Staying “Accountable” on Big Writing Projects

You gotta have a system. Every writer does. That thing you do to get from point A to point B, hit your deadlines, and hopefully decrease your stress along the way. I have a system, too, and a major part of it involves word counts, Excel spreadsheets, and a video game perception of “winning.” This is by no means a perfect system for everyone, and I know writers who think it’s way too fiddly, but I’ll share what I do, and maybe some of you will dig it.

Okay, first a little super-boring background on me. Before I started working in the tabletop game industry and really started to turn writing into a career, I worked in accounting. I did it all: accounts payable, accounts receivable, cost accounting, payroll, even collections. Exciting, huh? As much as I hated it, all that accounting experience taught me some valuable skills. It taught me to be very organized with data and how to make that data work for me. It started my love affair with Excel. I can’t lie; I fucking love me some spreadsheets. Seriously. So I found a way to take my bizarre fascination with spreadsheets and a little of my accounting knowhow and put it to use in my writing career.

Here’s what I do. When I have a big project, like a novel, I look at the deadline for completion (usually the deadline for the first draft), I break that down into weeks, then I assign a word count goal to each week, and then I divide that word count goal among five individual days. I put all this info into a simple spread sheet, then track how much I actually write on a given day compared to my target.

It looks something like this:

Day Date Target Actual
Monday 8/31/2015 2000 2364
Tuesday 9/1/2015 2000 2678
Wednesday 9/2/2015 2000 2721
Thursday 9/3/2015 2000 2305
Friday 9/4/2015 2000 2056
Saturday 9/5/2015 0 0
Sunday 9/6/2015 0 0
10000 12124
Monday 9/7/2015 2000 2037
Tuesday 9/8/2015 2000 1979
Wednesday 9/9/2015 2000 0
Thursday 9/10/2015 2000 0
Friday 9/11/2015 2000 0
Saturday 9/12/2015 0 0
Sunday 9/13/2015 0 0
10000 4016

As you can see, I set my weekly target at 10,000 words and my daily target at 2,000 words. I got the 2,000-words a day thing from Stephen King. Hey, if it works for one of the most successful authors in the whole goddamn world, it might be worth a try, right? You can see what I actually wrote on a given day, and at the bottom of each week a running total tells me where I stand with the week’s goals.

You’ll notice I don’t have a target for the weekends. That’s because I try to take the weekends off. (Well, not really off; I just work on other things.) That’s not to say, of course, I won’t work on the weekends if I fall behind. I also know that my estimated date of completion is a just that, an estimate. I might end up needing another 10,000 words to complete this novel. With the schedule above, I should finish the book about two weeks before deadline and at right around 90,ooo words.

Here’s what I like about my system and why it works for me.

  1. It keeps me accountable. I know exactly what I need to do each day, and at the end of that day I need to enter what I’ve done into that spreadsheet. I don’t want to “fail” to do my job for the day. I need to fill in those boxes on my spreadsheet, damn it.
  2. It gives me a sense of accomplishment. One of the favorite parts of my day is entering how much I’ve written into the spreadsheet. If I exceeded my target by a lot, I feel pretty damn good. I feel like I’m “winning.” I’m beating the sadistic ogre making me write all these goddamn words at his own game. (Seriously, fuck that guy.)
  3. It helps me take a day off when I need it without feeling guilty. If you look at the spreadsheet above, you can see I did pretty well last week; I exceeded my weekly goal by over 2,000 words. That means I’m technically a full day ahead of schedule, so if I need to take a day off to run errands or whatever, I’m covered. I’m still on target for this week, even if I only write 8,000 words. That’s a really important feature for me because I have a tendency to feel super guilty on days I’m not writing, and those extra days I “earn” by exceeding my work count goal help me get over that.

So, that’s my system. What does your system look like? If it’s better than mine, can I use it?

2 Comments on “Staying “Accountable” on Big Writing Projects

  1. I use Excel to keep track of my wordcounts, but not to keep myself on schedule. For that, I use a simple word document with color coded dates beside each project. So, for instance, I have three projects open for Paizo, and behind each I have dates for “Outline Due” “Draft Due” “Edits Due” and “Publication Date” The dates are highlighted in yellow until they are done. if I pass a deadline without finishing it, it’s highlighted red. If I finish a deadline, it’s highlighted green.

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