The Power of the Word Count Tracker

Last year, when January rolled around, I had to face facts: I had to somehow wade through the toughest writing of my career so far—and in record time. The third and final book of The Watchers Chronicle could not wait another spring, another summer, another year. It was summer 2015 or bust. That wasn’t a lot of time to wrap up my most ambitious book to date.

I needed help. I need motivation.

Some other writer on Facebook (I don’t remember who it was) seemed to be in the same boat, and they shared a blog post which espoused the practice of using an Excel-powered word count tracker.

The picture got my attention right away, and I said to myself, I must try this.

That happened on December 30, so I didn’t have much time to waste. I jumped on Excel and did my best to replicate what I’d seen on that timely, heaven-sent blog.

Sixteen weeks later, this is what it looked like:

Word Count Tracker

The essence is that you write down your daily word total—honestly—and color-code your achievements. Maybe only a minority of people will respond to the reward of getting to upgrade the color of a little spreadsheet box, but I am unashamedly one of those people. I would get near to the boundary between yellow and orange, and pick up my pace significantly.

Of course, the color-coded word count tracker only works well when you’re actually writing loads of new words. And by the eighth week of 2015, I finished my first draft and had to jump straight into some heavy editing.

As you may intuit from my picture above, I reworked my spreadsheet to allow me to account for edited words. Two passes are clearly recorded. From Week 8 to Week 12, I focused on cutting as much as possible, since my first draft was about 25,000 words too long. Each day, instead of counting new words, I counted the number of words I had cut. This worked well enough.

Then, in the middle of Week 12, I set upon my final draft proofing, a kind of work no longer conducive to counting cut words. What I did was count the overall number of words I edited in a given day, then halved that number. This produced numbers generally in line with the rest of the chart (this seemed important at the time, because I was also calculating daily and weekly averages).

Though it’s been less than a year, no matter how long I squint at the chart, I can’t quite remember just what exactly I meant by those brown-colored, italicized “750” boxes in the last couple of weeks. I think I was doing edits of polished material, resulting in very high numbers—and in order to keep those numbers in line with the rest of the chart, I just wrote down an arbitrary average. Hence, 750.

Which is kind of dumb, if I think about it too hard.

Anyway, my point is this: I finished my book at the end of Week 16 and entered into a period of extended hibernation—a state with which I suspect most writers can identify. As a result, I abandoned the chart. After entering in a week and a half of black zeros, I finally deleted the shortcut from my desktop and tried to forget this word counter ever existed.

But the word counter was very helpful for the time that I used it, and a part of me greatly regrets that I didn’t carry on with it for a full year.

That’s a goal I hope to achieve if not in 2016, then at some arbitrary 365-day period in the future that doesn’t have to begin and end at the turn of the calendar. Who’s to say you can’t start on February 22? No one. Absolutely no one.

Today I encourage you to keep yourself accountable, even if just long enough to complete an important goal. As for me, I’ll be starting my next first draft in March.

I smell another word count tracker coming on…

Evan BraunEvan Braun is an author and editor who has been writing books for more than ten years. He is the author of The Watchers Chronicle, whose third volume, The Law of Radiance, was released earlier this year. In addition to specializing in both hard and soft science fiction, he is the managing editor of The Niverville Citizen. He lives in Niverville, Manitoba.

4 responses on “The Power of the Word Count Tracker

  1. Jayne Barnard

    Fun stuff. It didn’t occur to me to colour-code my word counts, although I use a spreadsheet for all my writing periods to track progress and gauge how I’m doing in terms of hitting my estimated word count for the whole project.

    1. Evan Braun Post author

      I’ve done it both ways. For some reason, the colors push me to “level up.” And, as my thinking went last year, if I kept up with the chart over a full year, I would hopefully have a cool visual record of my streaks and lulls. Of course, I didn’t use it long enough for any real patterns to emerge. Which is why I’m eager to start it up again later this year.

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