For years I kept a precise track of my daily writing total. I’m from a science family and thrive under routine, so iteration feels natural. I was also part of a writing accountability group. At the start of each month, we pledged a daily goal. Every day, we would report how many words we had actually written. There were no penalties if you didn’t make your goal and there were no bonuses if you did; the point was simply to build a habit of daily writing.
Initially it was beneficial. I have Olympic skills in procrastination, which is why I have unfinished drafts dating back to my high school days. If I can’t see that blazing yellow finish line, I don’t reach it. Part of that is because I know the stories in my head and I don’t feel any drive to get them out. Part is because there is no pressure.
Solution: a daily goal.
I kept mine small. Most of the time it was 250 words a day—just enough pressure to make me write, never enough to make me anxious. But a problem I encountered was coming to view my monthly totals as measures of success. At the end of months I spent editing, I felt disappointed if I had only written 9,000 new words versus 30,000 the month before. I started to look at the numbers as a metric of my success the way that I’d look at likes/retweets/comments to measure success on social media. I came to believe that I was only a decent writer during times I was prolific.
Years ago, fueled by depression and personal issues, I threw out my notebooks. I threw out story notes, character designs, early drafts. I threw out my notebooks from college. I trashed my hard drive. I decided I was never going to write again and for two years I didn’t. One day I woke up; I started to work again. I remembered the pleasure in writing. It was a long, clumsy climb back up, but I’m finally on a mountain again overlooking the world.
That’s why, when I felt my mental footing give way a few weeks ago, I knew I had to do something. I hadn’t wanted to write in weeks. I was thinking of purging everything again. After some reflection, I concluded that judging myself by quantity had shifted writing from a passion to a chore. Some writers like Stephen King can write 2,500 words a day. I’m not that writer.
I stopped logging my daily totals. If I write anything in a day, that’s enough. It felt strange at first; I’ve logged my total for years and like to dig through the data, but I’d rather value myself by a completed work than a number.
And I think this new mindset might be what I need to finish more things.