The Self-Quantified Writer

The quantified self movement of collecting personalized body data has exploded since its ‘genesis’ in 2007, with a FitBit on every wrist and services like 23 and me offering personalized genetic analysis. I’m a data fanatic who studied to become a scientist, and I’ve bought into personal analytics, with a FitBit of my own, food tracking on MyFitnessPal, a log of my reading on Goodreads, and time tracking on RescueTime. But why should data be limited to our bodies’ data? Why not apply self-tracking to our creative pursuits, too?

Why Track Your Writing?

The theory behind the quantified self is that we will care about what we track, and we ignore what we don’t track – so, by tracking our exercise, our food, our weight, we’ll be able to improve our health according to those metrics. There’s evidence that simply tracking something – having a constant awareness of our actions – can improve our practices. We writers often struggle to get our writing done, challenged by procrastination or writer’s block – so why not use the tools for improving our bodies to improve our writing habits too?

Regular self-tracking complements recent productivity recommendations to establish habits and process goals (or systems) instead of relying on willpower and traditional goals to accomplish things. Focusing on our own actions keeps the outcomes in our hands, not reliant on somebody else’s power. So, instead of setting a goal to publish your 80,000 word novel, which depends on gatekeepers, you would set a process goal to write for an hour a day until it was finished, then edit for an hour a day until it was fully revised, then submit the manuscript to X number of agents a month until you found representation. (Personally, I like to pair big-scale goals with habits, so I have both the outcome in mind as well as the means to accomplish it.)

So how should you track your writing?

At the most basic level, you could use Seinfeld’s “Don’t Break the Chain” technique. Any day that you write, you get to mark an X on your calendar. You try to get as many days in a row – to not break the chain. (I had some success with this technique until I started making chains for six different habits. Too much, too fast. Now I’m trying the one-habit-at-a-time method from Zen Habits.)

If you’re a social or competitive writer, you could track how many write-ins or writing groups you attend in a year, or the amount of time you spend at them. Track these if writing meet-ups are where you get a lot of your writing done or get a lot of motivation. (I tried both variations during 2014 and 2015 NaNoWriMo.) You could also track the number of word wars you compete in (112 during 2015 NaNo for me!).

You could follow the NaNoWriMo model and establish a daily minimum wordcount, whether 1667 or a number of your own choosing. Alternatively, you could simply track the number of words you write each day.

You could set a daily baseline for time spent writing. For a while, I tracked whether I had completed two Pomodoro writing sessions a day. Now, I use RescueTime to automatically keep track of how I spend my time, with a daily goal of 1.5 hours of writing (met only 14 days in December 2015, versus 23 in November and 21 in October).

How else could you quantify your writing?

If production’s your top priority, you could compare your writing speed using different writing processes. (For curiosity’s sake, I compared my average writing speed during word wars with Pomodoros during NaNo 2015 – 12 wpm faster for 7-minute word wars than 25-minute Pomodoros!)

You could track your total words written in a month or a year (I wrote approximately 142,500 words on my novels in 2015 — 30,000 during Camp NaNo and 65,000 during NaNo), or the number of short stories you wrote (wah wah, I started writing three and didn’t finish any).

Instead of setting a goal to publish a given number of short stories in a given time period, create a habit of immediately sending back out any story that’s rejected. You can control what you send, but you can’t control what editors will buy. (Since we’re sharing, I submitted 4 stories 28 times in 2015.)

What do you think? Would you — or do you already — track your writing habits? What other metrics could you track?

About Tracy Durnell

Seattle-area graphic designer and SFF writer inspired by the Pacific Northwest, crafting a sustainable and intentional life.

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