about 185-189, but this isn’t very realistic. I don’t even know what it will require for my body to adapt to that kind of result!
I know only how I performed in a given session. The next time I do that exact same run, because I wrote down the critical information — speed, distance, heart rate — I can set that as my goal. Maintain, that’s all I strive for. In reality, more often than not, it gets easier and I make a gain. Then, the next time, I maintain that.
It’s this last part that is crucial. In my last run, I was working on 1600m sprints. In that run, I do 3 of these, with about a 2-3 minute walk in between. The first two are difficult. The last one is usually where I want to quit. But because I’d written down my previous results, I pushed myself to at the least maintain. The last 400m of that last sprint was where I hit the true edge and would have quit.
At that moment, I recognized that this exact pain and burn I felt was that exact moment I’d pushed through 2 tough sprints and the first 1200m of a 3rd one to get to. This is it. This is where the real work is happening. I grit my teeth and pushed through, and pain turned into satisfaction until the end. Not only did I maintain and get to the end of that interval, my heart rate was lower than last time and my speed was 0.1mph higher.
The aim to maintain led to a gain. I cooled down and wrote it down for next time, and now for next time, I’ll work to maintain that. And in this way, continually improve in a manner that my body is able to accommodate.
This concept translates to any act that requires perseverance. Productivity especially.
The goal of being productive is not to spend all day working and getting as much done as possible. (Should not be, anyway.) If you enter your day with a to-do list the size of a mountain and decide that success on that day is getting it all done, you might be skipping lunch and working until 10pm and going to bed with a tension headache. Never mind what that’s going to do to the rest of your week.
If on the other hand you enter the day with a to-do list and an intention to set aside focused work periods, tackling this list in order of priority, then you might not get everything done, but you can end your day knowing with satisfaction that you advanced your tasks with the same — or slightly better — efficiency than the previous day.
In my work day, I set aside 2 hours for writing every day. Then I set aside 2 hours to do work that requires focus. For example, writing this blog post right now is part of my 2nd 2-hour work period and all my attention is on this one task that I know, from previous weeks, I can accomplish in well under 2 hours. For the afternoon, I push for 5 20-minute focus periods and tend to tackle projects that have short-term shelf life, like answering emails, supervising editing projects, anything under deadline.
In all cases, having this specific time window forces me to push at some point. I always find that there is a drop off on a given day during one of these periods. But because I have this structure as my template, I push during that time and find that often, that’s when the best solutions happen.
The same applies to when I write. My focus is time spent at the keyboard, so if I have a tough revision task, or see an opportunity to one-up my game in a given scene, I don’t decide that I’ll tackle it later because it’s hard and I need to be “in the right head space”. Instead, I’m there, “doing my time” so to speak, and this fosters a willingness to push. Because of this approach, I’ve come back to the manuscript for A Thousand Roads for now more than 180 days and have maintained the quality of writing, with incremental gains, which I continually maintain. Comparing the results in my writing efficiency to what I was doing in December, I’m seeing a quantum leap rather than a slight gain (or the merry-go-round of frustration rewriting/revision can feel like when it comes at you left, right, and center).
This is the true beauty of adopting this maintain-only mindset. When you are focused outwardly on results, your attention shifts away from the most important thing: the specific work you are doing and how you can improve that. For a runner, this leads to injuries. For a creative or freelance person, this leads to burnout. For a writer, this leads to stagnated writing, frustration, half-solutions, circular revision, chasing ideas that lead nowhere.
When you are focused inward on process though, you truly grow because your mind is on the specific work before you and how you can bring everything you have to that work. This lets you be in tune with that awesome meta-moment that comes right when you hit your edge. It lets you decide, Good enough, I’ve made progress today, so you can go on and do the same, or better, tomorrow. It’s the kind of focus that will take you 10x beyond what you’re doing now.
I have a long way to go on A Thousand Roads. But I stare ahead into what will be 13 months of rewriting every day, numerous drafts, continual improvements, a strong, relentless push right until the end, and I’m encouraged by the mystery of thinking: if I’ve improved this much since January, what is the final book going to look like?
Do you relate to this in your own work? Please, do share you thoughts and some examples below.