Writing: measuring progress

Measuring writing progress might seem simple at the first glance. There’s the word count, after all. But what about the drafting stages when the word count stagnates or even drops?

Some people say one should write daily, and suggest setting a daily word count goal. At one moment, a thought crossed my mind: how to assure some “daily goal” during edits? And, when I took a broader look, how does one measure writing progress?

A loading bar without end

That’s how I see writing. You might have some rough idea or some goal but (unless you’re some freaky genius) you’ll never hit exactly THAT word count. Even if you get close in the first draft, there will be cuts and additions and the word count will fluctuate. Thus, you can’t make a real “loading bar” because you never know what value is the 100% and thus how far exactly you are. Guesstimates? Yes, but nothing more.

The first draft

As I hinted, the first draft can be actually measured by word count. At that point, a writer is supposed to only add words, not to edit (otherwise there’s the risk of endless editing circle slowing down the progress, something I learned the hard way back in 2015). I don’t know if it’s possible to say “I’ll write a 100k novel”. Maybe it is, for someone. Not for me. I only made some guess (and was scared by it) after 10-15 chapters when I had some idea how much of the story I still have to tell.

Still, word count will work for measuring progress in any form you choose (per hour, per session, per week, etc…) and allow word-based goals. Again, if you choose this way, it might not be necessarily a daily goal, you can choose a weekly or monthly goal instead – if you choose to give yourself goals.

Using word count as a measure of progress has one downside: you might get stuck at a scene and spend a while staring a a blank screen. During that, you are spending times working on the story (by thinking how to figure it out) but the word counter is not moving at all. Word count is performance meter and thus doesn’t appreciate effort.

Screenshot of my backup files of the to-be book two (first backup is 20 chapters into the first draft) – notice the growing file size. The later file had lower size, likely due to compression, as I had merely fixed some obvious typos.

Editing

As I said, editing will often move the word count down as it’s supposed to cull weak scenes, remove unnecessary words or make sentences ‘sharper’, without extra words that add nothing. Yes, there will be new scenes added or old scenes expanded as it’s easy to miss some detail during the first draft – or have an idea how to approach something in different way. Still, in the end, the word count will most likely drop.

Thus, word count fails to be a measure of progress. The only one way I see to measure progress now is time. If you’re like me and just use MS Word for writing, it tracks time spent with the file open (can be found in properties). If you want to give yourself a goal, you can do it in “write for X minutes each day” way replacing “write X words each day”.

The conversion might be an issue, though. You can take the length of your first draft and the time it took to write to count your average speed into “words per hour”. However, not every stage of writing has the same speed. If you stare at a blank page, the timer will go on but there will be no product, so there’s the opposite issue compared to word-based goals.

Another way is per-chapter-editing so, once you have the first draft done, you can set a goal like “edit a chapter each day”. If your chapters are long, you can go with “edit X pages a day” which might serve the same as “edit X words a day” without sounding as clunky. Both goals will never be met exactly unless you really want to stop mid-sentence so the best way might be to push over to the end of a paragraph at least. Yet, “edit X paragraphs” would be even worse as dialogue often has one- or two-sentence paragraphs while ‘ordinary’ paragraph has more of them.

A different kind of progress

Something that should be accounted for is author’s learning curve, especially for those just starting. For that reason, I’m coming with a “time per draft” statistic. If your first draft was done at 200 hrs, second at 275, third at 340, and fourth at 370, it means you needed 75 hours for the second draft, 65 for the third, and 30 for the fourth. This example was done to make it obvious they are bacoming faster – and can be a hint of learning curve. Yet, it’s unlikely that every single draft takes the same amount of effort. It makes a difference whether you’re doing major rewrites or merely rounding up typos and checking grammar.

To give another example: it took me ca. 300 hours to finish the first draft of book one in my current project, but only ca. 200 hrs for the first draft of #2, despite being the almost the same length (difference less than 1%). I’d say a third of it was from stopping the “go back instead of going forward” bad habit, a third from having a better understanding of the process, a quarter from actually writing faster, and the rest (~10%) from the fact I used writing as a procrastinating tool (shame on me!).

So, to wrap it up: tracking the progress in writing is tricky. It’s not an exact science, let alone a computer algorithm with a defined process and checkpoints.

I’ll welcome your insights. Do you measure your writing progress? If yes, how? If you give yourself goals, how do you set them during editing? You’re also welcome to ask me anything on the topic.

One thought on “Writing: measuring progress

  1. Yes I have always struggled with the word count during editing problem. I used to have an app that set your word target which kind of became really difficult to measure once I started editing. I’ll definitely use a different method this time around 🙂
    Happy writing!

    Liked by 1 person

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