Sunday, September 30, 2012

Progress and motivation

Here is another little tool I use to help move my writing along.

This is not for everyone, I know, but I'm a bit of a measurement freak at times. When I'm tackling a big project, I need to see my progress somehow.

Writing a novel is a big project. Here's what I use to give a visual guide of how I'm doing. This is done in Excel. There's a table of data, and a graph.

First off, I need to explain how I write. I don't find it easy to find my way around a 400 page document, so I break it up into easy chunks. Ghosts wound up split over 13 separate documents. I give each document a meaningful name related to the story at that point, then prefix it with a number to ensure the documents appear in the correct sequence.

This makes it more difficult to keep track of overall word count, which is where the spreadsheet came in originally. There is a column for each document, where I keep note of the separate word counts. This is then easy to total up.

To turn it into a graph over time, I create separate rows showing the word count on particular dates. So as not to have too many rows, I usually create a row per week rather than per day. This shows how the word count rises over time - the red line in the graph.

But progress is more meaningful with a target to aim for. So, I have a "Target" row showing where I want the word count to be at some point in the future. It is then a simple formula to work out what the target should be on any given day, which automatically populates the target column, and produces the blue line on the graph.

You can see, I started off badly and have been slightly below target ever since. But I don't feel too bad about it, because I'm still on course for a reasonable word count by the end of the year. I'm pitching short of full novel length for a first run through, because I find it easier to add words in where scenes or characters need development, than to trim out later on.

I find measurements like this can be a double-edged sword.

If I'm doing reasonably well, and I've got some momentum going, then seeing the chart climb helps keep me on the straight and narrow. I feel good when I'm on course, and I can kick myself into making the extra effort to keep it that way. This worked for me while I was drafting Ghosts, and it seems to be working now. That little chart helps draw me back each evening, even if I only have the energy to add a couple of hundred words. I stay in the habit of writing each day.

However, if I'm not feeling the love, then no amount of graphing will motivate me, and I'm more likely to get depressed at the targets I'm missing. This happened when I first started Tiamat's Nest. I drafted some scenes, started tracking with the aim of completing a draft in a few months, then ran out of steam.

I don't believe in becoming a slave to targets, so the best thing to do in that case is acknowledge that this is not the right time, and set it aside. That's what I did with this WIP three years ago, and now I'm back with a vengeance!


  1. Hey Ian!

    Cool graph. I am right there with you on not being able to navigate huge documents like that. I finally started using a program called yWriter. Each scene is a separate file, and it groups them into chapters. It also keeps daily archives so if you decide that what you had written three days ago is better than what you have now (Voice of experience on this one), you can go roll back the text in question.

    Check it out, it's cool and free. I may see if it has any graphing functions. Have you used any of the graphs on CC?


  2. Hi J, ability to roll back can be useful. I always take a copy of everything before embarking on major revisions, and if I'm chopping out stuff I sometimes stick it into a "dustbin" document - just in case.

  3. You are way more organized than me, but I've been training my brain to log these things for the last decade. I keep a mental spreadsheet next to the inner shelf of "works in progress". See, this is the reason I don't geek out on tech stuff, numbers scare me. (I blame it on a slight case of dyslexia.) I think as far as motivation, my writing groups are a better resource--people nudging each other forward with the expectation that we all report once a day on our progress. It's interesting to see how differently we all go about the same process, and amazing how every writer's approach is unique.

  4. Crystal, the "mental spreadsheet" doesn't work for me any more. Brain too old and leaky :)

    Yes, every writer's approach is unique, and fascinating.

  5. I looked at something like this with Scrivener. I must admit that I'm especially challenged when it comes to excel or anything like this, so the Scrivener trial software didn't last long. I'm a post-it girl at heart!

  6. Ellie, each of us has our own preferences and ways of working. The trick is to find the tools (computer or otherwise) that work best for you.

  7. Fascinating! I should graph my projects and words count more often. I think, like you, I'd have my up an down days. I would like to get to the point when I write a consistent amount over a long period of time. That would be fun to graph! :)

    Have a great weekend!

  8. Emily, as with many things, it works for some people and not for others. If you like graphs, this can work well.

  9. Hi Ian .. now I'm free I hope to spend more time learning some of these programmes - I can use Excel .. but I just do basic at everything .. got to get that learning hat on again. So I'm always interested in programmes people are using, or ways they track things ... I have to clear the notes off the desk, tables, floors, bedroom tables and spare room and start my new clean life!! At one stage in my life I was the tidy queen ..

    Cheers Hilary


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