One of the things I love most about NaNoWriMo is the combination of the minimum word count and the finite duration: 50,000 words in 30 days. I know exactly what I have to do and how long I have to do it. Everything else is subordinated to that goal.
You’ve seen the graphic: fast, good, cheap—choose two. Writing is like that for me, except the legs of the triangle are words per hour (WPH), quality of prose and length of the finished work. My habit is to choose a length first (from flash fiction to novel), then focus on quality and leave WPH as a free variable. The result of holding quality to a constant (hopefully high) bar is that I write very, very slowly and rarely finish what I start in the time that’s available to me. I might manage 500 WPH in short bursts if I’m really on a roll but can easily sink as low as 50. Or 25. Or zero.
When I’m doing NaNoWriMo, on the other hand, the length and writing time are fixed. It’s possible to fudge the writing time some by writing more or fewer hours in a day, but for all practical purposes, my writing time is capped at three to four hours per day. That’s about as much time as I can squeeze out of my schedule, and about as much sustained creative effort as I can squeeze out of my brain. That means I have to hit at least 400 WPH consistently during NaNo. The free variable becomes quality. That’s bad news for the work in progress—quality suffers—but good news for powering through indecision and self-doubt. The words must flow.
So what does this have to do with estimation?
As a fledging writer, I am plagued by self-doubt, which is like running when you’re out of shape. Every footfall is a referendum on whether or not you should continue. Step—are we there yet? Step—this is so hard. Step—keep going or turn around? The less certain my progress on a piece of writing, the more I’ll question my creative choices and whether the effort is even worth it, and the harder I find it to dive into the next writing session with enthusiasm. After a handful of sessions with little or no progress, or worse, skipped sessions, I’m likely to shelve the entire project or move on to something seemingly easier or more worthwhile.
Accurate estimates would allow me to maintain a sense of progress, even if that progress is slow. Unfortunately, I am terrible at estimation. I would love to be like Stephen King, and reliably turn out 10 pages of clean copy per day, or Chuck Wendig, cranking out 1,000 words per hour. Then I could choose an appropriate project for my time and energy budget. I’d also be able to shut my laptop at the end of a less productive writing session knowing I’d still be on track to finish, increasing the odds that there would even be a next session.
Estimation is a skill that I’m working on. Actually, it’s a constellation of related skills. One is knowing my baseline writing speed. Another is maintaining discipline in not falling below that speed. The third is doing the necessary prep work that I can maintain that speed.
I’m working on the first by tracking my writing sessions and recording my words per hour. I’m working on the second by doing pomodoros, writing in 25-minute focused bursts. My mind is less likely to wander when I know I’m on the clock. The third is a bigger problem that will take more time to delve into.