Writers: Know Thyself, Know Thy Word Count

“Most people have dozens of things that they need to do to make progress on many fronts, but they don’t yet know what they are.”

— David Allen

How many words did you write today? Did you accomplish more than yesterday? And while I’m asking all these questions: did you write more this week or last week?

Almost every personal productivity strategy involves tracking your progress on some level because what gets tracked gets managed and what gets managed gets done.

Let me explain:

Professional athletes track themselves or use self-quantification techniques to record their diet, how much they lifted, how far they ran, and how many lengths they swam and so on. They use this information to train harder and smarter and to perform better in events.

There’s no reason why writers can’t use this approach or self-knowledge to become more productive.

If you want to do this, you can track your time or you can track your output.

Know Thyself, Know Thy Word Count

Writers talk in terms of words counts rather than pages.

They care less about page counts because the number of pages a piece takes depends on how the fonts, spacing and even the images are set and laid out.

A page-count is fluid, whereas a word-count is less so. You either wrote 500-words this morning or you didn’t.

I’ve met writers who use daily word counts for personal competitions; they make a point of breaking their personal bests just like the runner in search of a faster time.

I respect word counts because they can break a writer out of a creative funk and help you find something worthwhile to say. Knowing your average daily word count can also help you increase it.

For example, if your word count rises when you write in the morning and drops when you write at night, you can use this new information to cultivate an early morning writing habit.

According to the Paris Review, Ernest Hemingway recorded his daily word count on a large chart kept beneath a mounted gazelle head near where he wrote. He did this:

“So as not to kid myself.”

But what if you’re struggling to write even 500-words a day? Or what if you can write 500-words on day one, but on day two you put things off?

Fear not brave writer.

Harnessing the Power of Small Daily Writing Wins

Getting the most from small daily wins means working on something a little every day and accomplishing it over time rather than trying to get everything done at the last minute.

It’s the productive person’s equivalent of putting a euro or a dollar in a jar every day to save; it’ll take you some time, but you’ll get there in the end.

If you want to harness the power of small daily wins, I recommend a simple trick invented by a famous (and rich) comedian.

Using Don’t Break the Chain to Write (Just like Jerry Seinfeld)

The comedian Jerry Seinfeld invented this popular productivity trick to motivate himself to write one new joke every day.

It’s built on the principle of increasing your creative output through small, daily wins. I’ve used Don’t Break the Chain to write feature articles, news stories, a thesis, various academic papers, blog posts and even books.

Get this exact chart

If you procrastinate about sitting down in the front of the blank page regularly, this technique can help you get your ass into the chair. Here’s how you do it:

  1. Get a large calendar and pin it on the wall next to where you write

  2. Write for 5, 10, 20 or 30 minutes

  3. Using a felt pen, mark an X on your wall calendar through today’s date

  4. As the week progresses, write each day and build up a series or a chain of Xs

  5. Now you have one job: Don’t Break the Chain

Thanks to Don’t Break the Chain, you’ll feel guilty about ruining a productive writing streak. After all, nobody wants to a see a row of Xs for every day that you worked, only for this row to be broken in two because you stopped writing.

I’m speaking from personal experience when I say, it’s encouraging and reassuring to see the black Xs line up one after the other as a project processes. Each little X feels like a small victory in the war against procrastination.

This strategy is useful at the beginning of larger, more difficult writing projects.

It gets you into the habit of turning up each day and slowly progressing your project. It will help you accept that, even if today’s writing session doesn’t go well, there is always tomorrow’s session and the one after that.

What’s more important is that you turn up and put the work in.

There’s just one problem with Seinfeld’s technique. It’s an unforgiving one because it makes no allowances for going on holidays, falling sick or for other personal commitments.

Hey, maybe Seinfeld doesn’t get sick or take holidays?

Self-Knowledge Is Power

The productive writer knows how much she can accomplish on the blank page each day.

She uses the power of small daily wins to write consistently rather than leaving everything till the last minute. She knows it’s better to turn up and do the work than it is to do nothing altogether.

She tracks what she writes, how much and for how long.

She’s getting better every day.