Writing Habits


Way back in 2015, I wrote an article called “Fun Ways to Use Excel to Track Your Writing Process.” It’s been getting a lot of visits lately, so I thought it was time to do a new, improved, and updated version of it.

Let’s talk numbers! Writing numbers.

Tracking your daily word count is awesome.

I love knowing how much and how often I write.

Writing is so very, very slow. Sometimes the amount of work you’re doing is obvious–it’s pretty hard to not feel proud when you’re staring at 10 new chapters or 30,000 new words. But what about when you’re brainstorming, outlining, or editing? Or when you’re rewriting chapters? They can take tons of time, and most of it’s invisible. You could spend a whole season editing and come out feeling like you did absolutely nothing at all.

So I track my work. I keep track of every time I sit down at the computer, how many words I write, what kind of work I did, and how many hours I spent on it.

It sounds complicated, but it’s not. It takes me less than a minute. (Literally.) In exchange, I know:

  • How many words I wrote in a day, week, month, or year
  • How much time I spent doing writing-related tasks (and how much time was specifically spent writing, editing, or whatever.)
  • My average words per hour
  • The average amount of time it takes me to finish a novel or short story.

It’s fun. No, really! I promise!

So here’s what my current Excel tracker looks like.

If you checked out my 2015 post, you’ll notice that my current tracker’s a little different. let’s go through it!

Screenshot of an Excel spreadsheet with a month's worth of work recorded.

Click to see the full image. Yes, January was a lousy month for me.

It’s simple, but it works. Here’s what it tracks:

  1. Date: When I wrote.
  2. Title: The name of the piece.
  3. Chapter: I only use this field for novels. (It makes it easier to keep track of new and old word counts for the “Words Written” section.)
  4. Story Type: Short or Novel.
  5. Work Type: Can be anything. Usually this is writing, editing, or outlining. But I’ll talk more about that in a second.
  6. The “Words Written” Section: I enter the word count this piece or chapter had when I started (and “0” if it’s a new chapter or short story) and the number of words it had when I finished. Excel automatically calculates the number of new words.
  7. The “Time Spent” Section: This includes the time I started, the time I finished, and the number of minutes I spent writing. Excel automatically calculates my words per hour.

And I track everything. Absolutely everything.

I track everything I do that’s related to writing. Everything. I track:

  1. Writing
  2. Editing
  3. Outlining
  4. Worldbuilding (i.e., writing character profiles or theme files)
  5. Anything else I feel like tracking. For example, in January of this year, I logged a bunch of stuff under the super-unclear term “Analysis.” I was reading the first draft of my novel and taking notes about what to change. I wrote several thousand words of notes, so I recorded them.

If I’m working on my story, I track it. If I stop to outline a story for a couple of weeks, I’m not “doing nothing,” so I don’t record it as such. Everything counts. It’s all work, and it’s all helping me prepare to write a novel.

That’s great, but why do I do all this?

Let’s get one thing straight: I’m not doing this so I can stick to some arbitrary words-a-day habit. (Heck, I don’t even think “write 1,000 words a day” literally means “you must write 1,000 new story-related words a day.”) My goal is to know how often I work on my projects and to measure how much work I’m doing.

I know exactly how I’m using my writing time, when I’m being productive, and when I’m slacking off.

This is especially fun after you’ve done it for a year. I’ve been tracking my writing for nearly two years now, and I now know all sorts of stuff–how long I usually take to write a novel, for example, or when my biggest lulls in activity are.

I don’t know if I’ve ever made major decisions or changes based on this data, but it’s been invaluable in learning and refining my writing process.

Now that you’re (hopefully) convinced, I’d like to tell you about pivot tables!

COME BACK. I PROMISE IT’S INTERESTING.

Once you have all this cool data in Excel, its easy-peasy to make some cool tables that help you see your data. Here are some of the pivot tables I’ve used:

Number of Words by Month

Screenshot of my word tracker, showing the number of words written per month.

This fun one takes the number of new words I wrote, the type of content, and the type of story, and organizes them by month. This lets me see how much work I did each month and what kind of work it was.

Number of Words by Month and Title

Screenshot showing the number of words I wrote, by month and title.

This is similar to the above graph, but it organizes them by title. This way, I can see what projects I worked on each month and how much work I did for each.

Number of Words by Week

Screenshot of my word tracker showing the number of words produced by week.

And, of course, you don’t have to track anything by month. This is the same as the “number of words by month” graph, above, except it breaks it down by week.

There’s no limit to the type of data you can track and the ways you can display it. If you’re interested in learning more about how you write, give it a shot! You might learn something interesting about yourself.

It’s probably not surprising that I am not the most social of writers–I don’t participate in very many communities, and I’m fairly quiet when I do.

