Sunday, February 24, 2013

What's in a Number?

Online, discussions of writing spin around wordcount like ships spin around a whirpool.  Which makes sense: writing's a weird pursuit without many hard numbers, and it's no surprise that we who invent characters, situations, and sometimes whole worlds for fun grab any numbers we can find with both hands and a stranglers' grip.  Wordcount first, during the writing process.  Then, once the book's written, we recite litanies of pages edited, drafts complete, queries sent. If the book's published (by a press or by ourselves), we obsess on sales figures and ranks and star ratings.

Now, metrics are important.  Businessfolk are swift to praise hard numbers, and for good reason.  Hard numbers help multinational corporations know (more or less) when they're doing well, and when poorly.  Hard numbers make plans possible, and execution easier.  Whole industries exist to help businesses decide which numbers to track, and how to track them.

Reread that last sentence, though, and you'll see the nut of the problem: whole industries exist because it's not obvious which numbers are meaningful.  Just because a number's easy to measure doesn't mean that number matters.

Wordcount, for example, is an intuitive but irrelevant metric.  Sure, it's easy to track.  Scrivener even gives me a nice progress bar to tell me how close I am to my daily target.  But if I write three thousand words to make that target, then delete half in the editing process, what does that three thousand figure really mean?

I don't have an alternative in mind—I certainly don't recommend that we abandon our daily word count goals and wander the woods waiting for perfect sentences to shine into our minds like God's light.  We work, and we build, and refine.  Some days the product is good, some days less so.  We find goodness in the work, rather than the results of our labor.

That said, if anyone out there is working on sabermetrics for writers, I'd be really interested to hear what you have to say.  I need a few more numbers to keep me awake at nights.


Angelica R. Jackson said...

I know that when I finally have sales numbers to track, it's going to take all my willpower not to get a cybernetic implant to get them instantaneously delivered to my brain.

Max Gladstone said...

That way lies madness. Trust me, I've tried.

Shewmaker said...

If you are interested in interacting with other Scrivener users, there is a public community for Scrivener Users on Google+. We have over 140 members. Since this is a public community you can read the community page before you decide whether or not you want to participate or not.