A scoring system for writers

Or: "How to actually be happy with this frustrating job"

This post is about being happy, productive and successful in your creative life.

I put that topic sentence right up front because this is a long post, worth reading for all creatives (but especially you writer-types). This post is about my “scoring system,” which I devised to help me from tearing my own eyes out from the constant, cancerous, internal stress that I’m not writing enough, that I’m not doing enough, that every moment of time should be filled with creating, sharing, marketing, etc. I’ve been writing seriously for 25 years  — for the first time in my career, I have some sense of peace, and it is thanks to this system.

WHY I NEEDED THIS SYSTEM:
The short answer is: A decade of crushing deadlines where I worked 100+ hours a week while struggling to make it ingrained in me this demonic feeling that I should always be working, that personal time (and sleep) is for the weak. When I finally “made it” and I was looking at a relatively normal 60-hour work week, I felt completely lost. With more time available to me, I got less done.

Frankly, I was lost. When I should have been reveling in the fruits of 25 years of hunting for this full-time writer life, I was miserable, frustrated, constantly angry, and couldn’t figure out what was going on.

With the help of an ADD therapist and my business partner, we came up with the system below.There is a lot more to this story, but I’ll blog about that at some other time so we can get to the good stuff.

I think this system will help you find your way through a path that is often uncharted, that is unique to each creator.

SO WHAT IS THIS, EXACTLY?
A scoring sytem for writing, so you measure your output by something other than finishing (or publishing) a book. This is a method to find more happiness in what you do, especially during the months- or years-long process of finishing a new work. We don’t kick out widgets on an assembly line, man. We aren’t a garage where you fix several cars a week, or bakery where you see finished products all day long. Doing what we do takes time — this system taught me to break that work down into little steps, so that I could feel fulfilled more often while still striving for that whoppingly mongo-huge finished product.

THE STEPS:
Here’s what I’ll cover in the paragraphs below

  • The currency of writing.
  • Setting a word-count goal.
  • Understanding that a whole is made up of many smaller parts.
  • The scoring system.
  • Doesn’t research count?
  • What about outlining?
  • What about interviews and/or business meetings?
  • Screenplays, scripts, etc.
  • What about blogging? Book reviews? Long, thoughtful political rants on Facebook?
  • Consequences!

THE CURRENCY OF WRITING: PAGES
Want to write for a living? Then you need to produce pages. Lots of them. All the research, outlining, thinking, marketing and self-flagellating helps with the big picture, but these things are not words on the screen. Finished works come from one thing and one thing only — pages.

In publishing, the industry standard benchmark is 250 words per page. That means you divide your total word count by 250, and the result is the number of pages in your book. In the olden days, we used Courier 12pt, double-spaced, for manuscripts (a monospace font that resembled typewriter fonts). That’s what the 250 words per page was based on. No matter what font, spacing or margins you like, you should still divide your work’s total word count by 250 to find out how many “pages” you made

This is important because it is a cornerstone of measuring your daily output. If you have 580-ish words per page and you are mad at yourself for writing only 2 pages, you’re not getting an accurate, industry standard measurement scale. By the same token, if you use 18pt Times New Roman and triple-space (because it just looks “prettier” on the screen), you don’t want to delude yourself by thinking your 1,000 word output is the 27 pages you see and not the industry-standard 4 pages.

Why use pages as your currency instead of words? You don’t have to. My preference is to measure things in pages, because it feels more book-ish. Tell someone you wrote 5,000 words over the weekend, their eyes glaze over. Tell that same person you wrote 20 pages over the weekend, and they get it. You get it, too, and that matters. To me, 20 “pages” feels more real than 5,000 “words.”

However, you can easily stick pure word-count if you like. With this system, personalize it as you see fit.

