Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Excel Your Goals

When you're constantly working under one or more deadlines, keeping track of your writing progress is important. I think most writers have some system they use with their work, such as jotting their numbers on a note they tape to their monitor or posting and updating one of those Nanowrimo WIP trackers on their blogs. One of my writer friends uses a virtual calendar/reminder program to nudge him on his goals; it actually sounds an alarm every morning, too.

I'm hardly an expert with Microsoft Excel, but it's enough like the ancient Lotus program I trained on as a bookkeeper back in the Jurassic era that I can use it without making a mess of things. In addition to my budgets and general ledger, I also use it to run simple writing quota spreadsheets that track my progress and project my work schedule (to see a larger version of this screen shot, click on the image.)

I decided to start using a spreadsheet because I usually write more than one novel at a time, and having all the counts on one sheet allows me to plan my time better. I also used easy formulas so all I have to do is record the total wordcount for each manuscript at the end of the writing day, and Excel does all the rest.*

I'm presently tracking two novels under deadline, mainly as both are due to my editors on the same day. After labeling the columns with the file codes I use for the titles, I list the ms goals for each one (whatever the wordcount limit for the entire novel is.) In this case both books have a limit of 85K.

"Current" represents the total wordcount I've completed for each manuscript. To determine how much I have left to write, I subtract current from ms goal, which results in the figures in the "Left" row.

"Weekly" calculates what my weekly wordcount goal is for each book. This is calculated by dividing "Left" by the number of weeks I have left to write (in this case, seven. This is the only formula I adjust weekly; next Monday I'll change the seven to a six. I'm sure you spreadsheet experts out there can figure out a better formula for this row.) If you have different deadlines for different novels, remember to adjust your weekly formulas accordingly.

"Per day" divides the "Weekly" figure by seven to show how much I have to write daily for each book.

"Pages" divides the "Per day" figure by 250 (this because one manuscript page is roughly equal to 250 words.)

To update the sheet, at the end of the writing day I put in my new current numbers, and Excel recalculates everything for me. At the end of the week, I adjust the number of weeks I have left by -1, and that's basically it.

The numbers can seem intimidating at first, but you'll find they can be motivational, too. If I want to take a day off, I know with one glance that I have to write an extra ten pages to "buy" the time for myself. I also like seeing the per day figure drop when I write consistently over quota, so I usually do more than I strictly have to. Also it helps to know what you are committed to already before you take on any other writing projects, and having all your counts in one place can give you an exact look at what your current workload is.

One thing you don't want to do is neglect a spreadsheet. If you set up a daily quota sheet like mine, be sure to update it at least a couple times a week, and keep an eye on your projected work figures. If your per day or per week figures are starting to climb then you're not making your goals, and you need to address that well before you get too close to your deadline.

Also, always be sure to leave enough time in your writing schedule for things like days you may be doing things other than writing (family events, holidays, etc.) This goes for the other tasks you need to do for your novel. For example, I edit whatever I write daily, so all I need when the book is finished is time to do my final read-through edits. If you prefer to wait to do all your editing until the manuscript is finished, allow an extra week or two (or however long you think it will take you) of time before your deadline.

Now it's your turn: do you have a system for tracking your writing progress? Are there any programs you find particularly helpful? Let us know in comments.

*If you'd like to copy my spreadsheet and the formulas I've used, you can download it in excel format here. Just remember to change the totals for your current and ms goals, and adjust the formula for the weekly count to reflect the number of weeks you have left until your deadline.


  1. This was really useful. As a full-time graduate student, it can be a struggle to balance academic work with fiction writing. I love the idea of working up a spreadsheet that allows me to track goals/progress on multiple projects and see them side-by-side. (Also, makes me feel like a dummy for overcomplicating my attempts. A spreadsheet is so simple and straightforward!)



  2. Hm. I may try this spreadsheet approach, it's much more organized than calendaring w/ daily progress.

  3. I like this. Thanks.

  4. I adore my Excel worksheet! I have a dozen different columns, all tracking my progress in different ways. I know it's just repeating the same figures, but I love to see the numbers update across the row when I put my daily word count in.

    Also, I find it's really handy to use with my loved ones. I show them the numbers and somehow that makes them SEE how much I have to do. Since my whining doesn't impress them :)

  5. You know, I have the utmost respect for your ability to use Excel. I do for anyone who can use it. I however, can't manage to add more than 2 + 2 usually, so I am forced to stick to my old calendar approach. It saddens me, but a girl's got to know her limitations. ;o)

  6. I use Excel as well, though my table looks a little different. I have different columns for different projects, in which I record the daily wordcount for each project. There's also a column for the total wordcount per day. I also track the monthly wordcount per project.

    I generally aim for an average of 1000 words per day. I try to write at least 100 words of new fiction and 100 words of academic writing per day, i.e. even if I write a lot of fiction one day, I still have to commit to making at least the minimum of academic writing or vice versa. If there's a particularly urgent project, I have a minimum daily wordcount for that as well.

  7. Anonymous9:02 AM

    I use an Excel sheet too! Mine is set up different, using a slightly calendar like graphic, but it does the same thing. The file is rarely if ever closed. Most of the time it's sitting minimized but open, reminding me that I have to do that writing thing today at some point.

  8. Redhawk2:44 PM

    I'm far too anal retentive to work on a number of projects simultaneously. I do have a spreadsheet, however. It's for daily word count, divided into columns for each month. My daily goal is 1k, but I consistently go beyond that (30,000 in 15 days!)

  9. Thanks so much for this. I'm late in commenting, but I've just tried this for myself and it is really helping me. Often I try systems that are too complicated, and I'm not very good at keeping up with them.

    Yours, however, has already proven useful. I'm getting more deadlines in my career now, and I also want to write something on-spec alongside them. This is very helpful. Thank you!

    I have a question, but you're probably not able to answer. If you do, I'd love to know how you factor in things like editorial letters/notes, page proofs, etc. I know your process is to write in the mornings and edit in the afternoons (what you wrote that day), but when/how do you fit in the other parts of the publishing/editorial process. Do you keep writing new material in the mornings, not matter what?



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