Time in, words out: a writer’s tug-of-war

How do you measure progress at the keyboard?

Many writers like to use word count. A good day’s work is measured based on how many new words you write.

Some writers prefer page count. This is the same as word count, in the sense that it’s based on how much you produce.

Other writers prefer to track time. This is especially true when trying to track yourself during a later draft, or an intensive revision to an editor’s edits.

Regardless of which method you use to measure progress, you’ll always come up against a conundrum, which I like to call the “time in, words out effect”.

Let’s imagine three writers: Joe, Mary, and Angela.

All of them compare their writing progress at the end of a day.

Here’s Joe’s:

  • 5,000 new words on his manuscript

Here’s Mary’s:

  • 4 hours sitting at the keyboard, got through 18th chapter of 6th draft of book

Here’s Angela’s:

  • 10 new pages written, 6 hours total, reviewed 70 pages of old draft and threw away 60 pages

Who of the three was more productive?

It’s tempting to say Joe was the most productive, because writing 5000 new words is pretty impressive.

But writing 5000 new words say nothing about how good those words are. How many of Joe’s bad writing habits are just being repeated and reinforced by writing quickly? How much “lazy writing” is going on in those 5000 words because Joe is in a hurry to write fast to meet his quota? How many poor writing choices are in that 5000-word span of writing because his brain clocked out 1/2 way through and he would have been better taking a break for the day?

Mary’s time at the keyboard might seem better, because it’s based on quality, not quantity. Because Mary isn’t pushing herself toward an artificial goal, this means if she takes 25 minutes on one paragraph to seriously think it all through (it is a 6th draft, after all), then so be it. Mary’s focus is on disciplined time sitting at the computer screen, solving the problems before her one at a time.

The only problem this can present for some writers who follow a similar strategy is, how do you determine if the time logged is truly productive? A word count goal can be great because it helps you determine if you’re producing at an adequate rate or not.

I personally like Angela’s approach the best. On the surface, saying that she took 6 hours to write 10 new pages sounds a bit slow. But when she added that she reviewed 70 pages of her previous draft then discerned from that the best 10 pages to go forward on, I can see her process.

Much of the hard work that makes good writing is rewriting. Much of rewriting involves carefully thinking about the effects your writing is having on a reader. This can’t be measured in word count or page count. Stopping to intuit exactly what touches a sentence needs, or what new direction a paragraph or even a scene needs to take, carefully thinking about what the heck is wrong here then nailing that right on the head and, on top of this all, finding the perfect remedy, well, that’s fucking hard work. It’s a tug-of-war between producing new material and checking yourself against integrating deadwood.

However you measure progress, the key, I think, comes down to one idea:

Butt in the chair, eyes and mind on the story.

Do that, and the results, though fun and helpful to measure, are secondary.

What kind of writer are you? How do you like to measure progress? I’d love to hear in the comments!


About John Robin

John Robin is an epic fantasy writer, professional editor, and lover of imaginary worlds. He write stories about magic and myth, human suffering and the power to rise above it. He loves world building, coffee shops, mathematics, chess, and is an avid author community builder.
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