Is the Change as Good as the Rest?

I have thought recently that word-counts – while very satisfying to meet – can cause more issues than benefits. With Camp NaNoWriMo half way through I have encountered several people who are struggling to keep up with a self-imposed word count. They have written more than casually for a while, possibly even daily, and have set themselves a slightly challenging target; now they are failing to achieve even their previous productivity. The issue might well be that finely granular word counts are not what most people need to be productive.

I successfully completed NaNoWriMo last November. I produced the first 50,000 words of the first draft of a novel and a few extra words on top. I then – apart from some blog posts – wrote nothing much, and certainly nothing of quality, for a month; so NaNoWriMo actually produced half of a draft over two months, which – while still a solid achievement – is less than my success would first suggest.

After NaNoWriMo I stopped recording my daily word-counts because I expected my productivity to drop once I was no longer chasing a daily target and was devoting time to editing again. However, after a while I felt that I was producing more work than I expected – all be it spread across short stories and poetry rather than a single novel. So I decided to record my daily count for a month to see how much I was writing.

For the first few days my modal word count was nearly 1200 words, which would be in the region of 30,000 words a month if I did not write every day. However, after a few days I noticed that instead of merely recording the number of words written I was trying to keep the word count up every day, or even write more to get ahead of the curve on the 30,000 words target I had not set myself at the start of the month; on days where I was behind I might postpone research and editing to write more words; on days where I had reached a high count I might edit and research instead of doing non-writing activities. By counting my words I began to prioritise raw words over completing works.

Inspired by the NaNoWriMo suggestion that if you do edit you leave the old words in and count the new ones as additional words I looked to make more time “scoring” by striking through instead of replacing when I edited. This, especially when applied to spelling errors, pushed my count up without making editing feel non-productive. However good editing will go over a piece several times before it is finished and values the decision that a sentence or even a word is good already as much as a change.

Stacked Rocks
Are the rocks of more value than the table?
stuant63 – CC BY NC 2.0)

Rather than abandon word counting (which my inner critic would consider a failure to meet the target) I turned my mind to methods of scoring valuable effort that was not adding words:

  • Treat the time spent as if it were time spent writing by recording a hypothetical word count derived from my average writing speed?
  • Each editing pass produces a better product so treat it as more valuable than the previous manuscript by recording it as X% higher than my hypothetical word count? Or treat each pass as adding less value?
  • Treat editing a manuscript as writing it from scratch by recording a hypothetical word count equal to the starting length of the manuscript? Or would the length after editing be fairer?
  • What about research time compared to editing?

Despite my efforts I did not discover a method that worked for the balance of tasks I undertake to produce prose fiction, let alone an answer that could also apply to writing poetry as well, where there is potentially even more value in devoting time to deciding between two words.

To resolve the dilemma I turned to the example of motor production in Detroit. The Ford Corporation was losing out to Toyota because it was taking longer to produce a lower quality product. The addition of productivity bonuses produced a slight improvement which tailed off quickly as departments fought over limited resources or made decisions without regard for impacts in other areas. The breakthrough came when each employee was given a performance bonus based on the performance of the level above them, so a painter would get a bonus based on how many complete cars the entire factory produced rather than how many cars they individually painted and a factory manager would gain a bonus based on the performance of all the factories in their area; suddenly it did not make a difference when work was done or what percentage of effort was spent on a particular step as long as the entire process was efficient.

So I started setting my targets at a higher granularity: I need to write a 5000 word story by this date so I set a target to write the story based on my word count per hour and targets to edit it based on my editing speed per hour; I only set smaller targets if a combination of unexpected factors (such as illness or a new opportunity with a short deadline) require me to perform a task faster than my average.

Do you track your progress daily? Do you just keep a rough idea of how much work you complete?

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