Daryl Gregory

The Spreadsheet of Shame

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I used to have this idea that real writers could point to a deadline in the distance like Babe Ruth aiming his bat at the center field bleachers, and then, through the powers of professionalism, just start writing and hit that thing.

Turns, out, I’m no Babe Ruth. I can’t write a novel in one mighty swing. And there’s no urgency to a deadline twelve months away, or even six. I’ve found that the only way I can hit my deadlines (and I’ve hit every major one I’ve committed to, thank you braggy much) is to leverage daily amounts of shame. Or at least the risk of shame.

The best way to do this is to announce your goals — a daily word count, for example — to your loved ones and trusted colleagues, and have them ask you how it’s going on a regular basis. Say, every day at the dinner table. This is effective because we’re basically chimps, social animals evolved to respond to public opprobrium and approbation. (Cats don’t feel shame, which is why no one ever wants them on project teams.) 

But this daily confession can be wearing on your loved ones, and worse on your colleagues, because you keep calling during dinner. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was some device to make you feel that glow of approval, or that heat of disgrace? 

Which brings us to the Spreadsheet of Shame.

For every big writing project in the past five years, I’ve used an Excel sheet to track word counts. It’s gotten more elaborate with each project — because when you’re starting something new, one of the best ways to procrastinate is to work on something you tell people will make you more productive. This latest version has pretty graphs to show me when I’m falling behind, and cells that turn red when I’m under my goal.

For example, here’s what it looked like at the beginning of the writing of my YA novel:

See all those red cells? I had a tough time getting started. That’s per usual. Also, notice that the goal in the first few weeks (that D column) was a lousy 500 words per day,  a rate that somebody like Tim Pratt would scoff at, and I still couldn’t match. Then I started catching up, and I ramped up my goals to 1,000 words a day, then 1,500.

There are a couple graphs I use to show my word counts each day, and how I’m stacking up cumulatively.

When things are going well — meaning, when that blue line is over the red one — I gaze upon these graphs in loving admiration. What a fine person I am! When that red line is above the blue one — and sometimes it’s way above — I beweep my outcast state.

Over the years I’ve shared the S.O.S. with a few writer friends, and now I’m sharing with you. If it helps you, fantastic. If it doesn’t, then use a more public form of shaming.

First, download it

At the start of your project, do this:

  1. Save the file with a new name.
  2. In the Data tab, pick a start date. In A3, enter the next Sunday when you’re going to start tracking. It needs to be a Sunday.
  3. In B2, enter the number of words you’ve written before you started tracking. This can be zero.
  4. In F1, enter the number of words you want to write per day. (This is only the default amount — you can change individual days.)
  5. In J1, enter what you think might be the ending word count. This is only used to calculate the percentage complete in column I. It doesn’t affect the graphs.
  6. If you know you’re not going to write on some day — say, Arbor Day, because who works on Arbor Day? —  go ahead and put a zero into the cells for that day in column D.

Then every day, do this:

  1. In column B, enter the total word count in the doc. (All the other columns will update to show how many words you wrote that day, and what your % complete is.)
  2. In column G, you can leave notes about what you worked on that day. Or (and this is more common, in my experience) to explain why you didn’t reach your goal that day.

And that’s it. The other tabs are graphs to show your daily output, in, well, graphical terms. That’s why they call them graphs. They’re graphic.

Oh, yeah. When you start to fall behind,  column F starts turning red. That would be the shame aspect of the document. But really, it’s the graphs that make me realize when I’m slipping.

And hey, it’s only an excel doc, so you get to do anything with it you want.

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