Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Measure wisely

When I posted about progress and motivation last week, a comment there reminded me of the darker side of targets and measurements. The comment was about feelings of backsliding when the writer took a pause from writing in order to go back and work some changes into the manuscript.

My feeling about that is: if the changes are improving the story, then it’s still progress, not backsliding at all.

The trouble is that it can feel like you’re taking steps backwards if you only focus on one way of measuring progress. And that can be dispiriting.

I think it’s important to be careful how you choose to measure progress, and to pick measurements that make sense. And those measurements will change depending on what you are doing.

For example, while I’m working on a first draft (like I am right now) then word count is a useful measure of progress. It is certainly one that I use, and which I (usually) find motivational as I discussed last time.

Even there, though, you could easily choose other measures of progress. If you are a detailed plotter, for example, then you probably have all your chapters mapped out, so you could measure progress by how many chapters you’ve finished drafting. I don’t work like that, so that measure makes no sense for me, which goes back to the “pick measures that make sense” part.

But when I get into edits and revisions, word count is not a good guide. Instead, I start tracking how much of the manuscript I’ve worked through in the current revision round. Different task, different measure.

When setting myself targets, I prefer to think first about what I am trying to achieve - what is the goal, or the benefit I’m striving for? Then I ask myself, how will I know when I’ve achieved it?

That may be enough for a fairly short task, for example: by this time next week I will have completed X. But if the goal is going to take weeks or months, that’s when measurements of progress come in handy to keep me on track. Then I ask one more question: how can I tell how well I’m doing? This last question should give you clues as to what to measure if you want to track progress over time.

Yes, targets and measurements are powerful tools. Used well they can provide great motivation, but a poor choice can crush you.


  1. Hi Ian - I'm sure having a good 'organisation' in place ... so one is constantly following through and checking, but not wasting time. Useful post - cheers Hilary

  2. It isn't all about word counts. Revisions are very important and certainly progress forward.

  3. Hilary, in this case I guess it's not so much about organization, as motivation.

    Alex, exactly. I measure progress in revisions very differently from the first draft.

  4. I am a horrible perfectionist when it comes to myself. If I am not constantly creating, revising, working, doing, I can become absolutely vicious with myself. My thyroid burnt itself out by the time I was 15, and I have problems with becoming fatigued very easily. I heard the word "lazy" so often when I was growing up that I tend to become angry with myself for resting at all. Combined with obsessive-compulsive disorder, I am constantly chasing myself around in circles, and I never measure up to my own standards.

  5. Hi Ian,

    Well stated, good sir. I truly believe if we start putting to much pressure on ourselves, get caught up in word counts and create potentially unrealistic targets, it takes away from the true ideals of why we write in the first place.

    Thank you for your thoughtful post, Ian.

    A good weekend to you and yours.


  6. Cara, that's actually another good use of appropriate targets - they can help you pace yourself and avoid burnout.

    Gary, nice to hear from you again. Hope things are well with you.

  7. Hmmm, methinks the "backsliding" comment you referred to came from me. :)

    Good points. Still, when I'm trying to move forward, it's a bit disheartening to have to go back to the starting line all over again. Then again, I don't really "have" to do that, do I? I could keep moving blithely forward and ignore the discrepancies in my book and reality. Um, nope. Can't do that. So you're right. It's a matter of due diligence, and in its own way, it IS forward progress. :)

  8. Susan, correct on the first part, I hope you don't mind :) And the second part was the whole point of the post - to persuade people to be kind to themselves and recognize that there are other forms of progress than simple word count.


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