How do you know you’re making progress, or, staying sane while writing


Last week I started writing full time. I used to be a university professor, and this last summer I left that job and moved and it’s taken some months to be able to settle down, get unpacked, get the family sorted out, and so this last week was really my first week being a full time writer, where I actually kept a schedule and wrote.

It’s divine. And it’s also potentially crazy-making.

When I worked as a professor, there were measures in place for getting my job done. Those included student progress, actual teaching days, grading, and so on. But writing is more like cleaning house. You clean and clean and clean and every time you turn around, there needs to be more cleaning. It constantly gets dirty again. There really is no good measure of accomplishment, except when you finish something. But for me, that’s a little crazy making. My husband is a machinist. He makes stuff. He sees what he finishes every hour, every day.

Writers have to find a way to set measures for success, for achievement, for accomplishment.

A lot of writers will set goals on a weekly basis. Maybe those are word count goals, or finishing a piece, or what have you. But there’s a perpetual danger of feeling you’re not getting somewhere, especially if you have to abandon chapters or chunks of writing and start over. Plus you’re worried about, as Mindy put it last week, Words That Count. You start thinking that you have to subtract out what you threw away and write extra to make up for it–makes you nuts.

I realized I was getting anxiety about this. Writing something didn’t seem enough. Sitting my butt in the chair for so many hours wasn’t really a great measure of doing anything. What I decided to do was go with a mix of word count and also finishing something. I have a book due early in spring. I want to get it done by January 1st. So I figured out how many words I had to write to finish–figuring a 90,000 word book–and I divided out to come up with a word count per week. That will be first draft material. It may turn out that the words don’t count, but I’m hoping they do. Even if they don’t, this is the process. Revision will come and if I have to throw away things, then I still have succeeded because I’ve sorted out the story and I needed to go through the process to do that. I still win.

I plan on hitting that minimum. It isn’t actually very big–all of about 5K a week. This first week I wrote over 16K. The fact that I may finish sooner or that I did more than my quota, does not change that I will work toward 5K next week. I won’t have to try to get 16 K just because I did one week. I am going to work steadily forward. That’s one project. I’m also working on a synopsis for another book proposal. I’ve done the chapters, but the synopsis is giving me fits. So I’ve made myself stop working on the words for the first book and switched gears over to the synopsis when I hit a certain time in the afternoon, so long as I’ve made my 1K minimum for the day.

So for instance: I work on Trace of Magic for three or four hours in the a.m. and get 4K done. After lunch, I switch to the synopsis. There’s no sense of when that will be done. Word count is no help because I already wrote a lot on it and it didn’t work so I scrapped it. The measure of success for this one is a) getting it done, and b) making it work. I would like to be done with asap, but I realized that because it’s not working, all I can do is devote daily time to it and hope I can bring it together quickly.

I don’t make myself write in the evenings or weekends. I can, and I often will, but the thing about being a writer and working from home is that the work is always there, always waiting. And I WANT to work on it more and more. But that can burn you out. You have to have balance. For me that means focusing on my family when it’s family time. Focusing on whatever I’m doing when it’s time for that, just like when I’m writing, that’s what I’m doing.

It’s critical, I think, to set yourself a measure of success. Otherwise, for writers, it doesn’t really ever come. You finish something, but doubt it’s good. You revise, but doubt it’s done. It is published, but did anyone like it? All those measures depend on someone else’s judgement. It will kill you. So you have to find something that makes sense to you and is achievable. I write reasonably quickly most of the time. I know I can hit 3K a day on most days without too much trouble. So why don’t I set the bar there? Right now it’s because I’m uncertain I can maintain that for the long term. I’m new to writing full time and I’m afraid I’ll set a measure that I can’t hit and that will drive me to anxiety and self-punishment, both of which are bad for creativity.

If I do 5K a week, I will finish this book well before deadline. It’s a good, achievable standard. If I get it done early, then I can begin the next project early, or I can squeeze in some other work that I have passion for. That is a good way to refresh yourself, btw.

One good thing about setting a measure is that when you complete it, you can get up and walk away from the computer. That’s a good thing because it gives you options for doing some other things so you don’t get behind in your life. For instance, I get my quota done, I can go cook, or garden, or run errands, or clean house (ug). I don’t have to beat myself up about not getting my writing done because I have already pre-decided what I will do and I am done. By having these measures, you stop the typical writerly feeling that you are never doing enough, that you are behind, that everything else is wasting precious time and you should be working–it causes a lot of anxiety, which undermines the creativity and writing. Vicious cycle.

Do you have measures of success? What are yours?







10 comments to How do you know you’re making progress, or, staying sane while writing

  • Diana, I *don’t* have measures in place, and you’re absolutely right. It makes me crazy. A pain to be around sometimes. And yes, the anxiety can get bad because I’ll cancel plans because I feel the need to get writing stuff done. For awhile there, it was interfering with my ability to read, because (don’t laugh) reading took away from writing time.