But, er, this might be a good thing! Because whenever I peek at one of the writing boards I occasionally visit, I always run into a question from a very well-meaning and very new writer that makes me want to write an obnoxiously long, 1,000-word reply.

So, of course, I was on Reddit’s r/Writing last week. And what did I see? The good ol’ question of, “How does anyone have time to write?”

(The subtext here is that they want to write, but they don’t have enough free time, so they can’t write. Ever.)

Their argument will start with “Writing is too much work! Doesn’t everyone say you have to treat it like a job?” And jobs, of course, are very important and time-consuming things! And so, these folks conclude, clearly only the most dedicated and devoted people can find time to write (which means, of course, that the “average” person shouldn’t feel bad if they’re too busy.) It must be impossible to write if you have a 9-to-5 job. And if you don’t have time to “be a writer” they might decide–in different, yet equally wrong ways–that their only choices are to quit their jobs or pine for a far-off day when the opportunity to write falls into their laps.

Where does all this come from?

Most Writing Advice is Aimed toward the Undisciplined

The answer is obvious. The #1 advice for writers IS to buckle down, write every day, and treat writing like a job.

This really isn’t surprising, if you think about it. Like any creative hobby (or, er, probably any hobby on Earth…) most people are not very disciplined. If you spend any time in a writing community, you’ll practically drown in posts about people who have never finished anything: the people who only write when the muse hits, and who end up only “wanting” to write once in a blue moon. The people who have been toying with an idea for years, but never make any progress on it. The people who dither around writing one or two chapters, then abandon their work for something else.

(For that matter, “people who say they want to write, but claim they don’t have the time to do so” are in the same bucket. But since that’s the whole point of this post, let’s continue.)

And how do you get people to stop dithering? You give them a dose of tough love. You grab them by the metaphorical shoulders and type very firmly at them: Writing is work! You have to treat it like a job! You have to write every single day, even–and especially–when you don’t want to!

And this is great advice! There’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of it. Except when all those good intentions go awry.

The “If Writing Is Work, I Don’t Have Time to Write” Trap

The problem with the “writing is work; writing is a job” advice is that it’s tempting to turn that attempt at inspiration into a reason that you can’t write.

“You have to treat writing like a job” is pretty intimidating. But it absolutely does not mean:

  • That you have to literally have to have a part-time job’s worth of hours to write every day
  • That you absolutely must write at least 1,000 words (or any arbitrary number of words) a day
  • That you need to write every single day

…Or you “aren’t a real writer” and “don’t have enough time to write.” And it definitely doesn’t mean that you should wait until any of the above are true before you try to write anything.

So, here’s the truth.

There’s No Minimum Threshold for How Much You “Have” to Write

Seriously. Really. If you want to write, you can write 3 days a week, two hours a week, one day a week, or whatever works for you.

I’ve written about eight full-length novels. All of these schedules resulted in a completed first draft in under six months:

  • Once a week: I used to do all of my writing in one mega-binge on Saturdays. I wrote from 8 or 9 to noon. That was the only time I wrote all week.
  • Twice a week: Later, I wrote only twice a week: in 2-to-3 hour stretches on Tuesday and Thursday evenings from 7 or 8 to 10 at night.
  • Once per weekday: Finally, when the above schedules stopped working, I started writing for one hour, five times a week, from 5 to 6 in the evening.

So, caveat time: Even with the laziest of these schedules, I was still writing at least 3 hours a week. So I clearly had a regular habit.

And habits are good. I’m not, for one second, going to tell you that you can become an excellent writer by keeping to a schedule of “1,000 words maybe once every three months.” Writing is a skill, and you get better at it the more you do it. The more often you write, and the more regularly, the better you’ll get and the more you’ll produce.

But here’s my point: Unless you literally have zero free minutes in the entire week, there is no threshold at which you can say “I don’t have enough time to write, so I won’t write at all.”

If you can only write on Sundays, great! If you can only write for one hour two or three times a week? That’ll work! Heck, if you only have half an hour a week, you literally have absolutely no other free time anywhere else, and you desperately want to write, it’s better than nothing. That’s incredibly slow–at 1,000 words a week it’ll take you one-and-a-half to two years to finish a first draft–but it’d still get done.

Basically: If You Want to be a Writer, You Have to Write Sometime

Most writing advice is geared toward taking people with excuses–I’m not confident enough, I can’t stick to one idea very long, I don’t have enough time for it–and telling them to find a way to do it. That’s all the “writing is a job; take it more seriously!” pep talk is about.

If you are passionate about writing and want this to be your actual job, yes, you will eventually need to build up to the point where you spend multiple hours per day on it. But if you’re just learning how to write, don’t turn “you have to write a lot” into an excuse to say “then I don’t have enough time to write.”

