Clients normally ask me one of two related questions – “am I writing enough” and “am I writing fast enough.” There’s no correct answer to those questions. There are answers, but not good ones. There are, however, good ways to think about your writing practice and your progress.
Many writers track their writing because they want answers to the aforementioned questions. Writing, however, isn’t only about output, or productivity. In fact, to sustain a writing practice over the long term, output and productivity are inadequate measures.
When asking, “am I writing enough?” remember that there’s way more to writing than how quickly you can put words on the page. I’d argue that when we have a single-minded focus on our word count, we end up writing less and feeling worse. That being said, I do believe it’s still important to regularly assess your writing practice.
When I work with clients, I put that good ol’ Sociology PhD to work and use a mixed-methods approach to help them understand their writing progress. Rather than answering the question, “am I writing enough,” I start with a research question: what are the necessary conditions for you to develop a sustainable writing practice?
Of course, we need to first operationalize the term “sustainable.” Here’s how I think of it: How often you can write, and for how long, before you begin to feel distracted, overwhelmed, stressed, burnt out, etc. Simply put: what makes writing feel good for you?
Together, we answer this question with a combination of quantitative and qualitative measures. These are the methodologies I use:
The quantitative measures are straightforward.
Word count: you track how many words you write in a writing session.
Time blocks: usually, you give yourself a set amount of time to write in a day or week.
The benefits of quantitative measures
Quantitative measures can help you to get a better sense of how long certain writing tasks will take. This is vital information, especially since we regularly set unrealistic deadlines.
Quantitative measures, like a word count, can provide the motivation you need to sit down and write. Raul Pacheco Vega has an excellent blog post on the utility of small writing goals.
Qualitative measures help you to reflect on your feelings about the writing process.
Journaling (a sort of content analysis for me as I review my clients’ journal entries): an opportunity for you to write down your feelings about how you write (rather than what you write).
Coaching calls (akin to an open-ended interview): I use these to discuss with writers the challenges they’re facing and identify the best ways to overcome those challenges.
Accountability check-ins: a writer can call, email, or meet in person with a friend, colleague, or peer to discuss their progress. They can also be as simple as you sending a piece of writing to someone to keep a deadline.
The benefits of qualitative measures.
You can see trends in your feelings about writing over time. With journaling, for instance, you can see how you react to certain types of writing sessions, what causes the most distraction, and when you write best.
When you use these methods in combination, you begin to see how much insight they can provide. In some cases, using only one method can yield inaccurate information. For instance, you might be able to write 1000 words in 2 hours – which sounds great. If you write those words at midnight under the pressure of a deadline, however, you’re not really creating a sustainable writing practice.
There’s no one size fits all method for tracking and reflecting on your writing productivity. You have to find what works for you. Quantitative measures can create unnecessary stress and shame about your writing. Measuring success in terms of output can feel like a shitty way to determine your self-worth. Qualitative measures can feel time-consuming and redundant. If the tracking method isn’t serving you, you should abandon it.
Of course, tracking your time and journaling about your work isn’t just a methodology – it can also be a strategy to keep you writing. As you evaluate your writing practice, you’re simultaneously improving your writing practice.
In short, many discussions about writing productivity sidestep the question of what helps us to feel good about our writing. This is silly because when we feel good about our writing, we can write more. Feeling good is its own reward, but in academia writing productivity matters. Next time you want to think seriously about your writing practice, consider using some of the strategies that I’ve outlined (or schedule a call to talk to me about them!).