Bad Advice Wednesday: Keep a Writing Chart

categories: Cocktail Hour


A few weeks ago I posted a piece about getting on a roll.  Today I’m writing about a very specific tool to help you get rolling and stay rolling.  Up front warning: it’s going to seem a little dorky at first.  And I admit that the idea of keeping a chart where you record the hours that you write sounds somewhat un-artistic and self-help-y.  But my experience keeping charts over the years reveals this important aspect of the activity: it works.

As a younger writer, I was prone to self-exhortation, to making great vows and resolutions to work more and harder, and then, when my actual writing days fell short of those vows, to plunge into despair. For a while in my twenties I kept this Isak Dinesen quote above my desk:”write a little every day, without hope, without despair.”  But despite that scrap of paper, I was always full of both hope and despair, often within the same hour or minute, and at heart I never really did like the whole “a little” part.  I was also facing an inherent problem, one that any young writer faces. Your workday is formless and you don’t know how to fill it.  It isn’t just your writing voice you haven’t found yet but your work habits.  If you turn to “normal” standards of work—an eight hour workday, right?—and then write for a couple of hours before starting to twiddle your thumbs, you feel like crap.  I didn’t know then what I know now, that for me a three hour stretch of writing means a very healthy day, a day that if I repeat it over and over, will soon mean BOOK, and that once that block of work is done so am I, until tomorrow.

Back then I had no real notion of what a “good” day constituted.  I could write for a couple of hours and then get down on myself for not writing more, painting a bleak overall picture, and essentially nullifying the positive momentum gained from the morning’s work.  I don’t know when I hit upon the idea of keeping a chart of my hours, but I do know what it did.  It introduced an element of objectivity that was very healthy.  The charts were not exhortations but simple records. They looked like the one  above. A small piece of poster board, 11″ by 14 1/2″, on which I drew three columns across and usually about 21 down. The down columns were dates, and usually tended to be in total about three weeks, at first because that was just how it worked out but later confirmed by the fact that three weeks is a nice amount of time for a work “burst.”  The across columns were the subjects, first and most importantly, “Writing,” followed by “Working Out,” since I had not one quixotic goal—becoming a novelist—but two—winning nationals in Ultimate Frisbee. The third column was usually a record of food and drink, in an attempt to be healthy, but that one never worked quite as well as the other two and is the story for the another day.

Anyway, the column we are concerned with today is the first one.  Up top, after the word “Writing” there was a colon and then the name of the specific project I was working on. But there were few words in the columns below.  In their stead there were numbers. The method was simple.  On my writing desk I kept a small unlined index card and on the card where I kept track of the time I spent at my desk.  The exact time.  When I sat down at the desk I wrote down on time on the card—7:15—and when I got up from the desk for any amount of time longer than getting coffee, I wrote down that time too—8:45.  Then I would write down the total time I had been writing in parenthesis (1:30) and when I sat down again I would re-start the process, writing down the new time.  At the end of the morning I would add up these fragments of time and the number I came up with would be the total number of hours and minutes that I had kept my butt in the chair.  That was the number I would write down on my chart.

It seems silly and simple, right?  But something was gained by this simple charting. I began to get an objective sense of what a writing day really looked like for me.  I started to learn that “2:45” was a pretty good day and that “3:30” was a damn good one.  And if I started to write a few of those “3:30”s down in a row, I knew I was rolling, and, having not entirely kicked the exhorting habit, might scribble down something like “Rolling!” on the chart too. But the non-rolling days were instructive, too. Looking back I could see that they cropped up now and then, even in the midst of a time which I would later romanticize as intensely productive.  In other words they let me see that this too was part of my writing ecosystem, that the weaker days were part of a larger whole.  The end result was simple: I freaked out less.  In an extremely subjective business I had a little corner of objectivity to cling to.

I am not claiming that my charts, quirky and personal, are right for any writer.  Just that a little dose of hard reality—numbers in this case—can sometimes do something that all the vows in the world can’t.  In my case they introduced some sanity into a crazy endeavor.  These days I swim in chartless waters, and it’s been about eight years since I have regularly kept charts. But I still sometimes make them up at the beginning of projects, as a kind of psych-up ritual, and maybe I write down my numbers for a day or two before abandoning them.  They look silly, unmarked and white, even sillier than they did all marked up in the old days.  But I don’t look down on them.  They have served a larger purpose and for that I am thankful.  They have helped me get to the point where I don’t need them……at least for now.



  1. John Jack writes:

    When I was a child, Mom kept all my memories for me. An appointment, special dates and occasions, a chore, time on task, in timeout, on restriction, etc. When I left home, I couldn’t remember what I ate for breakfast that same night, never mind the ups and downs of growing up with someone who remembered for me. A fortutiously unfortunate set of circumstances restored most of my childhood memories, flooding back in all their horrors, sorrows, and fleeting joys.

    Anymore, I keep a running life planner organizer in my memory palace. Sights and sounds and touches and smells and tastes of settings, plots, ideas, characters, events and discourses visited (SPICED), thoughts wanting further meditation, words said and replied, inspirations a borning, innovations and trial and error failures, graphics, charts, timelines, photographs, artware, three- and four-dimensional objects that as of the moment only exist in my memory palace.

    No guilt from staring at post-it reminders unfulfilled, only left to another day for realization, when after the subconscious pressure cooker has done its thing and it’s ready for presentation, my conscious mind can realize whatever to its fullest I am able.

  2. Molly writes:

    This makes sense. And it is simple. No reason not to try it. Damn.