I’ve often mentioned that I record how many words I write each day. This might sound obsessive and nerdy, but when I’m writing a novel, it helps me to work out when it’s likely to be finished, and how well it’s flowing. If I hit a patch when my word totals are low for a few days, it suggests that section of the book is gloopy and needs an exciting subplot, some scenes cutting altogether, or more work on getting to know my characters. Tracking my word scores lets me know quickly when my writing is out of kilter, and that means I can act quickly to correct it.
I also get to see what an average day’s writing looks like for me, so I can set goals and targets based on it. I can tell my agent I’ll have a first draft done by Christmas because I can easily work out what’s achievable based on my normal work rate.
Tracking my words also sets up a nice little bit of competition with myself, and spurs me on to do better. If I can see that I normally write 1200 words in a session, I challenge myself to write 1300 each day. It also encourages me to write every single day as it's difficult to say 'I'll do it tomorrow' if that would mean a gap in an otherwise perfect record. Setting word goals also helps me get momentum going when I start a project, for example in the early days of a new novel when I’m not exactly sure what the story is, and I’m writing my way into it.
Measuring my progress towards a goal helps me to see where other factors are affecting me. If I put a gold star on the calendar for every day I hit my word goal, it's easy to notice if Mondays (or Wednesdays, or Sundays) are the days I miss. Then I can ask what it is about Mondays (or Wednesdays ... you get the idea) that interrupts my writing, and means I can do something about it.
How can you make every word count?
1. Set Clear Goals
Set clear writing goals that are achievable, but which will stretch you a little; something like: I will write 500 words a day, every day, for a month. Or 'I will write and submit two short stories to X and Y competitions before Christmas'. A wishy washy goal like 'I'll try to do a bit of writing' is unsatisfactory because you won't know when you've achieved it. Plus, it's not challenging enough to stretch you.
Write your goal on a post-it note and put it where you will see it every day. Using the Sticky Notes feature on your laptop - which puts a post-it on your Windows desktop screen - is a good, quick way to do this. You can also add sticky notes with quotations to encourage you.
2. Keep it SimpleUse a simple system to record your progress. If your goal is to send out two stories a month, then you could use an excel spreadsheet or index cards to record which story was sent where, when. This will also help you keep track of submissions and resubmissions so you don't accidentally send the same story out simultaneously.
If your goal is to write 500 words a day, you could enter your daily total in your diary or in a spreadsheet. A gold star on the calendar, marking every day you write your journal, for example, is a visible reminder of what you're aiming to achieve and can encourage you even when you're feeling flat.
3. Review your Progress and adjust accordingly
If your target was 500 words a day, and you routinely achieve that, increase your target to 600 words a day. This will stretch you, but it's not as daunting as upping the target to 1000 words a day. Get to the 1000 words a day target incrementally, by making sure you hit 500 words a day, then 600, before increasing it to 700, 800, and so on until you reach your target.
If you often miss your targets, revise them. Perhaps you've set a target to write on 6 days a week but you normally only manage to write 3 times a week - reset your target to writing 3 times a week. It's better to build up your writing stamina slowly and feel pleased with your progress than to beat yourself up each week for missing your target. Review your progress after a month, and increase your target if it's realistic and achievable for you to do so.
4. Celebrate Milestones
Plan what you will do to celebrate when you hit your target and write it on your post-it notes to encourage you. Good celebrations for writers include: listening to music, reading a favourite short story, visiting an art gallery, putting flowers on your desk, or buying a new notebook.
If you’ve read Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way, you’ll be familiar with the idea of Morning Pages. Briefly, she recommends that all artists start the day by writing three full pages of a journal. The writing must be done without stopping to think, without criticising what you’re writing, and if you can’t think what to write, you write ‘I can’t think what to write’ over and over again until your brain jumps the tracks and finds something to say. Many people swear by Morning Pages, particularly if they’re having a tough time, as the writing enables you to let go and release everything that’s worrying you. It clears the pipes ready for the day ahead. Some writers report that they spend months writing drivel about the minutiae of their day until one glorious morning a character steps onto the page and enchants them.
I’ve tried morning pages on various occasions, and tend to return to them if I’m feeling unsettled or uncertain. When I write them, they’re more moaning pages than morning pages. For me, they don’t result in characters tripping blithely onto the page, but they help me to understand and release the stuff that’s holding me back or keeping me stuck. When I have a bee in my bonnet about something, I use the moaning pages to whinge on about it, digging into layer after layer of gripes, hurts, and frustrations until I’m so sick of writing about it I say, “Enough!” and let go. For me, moaning/ morning pages are a way to work out what I want to do, how I want things to be, and how to get there.
Morning pages are great discipline – you must fill three pages a day, every day. The routine preps your brain that it’s writing time and creates a writing routine. It’s not meant to result in publishable prose, though you may come up with an idea that you later rework. In fact, Cameron recommends that you don’t look back at what you’ve written for several months. When you do, you may be surprised. The pages offer a window into your subconscious – they show you your obsessions, your dreams, and what’s holding you back.
When I want to find a new character or a new story, I don’t use morning pages, I use free writing. The techniques are similar – you write for a set period of time, or decide to cover a certain number of pages, you write without stopping, and if you get stuck you repeat the last few words over and over until something new comes to mind. I use free writing most days as a warm up. They’re the equivalent of practising scales or jogging round a running track – giving my creativity a bit of a work out. When I look back over my writing, I see themes appearing, images and ideas that attract and intrigue me. Ideas that I then go on to explore in fiction.
Do you use morning pages, and if so, are they for creativity or for getting the gripes out of your system, or both? I’d love to know what works for you. Tell me about it in the comments below.
Kim Fleet lives and works in Cheltenham. Her two cats help the creative process by standing on the delete key.