The Magic Spreadsheet

The original link to the Magic Spreadsheet by Mur Lafferty.

This is less an essay and more a resource and general writing advice, so I’ll keep it short. I wanted to put the link up for the Magic Spreadsheet and explain it even though I don’t use it anymore. It served me well for several years, and I hope it will help you, too.

One of the hardest parts of being a writer is finding enough time to write. Writers are busy people, with any number of things like day jobs, classes, families, and always being within arm’s reach of the Internet on our plates. (Although let’s be honest; it’s usually that Internet part that causes the most trouble.)

A deadline imposed by someone other than yourself is great. If you have a class paper due, your boss wants that big report, or you need to get your next draft to your editor, you’ll probably get it done. (Or at least, that’s how it works for me.) Even maintaining a blog requires some self-discipline, which is why I’ve set myself a “one post per week” rule starting this year. I’m counting my blog as an external constraint because I’m at least a little accountable to my readers.

However, unless you’re lucky enough to find a critique group that meets every week, there’s probably no one but you putting deadlines on your creative writing. For a long time, I tried things like self-imposed deadlines and marking off the days when I write on a calendar, but they only seemed to work halfway. Then, I found the Magic Spreadsheet.

The idea behind the Magic Spreadsheet is simple. If you write 250 words in a day, you get 1 point (you can get bonus points for writing more). If you also write 250 days tomorrow, you get 2 points tomorrow. The next day, you get 3 points. But if you skip a day, you go back to 1 point. In other words, the way to get big points is to write every single day. If you write 250 words per day for 30 days straight, you get 465 points. But if you write 500 words every other day, you only get 30 points. You can compete against other writers, or just compete against yourself, but earning points helps it along.

250 words is just about the perfect number for this. It’s not much—just about one double-spaced page in your favorite word processor. Most of the time, you can do it in 15-30 minutes, which makes it really easy to squeeze in at the beginning or end of the day, or over lunch, but it’s still enough to be substantial. 250 x 365 = 91,250 words, and that’s a whole book. So, even if you just write the minimum amount, you can write a book in a year.

The Magic Spreadsheet world very well for me for about two and a half years, from early 2013 to mid-2015. It was the first thing that really got be to write every single day when before, I had struggled to write half the days in a given month. I wrote on probably 99% of the days for those two and a half years. (It might have been 100%; I don’t remember.) I wrote two books that I think are publishable during that time, and that was without actually keeping track of the points.

After that, things started to fall apart. I was dealing with stuff in my academic and personal life that threw a lot of things out of whack and slowed my writing way down. To be honest, I was still writing a fair amount, but it wasn’t my fiction. Blog posts, worldbuilding for other stories, a journal of sorts for a while, and so forth. It still wasn’t as much as before, but the bigger problem was that I just couldn’t keep up on any of my fiction projects anymore. For me, writer’s block tends to set in with inertia. If I’m away from a project for a while, it’s harder to get back to it, and I fell away from pretty much all of them for a while during that time.

Also, after writing two books, I had a lot of editing to do, and editing doesn’t do a whole lot for your total word count. I still haven’t thought of a good way to incorporate editing into a regular writing schedule, and if you know of one, I’d like to hear it.

Over the past four years, I’ve struggled to get back to anything close to a regular writing schedule. Due to a number of factors in my life, I have a very hard time keeping up a consistent daily schedule anymore, so the Magic Spreadsheet doesn’t work so well anymore. But it might still work for you, so I’d encourage you to check it out.

As for me, starting this year, I’ve been getting back on track by setting a weekly writing goal for myself. I have my own spreadsheet now (which is more complicated than just checking off each week). I haven’t followed it perfectly, but I’ve been doing a lot better this year than I have in the three years previous. So, my further piece of advice is, if the Magic Spreadsheet doesn’t work with you, keep playing with it until you find something that does. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box, either. Whatever works, works.

Good luck, and keep writing.