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How do you measure your writing progress?
This question has a complicated and different answer depending on the individual in question. Some people aim to write five times a week and count any session as part of that five as long as they write at least a few hundred words. That works — you have to measure these things in ways that work for you.
But then there are all those things you hear about the 10,000-hour rule, and how long you “should” be spending on your writing on a daily basis (some even use “daily” in the literal sense — uh, please don’t). Should you be measuring your writing time in hours? Should you keep track? Does it matter?
There’s something that actually matters so much more.
We count our writing time in hours — but should we? Okay, not everyone tracks their writing progress by hours. Some do it by word or page count, by days written, by projects completed — your method of tracking really depends on your goals and what keeps you motivated the most.
But tracking your work by “time spent writing” (or “time spent at desk — more on that in a few minutes) seems to be a fairly simple and straightforward way of holding yourself accountable. It’s easy to say you’re going to write for an hour before dinner, and sometimes even easier to actually sit down and do it once your countdown timer begins.
There’s just one problem with time tracking: Writing time isn’t always spent writing.
Which sounds absolutely ridiculous on the surface, sure. When you sit down to write, of COURSE you’re going to write. Except you might spend, out of the 60 minutes you blocked out in your schedule specificlly for writing, 30 minutes actually writing, 10 minutes scrolling through twitter, 5 minutes checking your email, and 15 minutes trying to get “in the zone” by rereading what you wrote last time you sat down to do this.
A lot of times we blame distractions and an inability to focus for our struggles to get things done. And these are absolutely valid struggles — I’ve had a dog quite literally lick me out of deep concentration three times in the past 10 minutes as I’ve been writing this post. Distractions and interruptions are real.
But we spend a lot of time blaming distractions when such a large part of the problem is that we set aside time to write but don’t actually give ourselves enough time to use it well … that, and we often don’t realize we aren’t making good use of it, or what that even looks like.
“Active” writing time means actually writing … Not checking your email, not looking things up “for research,” not going back and rereading what you’ve already written or self-editing parts of your story that already exist. The best writing time is spent writing, and often we don’t even realize that we’ve stopped writing and stumbled into something else until we’re … well, deep into something else.
What many aspiring writers don’t realize is that all writing time should be divided between “passive” writing time and “active” writing time. Active writing time is the time you spend with your fingers on your keyboard making words. Passive writing time is all the time you spend sitting at your desk not actually writing.
This doesn’t mean all that time spent not actively writing is invaluable. Some of it probably is, and that’s just because you’re a human being prone to a fascination with shiny objects. But you might spend a lot of time just sitting in front of your screen thinking, or mapping out in your head or on paper where you want your story to go next. That’s important. You need that time.
But this is why counting in hours doesn’t always accurately measure progress. In two hours, you might get the equivalent of one hour of writing done. But there are still ways to minimize this gap and get more writing done in less time.
How to make the most of the writing time you have — “Active” writing time is some of the most valuable space in your day as a beginning or “returning” aspiring writer. At this point in your writing life, you don’t have as much writing experience as you want and/or need. And the only way to get that experience is by writing during the moments you’ve blocked out specifically for writing.
- Schedule separate time for “pre-writing” and “writing.” I tend to classify “pre-writing” as, well, anything that happens before I activate “deep focus mode.” This often involves looking things up, rereading small parts of what I’ve already written, and yes, sometimes even deciding what I’m going to write. (You can also set aside another separate period for “brainstorming” e.g. figuring out what you’re going to work on.
- Make “messing around” part of your routine. When I sit down to write, I almost always set a timer for exactly five minutes. What do I do during those five minutes? Literally anything I want. I check Twitter. I check my email. I might watch a quick video or listen to part of a book or podcast. (Sometimes it’s multiple things at once, which I know is bad for me, but hey, nobody’s perfect.) I’ve trained myself to go absolutely off the rails until that timer goes off. Then I click over to whatever I’m working on and dive in. This is something you have to practice doing — it’s tempting to just keep scrolling past the timer. But you can do it.
- Don’t worry about misspellings, “bad” writing, or messing up. Just write. In that hour you’ve set aside for writing, the only thing that matters is that you spend as much of those 60 minutes as possible with your fingers on your keyboard and words of your own creation appearing on the screen in front of you. What you’re working on right now is a draft. Drafts are supposed to be messy. You might get everything wrong and do some of your worst writing in this draft. Doesn’t matter. The only way you’re going to figure out how to get it right and do it better is by doing it over and over until you get it.
To make the most of your writing time, writing has to be your only focus. When you’re stuck, you have to train yourself to just keep writing nonsense until you eventually figure out how to make sense of it. Practicing writers don’t benefit from sitting around wondering if the sentence they just wrote was “good enough.” There is a time for review and reflection and revision. Right now, all you need to do is sit down and Make Words Happen.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is an editor and writer, and a 12-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food, and Star Wars.