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Wednesday, July 9, 2014

"Spreadsheet” Isn’t A Dirty Word: How Data Tracking Can Boost Your Word Count - a guest post by Kait Nolan

I recently got a Fitbit One. It’s an activity tracker that is, in many ways, like a super swanky pedometer. It measures the number of steps I take in a day, the number of “active minutes” (though that’s a bit misleading as it doesn’t register activity that isn’t walking, running, or hiking), flights of stairs, and it even provides a nifty means of monitoring my quality of sleep. I decided to get one because, now that I’m over thirty, weight loss isn’t as easy as it used to be and I wanted a better measure of my level of activity and how many calories I truly burn over the course of a day. Being that I’m a social science researcher in my evil day job, I am a complete data junkie. The Fitbit ties in very nicely with that.

 I can hear you now, asking what the heck this has to do with writing. I’m getting there, I promise.

You’ve probably heard somewhere or other that you should try to get in 10,000 steps a day. This equates to somewhere around 4.5 to 5 miles (depending on your stride). What I quickly found within the first week I had my Fitbit is that on an average work day, I rarely get in more than 5k steps (since a great deal of my fitness regimen is not of the variety that a Fitbit measures), which is a far cry from the recommended amount. So I began to adapt my behavior in response to the data, finding ways to add steps to my existing habits. Taking the long way back from the bathroom or the break room kitchen. Taking the stairs instead of the elevator. Getting up and walking down the hall instead of calling or IMing a colleague. These little changes have netted me a daily average of more like 6.5-7k. Still not 10k, but I’m getting there.

 I’ve applied the same kind of data-driven technique to my writing. See, writing is actually my third job. I have a full-time job as a researcher and a second, half-time job as a college instructor that I have to juggle on top of my spouse, my special needs dog, and all the various and sundry distractions that go along with being a productive member of adult society (and to think we spent all that time wanting SO DESPERATELY to be GROWN UPS when we were kids). My spare time is limited, so I have to make the most of it.

 That was the impetus behind my first word count tracking spreadsheet—a desire to improve my productivity. That was back in 2010. I charted how many words I wrote every day for the year, and me being me, I analyzed the results at the end. I wrote fewer days than I didn’t (171 writing days compared to 194 non-writing days) and I averaged 605 words a day for an annual word count of just over 100k. Which doesn’t suck, but that’s only one full-length novel, which does not a publishing career make. I knew I could do more, so I continued to chart, continued to push myself, making small changes to my routine. Spewing out a hundred words during breakfast. Jotting down a few more when I had a few minutes free during the work day. In 2011 I managed to write only one more day than I had in 2010, but my average word count went up to 735, so my annual total went up.

 I knew I couldn’t make too much more difference at that time in the number of words I was spitting out per day, so the next thing I tackled was making sure I wrote MORE days out of the year. That meant doing more to keep my head in the story—a great deal of my writing time got wasted by having to go back over what I’d done before, or shaking off the work day so I could THINK. I started reading the previous scene during breakfast, trying to sketch out the scene I needed to work on during lunch so that when I sat down to write at night, I knew what I needed to do. So 2012 ended with 226 writing days—a whopping 54 MORE days of writing than I had the previous year. That’s nearly 2 more months of writing. And, as it turned out, I did manage to nudge up that daily average to 811 words. I did it again in 2013, jumping to 279 writing days (53 days more than the previous year)—although a lot of that was possible because the project from hell at the evil day job finally ended, which freed up a lot of my mental energy for other things. Averaging 862 words per day, I ended last year with a whopping 240471 words. This year I’m averaging 1100 words per day, and I’m on track to hit 300,000k words by the end of December. If only I could figure out how to write the perfect first draft so that that was three whole novels… 

Now you’re not going to miraculously start writing more just by jotting down how many words you write a day. The point of collecting the data in the first place is to make you aware of what you’re already doing (your baseline), and then start figuring out what you can do to tweak it. There are oodles of things you can track. Time of day. Mood. Whether or not you meditated beforehand. If you plotted things out. If you exercised that day. Location. Music. Everybody’s got a different system, so figure out what aspects there are to yours that you can track over time, then take that data and start changing things to see what impact it has on your numbers. And perhaps most importantly, remember they’re only numbers. They aren’t meant to pressure you or make you feel as if you’re “failing”. They’re a jumping off point. And hopefully just enough impetus for you to see as you’re recording your daily wad, that you’re only 58 words from the next hundred, and surely you can push through to get that…

 A few other resources I’d offer up that have helped my productivity include
StayFocused (browser extension to keep me from wasting time on Facebook or email when I should be writing),
Coffitivity (website that provides coffeeshop noise because I don’t think well in straight silence), MoodTurn.com (website that offers up a variety of nature sounds, so that I can get a rainy day outside my virtual coffeeshop), and
Rachel Aaron’s From 2k to 10k.


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Kait Nolan is stuck in an office all day, sometimes juggling all three of her jobs at once with the skill of a trained bear—sometimes with a similar temperament. After hours, she uses her powers for good, creating escapist fiction. This Mississippi native has something for everyone, from short and sweet to Southern contemporary romance to action-packed paranormal—all featuring heroes you’d want to sweep you off your feet and rescue you from work-day drudgery. When not working or writing, Kait’s hanging out in her kitchen cooking and wishing life were a Broadway musical. A passionate believer in helping others, she has founded a writing challenge designed for people who have a life (aka we NaNoWriMo rejects who can’t give everything up for the month of November). Please check out A Round of Words in 80 Days. You can catch up with her at her blog, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, and Pots and Plots.

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