Productivity (Part One of Two)

Julie here! Today, Kat Zhang and I are co-posting on the topic of productivity. We both know (from personal experience!) that sometimes the hardest part of writing is staying consistent and getting the work done. After all, writing is usually a solo activity, with no one checking in on you to make sure you reached your word count goal or revised that chapter. So we decided we would team up to share tips for staying on track.

This is a two part post, so on Friday, we’re going to go more in depth about ways a community can help keep you on schedule. But today, here are some tricks you can use on your own!

Kat: One of my biggest hurdles while drafting is my perfectionism. I want my first draft to be as perfect as a final draft–which is, of course, impossible. I’m a very exploratory writer, and sometimes I just need to write 10,000 words for every 5,000 that end up in the final draft. However, sometimes when I’m sludging through that first draft, I get so bogged down by the “Oh my god, this is the worst scene I’ve ever written” feeling of drafting that I either end up in an endless cycle of editing and re-writing, or worse, I get so frustrated that the writing isn’t fun at all.

Both those things can be killer to any attempt at staying on schedule. So while I’m drafting, I hold myself to exactly zero “How good is this writing?” standards. Okay, that’s a lie. I keep certain standards in the back of my mind, but my number one goal for each drafting day is: Just Hit the Word Count.

Now, there are some things I wouldn’t do to Just Hit the Word Count–I do outline before writing, so I don’t throw random tangents in my story for the sake of words. (No “And then a man with a gun and a flamingo showed up!” just for the sake of something happening). No adding adverbs or writing in weird ways just to up word count. Personally, those things would really just be wasted words, for me–but maybe they wouldn’t be for you.

Making my main goal a word count lets me let go of my inner editor a little, while keeping my eyes on the finish line.

Julie: This is great advice, Kat! I also try to resist the urge to self-edit while I draft, but find it difficult to avoid the trap of judging every word before moving on. I could easily rewrite the same thousand words five times, when I really need to get five thousand words down on the page!

Like you, I make word count my main goal when drafting. To stay on track, I create a spreadsheet so I can watch my progress. I’m a fanatical list-maker! It’s helpful for me to be able to see myself moving toward a goal in some concrete way. So I choose a day to target for the completed draft, and then I work backwards. I set manageable goals for each week and each day, and I definitely build in some wiggle room. If I fall off the pace, I’m willing to cut myself a break, and will even re-calibrate the goals if my original pace turns out to be unrealistic.

This spreadsheet helps so much, because it allows me to see just how much I’m getting done on the days when it feels like the draft is a disaster. It also calms my fears that I’m not going to make my deadline, because as long as I’m making the small goals, I know I’ll get there. That validation helps a lot when the goal of a complete draft feels overwhelming.

Kat: I love making lists, too! It’s always great to have a concrete way of looking at your progress. Although I never actually tried it myself, I know Victoria Schwab has a popular method that involves stickers and a wall calendar. You can take a look at her vlog about it here:

Julie: I’ve never seen Victoria’s method before, but I definitely believe a calendar system can be an effective tool. I used to use a modified version of a technique popularized by Jerry Seinfeld. It’s so simple! All you need is a wall calendar and a red pen. (It also requires that you have a goal of writing every day. Not every writer wants to do that.)

In Seinfeld’s system, for every day that you write, you put a large red X on the calendar. The Xs should be from corner to corner, so that they begin to form a chain of Xs. Over time, you have a long chain, and you don’t want to let it break! This method helped me stay motivated, and it also helped me see myself as a writer. All those Xs on the calendar proved to me that I wasn’t just someone who wanted to write; I was someone who was really doing it! (It’s also a visual reminder to everyone else with access to the calendar–your family, your roommates–that you are a writer and you need to stay on track.)

Kat: Hopefully, one or more of these ideas will kickstart your own method for staying on track, and keeping yourself productive! Everyone is different, so what works for us might not work for you.

We’d love to hear from you! What do you think of these ideas? Do any of these seem like they would work for you? Do you use a productivity system of your own that you would like to share? Please join the discussion in the comments!


16 Responses to Productivity (Part One of Two)

  1. Kathy MacMillan Jul 8 2015 at 6:15 am #

    I use the “habits” feature at to track how many words I wrote per day. It automatically generates a graph that is basically porn for type A personalities.

    • Julie Jul 8 2015 at 7:15 am #

      Hi Kathy! Oh wow, an automatically generated graph?!? I must check this out right away–thanks for the tip! 🙂

  2. Laura Wardle Jul 8 2015 at 7:45 am #

    Totally love this post! I use the ‘Writeometer’ app for Android. I track my daily progress in the writing log, which generates a graph and a report on my writing habits (eg. progress rate, best record in a day.) The app also features a timer (defaulted to 25 minutes, but can be altered). It’s a guaranteed method to get me writing when I’m feeling unmotivated and am struggling to meet my word count. I’ve used it for over a year now, and highly recommended. In fact, when I upgraded my phone a few months ago, I made sure to get another phone powered by Android. I wouldn’t be without ‘Writeometer’.

