How do we measure productivity?

Back in the free course, we asked: What do we mean by productivity, anyway? And how, exactly, do we measure this? Is it setting a 3000 words a day goal and hitting it? Is it a single, beautiful, perfectly-formed sentence or paragraph? Is it quantity, or is it quality? Or something else?

Let’s look at the writer who sets a goal of 3000 words a day:

They hammer their little heart out all day! They’ve barely moved from their desk! Our valiant writer checks that little barometer of productivity, the word count—boom! 3024 words. Goal achieved. Progress made. It's been a productive day. They do the same thing again and again until they reach The End.

They celebrate in some fashion, as they should. Not many people make it to a completed first draft.

The writer takes a well-deserved week off, after which they return to their desk and sit before a hard copy of their manuscript, still warm from the printer like a croissant from the oven, red pen in hand, ready to read through their masterpiece for the first time.

They begin. The first few pages or so pass by in a warm fuzz of happy contentment and small bursts of joy, as the writer discovers what a really, really incredibly good writer they are.

Soon, though, our writer begins to feel a slight uneasiness; a disquiet, if you will...


Every writer who has been practicing the craft seriously for any length of time will have developed a few writing skills that other folk lack. Perhaps the most important of these is like a needle in their head, with a red “positive” side on the right, and a black “negative” side on the left.

Let's call this THE STINKOMETER.

As a writer reads their work, so the Stinkometer fluctuates.

(Even if you've not considered the visual metaphor before, you're probably aware of the sensation.)

In our example, our fearless writer experiences the pleasure from reading their first few thousand words, with the needle quivering giddily in the red, in the section marked GOOD. Perhaps they revisit a particularly fine paragraph and the little needle leaps up into AMAZING, perhaps even BREATHTAKING (and maybe our writer indulges themselves for a moment—who can blame them—and the needle momentarily hits BOOKER).

But as they carry on reading, the needle wobbles, and drops. They're at the 20,000 word mark and the needle is hovering around OK—neither red or black. On they go. On we go. 30,000 words. 40,000 words. The needle is now in the black; the negative: POOR. They press on. There’s parts of this book that the writer has no memory of actually writing. 50,000 words. The needle is now pointing to CRAP.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are beginning our descent.

Our brave writer soldiers on, but it’s getting harder and harder. The needle is dropping, and as the needle falls, so the panic rises. They make it to the end with the kind of grim determination usually reserved for Arctic explorers who accidentally leave their thermal underwear at base-camp.

The needle on THE STINKOMETER is pointing quite plainly to: STINKS.

Here, now, comes the special kind of self-loathing reserved only for writers. What has happened? Why does our writer feel as though someone has removed their heart and turned it into fertiliser? It had been going so well—they hit their word target every day. They'd lit that thing up like a pinball machine!

Could it be that our writer was so focused on producing 3000 words a day that they didn’t pay enough attention to what they were writing and the way in which it was written?

Here's Jon McGregor:

“I think that the best writing is that which has been thought about and reconsidered. If someone tells me that they've 'nearly finished' their novel, citing the fact that they've written 50,000 words as evidence, I do tend to question their definition of 'finished'.“

Yes, it's true that first drafts are first drafts—and, yes, that’s what rewriting is for. To a certain extent. However, this level of care-free composition has 2 major problems which counter the notion of this being a "productive" method of writing:

Firstly, it will take you a tremendous amount of time and energy to untangle the mess you’ve made—in terms of story, character and prose.

Secondly—and worse still—it’s like spilling food on a sofa: no matter how much you scrub, you’ll never get it all out. The stain remains.

Complete and continue