    I’m going to try, this, though. Evaluate my goals and see how I can divvy them up to make things feel achievable. Between this and Monday’s gem, remembering to outline, I’m interested to see what sort of progress I can make.

  • Business has two major ways of running – project oriented and process oriented. Project is easy – deadlines, overlapping work – you can do this while I do that, what costs go to what project, etc. Simple, structured classes are available. Projects are used for programming, installations, and other “one-shot” items. At home it would be cooking for a holiday – you buy just for that meal, cook just for that meal (maybe for a few days), and clean up just that meal.

    Process is like a pipeline. Manufacturing does it. The steady flow of things entering one end and coming out the other day in and day out. Process business classes concentrate on finding out where the bottlenecks are, breaking down the process for improvement, and the like. In the house, day-to-day cooking would be an example – buying for the week but maybe a mid-week run for items that spoil, cooking a meal and thinking about leftovers, and loading the dishwasher again and again. It never ends.

    From what I see people mentioning, the challenge of writing is it is an amalgamation of process and project. Since there is only one worker, the project timeline cannot have overlapping workers moving things faster. You can’t rush for the finish line, like in a project because you are in it for the long-process haul. Tomorrow is the same as today – BIC-HOK-WOP. Pacing is essential to avoid burnout. Businesses have trouble when they need to manage both process and project; the effective ones hire a second set of managers who specialize in the business weakness.

    I wish you luck in finding your balance between the two, Diana. Please let us know what works for you because project-process is a very difficult skill set to develop. (As my house-cleaning will attest.)

  • Ken

    Congrats on making the transition to full time writer, Diana. I hope it works out for you. To have something “Tangible” to look at to monitor your progress, some people create writers journals. They can be as elaborate as a daily diary or as simple as an excel spreadsheet (Hey, Mindy, here’s another use for Excel :)).

    For me, it’s pretty simple and I’m hoping that it will remain so when I get published. I count every day I sit down to write a success. It means that I’ve applied the discipline to move away from the other things in my life that clamor for my attention so that I can write. It means that I’m forming a habit.

    Does this mean that I’m counting every day I don’t write a failure. If I’m being honest with myself then, yes, I do but I don’t dwell on it. Life happens. What’s important at this point is that I get back in the chair just one more time than I’m forced out of it. Every time I get back up, I call it a win.

  • Di, one word. YAY!!!!

    Okay. More words. I adore watching the word count / page count rise. It is what makes writing goals visible for me!

    But remember to rest and exercise and rejuvenate. Hugs!

  • Congratulations on the transition, Di. I hope that it continues to go smoothly and that you meet every goal.

    I find myself more concerned with word counts than anything else. I do throw away some words from one day to the next, but I do a lot of polishing as I write and so usually can keep much of my work. In the past I’ve simply set a weekly goal and tried to meet that. This time I’m trying something a bit different. I have monthly goals in mind, and as long as I meet them, I don’t care too much how I got there on a day-to-day basis. I think this will give me more freedom from my own OCD tendencies. We’ll see.

  • sagablessed

    Congrats, Diana!! 🙂

    I have an accountability partner. If we make goal (about 4000 words a week) we treat each other. If we don’t we ask why and promise to make it up next week. If we complete our WIPs when we said we would, we get a gift-card. We also make allowances for emergencies etc.

  • Laura: let me know what you come up with. David (below) says he’s gone to monthly goals. I am not sure that would work for me, at least not yet. Not so new to full time. But I will keep it in mind.

    Erin: the only thing I’d add is that manufacturing has visible production–you can see what you finished or count how many you made or so on. Dishes don’t really give you that same sense, nor does food. Which I think is your point. Burnout is what I want to avoid, along with constant anxiety. I do fear that I won’t be able to keep it up week to week, which creates its own anxiety. I’ll be updating as I learn about myself.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    This is why I love color-coding my outlines. When I’m working on a paper, I get to watch my outline turn from the red denoting a bare-bones outline to blue denoting drafted to black denoting polished. For my novel, I’ve been working with more complicated color schemes, especially during revisions, so that I have a visual map of which are going to be the problem chapters and which are mostly good already, but I still get to watch my progress move steadily along as I mark off chapters that have been revised. (Partly this is because word-count goals just don’t work as well when revising, when you’re taking away as much as adding…)

  • Marlie

    As a newcomer, I think using a word count will help to establish the habit. Then as I grow professionally, my habits will evolve to fit my needs. Just getting started and utilizing the BICHOKWOP seems overwhelming sometimes. But all of the good, solid, just-down-right-works advice and personal experiences here give me energy and determination to continue.

  • Megan B.

    “…the typical writerly feeling that you are never doing enough, that you are behind, that everything else is wasting precious time and you should be working–it causes a lot of anxiety, which undermines the creativity and writing.”

    Wow, that really hit home for me. Now I just need to come up with some measures for success so I can put a stop to that feeling. I don’t have any deadlines at this stage in my writing career, and I am not working on any long pieces right now. But I’m sure I can still come up with some measures for myself if I think about it.

    Thanks for this very insightful post!