Counting Words in a Spreadsheet (or, The Sexiest Blog Post Ever)

One of my favourite writing tools is a spreadsheet created by Jamie Raintree, which tracks word counts by date across various projects. Raintree gives away the spreadsheet for free when you e-mail her and/or sign up for her newsletter: visit her website for more information.

Why track your progress?

Maybe you don’t care how many words you write in a year. I don’t, really, in my heart. I want to complete projects, not deposit words in some metaphorical bank account. I want to write down some good words, not just any words.

Paradoxically, counting words helps. Knowing you wrote 367 words doesn’t tell you whether the writing was any good, but it does tell you one thing: that you wrote 367 words. If you write 846 words the following day, then that doesn’t tell you if you are making the most of your years or wasting your life. However, it does tell you that you wrote two days in a row, and that you can write over 1000 words of draft work in two days.

This kind of information is useful if, say, you are trying to schedule some writing work. If you’ve never written more than 3000 words in one week in the last eight months, then you should say “no” to that request to craft a 4000-word essay by the weekend. If you never manage to write on Mondays due to your teaching load that day, then maybe you should give up trying to write on Mondays. Schedule some time to write on Tuesdays (if, say, you notice you always write twice as much on Tuesdays for some reason) and stop feeling guilty and stressed-out about your busy Mondays.

Once in a while I have a horrible, depressing day, when I am exhausted and everything feels like a slog. On those days, sometimes I force myself to write even though I wonder why. I rack up 1000 words and then quit in total depression about how terrible everything went and how I wasted my time writing a thousand garbage words. Then, the next day, when I read them over I see they aren’t so bad. I was just exhausted and depressed. If I didn’t have an artificial, meaningless goal (like writing 1000 words that day) — if my goal was more subjective, like doing some good work — then I would have just quit and gotten nowhere.

Counting words is nice because it is an objective, quantifiable, non-emotional way to track your writing progress. Numbers can be crunched and analyzed in a way that your subject-to-change feelings about what you wrote cannot.

How I Count Words

A word is a word, right? After I started using this spreadsheet, I decided that I needed some way to count three special cases:

  • words I revised or rewrote, which I felt should count for less
  • words in poems — which are very few, but which I felt should count for more
  • my “Haiku Horoscopes,” which is column of twelve tiny poems, and just generally weird

I decided on the following schema:

  • 1 written word = 1 word
  • 2 revised words = 1 word
  • 1 page of poetry = 250 words (a revised page = 125 words)
  • 1 “Haiku Horoscopes” column (which runs two pages) = 250 words
  • Communication (e.g., e-mail) or other non-project writing = 0 words
  • Extent of revisions is irrelevant
  • “Stolen” words (e.g., in conceptual poetry) are not counted any differently (e.g., 1 word stolen = 1 word written)

I then decided to set two goals or quotas:

  • 250,000 words per year
  • 5,000 words per week

I chose these numbers semi-randomly. The logic behind the choices was that I could write a 50,000-word manuscript and rewrite it 5 times, plus write another 75,000 words on various smaller projects.

Also, I could take two weeks off. Additionally, on a busy day, I could decide not to write without causing myself undue anxiety (as long as I tried to make it up over the course of the week and/or the year).

I also thought this was an average that would be ambitious enough to produce meaningful results, but within the realm of possibility. (I guessed that I probably wrote more than this in a good year already, although since I didn’t count words I didn’t know.)

Analyzing the Data

2014 was the first year I used this spreadsheet, and frankly I kept forgetting. I can tell just by looking at the spreadsheet that it is completely inaccurate. For example, I did a lot of work on a book of short stories called The Lightning of Possible Storms, but the spreadsheet says I wrote less than 3000 words for this project.

Basically, I kept forgetting to input my work. Even so, the spreadsheet reports that I wrote 173,516 words.

In a year that felt like it kept getting away from me, one that just seemed to get more busy and more stressful, it was a great help, from time to time, to be able to step back and look over this spreadsheet. Despite feeling like I was losing my mind and accomplishing nothing, when I was stressed out I could relax a bit since I had an objective measure of having accomplished quite a bit of writing.

At the same time, I can see that I squandered a lot of time working on too many projects. If I had simply focused all of my effort on a single project, and all those words were in one place rather than spread around the writing world, then I could have easily completed another book this year. (Technically, I did complete a book this year — Why Poetry Sucks — but if I had been more focused I could have finished The Lightning of Possible Storms as well.)

Almost 40,000 of my “words” were devoted to “Other” — since I don’t even know what the hell I was writing, this couldn’t have been a priority — and yet random “Other” things was apparently my secondary focus this year.

Do I need to write a book each year? No. Should I have done things differently? In this case, yes, because I wanted to complete that short story book — and apparently I could have, simply by turning down other work. (And spending less time writing posts like this one!) Sometimes you have the luxury of turning down work, and sometimes you don’t, but keeping tabs on yourself can help you make informed decisions and see what trade-offs you are making.

By tracking how you work, you can analyze how you work, and you can make changes going forward if it feels necessary. Even misusing Raintree’s spreadsheet in 2014 helped me calm down, keep moving forward, and make better plans for the new year.