Whatever time you have, and whatever schedule you can manage is enough. You don’t need to meet some imaginary threshold to justify starting.

By the time you step into your new writing space and close the door, you should have settled on a daily writing goal. As with physical exercise, it would be best to set this goal low at first, to avoid discouragement. I suggest a thousand words a day, and because I’m feeling magnanimous, I’ll also suggest that you can take one day a week off, at least to begin with.

– Stephen King, On Writing

Everyone who writes–absolutely everyone–has heard the ol’ spiel about how you should write at least 1,000 words a day. This advice seems simple. I mean, 1,000 words a day, right? What’s to misunderstand? But if you look across the wilds of the Internet, you’ll see people interpreting it a million different ways.

I hang out on a few writing boards, and I’ve seen people take this advice in a completely different way than I have. For example, I’ve seen:

  • People who are anxious that not meeting 1,000 words a day means they’re failing as a writer.
  • People claim you have to write 1,000 words of new prose every day, and that you have to find some other time to edit, outline, or brainstorm.
  • Someone who was afraid to try 1,000 words a day because they thought it was an extremely difficult challenge that only the most creative people could manage.

I disagree with all of this. Let’s talk about what I do think!

It’s About the Habit, not the Words

I’m not going to speak for Stephen King, especially since he says a lot more about 1,000-words-a-day than what I quoted above. But that quote at the top of this post? That’s a very gentle message. It says you need to make writing a habit and that 1,000 words  a day is an easy, low number to start at. The “1,000” is a suggestion.

And that’s what I’ve always thought about the “you must write XXX a day” advice. The point isn’t to write 1,000 words. The point is to write regularly. The form that habit takes–and the exact number of words written–isn’t as important.

So, let’s illustrate this with a briefly off-topic example. If you decided to learn an instrument, what would you do? You’d practice, right? And you’d probably want to do a little bit almost every day, right? How good would you get if your plan was “play 15 minutes once a month” or “only practice when you feel like it”?

But new writers do this all the time. They only write “when the muse hits.” They take 5 years to write a first draft. They write a chapter or two every few months.

And that’s why people suggest a daily writing goal. The “1,000 words” isn’t the important part. The point is to do a little work every day.

That makes you write regularly. And writing regularly means you improve at a steady pace and don’t forget the things you’ve learned. And writing regularly means you’re taking an intimidatingly big project (an 80-to-100,000 word novel) and breaking it into manageable pieces (1,000 words at a time).

It’s not a death pact where you meet 1,000 words–and no less!–or fall on your sword in shame. It’s just a recommendation to do a little work every day. And maybe that’s 1,000 words a day. Maybe it’s not. It doesn’t have to be.

It’s About Making Time for Writing

I also firmly, firmly believe that the point is not to just write new prose and do nothing else. If the point of the exercise is to work on your writing every day, then all of these should “count” as your “1,000 words”:

  • Editing
  • Outlining
  • Research
  • Idea-generation exercises: Everything from writing prompts to idea-association
  • Worldbuilding files: Character profiles, descriptions of settings, places, things

I mean, editing isn’t optional. You’re going to have to do it sometime. Why not count it as a meaningful use of your writing time? And everything else is helpful for idea generation. Many of these can be good “warmup” activities, too–you can do them before you write to help get yourself in a creative headspace.

(That said, there does have to be a balance. You should write more often than you do anything else. That’s probably why it’s “write 1,000 words a day” and not “do something writing-related every day”–to keep people from just noodling endlessly about a story. Goodness knows there are a million would-be fantasy authors who have spent years on worldbuilding and never written a single word of prose.)

When I have an active project, I definitely write thousands of words, every day, until I finish the thing. But when I’m between projects, I’ll spend my writing time on all kinds of brainstorming exercises. And that’s OK. You don’t have to produce, non-stop, forever. You have to fill the creative well sometimes, too.

Don’t Beat Yourself Up About It

And for goodness’s sake, if you don’t meet your daily quota, don’t whip yourself over it. If you’re putting aside time to work on your writing every day–or every weekday, or 3 times a week, or whatever works with your life–then you’re doing a heck of a lot more than someone who daydreams about writing a novel but has never written more than a chapter or two.

If you have a regular writing habit, no matter what it looks like, you’re doing well and you’re making progress. And that, in my opinion, is what the “write 1,000 words a day” advice is trying to do. It’s trying to make you build a habit. And it shouldn’t be treated like a limiting, prescriptive law.

So don’t take “1,000 words” too literally. Don’t make it a cross you have to bear, or an overly-strict rule you have to beat yourself up over. It’s advice–and good, useful, and practical advice. But it’s also just a suggestion.