KPIs and Writing Data

So I have KPIs at the day-job this year, a neat little grid of goals that serve as the line between “doing my job well” and “not quite meeting expectations.”

This is something of a first for me – for most of my life I’ve done contract work or found my way into jobs that were…well, lets say insufficiently defined for the purposes of generating things like key performance indicators. I’ve spent most of my life listening to friends talk about their office jobs and KPIs were part of that arcane language that floated around, reminding me of how little my work-life resembled theirs.

I used to envy that KPI talk. Lots of my friends weren’t fond of the meetings, or found them a waste of time, but for someone who is, at their core, a moderately competitive person, they mean something important. They mean the day-job can be won. There is a line to reach and once I have moved past it I can look back at what I have done and declare victory.

I find this enormously comforting. Daunting, but comforting.

And I find myself thinking back to a conversation I had on twitter late last year, after Catherine Caine posted about metrics for small businesses on her blog, Cash and Joy. The initial point she made in her post – only pay attention to metrics that create decisions – fascinated me from a writing perspective, ’cause a lot of writers track all sorts of information without really knowing why or how it’s going to be useful.

I have a bunch of metric based KPIs at work – this many people need to engage with a particular project, this much money needs to be made in order for a particular project to be sustainable – and they make a good deal of sense to me because I can look at the business plan for our organisation and see how they fit into a long-term vision. They are metrics that are loaded with meaning, and they allow for more informed decisions to be made.

When writing, on the other hand, almost everything I’ve tracked has been instinctual or a case of mimicking others who came before me. I’ve spent time tracking word-count metrics, for example, far more often than I’ve had a use for the information. I used to log into Duotrope and check my acceptance ratio, or spend hours reviewing their response time statistics. Not that I cared about response times, just because there was something comforting about the data. Basically, the metrics I tracked were usually all about making me feel good (or, at the very least, less crappy about the fact that I picked writing as a career; there were a few times when I really, really needed that).

I’m not alone in this. I spent much of the recent guest-post I wrote for the Science of Fiction about acceptance ratios trying to articulate why it was the wrong question to ask, and I’m honestly not sure I did a particularly good job of it. On one hand, it was a fun exercise that fed directly into the stats make me feel good approach, but there really isn’t that much data in my acceptance ratio that allows me – let alone other writers – to make meaningful decisions when it comes time to send work out.

These days I find myself wishing I’d tracked all sorts of information that would have been far more useful than word-count. Data that looks at how long a story take me, for example, would’ve been a pretty fricken’ sweet thing to have over the last couple of years, especially when it came time to manage some tight timelines. A lot of the time I’m going on my gut with this sort of thing, saying yes or no based on my best guess about whether or not I can get a story to a polished standard within say, a year, or six months, or even time-frames as short as a month or a week.

More importantly, I find myself wishing that I’d done a much better job of tracking the information I do have more stringently, since even things like word-count tracking are haphazard, particularly in the instances when, say, I’m enormously busy doing non-writing things (annoyingly, there are exactly the kind of times when even knowing I can realistically produce X number of words in rough draft could be useful).

One of the most fascinating viral posts about writing that I’ve seen in the last twelve months has been Rachel Aaron’s How I Went From Writing 2,000 Words a Day to 10,000 Words a Day. I went and re-read it just prior to putting this post together, simply because it’s an example of how a writer tracking the right things transformed their process. Metrics were tracked with a purpose, which in turn allowed for the process to adapt. I neither track nor apply metrics with anything like the same rigor, although I plan on doing a better job of it over the next twelve months.

I find myself moderately comfortable with the KPIs at work because they feed directly into the approach I’ve taken to writing for the last couple of years – set goals, trying to meet them, think long-term. Despite this, the goals I set myself are frequently more instinctual than anything else. I tell myself I want to learn to write things faster, for example, without having any real metric for what faster actually is. Since I am a competitive type, this frequently drives me crazy, since there’s no way to win at that particular goal. I’ve got no idea what I’m measuring, and I’ve got no idea what came before.

Worse, since I’m also a lazy competitive type, victories that seem too hard to achieve are frequently the victories I don’t bother trying to win.

So I find myself pondering the same question, over and over: what are the really useful things writers should be tracking? Not the stuff that makes us feel good, but the data that has a meaningful impact on the way we do business? I’m not sure I’ve got an answer for that, but I’ve asked other writers a couple of times and it’s always been an interesting conversation.

Since I know there’s a couple of writer-types who visit here regularly, I’m putting the call out there: what kind of things do you current track in relation to your writing? How do you use the data once you’ve got it together? What kind of connections exist between your data collection and your writing goals?

  5 comments for “KPIs and Writing Data

  1. 27/02/2013 at 2:56 PM

    One of the things I track–though it's harder to make immediate changes–is the number of stories sent out. I generally do okay with the actual writing part, but am nervous about sending stories out, so I put them aside to tinker with later and then never get to the point that I consider them done. So I made a deal with a friend that in 2013 we would each write a story every other month, and edit/polish it the following month and send it by God out. It helps to have someone to whom I'm accountable, because otherwise I can say, "Well, I'm working on the novel, so I don't have to write/edit/polish these stories…"

    When I'm first-drafting, I track word count per day, but at this point I'm pretty happy with my level there (goal is 2,500 words a day). I do think that what is important is being able to identify what you want to improve, then come up with a metric to measure that and a plan to improve it. For me, it was sending more stories out. I'd be interested to hear what other people track, too…

  2. Nic
    27/02/2013 at 9:15 PM

    I track word counts. After reading your post I think there are a lot more metrics I need to track as well.

  3. 27/02/2013 at 10:16 PM

    Writing KPIs, haha!

    I do try to evaluate what I've written like a boss evaluating the work of a stranger. The difference is, if I'm failing, I give my writer-self a holiday. I don't know many bosses that do that.

    Word count. I used to have a daily goal. Now I know that if I sit down and start writing, I'll inevitably reach that goal, so instead of actual wordage, I do the "three sentences" trick where you pretend you only have to write three sentences and then discover two hours later that you've done three pages.

    Submissions. I also check Duotrope a lot, for the lovely lie which whispers, "yours is taking longer! it's moved up to the 'maybe' pile!". But like you may have mentioned, it's difficult to see an increasing acceptance ratio as anything more than having used Duotrope's records of prior personal rejections to more closely target my submissions.

    Connections between writing and data collection. I have sticky notes on the computer case telling me when submissions close for things I want to be part of. This helps me choose what to write next. I have a sheet with preferred word counts of other things I want to be part of. This helps me be aware of how my audience might be changing as a story grows longer.

  4. 05/03/2013 at 3:34 AM

    I track the same things as above but it's really setting a doable goal that helps. Last year I set the goal of making ten submissions a month whether it was old stories or stories I had to write to make that work. I have upped it for the new year and not reached it yet, but last year I made the goal almost every month.

    The odd thing I try to track loosely is sentence structure and long and short sentences together. Maybe it's because I was a music person prior to being a writing person, but rhythm is really important to me.

Leave a Reply