Why tracking makes you a more productive writer

Tracking follows a grand literary tradition of writers’ journals. Monitoring your writing progress can help you optimise your routine and become a master of productivity. But to make the most of it you need to take time to reflect and learn. Find out what tracking is, why it’s important, and how to learn from your data.

From Aristotle’s instructions on plots to Trollope’s rigorous scheduling and Virginia Woolf’s diaries, writers have been writing about writing for centuries. Tracking is the latest of a literary lineage.

What’s tracking?

Tracking took off with the invention of the iPhone, and exploded when wearables like FitBit hit the mainstream. Everyone from your Grandma to your dog could track their health, diet, or exercise.

Studies prove it works in the health sector. In 2013 a US research project found that “69% of U.S. adults keep track of at least one health indicator such as weight, diet, exercise routine, or symptom”. Of these trackers 46% said it made a difference and “changed their overall approach to maintaining their health.”

Scientific American found that the biggest benefit was motivational – using a wearable or tracker keeps fitness front of mind and that makes a big difference to users, especially when you add in gamification.

Though most of the headlines have been in health and fitness, logging your practice can make a difference in all walks of life. Reflecting on your writing is a brilliant way to understand your preferences and patterns, and use that evidence to make the most of your time and energy – because frankly, none of us has enough of either.

From journals to apps

Reading about other writers is my (not so) secret pleasure.

Sylvia Plath’s collected diaries is one of my absolute favourites. Take these two entries where she shares her writing progress:

26 February 1957 I write nothing. The novel, or rather, the 3-page-a-day stint, is atrocious. I can’t get at it. I am writing with a blunt pencil tied on a mile-long stick, at something far off over the horizon line. Will I break through someday? At least if I get 300 pages written by the end of May, I’ll have the creaking, gushing skeleton plot of the whole thing. Then I can write slowly, rewriting each chapter, carefully with a subtle structured style. 

11 March 1957 I am wicked, sick: a week behind. But will do five pages a day until plodding I catch up.

I’m sure many of us identify with her carefully worked out goals and the heart-breaking reality when they get missed.

“I am writing with a blunt pencil tied on a mile-long stick, at something far off over the horizon line.” Sylvia Plath 

Many people keep journals for self-expression and scientists have found that journaling can have positive impacts on physical and mental health. There’s an added benefit about using it as a tool for learning.

Read how Wyl Menmuir used an early prototype of Prolifiko, then called Write Track, to monitor the progress of his first novel The Many. There’s a great data visualization of his process in The Guardian and here’s what we can all learn from his experience.

Learning from tracking your writing

Tracking gives you the evidence you need to evaluate and learn. Whether you use a pen and paper, an Excel spreadsheet, or an app, there’s lots of benefits from tracking, such as:

  • Monitor what’s important to you
  • Helps you set realistic goals based on evidence
  • Provides feedback to adjust goals and writing practice
  • Helps you schedule time to write and develop an effective writing practice
  • Provides competition with yourself or others.

You don't need more willpower to write, you need a better writing system

How to reflect and learn

But, to make the most of tracking, you need to take time to reflect. Ideally, you’d take a few minutes each week to review your progress and make plans to tweak and improve.

Start by looking at what went well. Research by the founder of positive psychology Martin E P Seligman has shown that noticing good things each day and expressing gratitude can have long-term impacts on wellbeing and happiness.

Feeling good about your writing will keep you motivated to continue, so be grateful for the progress you made. You then need to look at what didn’t go so well, and what you can do better.

“Feeling good about your writing will keep you motivated to continue, so be grateful for the progress you made.”

I recommend three simple questions for reflection.

  • What went well?
  • What didn’t go so well?
  • What can I do better?

Make a few notes, celebrating what went well, noting what didn’t work, and reflecting on how to adapt and change in the future. Do not dwell on your mistakes but accept them, learn and move on.

Learn, experiment, make changes

Adjust your plans and experiment with different ways of doing things. You could play with the days you write, what you do at different times of the day, or how much or for how long you write for. For example, are you most productive writing in the morning, but struggle in the evening? Ease up on yourself in the evenings and use that time to research, edit or just tidy your papers. Learn from what works for you.

There’s no one size fits all advice for writing. You are unique, as is your writing, so your practice needs to work for your own habits, schedules and idiosyncrasies.

“You are unique, as is your writing, so your practice needs to work for you”

How to trigger your writing routine

Top tips to get started with tracking

  • Get used to the idea of tracking: If you’re not used to tracking then self-monitoring your writing might feel a bit strange. The first step is to try it for a short period of time – like over the course of a couple of weeks.
  • Set realistic, achievable goals: Set yourself small steps – if you start off small then you’re more likely to achieve your goals and continue.
  • Don’t be too hard on yourself: Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t reach your goal – instead try to understand what got in the way. If you fail, reset the target then have another go.
  • Celebrate your achievements: Always give yourself a pat on the back when you have reach one of your goals. You don’t need throw a wild party – just reward yourself with a walk in the park, slice of cake – whatever works for you.
  • Review your writing progress: Schedule some reflection time to review at your writing progress and assess how you’re doing, you might be surprised at some of the patterns that emerge. Learn from them and reset your plans.

Bec Evans About the author: Co-creator of Prolifiko, Bec has spent a lifetime reading, writing and working with writers. From her first job in a bookshop, to a career in publishing, and several years managing a writers’ centre, she’s obsessed with working out what helps writers write.