    In addition, I use a day planner with two sections for the same week, side by side. One side for home, and the other side for my writing life. (I have a separate planner for the day job.) In it, I keep track of my daily writing goals, word count, etc. I took inspiration from Victoria Schwab’s calendar idea and award myself a sticker for every 500 words written.

    The combined use of the app and the planner have sent my productivity through the roof. I drafted one book and a quarter of another, as well as revised half of a book in a little over a year. More than I’ve ever accomplished before. All on top of a full-time job and planning a wedding.

    Putting this productivity system has changed my writing life. Probably saved it, if I’m honest.

    • Laura Wardle Jul 8 2015 at 8:49 am #

      **into place

    • Katie Jul 8 2015 at 9:05 am #

      Wow, I love the sound of this app. I also have an Android–I’m going to have to check it out. 😀

    • Julie Jul 8 2015 at 9:26 am #

      Hi Laura! This app sounds great! I don’t have an android phone, but I found Writeometer in the Kindle app store, so I will check it out! I also use a few of the things you mention–I use a separate app with a timer (Pomodoro) and a day planner where I keep lots of lists, including daily writing to-do, monthly to-do, etc. (I can’t say for sure, but I think Kat and I talked about the timer once, and I believe she said it doesn’t work for her… )
      Thanks so much for sharing your method! And congrats for all you are accomplishing!

  3. Stephanie Garber Jul 8 2015 at 11:23 am #

    Great post! I’d never heard of Jerry Sienfeld’s method, but I can see how that would be totally motivating! I like to use excel to track my progress–I don’t do anything fancy with it, I just write my total word count next to the date. When I’m drafting my goal is always 1,000 words a day, and this totally helps me stay accountable. 🙂

    • Julie Jul 8 2015 at 4:32 pm #

      Stephanie, I did that very thing with a word count spreadsheet when I was drafting Ivory and Bone. I just looked at that spreadsheet the other day, and it was really cool to see the progress. Great tip!

  4. Rowenna Jul 8 2015 at 11:31 am #

    Awesome points! I think being honest about when you’re *not* going to be productive helps, too. If daily writing isn’t going to work for you–like you work 24 hour shifts or the like–it’s OK to acknowledge that! If there are times when you’re going to be swamped with schoolwork or work-work or family obligations, I think it’s OK to say, “all right, the next five days are just not going to happen.” And then commit to getting back to it when you’re out of the weeds.

    Graphs and word count charts and Excel spreadsheets are also my friend. Positive affirmation that you’re making progress is a productivity win 🙂

    • Julie Jul 8 2015 at 4:34 pm #

      Rowenna, you make a good point about allowing yourself to pause. As you say, if you agree with yourself ahead of time that you are taking five days away (or whatever,) then you can get back to it without guilt later! Thanks for sharing that!

  5. Kim Jul 8 2015 at 2:43 pm #

    Love this post! I needed to read something like this right now. My productivity level with writing has been kind of lacking since I went on submission with my agent, even though my CPs have given me feedback on my latest WIP. I have to rewrite part of it, and first draft writing is always my nemesis, I want it perfect—like Kat and you said—but it can’t be. I love the idea of having a calendar with an x-red-chain I don’t want to break!

    • Julie Jul 8 2015 at 4:39 pm #

      Hi Kim! First, congrats on being on sub(!) and second, I completely understand your lack of productivity at this point. Knowing you have a book on sub can be so distracting! I hope these tips help! 🙂

  6. Topaz Jul 8 2015 at 11:46 pm #

    Lovely post! I’ve been really loving spreadsheets lately – Julie, I have a similar method of setting a word count and a deadline and then working backwards to see how many words I need to write per day. (And then putting it all in a spreadsheet, because that makes it look more official than if it’s scrawled in the back of one of my notebooks. ;))

    I’m such a perfectionist – like both of you! – so it’s tough sometimes to let go of those tendencies in first drafts, but having a number-related goal really helps me tuck away the inner editor and save it for later drafts. I’m going to have to try the X-chain as well – such a simple & effective way to motivate oneself to write every day!

  7. Chris Bailey Jul 9 2015 at 5:23 pm #

    In fast draft mode, I give myself permission to drop in a list, or a question, or an idea that’s not fully formulated. Or a bit of dialogue that belongs somewhere else. But if I stop to plug it in where it belongs–that’s really revising. So I just bracket it and keep going. I know from experience that I can research/write 250 polished words an hour–nonfiction. For fiction, I have to make up the facts first. That’s why 100K might yield 50K. In the end, it’s more fun!

  8. allreb Jul 10 2015 at 4:12 pm #

    I actually have a giant tracking doc for my project. I fill it out at the end of every writing session (I don’t write daily but do 3-4 times a week) to track the date, time, and location of where I worked, how long I worked for, what I worked on, and notes about how it went. I’ve been using it since January and it’s a pretty great reminder of both how quick progress can be and how freaking long progress can take… all at the same time, somehow.

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