Thursday, 18 August 2016

The math we use to make ourselves feel better

Yesterday my dyslexic flatmate was frustrated that she spent 5 hours writing an essay outline (850 words).

I'd say 850 words in 5 hours isn't a failure. The essay outline is finished and says everything it was meant to. That makes it a successful piece of writing.

I spent 5 hours yesterday watching the first season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and I produced exactly 0 words during that time. The way I see it, any time spent on writing is better than none, any work produced is better than none, and any finished piece is a totally badass success of which to be proud.

Ten percent of nothin' is, let me do the math here... Nothin' into nothin', carry the nothin'...

But of course the frustration isn't the finished work, it's the time taken to get there.

850 words in 5 hours is 170 words in an hour, which doesn’t seem like many. Until you consider that it's 170 finished words an hour, so 170 words of polished, edited, shiny-happy writing. There were hundreds of other words which she threw out along the way, from outlines to practice sentences or excess trimmed out to keep the outline within ideal parameters.

The first Harry Potter is just shy of 77,000 words. If my flatmate kept producing 170 shiny words per hour for 5 hours a day, that's Harry Potter in 90 days. From 0 to Harry Potter in roughly 3 months.
Of course that's not exactly how it works. In my experience, longer novels need exponentially more editing and reworking than shorter novellas. There's an incredible amount of variation from book to book and author to author, and I would never devalue the effort of creating a finished short story. And yet, on top of my anecdotal evidence, there's the simple maths that if any chunk of writing needs X amount of reworking, the more chunks there are then the more editing and reworking.

I realized that I, a writer with a love of spreadsheets, am so used to calculating word count averages that I take them for granted. I love numbers and stats and goals. And sometimes, when you're feeling down about your writing, you have to do the quick and dirty math that will make you feel better.

The easiest example is what I did at the start of this post: think of the time you spent writing and compare it what you achieved in the same space of time not spent on writing. Maybe you got an hour of writing in today and your story didn't move far, but compare that to the eight or so hours at work in which your story didn't move at all. Congratulations, from a writing perspective you're more productive in your spare time than at work!

You can think of your writing as chunks of a finished work, or estimate how many books you'd be able to create if you kept this pace up every day for the rest of your life.

It's so easy to feel low comparing ourselves to prolific authors or even our own personal bests. We can take a step back and remind ourselves that any writing is a success and, if not a step toward a goal, then at least practice. But sometimes dirty math is the only cure to the writing blues.

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