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This Writing Life: A Spreadsheet a Day

9 June, 2014

This post is going to be a seriously geeky one when it comes to the nuts and bolts of writing, or rather how I function as a writer. I make no apologies for that. I’m a very methodical person, you see, and keeping spreadsheets (amongst other forms of records) is genuinely one of the ways I keep individual novels, my reading schedule and my entire writing progress on track. Do I use spreadsheets to their full mathematical potential? Not in the slightest. Do I have one for every subject I can conceivably put a number into (and a few I can’t)? Yes, absolutely.

First up is the most obvious one: keeping track of word counts. Now, there will be writers out there who don’t use word counts – some prefer pages, for example (useless to me, as I write in Scrivener and that doesn’t separate pages the way Word does) – but for many, word counts are the best way of keeping track of progress. I don’t keep charts for individual novels; instead, out of sheer curiosity as to how well my writing year is going, I track the number of words I’ve written in total.

This is one of those times when I could become infinitely finicky about keeping perfect statistics: I could record exactly how many words on each project, how many on blog posts, what time of day I wrote etc. etc. Instead, to stop myself falling into a black hole of numbers that won’t really help me, I simply write down the date, number of words written, the name of the project(s) and quick notes when I start or finish something – and at the bottom, a running total. It’s pretty basic stuff, but I can tell you that I’ve written 61019 words of fiction so far this year, and that’s the sort of heartening statistic that keeps me motivated.

My second big spreadsheet is my reading record. I’ve been keeping this since before I knew sites like Goodreads and Librarything existed, and again it’s fairly basic. However, not only does this allow me to keep track of where I’ve got to in various series (I frequently leave it years between volumes in long fantasy series, simply because there’s so much new stuff I want to read), but it’s a valuable place for me to jot down mini-reviews. Forcing myself to think about what I like and dislike about every single book I read, and then write that down in just a couple of sentences, has been invaluable in forming ideas about what I want my own fiction to be.

Finally, I’m going to share a picture I posted some time ago, when I was editing my last novel:

Here, I was keeping track of five different POV characters and their respective arcs; chapter numbers are down the left-hand side, and character names – although not visible in this screenshot – are at the top. Blue boxes denote whose POV each chapter is, whereas anything in white describes events happening to other characters in chapters not their own.

That sounds complicated, I know, but this was a complicated novel. Putting character arcs into neat lists like this, so I could see the events of the entire novel within just a few pages, was key to my edits running smoothly, and to being able to make sure each character evolved properly (without going backwards. as happened in the first draft!) over the course of the story.

As I said at the start of this post, many of my spreadsheets having nothing to do with numbers. Many of their functions could be achieved in other ways, too, possibly with all sorts of fancier software. However, these little beauties have helped me keep my writing on track, quickly and simply, in so many ways – and whether you’re already very organised or your filing system is basically ‘the floor’, I hope they can do the same for you!


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