Many writers claim to have number phobia. They are happy to wrangle with words, but as soon as mentions of math slip into conversation, they bolt, desperate to return to safer terrain.
I’m one of the math-loving few in the writing community.
I’ve always been a numbers nerd, and I love looking at data in new ways. Here, I am going to suggest five ways numbers can improve your writing life. I promise there are no complicated equations here (I will not make you relive your algebra days!), and these ideas can help even the most math-averse among us.
1. Monitoring Time
Time is the currency we all pay to improve our writing skills and share our work, yet many of us do not keep track of it.
Monitoring your time makes you face the reality of how you are spending it. In her book, 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, Laura Vanderkam suggests keeping a time diary for one week to assess how you are using your time.
After keeping a week-long time diary myself, I learned two things.
1. I discovered I was more conscientious about my time when I knew I was keeping a record of my activities. If I had a half hour of unclaimed time, I had to ask myself if I really wanted to include “scrolling through social media” on my time log. I usually made a better choice.
2. I found my days were fuller than I thought. When I first did the time diary exercise, I was caring for my young children. I spent the majority of my time taking care of their needs, playing with them, and making sure they stayed alive. I didn’t have extra time to give without making lifestyle changes.
Try monitoring your time. A week-long time diary provides an “average” overview. Are you writing as often as you thought? How much time do you spend reading? Do you have extra time to devote to your writing endeavors or are you maxed out?
2. Tracking Words
Most writers keep track of their word count at some point. If you’ve submitted a short piece to a blog, journal, or newspaper, you’ve adhered to a word count restriction. If you’ve worked on a novel, you’ve learned your market’s word count expectations. Even if you’re new to writing, your high school English teacher likely asked you to write a 500-word essay.
It’s common to think of word count in the context of a finished product, but you can also use word count to help you with your writing habits.
1. Do you write more words in the evenings than you do in the mornings? Maybe you write more words when you work in short sprints as opposed to two-hour chunks.
2. Do you have a maximum output level, after which your brain shuts down? Keeping track of your word count (and how you achieved it) can help you identify what works best for you.
3. Knowing Writing Speed
Writing quickly isn’t inherently better than writing slowly, though as writers, we may be tempted to believe faster is better. Instead, you can use your writing speed as a metric to understand how you work.
You may be a writer who spends an hour writing 200 thoughtful words, but then you don’t spend as much time in revision afterwards. Or maybe you’re a writer who needs to spit out the first draft as quickly as possible so you crank out 2,000 words per hour. Perhaps fluctuations in your writing speed indicate when you need a break.
If your current writing practices aren’t working or if you find yourself in a rut, experiment with your writing speed and see what changes.
4. Setting Realistic Goals
Once you monitor your writing time, word count, and writing speed, you can use these metrics to set reasonable goals.
For instance, suppose you set a goal to write 5,000 words a week. This seems like a reasonable goal to you since your friend writes 2,000 words a day. However, you average 200 words per hour and write five hours a week. You are setting yourself up to fail before you’ve even started working towards your goal.
Maybe you want to write two hours every morning before your day job begins. You are currently writing for fifteen minutes during your lunch break. Are you prepared to increase your writing time eight times over? Do you write well in the morning? You’d do better to first change either the time of day you write or the amount you write in one session, instead of changing both simultaneously.
Writers fall prey to romantic notions about the writing life. When they cannot live up to their unrealistic expectations, they give up. Don’t let this happen to you simply because you didn’t consider a few important pieces of data.
5. Motivating with Numbers
Use numbers in your motivation. Knowing you spent 500 hours (nearly 21 days!) writing last year may be the bragging right that helps you do it again this year. Watching your word count climb into the thousands, and then tens of thousands can inspire you to finish your novel. Recording a writing streak becomes more fun when you plan a special celebration for the 100th day.
Don’t overlook whimsy. You can set quirky goals by playing with numbers. For example, if seven is your favorite number, you could set a goal to write 777 words a day. For the year 2023, you could set the goal to write for 20 minutes a day, 23 days a month. Write one essay in January, two in February, three in March, and so forth until you write twelve in December. The possibilities are endless, but these kinds of goals become more meaningful to you because they are uniquely yours.
Numbers Don’t Lie…
… but they also don’t tell the full story. An objective measurement forces you to confront it. If you didn’t write any days in February, the ‘0’ written in your monthly log makes you face the truth. However, it’s important to not let the numbers do all the talking. You may not have written in February because your mother was in the hospital and you were caring for her. Acknowledge you didn’t write, but recognize you were dealing with extenuating circumstances, and move forward without guilt. Don’t make excuses or fudge your metrics, but honor the fact that you’re human and not a machine.
Math is for everyone – writers included. Use numbers to your advantage and see where it takes you. If you do, I would love to hear the results!
Sara Gentry is a writer and Author Accelerator certified book coach with a Ph.D. in applied and interdisciplinary mathematics. She uses her problem-solving skills to help writers find the solutions they need to write books they love. Connect with her on Instagram, Twitter, and her website.