Advice for Authors and Writers - Measurement
Dec 05, 2011 Clay Johnson

The Information Diet was green-lighted by O'Reilly (thanks to the urging of my editor Julie Steele) on Valentine's Day of this year. I'd worked out some of the ideas on my old blog, Infovegan, and had done some historical research for it -- but work really kicked off on February 14th. Coincidentally, I completed the first draft of the Information Diet on September 20th of this year -- my wedding anniversary. Valentine's Day to anniversary. Romantic, right?

Most of the book, a good 30,000 of its ~50,000 words, was written from September 1st to September 20th after many months of procrastination. I spent some time in that month developing a framework for writing. I'd like to distill this method down into something you could use, because I think you might find it useful. It made a world of difference for me. So if you're an aspiring author, I've got some advice that may make the process easier.

Measurement and Achievable Goals

For my first draft, I listened to the advice of many authors: just focus on getting words on paper. To be honest though, the daunting task ahead of me, of getting ~50,000 words down on paper was terrifying, and it led to a months-long procrastination process on behalf of yours truly.

The Information Diet spends a lot of time talking about measuring input, but it also talks about producing output -- that writing is key to synthesizing ideas in your own brain. What I learned in writing the book was that finding ways to measure output is as useful as measuring input. For me, this kind of constant measurement also ensures that I write every day -- something critical to a healthy information diet.

What fixed the problem was measurement. Specifically, this spreadsheet I made fixed it. Every hour or so -- when I needed a break from writing, and definitely at the end of the day -- I updated the spreadsheet with my current word count. The sheet then automatically calculated how many words I'd written that day, and how many words I had to go to meet my goal, and how many words I needed to write before I beat my average daily word count. It was the core of measuring how well I was getting words on paper, and refocused my goals into something achievable.

The goal number wasn't something (and isn't something) to obsess about though: the book is as long as it needs to be. The number I obsessed about was my daily average, and whether or not I could beat my daily average. Instead of always worrying about whether or not I was going to meet my deadline, every day I had an achievable goal -- beating my average daily word count. The moral of the story for an aspiring writer?

Never obsess about whether or not you'll finish your book. Obsess about making today better than average.

As you can see, most of the days, I beat the average. Up until the final few thousand words, when I was focused more on editing than writing, I was competing with myself. The method worked quite well, allowing me to polish off about 30,000 words in just about three weeks.

Be careful though -- don't get too distracted by measurement. As a recovering engineer, I found myself over-obsessed with my spreadsheet, making dashboards out of my word count on sites like Geckoboard.com and Ducksboard.com. This can be a helpful distraction sometimes -- so you can clear your head -- but don't go overboard. There's a collection of probably 10-15 half-finished ruby scripts that were intended to do neat things with the data I was generating. Moral of the story II? Your writing doesn't need an API. Just write. The point is to write a book, not make a spreadsheet.

Distractions aren't evil and there's a lot of research out there that says you need to get distracted every once and awhile. Focus and will are feats of athleticism, and even the best athletes need downtime. What measuring your output gives you isn't the ability to be free of distraction, but the ability to manage it.

Information Diet © 2011 Clay Johnson