Being a Better Writer: Quotas, Objectives, and Measuring Progress

Don’t forget, Unusual Events: A “Short” Story Collection is out now!

This post was originally written and posted January 12th, 2015, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.

Today’s topic is going to be a bit lighter than normal, but personally I still find it to be of large importance to anyone who’s determined to make more of their writing than just a hobby. If your goal is to be a hobbyist writer, then what I’m talking about today probably isn’t going to matter much to you. For most hobbyists, writing is supposed to be a hobby. Which means it’s going to—or at least should be—fun. And some of what I’m going to talk about today can take away from that fun. Thankfully though, if you’re a hobbyist, you don’t have to worry about it!

What I want to talk about today is quotas. And objectives. Or really, any metric by which you can measure your progress. Because if you’re a writer, then there’s one thing you have to remember: You have to be writing.

It was one of the first lessons I was taught way back when—a lesson which I have since heard reiterated by many other authors I’ve encountered. A simple statement that finds its origins in the 1987 film Throw Momma from the Train. To quote the film, “A writer writes, always.”

Now, to be fair, there’s a lot more that goes into that than the simple phrase. The original line is a bit of a gag. After all, clearly it can’t be said that a writer needs to be writing every minute of every day in order to really be a writer. This can’t be true. Writers have lives, writers have ambitions. Writers take vacations—which for the majority means sitting on their porch and dreaming about the vacation they’d have taken if only they’d gone into a more profitable career. Writers need downtime and relaxation as much as anyone else.

But the crux of that quote, that a writer is always writing, taken as an idea—a drive, or a purpose—is what makes it something that, in one way or another, is referenced by so many authors today. Because a writer should be writing. They should be producing. A real writer writes.

Which is why many find it helpful to make use of quotas, objectives, and other metrics. How many of you have met that person in your life who claims to be a writer, but has never actually produced anything? Or produced one thing? Or is producing something, but takes years to do so … years that seem unnecessary?

All of these are people who claim to be writers that you’ll actually (and probably) meet in life. And to be fair, some of them will turn out to be writers. But along the way, they probably started doing what most serious writers do themselves: setting and keeping goals and quotas.

Some of you at this point are probably already nodding along and wondering when I’m going to write something more relevant, but the truth is that there are a ton of people who “write” without ever assigning any sort of measurable standard to themselves. And if you do that, well, how do you ever know what you’ve accomplished? I’ve known people who are writers who—more often than not—spent their writing time browsing the internet and wasting time doing things that were definitely not writing. I’ve heard people say that they have a dedicated writing time—but that they’d don’t actually care how much writing they do at all during that time, just that they set aside that time for the writing.

This is why having something like a quota, a goal, or some other metric measuring stick that you can place yourself up against is something that you need to have as a writer. The prior statement? It’s not measurable in any way. It’s just “writing time.” If you want to write, you need to have something that shows you what your progress is at the end of the day. This can be daily or weekly wordcounts (I prefer the daily method, though I’ve spoken with other authors that go weekly). It can be a goal to reach a certain chapter by a certain time. It can even be something as complex (or simple) as laying out a project calender with set dates to reach points of the story creating process at.

My point is, like anything else, if you want to be productive at it, the best way is to know exactly how much you’re getting done. Runners time their miles. Basketball players spend time make free throws. Chemists … try not to blow each other up, I guess. But however they do it, there’s some sort of measurable thought process that goes into it. There is a quote that says “When performance is measured, performance improves. When performance is measured and reported, the rate of improvement accelerates.” and as a writer, this is very true. You need to have your own yardstick to track your efforts by, something that will let you know if you’re really working as hard as you could be … or if you’ve slacked off completely.

Now, about what I mentioned earlier, this idea that a writer writes, always. In a way, it’s true. Even when I’m not sitting at my keyboard, I think about the stories I’m working on. An author I follow once mentioned that one of the advantages of writing was that you could lie on a couch with your eyes closed and still be working, mind abuzz with character ideas and plot points. If you’re going to write, you’re going to write always … but this doesn’t mean actual fingers to paper writing.

But too many would-be writers stay would-be writers because while they understand the concept of writing, they never let it become something more. They never make the goal that one of my old English professors urged us all to make, that we never let more than a set period of time pass without writing something. They never measure their objectives. They plod along,  occasionally writing something and calling themselves a writer, but in actuality being a hobbyist. Their drive never increases. Their output never improves. And their writing talent reaches comfortable low and never improves.

So the next time you start to think to yourself about writing, ask yourself: How am I going to measure my work? What stick or standard do I want to use?

It might take you some time to find a good one. As I mentioned before, I write with a daily quota in mind, a word count that I have to reach before I allow myself to stop. And this works for me. For others, this would simply be an excuse to pad their wordcount, and they would find that it didn’t work as well for them.

So experiment! Try different methods of finding your own metric. Play around until you find one that keeps you busy, that works with your writing style. One that gives you room for growth or improvement—because once you measure, you’ll often find room for such. But have one. Don’t just sit down at a keyboard and start writing without some way of letting yourself know what you’ve accomplished.

Measure yourself. Find a metric. Build on it. And remember, a writer really does write.

Always.

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