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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

Tricks of Tracking: #1 Track the Right Stuff

track-spreadsheet-tablet-123rf-number-10598682_s How do you measure your writing progress: Word counts? Critical due dates? Action steps taken?

I track Product Time, that is, the amount of time I spend doing anything necessary to move a writing project forward. Here’s why.

While revising and reworking my novel, daily word counts of Chapter 61 shifted from 1675 to 1700 one day, then from 1700 to 1911 another day, then down to 1731 the following day.

If I tracked words as the primary measure of my progress, I would’ve been at loss. Was increasing from 1675 to 1700 a small good thing and from 1700 to 1911 even better? What then to make of the reduction to 1731?

For me, ending up around 1700 words rather than 1900 words was preferable. I tend to write long and my overall goal in that revision was to reduce word count. Another writer might want to keep expanding the word count. Either way, the word count alone can’t reveal whether the words or revisions are effective.

I wrestled with Chapter 61 and three other chapters near the end of my novel for weeks. I wondered if I was ever going to finish revising one chapter, let alone the entire novel.

If word counts were the primary focus of my tracking, it would be difficult in the extreme to reassure myself that I was making progress. And I did made progress; the final version of 61 is much improved, sets up the next chapter, and raises the stakes all the way to the final chapter.

Why I Track Time

If I focused on word counts, I might not have the heart to keep wrestling with revision. And let’s face it, good writing comes from rewriting

I can look back in my Product Time Tracking table and see that, even though it felt like I was stuck for weeks and put in endless hours, I worked on Chapter 61 for five days and invested just over 5 hours.

My tracking table is proof that I’m showing up. I can see the days where I struggled and stayed with it. I see the days I got “a-ha” moments. Because I can see all this, I’m  motivated to keep showing up.

Even more important, my tracking table, which is always open on my desktop, keeps me aware of when I’m not showing up, which is fine when I committed to zero minutes that day and essential information if I planned to put in time and didn’t.

I track many elements: sometimes word counts, sometimes what rewards I give myself, always time. But the best measure for me to focus on is how much time I invest in Product Time. Even when I’m drafting and creating new copy, when word count can be an appropriate and effective measure for many writers, I’m better off keeping the focus on the time.

What’s Your Best Measure?

track-spreadsheet-compass-123rf-number-11505746_sWhat do you track? Does that information keep you motivated? What could you gain from tracking other information?

For some writers, a steady climb in word count is a powerful motivator and a drop indicates the need for corrective action. Even so, I think making word counts your primary tracking focus is a mistake.

When you are maintaining or increasing the time you invest, a drop in word count might mean you’re doing a great job of tightening a piece. Or it could highlight that you’re trying to edit while drafting (never a good idea). Or that life is interrupting your focus during Product Time, or you’re avoiding something or you’re doing an outstanding job of brainstorming, or…

As long as you are showing up and putting your time, you are making progress. It might seem like nothing is happening and, indeed, there are days when nothing changes in the word count. But the time you invest brainstorming, incubating, revising and wrestling is never wasted time. Your tracking chart should reflect that.

What Do You Need to Know?

track-spreadsheet-gears-123rf-number-12826363_sWhat information you should track depends on what you want tracking to do for you.

  • Motivate you to keep working
  • Reflect both the effort you’re putting in and the results you get
  • Reveal when reality doesn’t match commitments and intentions
  • Address problems before they get too big
  • Highlight when you’re resisting writing, distracting yourself, etc.
  • Identify patterns (e.g. particular days of the week, seasons of the year, type of project or project status that deviate from the norm or from expectations)
  • Alert you when you need to change what you’re doing
  • Show the development of a project (e.g. when you started and completed particular steps)
  • Reward you (seeing progress is an intrinsic reward) or remind you to reward yourself.

Whatever measures you use — time, word count, tasks completed or other project status indicators — you need to record your commitment, target and actual. What did you say you would do on a specified date and time? Did you have a target you were shooting for beyond the commitment? What did you actually do on that date and time and how did you feel about it?

Please comment on what you track or what you wished you’d started tracking years ago.

Upcoming  post: Tricks of Tracking #2 KISS.

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10 Comments on “Tricks of Tracking: #1 Track the Right Stuff”

  1. Glynis Jolly November 12, 2016 at 9:30 am #

    I don’t track time. That makes me feel I’m in a race, which I feel is the wrong mood to be in when trying to be creative. I track scenes. They’re more or less complete even in the first draft and guide me along always going forward.


    • rosannebane November 22, 2016 at 9:56 am #

      Hi Glynis, Thanks for sharing what you track and how that works for you. There are times when tracking scenes or chapter completion dates and revision dates is very motivating for me, too.


  2. kperrymn November 10, 2016 at 2:57 pm #

    This encouraging post came on a day when I really needed it! I spent my product time today writing a new “island” for my memoir. The new piece was just under 1,000 words. As I figured out where to place it in Scrivener, I discovered a major flaw in the organization of my draft. I spent some time reordering things, and as I did this work, an important connection occurred to me–one that I couldn’t believe I had missed. I made some notes to use tomorrow when I get back to my book. And because I track product time, it all counts! Thanks, Rosanne, for teaching me this. It helps me keep the momentum going and the positive energy flowing.


    • rosannebane November 10, 2016 at 4:20 pm #

      Katie, I’m delighted to hear tracking Product Time still works for you and that you continue to work on your memoir. Congrats on the latest 1,000 words and Kudos on the latest insight!


  3. Bev Larson November 10, 2016 at 11:08 am #

    This excellent article just reaffirmed how well it works. I took your class on “Around the writers block” and found that this tracking method can be used for even more than writing. It’s awesome. Thank you so much for the time and commitment you invest in your mission to make us better writers.


    • rosannebane November 10, 2016 at 4:21 pm #

      Thanks for the feedback, Bev. It is so gratifying to hear that my writing and teaching makes a difference for you and other writers who in turn make a difference in the world.



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