This Sunday morning, I woke up thinking about my short story. I’m a little over halfway through the first draft, and the Girls in the Basement are pumped. Words spill onto the page sweet and easy right now, and the Girls regularly toss images and insights my way.
It’s days like today that I don’t worry about hitting my target word count. I know I will. The real question is, What happens on those days when I don’t feel like writing? Or I just feel like rereading and editing? Or I feel like mowing the lawn? What will happen to my progress if I skip a day of writing?
I’m a firm believer that knowing your own process can help you play to your strengths. For example, my process is to spend quite a bit of time revising and polishing as I go, almost paragraph by paragraph, so that the first draft is fairly clean but takes a little while. Other writers love the thrill of creating something new, but really get off on doing all their editing at once, so pounding out a fast first draft is the way to go, but the writer gives herself more revision time. Some of us struggle in both the wildly creative times and the more craft-oriented times. I’m sure your process is different, too.
Regardless of our individual ways of getting to The End, if we want to have actual careers, then we probably need to look at how many books or novellas or short stories we can produce within a given time frame. And being the geek that I am, I decided to add my own First Draft Helper™ to the plethora of great word-counting spreadsheets available on the various writing forums and web sites.
The main difference between the FDH and other spreadsheets is that it doesn’t really care how many hours I spend writing each day. It only cares about output. This approach is akin to the way my former employer thought about the hours I spent working: We need artifact A, and we don’t care how many or how few hours it takes — just get it done.
The corporate life also taught me to be more realistic about what I could do and the time I had to do it in. I can’t tell you how many times people would commit to a deadline they had no way of meeting simply because they hadn’t factored in their vacation days off…
And if you aren’t end date-driven, but just want some idea of when you’ll be done with your manuscript at your own natural pace, then getting out the calendar and counting the days manually can be a great procrastination technique, making us feel like we’re accomplishing something when we really aren’t. (There’s another blog post in that statement, isn’t there?)
So the FDH has 2 ways of seeing progress:
- By End Date. I can specify a target first draft end date and the spreadsheet will calculate how many words per writing day I’ll need to produce in order to meet that date. (Be sure to budget editing and publishing prep time in your overall schedule.)
- At My Pace. I can specify my preferred daily word count and how many days a week I’ll write, and the spreadsheet will calculate the date I can expect to finish the first draft.
The FDH also takes into account things like weekends, holidays, and vacation days. You can plug in your own vacation days or add extra days around the holidays if you travel or like to take more time off with family. Also, if you prefer to think about page counts rather than word counts, the pages per week count is in there also.
The most useful thing, I think, is the Running Tally on both sheets. At the end of each writing day, I log the full manuscript word count and the sheet updates the number of words per day I’ll need to produce to stay on target (By End Date) or the adjusted anticipated end date (At My Pace). This can help me plan days off, the number of hours I might feel I need to keep my butt in the chair, that sort of thing. I can also use the At My Pace sheet to figure out how many days a week I’d need to write to hit my word count within my desired time frame, as sort of a What if? calculation.
The FDH is not a panacea for all writing ills, but I’ve found it useful — especially when aiming at our first February 14th Ice Bucket Challenge — for keeping on track without driving myself nuts or setting unrealistic expectations for myself. The reality is that plugging numbers in at the end of the day makes me accountable when no one else is looking, even if I don’t hit the day’s target. And it lets me see early signs of the impact of my procrastination so that I’m less likely to let the work slide for very long.
I hope you find the First Draft Helper useful but, as always, if it doesn’t help, toss it out! Honoring your own writing process always comes first. Take what you like and leave the rest.
First Draft Helper by D.K. Saunders is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. (This means you can download, adjust, alter, reuse, and include the First Draft Helper in your own materials. Just attribute it to D.K. Saunders, and you’re good to go.)