Crunching Words

You can take the boy out of Wall Street but you can’t take Wall Street out of the boy. As I’ve mentioned before, I use an Excel spreadsheet to track my daily progress of writing a book. I keep a precise count of how many words I’ve written each day and I use analytics to forecast things like completion date, final word count, and number of pages.

At my old job, I helped create a spreadsheet that summarized all of the P&L and risk metrics for our investment portfolios. My boss used to stare at it for hours each day. If any number was slightly askew he noticed it right away (and of course yelled at me). He really taught me how to use numbers and data to analyze performance – not just for its own sake, but for the very practical, tangible purpose of learning and improving. By adapting his process, I have been able to learn a ton about myself and my daily habits.

I typically think it’s bad luck to talk about your methods, and in the past I’ve found that when I write about or describe a trick I use, it magically looses its usefulness. At the risk of shooting myself in the foot here, I am going to go for it. Maybe it will be different this time…

Here is what the whole sheet looks like*, but we will go through it piece-by-piece: Excel_total


There is only one piece of data that I actively input and that is the number of words in each chapter (the third column in the table below). The sum of all of these chapters is aggregated at the bottom and this tells me total number of words I’ve written. On the right side of this table, I have projections based on my knowledge of the story structure. The numbers that are coded blue are complete and are no longer projections, but actual results.

Excel_table As I update this field throughout the process, the daily changes are automatically captured by another table: Excel_daily This table computes the difference between the total word count today versus what I had yesterday, giving me the daily word output.** At the bottom, it calculates my average daily output. I have shortened the table to make it more viewable, but the data goes back to 11/8/14 when I started writing this book.

This is the second book I have attempted to write, so I have the data from the previous book as well. I can tell you, for instance, that my average daily output between August 2nd and November 4th was 597 words. In total, I wrote 74,583 words of that book (around 250 pages). It was a fictional account of some travels around Peru, but as soon as I finished it, I realized how much it sucked and immediately tossed it aside. You may want to pity me for putting all that work in to a piece of garbage, but you would be wrong – it was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. I learned so much about discipline from the act of sitting down to write every day. Anyway, after that ordeal, I immediately started to write my own account of fighting MMA in Peru.

In the first table I showed you, I forecasted how many words will be in the final version, based on the chapter lengths I mapped out. From that, I can compute how much I still have left to write, and now I can start running analytics. If I take the remaining number of words (48,614) and divide by the average words per day (814), I am left with how many more days until it’s complete (59.8).*** Next, I can take the number of days (59.8) and add that to today’s date (1/24/15) and get the projected end date (3/24/15). I know that if I write 612 more words today, that date will move one day closer (3/23/15). So far today, I have only written 516 words (of my book, that is – if you include this blog post it is much more). Excel_analytics Everyone knows that historical performance is often a poor indicator of future results, right? Sometimes I go on a hot streak and write 2,000+ words/day and sometimes I sit and stare at the blank screen for days. So I run various scenarios based on forward-looking words/day: Excel_Scenarios How many pages will the final book be? Many people say that there are around 300 words/page in a book. The all-knowing internet can’t really seem to agree on this, as it depends on many things: font size, page size, or even the amount of snippy dialogue. I’ve counted around 300 from an actual book before, but that was on my small Kindle screen. How do I settle the debate? I don’t, I simply account for different scenarios. In the following table, I can see where I am projected to finish, and my current progress, in terms of different words/page assumptions. Excel_pages Do those numbers look too high to you? Do I really have 555 pages of stuff to say to the world? Hell no. I get bored even just thinking about a book like that. But this is just the first draft, when I finish I will go through numerous rounds of revision. There are most likely an abundance of unruly ramblings that can be mercilessly slaughtered like a Game of Thrones character. I think I can chop out 20% with one revision, and maybe another 10% on a second revision if I’m lucky. Brevity is the soul of wit after all. What would that look like? I thought you’d never ask.

Excel_drafts At 300 words/page, 79,965 comes to 266 pages, which in my opinion is much more manageable (still on the long end though, so we shall see).

You may be thinking that all these bells and whistles are a distraction from the actual process of putting words on the page, but I find them to be extremely helpful. By quantifying everything, I keep myself honest. It’s hard to argue with the raw data that stares back at me every day, and when I look back through the daily word count, I can tell when I was slacking. I can view the work as a whole, without the fickle emotions that tend to cloud my own, often myopic, perspective. Things like chapter length and pace are now much more firmly within my grasp.

But most of all, it’s like a video game for me; every day I try to beat my score from the previous day and increase that average just a little bit. As it inches up, I watch the final date approach closer and closer, knowing that each day I am that much closer to beating the final level and winning the game.**** bowser


*I blacked out the chapter descriptions because that ain’t none yo’ bizness.

** You may notice a few “errors” (if my old boss is reading this, he certainly will) in the daily outputs. This is because on certain days I edit the work, and cut out large numbers of words. In these instances I don’t count the net number of words, but only the positive amount I have written. So I have to override the daily number.

*** To be clear, this assumes that my projections don’t change, which is totally unrealistic, but these are my best guesses at this point. In reality, I tweak the projections almost every day as the story develops and I fine tune the structure of the plot.

**** Shitty bonus levels await me next, to be sure.

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