QUANTIFIED SELF

06.24.14

How I Wrote 400K Words in a Year

Unless it’s your profession, writing every day seems impossible. But with the right tools, it’s entirely doable. Here’s how.

I have been a proponent of the quantified self movement ever since I read Stephen Wolfram’s 2012 post, “The Personal Analytics of My Life,” where he illustrated how data about his behavior (walking, sleeping, writing, etc.) informed his efforts to improve. One question often asked in the quantified self movement centers on how we put to use the data we collect. Whether you wear a FitBit device, use a sleep-tracker, or record your mood, can the resulting data get put to use in a meaningful way?

With this question in mind, I decided to use some of my own data to see if it was possible to turn my avocation into a full-time gig. By day, I’m a software developer. By night, I’m a science fiction writer and technology blogger. It would be wonderful, eventually, to do more of the latter and less of the former.

Stephen King has said that to be a writer, you need to do two things: read a lot and write a lot. Given my job and family, I never thought I had the time to write very much. But in March 2013 I decided to challenge that notion.

My plan was fairly simple: I would try to write every day. I would set aside any preconceived notions I had about the environment I needed in which to write. My focus would be on writing every day.

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I do all of my writing in Google Docs, and to help gauge my efforts, I wrote a set of scripts that automatically capture stats from my writing and record them to a spreadsheet. Could the data help me become a better writer? Practice, they say, makes perfect, and the more I could write, the more practice I could get. My biggest challenge was that with a full-time job and two small children, I didn’t think I’d be able to write enough to make a difference.

Turns out, I was wrong.

In terms of volume, that translates into 423,000 words, roughly the equivalent of 3-4 average novels, or one good-sized Stephen King or George R.R. Martin tome.

With 478 days worth of data in the books, here are some of the things that I’ve learned about my writing and myself:

1. I can consistently write 500 words in 20 minutes. That means, even if I can only find 20 minutes in the day, I can get in two pages of writing.

2. It turns out that I don’t need to isolate myself in a quiet space away from the family when I write. I write just fine with the TV in the background and the kids and their toys and books spread out around me.

3. Streaks are highly motivating to me. My scripts send me an email summary each morning of the previous day’s work. They identify and highlight streaks. For instance, as of this writing, I have written for 333 consecutive days. I joke that I’m aiming for 2,633 consecutive days—enough to beat Cal Ripkin Jr.’s consecutive game record. Moreover, I’ve written for 476 out of the last 478 days. With a streak like that, I make an extra effort each day to ensure I don’t break it.

4. I’ve found that consistency is more important than quantity. It turns out that writing every day relieves my stress.

For me, the results have been remarkable. I’ve sold stories more quickly and with fewer rejections along the way—a sign that the practice has helped to improve my writing. The volume of writing has allowed me to branch out into nonfiction articles as well.

Perhaps most surprising of all is the volume I’ve achieved. Based on the data I’ve collected, I’ve averaged between 30-40 minutes of writing every day since March 2013. In terms of volume, that translates into—wait for it—423,000 words, roughly the equivalent of three or four average novels, or one good-sized Stephen King or George R.R. Martin tome. It also happens to be about four times what I wrote in the entire 20 years prior to March 2013.

As with anything, opinions vary widely about the value of writing every day. I tend to look at it as practice: the more I practice, the better I get. For those looking to start writing more frequently, here are a few tips I’d offer from my experience:

1. Focus on content, not word count. What matters to me most is that I write every day, not how much I write. There have been a few days where I’ve written only one or two paragraphs. Quantity will take care of itself as the streak builds.

2. Be flexible. Learn to write anywhere and in small scraps of time. If you don’t think it is possible, give it a try—you may surprise yourself. Don’t worry so much about when to write each day. Eventually, you’ll find a comfort zone.

3. Make sure that your work is accessible from anywhere. Nothing is more frustrating than finding you have some time to write, but no access to your document. I use Google Docs, but if you prefer a tool like Scrivener (a writer’s word processor that I highly recommend) or even Microsoft Word, consider keeping your work-in-progress stored in Dropbox or some other cloud service. If you use a paper notebook, make sure you have that notebook—and a good pen—with you wherever you go.

4. Tune out your surroundings. A noise-cancelling headset helped make it possible for me to write surrounded by my kids, and with the TV running in the background. I use a Bose QuietComfort 15 headset, but there are lots of models out there to choose from. Combining the headset with natural sounds (I sometimes listen to a soundtrack of rain and thunder) allows me to focus on the writing.

5. Plan. You can’t plan for every contingency, but when I know that my day will be full, I try to get my writing done as early as possible. I don’t plan ahead every day, just those days I know will be particularly busy with other obligations.

6. Have multiple things to work on. At any given time, I may have two pieces of fiction and several nonfiction items that I am working on. I feel unmotivated to work on the short story, rather than do nothing, I simply switch to the novel draft or a nonfiction article. This helps most often on the days where even planning doesn’t work out, and I find myself exhausted at 10 p.m. with no desire to work on whatever it was I worked the day before. Switching gears helps me move forward. When I’m done, I almost always feel good about what I’ve written.

This, of course, is a specific problem that I’ve tried to use data to address. But that is the heart of the quantified self movement. The data that we gather about ourselves every day without thinking about it can be useful in solving our individually unique problems. I am not yet a full-time writer, and I haven’t quit my day job. But the data I’ve gathered, what I have learned from it, and how it has changed my behavior have helped convince me that writing full-time may be possible after all.

In that sense the data is not just an interesting lark. It is actively helping me to achieve a lifelong dream.