Tuesday 21 May 2013

Quantified Writing

I have recently read about ‘Quantified Self’ movement, a group of enthusiasts for self-improvement through self-measurements whose tag-line is ‘self-knowledge through numbers’.  The movement has produced a remarkable number of self-tracking apps that measure practically everything (sleep, stress, mood, food, goals, energy, relationships, genes, memes, etc.).  If you can think it, there’s a self-tracking app for it.  It even has an app that polls your friends and ‘experts’ about what to do (what decision to make) in a difficult situation.   I will not delve in philosophical and existential implications of this movement (or at least not right now), but will reflect on its meaning for writers.

Many writers track how much they write.  We have all heard of Victor Hugo’s 6,000 words/day, Stephen King’s 2,000 words/day, or Graham Green’s 500 words/day.  Even for those who don’t track their daily outputs, they generally know how much they write, and definitely know if they don’t write anything at all.

Let me do a thought experiment on what using a self-tracking app for writing would look like to me.  Let’s say I’m excited about a new writing project and decide to track my output.  The first couple of days, I’m going strong, looking with pride at numbers of words multiplying into pages.  I keep the output steady, all the while calculating how quickly I’ll be done if my productivity streak continues.  I’m loving my writing app and think of recommending it to my writer friends. A week later, something or other comes up, and I miss a day.  The very next day, I promise myself to double-up the word count for that day, then to keep going.  I don’t quite make it, but it’s good enough.  In another week, I stumble on some part of my writing project.  For three days I don’t write anything.  I keep thinking about the problem, sorting it out in my head, but there’s nothing on the page.  I look pensively at the writing app, thinking all the while how many days I need to double-up to keep the numbers steady, knowing all the while it’s impossible. I start writing again, slower, but since I want to be up to my regular word number, I start inserting paragraphs and pages that I know are no good (“I’ll edit later, I tell myself, “this is just raw words on a page”).  The writing gets worse and worse, and my inspiration flags.  Now I’m writing slowly and badly, and since I know that I’m not up to my regular word count, I keep the writing app off (I’ll turn it back on when I’m ‘full speed’).  I stop writing for a full week or two.  I keep thinking about the numbers of unwritten words, and in a moment of anger or despair delete the writing app from my computer.  Then, afterwards, after some length of time, days or years (not exactly quantified), I complete my writing project.

My conclusion about the imaginary self-tracking writing app – fabulous motivator when writing is going well, and despair-inducing when it’s not.  The opposite of what I need.  But that’s just me.  I’m sure thousands of writers out there believe in numbers just enough (not too much and not too little), to have the numbers motivate them at just the right writing time.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yep, that's about how I do it, too!

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