Finding metrics for success

One of the drawbacks of being a developer is that I look at quantitative metrics instead of subjective ones. While I'm not measured against lines of code or anything as depressing as that, I know when the programs I write succeed based on the number of unit tests passed, number of change request tickets rejected, and the like.

No matter what I do, this carries over into writing also. It is easy to get get hung up on the number of words written or the length of a novel, but it is hard to feel like I'm accomplishing something without having a number to aim for.

Word counts

Word counts are seductive but ultimately useless. It is used as a baseline for "success" with National Novel Writing Month (50k in a month). There are writing challenges online (Twitter for me) for the #1k1hr hash tag (1,000 words in an hour). If you are a geek, it's the #1ki1hr (1,024 words in an hour). There is also a number of authors who focus on writing 1,000 words a day and it is a point of pride they make it for the day.

Counts are also used to determine if something is a short story, a novella, or a novel. Certain genres have different word counts. Young adult tends more toward the 70-80k while middle adult groups closer to the 100k. Twenty years ago, 80k was pretty normal and my mother has some good sci-fi novels that were closer to 60k.

The problem is that word counts don't mean anything when I'm writing. In the week of Thanksgiving plus the Saturday and Sunday before it, I wrote 55k words. If you count just a single week, I did 32k words in seven days. If that was a single novel, I would have completed it in a week. But, it isn't a novel. Instead, it is the first draft of eight chapters of my serial. And those words don't really mean anything until I finish.

The serial itself is on track for being 500k words. That is pretty much unpublishable in print, even as a self-publish. Looking at it, I would have to charge about $100 for a three volume set and it would take me about fifty years to recoup the costs for editing (~$15k) given the niche it is written for.

It sounds impressive to say "I wrote 10k words today." I try not to say it much anymore because those 10k words is just a number. It could be good, it could be bad. If I'm just aiming for 10k words, that's trivially easy for me. I do it almost every time I have a day without SMWM or EDM in the house.

Word counts work for some people. I honestly think it isn't a good one for me, simply because I'm a touch typists, have a very good writing speed (80-100 WPM), and a strong obsessive drive to write. Also, I make a lot of mistakes on 10k days and I usually don't write much the next day (there are exceptions like last week).

It's a hard metric to avoid, mainly because it is so easy to figure out. I'm going to put it into Author Intrusion, though, because it is important when writing articles, adventures, or doing NaNoWriMo.


The next easiest metric is money. Assuming, as an author, keeps track of the amount of money they make or lose on writing projects, is a score like word counts.

I've failed this one so far, so not much to be said since I don't have credibility in that topic.


This is actually what inspired me to write this post. Most of the time, I post my stuff for free on various Internet sites and hope people comment on them. Since I don't have much of the others, this is actually what I consider a metric for "success" on my free projects.

People comment when they love something or when it creates enough emotional response they feel the need to trash it. I consider positive and negative comments in the same vein because 99.999% of the people will just go "eh" and move on.

When most of your readers are apathetic, any comment is better than none.

I'll admit, I've prodded people into commenting. At the bottom of the posts, I have a line that says:

I'm doing this for free and you aren't paying me. Feel free to comment or criticize or critique, but if you don't say anything, I going to keep writing what I like when I want.

Since I started putting that on, I get feedback. There is one poster that just has a "thx for writing, good stuff" as pretty much copy/paste every week, but I know they are trying.

The really fun times comes when a debate is started. When I killed off a loved character without a lot of warning (there was, but it was too subtle and not directly on the character in question), it set off a major debate. People told me I sucked, I was horrible, and why did I do that? A week later, I started getting the "you are awesome!" responses from the same commentators. More importantly, every other death in the serial is measured against that one dramatic one.

It is also great when people start commenting on the "I hope this happens" or "I bet this is where they are going". Those make me squirm around all happy when they guess right. More so when they are horribly, horribly wrong.

So, how is that a metric? Easy, the places I post have a "replies" counter for the topic. I know I have written seventy-something chapters and I have roughly a hundred or so responses over the last year. So, when it says there are seven hundred responses, that means that I inspired people to comment about five hundred times. That's a metric for me and one that I feel is a good one for purposes of showing success (with that project).

Side note: I ignore "read" counts in general because of bots.

Level 2 Fans

Occasionally, I get a nice surprise in my inbox. It could be the people who hunt down my email address (which is not obvious) to send me a personal note. Those make my day because I know how much effort they go to find my website, find the contact page, and actually write something.

I also include those who pay attention to details. On my second break from the serial, I got an email from someone asking if I was okay since I haven't been posting.

Level 3 Fans

Arbitrary name, but let's say there is a Fan class and multiple levels. I don't have a name when someone sends me fan fiction and fan art (I've gotten both). A good example is Monday I found that someone sent me a scan of their watercolor painting they did from my serial.

They painted a scene from a chapter. Didn't tell anyone, didn't mention it until it was done, but then sent it to me. Along with an offer for the full-sized version suitable for printing.

There was a stunned silence followed by a lot of squeeing. (Yes, I squee. I also run around the house with EDM and pretend we're superheroes. And watch My Little Pony.)

I can't honestly say I've ever been depressed to get fan art. Having someone be inspired by anything I write enough to encourage them to write is a wonderful feeling.

I'll admit, this is only the fifth time this has happened, but I do consider it a metric for success. And I still look over all of them because it is just awesome.

I do include people who say "I like it so much, can I just send you money?" in here. Money and fan art are just two things of the same pool of encouragement.

Other Metrics

There are other metrics. Web views (from Piwiks or Google Analytics for example) and people subscribing to an RSS feed are two good examples. I don't use either of these because it becomes harder to get everything in one place. FeedBurner, Google Reader, and NewsBlur all get a feed once and you have to go to the individual place to figure out if there is one or more people listening that feed.

The same with web views. Someone might visit a page twelve times, sometimes with someone over their shoulder ("look at this" happens a lot from the opposite side of the couch).

Why is it important?

If I was just writing for myself, I would never put anything online and I would keep it in a box of books. That way, I could tell myself I was the greatest writer in the world and everyone who reads it agrees.

But, I do want more than just crouching over a box and telling everyone I'm the greatest writer in the world.

With longer projects, like the serial, it gets hard to keep writing. I don't have the goal of making money or getting fame out of it (fame would be nice). Instead, I'm writing because I think readers enjoy the story. On occasion, I get to the point of "why do I bother?" In those times, I still don't have a carrot to help get me through the long drought and my writing suffers.

A metric of success is a way of having that carrot. When things get depressed or I feel like I'm a complete hack, it helps to have that thing just out of reach to encourage me to move forward. "You're going to make millions!" isn't there for most of my work. Actually, even "you're going to make tens!" isn't there either.

So, I have to use different metrics to feel like I'm doing all of this for a reason. In this case, every piece of fan art and every comment is what keeps me writing. It encourages me to put down more words when I get an email about how I touched someone's life, or that I showed them something about the world they didn't know, or even that they think about the story during the week.