For 365 days in a row, I kept track of almost every single word I wrote.
There were some exceptions — most tweets (except for one thread in particular that really should have been its own article), most emails, messages to co-workers, family, and friends.
But if I wrote an article, I tracked it. A book review? Tracked it. Worked on a first draft of a book? Tracked that too, Blog posts: Tracked. Cover letters, journal entries, headlines. I tracked it all in one single spreadsheet for the entirety of 2019 until the number at the top added up to 1 million.
This obsessive, time-consuming tracking had a purpose. And looking back, it served its purpose well.
But I’m done with that. Done with counting words, done with tracking number of articles written and books started. I’m done with all of it. And I couldn’t be happier … for a few key reasons.
By now, you have likely heard me talk about my 1 Million Word Writing Challenge on this blog and on my Twitter feed (or maybe you haven’t and you’re new here — welcome!).
It’s exactly what it sounds like. On January 1, 2019, I started writing. On December 30, 2019, I surpassed 1 million words. On the last day of the year, I stopped at 1,001,086 words and closed my spreadsheet for good (or, for a while).
I did not realize until about the last month how time-consuming it was to keep track of all those words. I am very particular about my spreadsheets. Everything had to be exact, and it had to look nice. If the program I was writing in didn’t count the words for me (or I wrote on paper, as I did while journaling), I had to do it manually or copy and paste it into a word-counting program.
It was a lot. But that’s not why I am quitting this whole “progress tracking” thing.
One of the most important things I discovered while struggling to complete this challenge was that it is very easy to write more words than necessary in an attempt to make a point. I wrote longer blog posts on purpose. I had to. I spent more time working on drafts of unfinished books than I did on assignments for writing gigs that could make me actual money … because I had to. I couldn’t get the words in otherwise.
And the thing is that when you’re so focused on getting to a certain word count, it’s so much harder to focus on making sure you are providing your audience (or potential audience) with the highest-quality work you are capable of. When it becomes all about the words, all about that literal or figurative progress bar, quantity becomes more important. And it should never be more important than quality.
Word count, page count, article count — it all matters in certain contexts. That’s understandable. As an editor, I check to make sure there are enough words in a freelancer’s article to meet our basic SEO requirements. Agents, editors, publishers — they all have specific word count ranges in mind when looking at manuscripts catered toward different audiences.
But there were points last year when I knew I was sacrificing quality for quantity. And it never felt good. It never felt right. Especially when it came to the content I was publishing for other people to read and absorb and enjoy.
Last year, keeping track of my words was the only thing that was going to help me reach my goal. I knew that going in, and I knew I was going to have to make plenty of sacrifices along the way to get where I needed to end up.
But I’m not going to do that again. Doing good work is more important to me than doing more work. I needed to learn this lesson somehow, sooner or later, and I’m glad I finally found an experience that would finally force me to learn what I refused to learn before.
I’m also on this new personal mission to say yes to less — and that includes less tracking of things in general. No more tracking how many miles I run and how fast. No more tracking how many movies and TV shows I have watched. No more habit tracking, or using to-do list apps that yell at me if I go 12 hours without checking off a task.
No more seeing how many words I can write in a day. Because it doesn’t matter, at least not to me.
This year in particular, I want to focus more on doing things that help me release positive energy into the world. Reading more books that inspire me to write more stories. Making music. Taking better care of myself both physically and mentally. And of course, writing not as a means of doing more, but as a way to express myself and inspire others to improve their lives in whatever ways they see fit.
So that’s what I’m going to do. Or, at least, I’m going to try.
I still want to write more. But not THAT kind of “more.”
I want my work to mean something. It can’t mean something if I’m just pouring out a bunch of words to watch a percentage on a spreadsheet go up.
There is nothing wrong with keeping track of your writing progress in any way that helps you achieve your goals. If it’s going to help you, please do it. I’m just not going to, at least not for a while. I want to be better as I’m doing less. It’s the best thing I could have come away from 2019 having decided.
How do you keep track of your progress? What works for you? What doesn’t? Talk to me. I’m listening.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.