What I learned from tracking my writing for a year

Back in 2021, I tracked my writing for a year. I kept a done diary for 6 months (as I’ve previously written about on the blog), but I also met up every month with an old co-author and we each wrote a little report on what we’d been doing: what was growing in the garden, what we were eating, what was going on in the world, how we were moving, what we were reading, but also what we were doing to progress our next writing project.

I found this an incredibly useful project, but it was a huge amount of work. It’s not always worth recording your life in such detail, or I don’t find it so. So, when we got to the end of the year-long project, I took a good break.

But I did start to miss keeping any kind of track of my life, so in June 2022, I started a new diary project where I just kept notes about how my days went. It’s much less programatic than the done-diary or year-project, but I’m also keeping a note on each day rather than the month. I just jot down things that stick out for me on any day. That means, I’m often mentioning if I’m sleeping, what my energy is like, and a word or two if anything interesting happened in the day.

But the other outcome of these two projects is that I am now able to look at where I was at this month across three different years and see what is consistent and what changes.

For example, here’s a note from August 2021:

What are you writing?
My co-author and I are co-editing the final rounds of our Luther book. Every time we lie to ourselves that this is the last round, and every time we find something else major that doesn’t work yet. It’s always like this when something is nearly ready to go, and you have read it so many times, and its so boring, but it also you know if you skimp on it, the reviewers are going to make you fix it anyway because it absolutely needs to be fixed… and if they have to explain how to fix the obvious thing, they might miss the thing you can’t see yet that would actually be helpful. Also, each pass is transformational, the work emerging and gleaming as you sand and wax and polish. When we get there, our writing is like glass. 

Of course, reader, it was not the final rounds. Though we did submit the manuscript in September, our reviewers took months and then we had a major revise and resubmit, so we didn’t actually get the book in until July a year later.

Also, it turns out, I hate winter and lose all motivation to move, and can’t be bothered to sugar-coat it when I’m just writing for myself. As I said in late July 2021:

How did you move?
Well, while things were open [i.e. not in COVID lockdown], I went to the gym and yoga and walked and cycled, and when things were closed I did a bit here and there. I hate lockdown, and my body hates lockdown, but I actually really hate exercise and can only trick myself into doing it because there is another purpose (like not disappointing my trainer, keeping up with a class or getting to work). Without all that other stuff, my intrinsic motivation to move is just above zero. The “just above” motivation is provided by the threat of terrible back pain—so I’m still moving enough to stay mobile.
Did not like July. Do not recommend. Can’t wait for spring.

If I jump forward twelve months, my diary tells me that in July 2022, I was recovering from having COVID a few months before, plus I had just had a wisdom tooth out: it was also not a good month for moving. And this year, in 2023, my personal trainer went on a 5-week holiday, and the exercise is all over the place with her away too. So… yes, this insight still tracks. All I want to do in wintry Melbourne July and August is hibernate. And yet, if I jump forward to September when the weather is warmer, it’s a completely different story.

So perhaps the best insight is from the end of the book, in the epilogue:

It’s really hard to keep up a project like this for a whole year—much harder than I expected. This year has, however, shown that keeping up the project, like keeping up a writing career, is not about linear repeatable factory-outputs.

There are ebbs and flows—months where I struggled to read anything, and other months where I read piles of things. Months where I wanted the easiest, quickest food, and months where I spent days layering in flavours. Months where my word counts went up, and months where I was waiting for reviews.

Ride the waves lightly, neither fretting in the months where not much happens, nor grasping after the months where lots happened. Consider your progress across a quarter, or a year. A day or a week or a month is too short to measure productivity.

We live in the world. Our years have seasons and our bodies have seasons and our brains have seasons, and that might mean that our writing also has seasons.

If you get caught up in the minutiae of your daily word count, if other people think you are making progress but you can’t see it, I encourage you to find a way to track your own writing for a year. Maybe you will be able to see the bigger picture, and maybe that bigger picture will help you to navigate your writing-practice with an eye to the horizon and the prize.

Photo by Anthony Cantin on Unsplash


Succeeding in a Research Higher Degree

Doing a Research Higher Degree (like a PhD) is hard, but lots of people have succeeded and you can too. It’s easier if you understand how it works, this blog gives you the insider view.


Related Posts

Writing Well and Being Well for Your PhD and Beyond is published

It’s publication week for Writing Well and Being Well for Your PhD and Beyond: How to Cultivate a Strong and Sustainable Writing Practice for Life. It’s available as a paperback and ebook on all the big book websites, and via the publisher. As with all my books, I’m delighted if you buy a copy but also delighted if you recommend it to your university library so you get to read it and so does everyone else.

I had the best time writing this book, and the pre-readers have given such warm and delightful feedback. My series editor described the book as ‘your best friend’; ‘it’s personable, relatable, oozing with strategies.. It simply is a gift’. The peer reviewers said things like: it’s ‘calming and supportive’, ‘a useful review and re-thinking of the writing process’ that ‘gives permission’ for you to write, containing a ‘sprinkling of humour’ but also ‘addictively practical’.

Read More

Towards a theory of University ‘excellence’

Universities like to say they are ‘excellent’. It’s a buzz word, and when you’ve been around campuses for a while, you realise it’s an adjective that’s applied to absolutely everything, so it kind of ends up meaning nothing. But when we look around universities, we see lots of ways they aren’t great. But recently I worked with another major partner in the global higher education industry (who is not a university) and it helped me see why ‘excellence’ discourse is good, actually.

Read More

Senior Manager Time vs Researcher Time

I became a senior manager and my diary went wild. I’m going to talk about what it’s like here, both so you can more effectively work with the senior managers in your team (maybe your supervisor, or a significant administrator), but also so you can have an insight into what it’s like to be a senior manager as you think about your own career trajectory.

Read More

Get the latest blog posts

%d bloggers like this: