Keeping track of your word count is great. I do it all the time. It can be an important part of understanding where I am in my novel and how much more I have to write. But it is a poor indicator of how long it will take me. When I am writing, I often set goals by word count. When I am revising, I often set goals by time. However, Katherine Cowley suggests 3 reasons why you should track writing time for a better indicator of progress at any given time.
Katherine Cowley is a short story author who has been published in Steel and Bone, Defenestration, Segullah, 365 Tomorrows, and Mad Scientist Journal, among others. Her most recent story is a novella about an ugly princess who rides a goat and uses a large magic wooden spoon to fight trolls and other creatures. It’s titled “Tatterhood and the Prince’s Hand” and can be found in Unspun: A Collection of Tattered Fairy Tales.
First, a disclaimer: if you’re one of those writers that can turn out over a million words a year, go do your thing. Or if you’re one of those people who writes near perfect first drafts and doesn’t need a lot of revision, then bless your soul, keep at it.
I am not one of those people. And I don’t desire to be one of those people. (The Writing Pal has a great article on why you might not want to be a prolific writer.)
As a writer, I don’t define myself by my output in terms of word count or page count or number of short stories or novels written in a year. Instead, I define myself and my progress by the amount of time I put into writing.
In 2014, I spent 520 hours writing.
In 2015, I spent 600 hours writing.
In 2016, I spent 530 hours writing.
In 2017, I spent 400 hours writing.
So far, in the first four months of 2018, I’ve spent 295 hours writing.
Each year, my key writing goal is about how much time I plan to spend writing. Often I commit to writing for at least 1 hour a day. How to find writing time would be its own blog post. But in short, I find this time by prioritizing that hour of writing time over everything else—whether I do it in the morning, after lunch, or at night, I will write, even if I have a deadline for something else, even if there’s a pile of dishes, even if everything else is demanding my attention.
3 Reasons Why You Should Track Writing Time Not Word Count
1. Often More Time is Spent Revising than Writing First Drafts
To me, the most beautiful part of the writing process is revision, as my ideas, plots, and characters transform and begin to shine.
Newbery Honor winning author Shannon Hale has likened the first draft to building a sandcastle:
I recently finished a novella for the fairy tale anthology Unspun, a collection of fairy tale retellings about what happens after the “happily ever after.”
My story is a retelling of the Norwegian fairy tale Tatterhood, about an ugly princess who fights trolls with a wooden spoon and rides around on a goat.
The first draft of my novella was 18,000 words and the final version ended up at 24,000 words. I can look at what I did to my novella over the course of a year and say, I only added an additional 6,000 words to the story. That looks rather insignificant. But that doesn’t accurately demonstrate all that I did to the story.
In terms of revision, you can keep track of number of words or pages or chapters revised, but sometimes I have a page that needs a very in-depth, transformative revision, which could take me well over an hour, and yet that revision is often more valuable than when I manage to revise a full chapter in an hour.
This is what it can look like when I do a major revision of a page:
2. A Lot More Goes into Writing than Just Words
Another reason I prefer to track writing time is that a lot more goes into writing than just words.
Brainstorming: Sometimes I will brainstorm while I’m doing other things throughout the day, but other times I’ll designate a planned daydreaming session where I’ll spend 30 minutes picturing my characters in a situation, imagining them interacting, listening to what they might say. The time I spend produces much better writing when it’s time to sit down and write.
Outlining: I like to outline my novel, which for me is really big-picture daydreaming—what are the incredible or terrible things my characters must do, and in order for those specific scenes to happen, what else needs to happen before and after that in my story.
For specific scenes, I don’t normally create a detailed outline, but I do jot down some specifics of things I want or need to happen in the scene.
Research: I tend to write stories that require research, whether it’s Viking courting customs, how to build an 1890s alternating current generator, or different types of synesthesia. The time I spend on research gives me ideas for my stories and gives my stories a real-life quality.
My brainstorming, outlining, and researching are invaluable for my writing, and so when I track writing time it allows me to log them.
3. Other Writing Activities Count Too
Beyond writing or revising or other story-specific tasks, there are a lot of other things I do as a writer that help me as a writer. Here’s a short list of what I might do in a given year:
- Submit my short stories to magazines
- Query agents
- Attend a writing conference
- Network with other writers
- Go to a monthly writing group
- Critique the writing of others
- Edit a writing contest
- Write blog posts
- Work on marketing
- Learn about writing craft through podcasts and books
These things help me with my writing and to meet other writing goals. Tracking time allows me to see and recognize all the other writing things I am doing besides adding words.
Track Writing Time to Help You Focus and Balance Your Priorities
I used to track writing time using a physical writing journal, and now I use a time tracking app (more about different options in the next section). But either way, I am having to log my time every day and keep myself accountable. I only can log the time if I’ve actually spent it writing. If I start writing and then get sucked down the Facebook rabbit hole, it can’t go in my writing log. Knowing that I’m going to write “0 hours” if I get distracted keeps me accountable to myself and helps me focus on my writing.
When I am writing a first draft, I often do track the number of new words a day. This helps me to keep moving forward and to not focus on writing perfect words, but rather to get the story down. The more years I’ve spent writing, the easier it is for me to let go and not be a perfectionist on the first draft.
Yet I still run into trouble. What often happens when I’m writing a first draft is that I start writing a lot less every day. Or suddenly I’m critiquing everyone else’s stories and not making progress on my own. Or I’m doing so much research that I never actually write anything. Really, this is all avoidance behavior, because writing first drafts is hard for me.
When I track writing time it helps me to focus and make sure that I am putting enough time towards the things that matter the most. I will prioritize my writing, my short story, my project above dishes or critiquing a friend’s novel because otherwise my stories will never get told.
I also like looking back and seeing how I spent time over the course of a month or a year. Some years I write a lot of new content. Other years I spend a lot of time revising. Some years I spend a ton of time on submissions or my blog. But tracking time allows me to see my priorities and balance them.
Tools to Track Writing Time
For my first four years of tracking writing time, I used an old school journal: a notebook where I’d log what I did every day. At the end of each month I would total my hours and word count, and then at the end of the year I’d calculate totals (and if I was feeling lofty, figure out the proportion of time spent on each project).
This year, I’ve started using a time tracking app.
There are a lot of time tracking apps out there, but I chose toggl because I can use it on my phone and it has a powerful desktop web browser version and it can generate really beautiful reports and graphs for free.
For example, here’s how it tracked my writing in April 2018:
You can look at any time period—a day, a week, a month, a year, etc. and see what you’ve accomplished.
I gave a presentation for an online writing conference about Writing Accountability and Tracking Systems. The second video in the presentation is specifically about how I use toggl to track my writing:
Basically, once I’m in toggl I set up each of my main writing categories as a client (my novel, marketing/my blog, short stories, etc.) and then create different projects within each client (so for my novel, I’d have a project for research, for outlining, for my first draft, for my second draft, etc.). If I want to add a word count, I add that in my description and tag it with the phrase “word count” so I can easily find it later.
Whether or not you decide to track your writing, it’s important to value the progress you make. Writing words is important, but so is all the time you put into the various aspects of writing. One of the best ways to motivate yourself to keep working on something is to recognize what you’ve done as valuable, and so whether you track time or find other ways to measure your progress, remember that you as a writer are more than your word count.