SETTING A WORD-COUNT GOAL:
This is a critical step in establishing your workflow and personal expectations. You want a goal that challenges you, but is achievable. For example, my daily word-count goal is 12 pages a day (3,000 words), Monday through Friday. I expect myself to produce 60 pages a week (15,000 words). If I don’t make that goal during the week, I have the weekend to make up the difference (for most pro writers, “weekends” are an arbitrary thing with about as much validity as “paid days off” or “Santa Claus”).

READ THESE NEXT WORDS CAREFULLYI am a full-time author; if you’re not, don’t try to mach my weekly output. If you have a job, kids, a significant other, etc., then 12 pages day is an unrealistic goal. The purpose of this exercise is to achieve some level of happiness from your writing — don’t set yourself up for frustration and failure.

Still, you must set a goal, otherwise you won’t finish works and you won’t put those works into the marketplace. So what should your goal be? Let’s keep it simple. That old adage of “write a page a day and in a year you’ll have a novel” is absolutely true.

Start simple: 1 page a day (250 words), every day, giving you 7 pages (1,750 words) a week. Do that for three months. If you find yourself struggling to make that number, than it is a good number for you. If seven pages a week is super-dooper easy-peasey for you, then double it for the next three months. If you crush that as well? Cool, now make it 3 pages (750 words) a day. Continue increasing your goal every three months until you reach a level that challenges you, but doesn’t require you to stop doing the other things you need to do.

Being a professional creative is about prioritization. Want to write and sell books? Then you are not only going to give up free time, you’re going to have to take time away from other things. To chase your goal, you need to be producing an amount that challenges you every week, but at the same time doesn’t turn you into a shut-in that never bathes, with starving children who don’t remember your name and a significant other glaring at you in the rare times you look up from your keyboard.

Start slow. Get some wins under your belt. Build up to a challenging yet realistic goal. Carve out as much time as you can, but be rational about it. Find your mark, then hit it — every … single … week.

A WHOLE IS MADE OF PARTS:
The Pyramids of Giza are some seriously big-ass buildings. They took twenty years to build. Know what they are made of? Smaller blocks. Vastly smaller than the whole, and yet without the smaller blocks, you don’t get the big whole.

This is the other reason tracking your pages is so vital. Writing a book takes months (or years), and you will often feel like you’re not getting anywhere. It can become oppressive and disheartening. For my ADD-brain (which can remember only about two weeks in the past an visualize only about two weeks into the future), being three months in on a six-month project feels like I have literally been doing only that book for my entire life.

But by committing to my weekly page count, I can relax and keep that desperate feeling at bay. I know that if I keep making these smaller, quality blocks, that pyramid is going the hell up.

This is part of how I stay sane: I don’t measure in books, I measure in blocks. Did I hit my 60 pages for the week? Then party time, dudes and dudettes. I could be six months out from a finished work, but I met my small weekly goal, and therefore I have won the day.

Focus on the good feeling that comes from the daily and weekly goal. If you do, that pyramid will be pointing to the heavens before you know it.

THE SCORING SYSTEM:
If you’re asking things like, “what about second drafts, and what about editing — do those things count?” The answer is yes. Sort of.

Writing is re-writing. You work hard for 52 weeks and produce that first draft. Awesome! Now comes the real labor — digging into that steamy pile of first-draft crap and shaping it into something sellable. That’s part of the gig. If you’re editing, you’re writing, so it counts — just not 100%.

I set up this system so I didn’t fall into the trap of re-writing being weighted equally with writing new copy. Yes, you have to edit, but this system isn’t about creating just one book — it’s about developing a process that will have you producing novel after novel after novel until the day you croak. If all you do is edit, you’ll never make that happen. That’s why I developed the three tiers below:

  • First draft: 1 word = 1 word.
  • Second draft: 1 word = .5 words.
  • Third draft and beyond: 1 word = .33 words.
    • This includes copyedit reviews and galley proof reviews.

In short, that means when you are working on your second draft, you are expected to do twice as many pages per day as when you are in first draft mode. And for everything after the second draft, you need to do three times as much. As long as you’re pushing hard to meet your weekly word-count goal, this facet of the system will reward you for re-writes but (hopefully) prevent you from working on one book for a decade.

