Tracking Nonlinear Work

Writing a novel is something with many phases to it. Some of those phases are short and atomic and don’t need to be broken down into smaller pieces…

Ha ha ha ha! That’s a good one.

No parts of a novel are like that.

It’s All About the Words

Writing is an activity that is most often measured in words or pages: “I wrote 500 words today.”

I use this metric myself during National Novel Writing Month, an approach which is largely required by the goals of the challenge: write 50,000 draft words in a month. Indeed, whenever I am making a rough draft I will use the raw word count as a measure of my progress.

Word count is simple, objective, and linear. It’s very clear how many words you have made at the end of the writing session.

… Except When It Isn’t

How good are those words, though? Are you going to use all of them?

One of the most common objections to the NaNoWriMo process is that the words written are the roughest of the rough. I accept that in my work: a NaNovel is a zeroth draft. It will be filled with inconsistency and bad writing.

Many authors, when they talk about their 500 words for the day, are talking about 500 finished words. My NaNoWriMo word count is raw.

Another metric that I use during NaNoWriMo is chapter count. This also acts as a proxy for plot consumption rate. The way I develop outlines makes this a practical measure for how quickly I am moving through the story I have planned out, and it’s a helpful indicator of how likely I am to finish the narrative arc during the month.

Nonlinear Processes Need Metrics Too

Word generation is, at least for me, a linear process. I don’t delete anything during drafting (my Rule #2 of NaNoWriMo) and so the word count for the book is monotonic.

Revision is much slipperier. Some parts of it are straightforward (copy edits, consistency checks, etc) whereas other parts are iterative processes that require going over the same text multiple times.

What this reveals is that revision is not one process but several. Some of those processes have very clear metrics that can be applied (chapters per day) but others are fractal discovery bug hunts that are as long as a piece of string and twice as knotty.

How should you track non-linear revision progress in a linearly-focussed world?

Track the Work, Not the Goal

My approach is to track the work done rather than progress towards an end point.

Such a tactic is not especially unusual. Events like NaNoEdMo use an hours-of-work goal for the editing you do, and in the past I’ve applied a conversion factor of a thousand words to the hour to make that time look like word counts. This way you’re mapping the time to the words you would have written in that time.

This requires time tracking though, and I am not always consistent enough with that. I like a more objective counter.

What I did for Camp NaNoWriMo this year was to track words using two different strategies:

  1. revision plan — I was finishing my revision plan before I started on the revision itself, so I counted the new words I wrote in that plan.
  2. revision — once I started the editing itself, I counted the words I had revised in a session. So when I finished a chapter I would count the words in that chapter.

    This method has risks, in particular inflation of the work and double-counting.

    • inflation — revising words is arguably not as hard as generating them in the first place, but in revising something you are immersing yourself in the text. Going through a chapter for a particular point, I find I end up reading every sentence, often multiple times. I think it’s fair to count all those reviewed words.
    • double-counting — my current revision plan consists of nine sections for different thematic and textual components: a particular character’s story, a certain plot element that needs to change. When I am working on a chapter, I can’t hold all of those in my head at once, so I work on one or two components at a time, trying to finish a particular section for all chapters.

      This means that I will come back to some chapters multiple times, and that I will count that chapter each time I revise it. Hence I am double-counting.

      I’m fine with this.

      Firstly, I think this accurately reflects the effort put into a revision pass. If I’m working for two or three months on something like this then I want my word count to reflect two or three months of output.

      Secondly, I don’t revise every chapter for every plan section. If a chapter doesn’t feature a particular character then I don’t need to revise it for the character’s back story, for example. In other words, there are critical chapters that will be touched several times, but there are others that might only get a single pass.

I like this approach because it represents pretty clearly the effort put into a revision effort. It didn’t produce outstanding results for Camp NaNoWriMo this April, but then April wasn’t an especially outstanding month so that’s alright.

I’m going to carry on doing this. I think it’s useful.

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