On Keeping a Writing Log – Part Deux


‘Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will note; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

~Calvin Coolidge

I thought I’d take a break from my series of posts on time management to discuss the merits and wonders of the writing log—and what it can do for you in terms of productivity and accountability.

Here’s a link to my initial post regarding Writing Logs. I’ve come a long way since then, most definitely for the better.

A Law of Writing

We’re often bombarded with advice and ‘laws’ for writing that, when you break them down, can’t really be called laws if they only apply in some cases. ‘Don’t use adverbs in dialogue tags, mostly’, ‘Avoid prologues, now and again’, ‘Avoid overly detailed character descriptions’, and so on… No, no—something that doesn’t apply across the board always and in all ways is not a law or even a rule. It’s a guideline at best.

That said, if you’re aiming for publication and all the money and women that come with it, here’s one of the unbreakable laws of writing: Finish what you start.

I’ve no greater advice on writing than that. If you start something, see the darn thing through. No one ever published something half-written (arguable, I know, but you get my point). The trick is how to make whatever you start—be it novel, short story, research paper, PhD, letter—readable, consistent in theme, tone, voice, and all the other nitty gritty stuff. ‘Ware consistency without focus, as you’ll most likely end up writing yourself into a corner.

And speaking of consistency…

My Writing Log

Here it is in all its majesty:

Current Log

So what are we looking at here? An Excel spreadsheet full of formulas calculating away in the background, keeping score and holding me accountable to my daily word target—2000 words a day. Of what you see there, I’m responsible every day—whether I write a word or not—for filling in the following columns:

Story Title

Start Count

Finish Count

Time Started

Time Finished

Work of thirty seconds, as the formulas take care of everything else. Time well spent, too, as the data and information about my writing habits I can pull from this log is invaluable. No more vague notions of finishing a novel ‘someday’. With this, I know exactly how far along I am—to the minute and word.

As you can see, in days to come my total words column is a stark and vicious bright red. This is because I have yet to write on those days. The red is a streak I have to mine and pull chunks of story ore from, and the power of a streak is a wonderful thing. I don’t want that column to be all ugly and red. I want it to turn green. How does it turn green? The conditional formatting in the log will turn a box on any given day green if my total words written over the day exceed 2,000.

Note: 2,000 words a day is what I know my average to be, assuming I have about 2 hours of uninterrupted writing time. You’ll have a rough idea of your own average, which you should supplement in place of mine.

The column stays red if I don’t hit 1,000 words, and becomes a soothing yellow for every word between 1,000 and 2,000 a day. Yellow I consider a successful writing day. Green is golden.

I monitor the time started and time finished, plus any extra time, in order to breakdown how long it takes me to write a first draft. I can also use these figures to generate charts and figure out my optimal writing times on any given day of the week. If I write more at night, then I should be scheduling my writing time in the evening. If I churn out more by getting up an hour early, then perhaps my daily writing time is better served in the morning, you see?

So there you have an overview of how the writing log works. Let’s take a look at why, at least for me, this process has improved my writing over the last year.

Consistency is Key

Key to what? Key to life. Consistent, prepared effort—even if you’re crawling inch by inch across the page, and we all are—will unlock the dark and terrible novel you’ve been trying to hammer out for years.

Take a look at my writing log from half a year ago again:

Writing Log

And again what I’m using now:

Current Log

Note: Forgive the streak of red on the new log. I started a new job that sapped most of my day for the beginning of July. Back on form and hitting my stride again now!

You won’t always be consistent. Is that an oxymoron? Writers thriving through inconsistent consistency? Well, if the shoe fits. What I’m getting at is there will be days, maybe even a few in a row (but if that’s happen you’ll need to have a good long think about your endgame), where you don’t churn out word one.

I’ve written two successful enough novels and a third that was awarded the Hot Key Young Writers Prize earlier this year (due September 5th), and as you can see from my current log I have days of inconsistency. But on those days I step back, reassess and revaluate why I write at all, and then sit my ass down in front of the blank page.

Remember, inch-by-inch is the best any of us can write a novel. That’s how I write. Goddamn it, that’s how Stephen King writes. So the difference between people who want to write a novel and those that do?


Numbers Don’t Lie

Let’s take a look at what consistent, patient, prepared writing time can produce. You’ll know exactly how much your effort creates, because you’ll be keeping track of it in your shiny new writing log, won’t you?

Here’s the breakdown of my stats for this month (July, 2013). Again, not on form early in the month, but still a sizeable word count that didn’t exist two weeks ago:

Total Words Written: 15269

Time Spent Writing: 12 hours and 47 minutes

Average Words p/hour: 1145.4

Encouraging, even with a streak of ugly red at the beginning of the month. At my current pace I’ll have a first draft this time next month, around August 14th. There’s another benefit of the writing log—you can forecast how long it should take, given your current pace, to finish an average novel (which, in my genres of fantasy/sci-fi/YA, is about 70,000 words).

Let’s advance the numbers again, assuming across the board consistency every damn day of the year.

2,000 words p/day x 365 days = 730,000 words p/year

Holy smokes, if I maintained consistency every day I’d have ¾’s of a million words written in a year. Given our average novel length of 70,000 words, that’s the best part of 10 and ½ first drafts a year. A mindboggling output, but not beyond my ‘average’ capability, if I work on reaching and maintaining a streak of sweet, clear green.

How could I achieve 10 first drafts a year? You got it, consistency.

So that would be my optimal outcome. It’s unlikely, given life and all its many varied interruptions and responsibilities, but so long as I keep my writing log I’ll be able to monitor how close to optimal my progress has been.

Writing Log Template

Oh and if you’d like to give it a shot, here’s my template all formula’d up and ready to go:

Writing Log Template – click on the link and download the current version from Google Docs as an Excel spreadsheet.

Note: the conditional formatting in that template has set the threshold for turning a cell yellow between 1000 and 2000 words, and turning a cell green for 2000+ words. If you know your average is more or less a day, change the conditional formatting to reflect your targets.

And there we go—done and dusted for now. I’m going to keep using my log in the months to come, perhaps modifying the data to capture additional information. I’ll keep you posted.

What do you think of keeping a writing log? Useful? Intimidating? Leave me a comment or shoot me an email on how you keep score!