DOESN’T RESEARCH COUNT?
No. Not for me, and it should not for you.

Research is important. It is also a giant sucking black hole of time and energy. Are you telling yourself that a year’s worth of research will make your writing go that much faster? It won’t. The vast majority of the research you do for a fiction novel will not make it into the book. Therefore, I don’t count it at all.

You are better off writing your outline, then identifying places where you actually need research. For example, You don’t need categorical knowledge of the European Theater in WWII if you are writing about a family trying to save their small vineyard from zombie Cossacks. You would need to know about vineyards, Cossacks, and whatever method you’re using to create zombies. Say you research a dozen different ways to make zombies plausible, and in the end you decide not to explain zombificaiton at all (like they don’t in THE WALKING DEAD)? That research time is wasted. You don’t get to count that time, my friend.

Research is not words on the page. Don’t count it. Research is necessary, yes. Absolutely. Find time to research outside of your writing time. Research doesn’t sell books, words on the page sells books.

WHAT ABOUT OUTLINES?
Outlines are a different animal. A quality outline means you won’t write words that wind up getting cut, so an outline helps you create better work in less time. However, outlines are not words on the page — no one will pay to buy your outline.

Therefore, I count each page of outline as a half-page of writing. Your 20-page outline counts as 10 pages toward your word-count goal.

Work hard on your outline, do your best, then start writing. Once you do, the outline is going to break. Trust me on this. You will have to re-work the outline anyway, so don’t spend two months on it.

INTERVIEWS AND/OR BUSINESS MEETINGS
If you are lucky, you will hopefully someday take calls or meetings about turning your fiction into movies, TV, games, plays, etc. Those are not words on the page, true, but those calls and meetings are so important to your career that I feel they need to count for something.

Here’s where the system gets tricky: You need to figure out your average first-draft words per hour.

On first drafts, I shoot for about 1,000 words an hour. I want those words pouring out, raw and untarnished by over analysis. I want to know what my characters feel, and for me that means bleeding on the page. That output might be less than you do, but it’s probably more. Know that seven pages a week I told you to start out with? For the first three months you follow this system, track how many hours it takes you to hit that goal.

FORMULA FOR SCORING MEETINGS AND INTERVIEWS 

  1. Divide total hours spent writing by total pages written.
  2. Divide that number by 2.
  3. The results is how many words you get to count per hour of meetings and interviews.

For me, a 1-hour meeting equals 2 pages:

  1. 1 hour writing = 4 pages
  2. Divide that number by 2 = 2 pages.
  3. For each hour of meetings and interviews, I credit myself 2 pages toward my final weekly score.

This matters because in those rare times you get the calls and meetings, you get a lot of them. Imagine being V.E. Schwab and writing monstrous amounts of words every month for years, then you career blows up and you’re taking dozens of calls about TV, movies, games, etc. She can’t create new words during those calls, and yet not taking those calls is just plain stupid. So, those calls count.

Making it count half as much means you’ll still be itchy to finish up the call and get back to real work, which is now and forever the things that move you closer to finishing a new work.

SCREENPLAYS, SCRIPTS, ETC.
Say you write plays, movie scripts, comics, etc. If you’re writing these things and there are vastly fewer words per page, can you count them in your scoring? Absolutely.

This is why I try to count things in pages, not words. There are 250 words on a page for a novel, but maybe 100 on a screenplay page. But pages is pages, so I count each page the same.

One page of screenplay = 250 words toward your weekly goal. 

WHAT ABOUT BLOGGING? BOOK REVIEWS? LONG POLITICAL FACEBOOK RANTS?
You get nothing for these! They are not words on the page. At best, they are marketing to get you a bigger name among a certain audience. At worst, no one reads your venting and those precious keyboard strokes are wasted in the context of you finishing a book and getting it into the market.

For some authors, blogs and/or political screeds are part of what defines them and brings them new readers (see the work of John Scalzi and Chuck Wendig, for example, on multiple platforms). Book bloggers and BookTubers (like Sasha Alsberg) have built huge followings that they can leverage into book buyers. Kick ass for them. If you want to go these routs (and sink in the years-long time investments made by the likes of John, Chuck and Sasha), go for it.

But should you count that writing/production time toward your word count goal?

No.

In case you missed it, let me repeat it.

NO IN ALL-CAPS.

Marketing matters. Your opinion matters. Making a difference in the public sphere matters. None of these things, however, put words on the page toward a finished work of fiction.

At their base level, these things are a distraction from your goal of finishing a novel.

Perhaps I should have mentioned that Sasha, John and Chuck are all full-time creators. They work one job (writing) and then a second job (blogging, vlogging, politicizing, etc). When you are a full-time author, perhaps you will have the bandwidth to tackle the latest political issue or build a YouTube channel about your latest passion. Until then, however, listen to your Friendly Neighborhood Siglerman and don’t count these things as part of the work you do toward meeting your creative goals.

*Note: this post is over 3,250 words long (13 pages). Not one page counts toward my weekly goal. 

CONSEQUENCES:
Here comes the sucky part — if you don’t make your goal, there needs to be a price to pay.

I am a musican. I’ve been playing bass guitar for 25+ years. I currently play bass for Evan Diamond, a ridiculously talented San Diego singer. I am now at a place in my life where I can buy almost any instrument I like. Since I play left-handed 5-string basses (which are impossible to find in music stores), now that I can afford them I’m a collector (read also: a hoarder). I have eleven basses. It’s a problem, but I’m not looking for a cure.

I treasure these instruments. They are the talismans of all the hard work I’ve put in to get where I am. They hang on my bedroom wall; I see them first-thing every morning when I wake, and they are the last thing I see when I turn in for the evening. To me, they are a way of reminding me that the daily grind, the hours of isolation and the “smaller pieces” add up to something great.

If I don’t make my word-count goal? One of those basses goes to live with my business partner for two months. And during those two months, I can’t buy any musical equipment at all for those same two months.

Self-imposed rules, but they are part and parcel of this system. If I fail to meet my goal, there are serious consequences.

If that sounds like a small price to you (“brah, you’ve got ten left”), then I’ve failed to communicate what these suckers mean to me. Take one of my basses? Them’s fighting words.

I’m a highly competitive person. Take what’s mine? Not today, sister. So when Sunday evening rolls around and I’m 12 pages short of my goal, guess what? I’m on that keyboard, putting words on the page, to make sure I don’t lose a bass when the clock strikes midnight.

You need to find your own consequence. There is something you treasure that you can use as “goal collateral.” You didn’t meet your word count and you feel sad? That’s not enough. you are engaging in a contract with yourself, and you need to be held accountable.

Find that thing you dig. Make losing a part of it the consequence for not meeting your goal. Get someone you love to commit to being your scorekeeper, to take away your precious if you don’t do what you promised yourself you would do.

Do this, and you will find you work harder. And if you find yourself desperately smashing keys at 10:3opm on Sunday night, know that I’m probably doing the same goddamn thing.

SUMMARY:

  1. Define your scoring system.
  2. Define your goals.
  3. Meet your goals.
  4. Have consequences and accountability if you don’t meet those goals.
  5. When hitting your goals becomes easy, make new goals.

That’s it! Ask questions in the comments below. If the questions make me think of something I left out (or didn’t consider), I’ll add the content to this post so it’s kind of evergreen.

Good luck!


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Comments

  1. Chad Redl

    I’m not a writer myself, but I love that you put effort into helping others with how they can be successful at it. With articles like this, as well as your ‘So You Wanna Be A Writer’ series of YT videos, I have no doubt you are inspiring future writers.

    Junkie for life, and please kill me last FDO!

  2. Amy B

    Thank you for writing this. I am new to the “novel writing world” and this has helped put some things into perspective. I so far have 64 first draft pages.