Writing "Metrics"

Happy Hallmark...I mean, er, Happy Valentine's Day!

So in a "real" job, such as my "day" job, we spend a significant amount of time "dealing" with metrics (Do you like all the " "? Honestly, they're a lot funnier when you picture me doing them as air-quotes.) Not the metric system...though as an engineer, I spend plenty of time doing millimeter to inch conversions...but the systems we set up in order to measure our success and our failures.

There's a lot of thought and time spent setting up these metrics seeing as that a lot of people's raises, bonuses, and promotions are directly linked to these metrics. But I think the importance of metrics runs deeper than $$ or status. They are the things that define our worth in our work. Thus, they are personal. Very personal.

I worked at one company where R&D's sole goal was to launch a product on time, Quality's one goal was to have a certain % of returns, Manufacturing's goal was a high yield, etc. Quality only secondarily cared about launching product on time. R&D saw Quality and Manufacturing's roles as a big-fat anchor to getting product out the door. In the end, all these conflicting goals created enough tension to make a quality product with good yields in a timely manner. It just wasn't fun getting there. On the other hand, my current job has far more harmonized goals and life is much, much better.

So how does this pertain to writing as a job?

Glad you asked. Most, if not all, writers I know use some sort of self-guided metric system. The most common is writing a number of words per day, though it changes depending on the stage of writing too. Maybe it's revising four chapters a day. Or reading 25% of a novel. Or...you get the idea. We reward ourselves with chocolate or smily faces on the calendar. We hold ourselves accountable and/or find writing patterns for daily check-ins.

These are all great methods. They are realistic, well-defined, and measurable.

I've practiced a lot of them and in my mind, I find them analogous to the harmonized world of my current "paying" job. But I do have a confession to make: there have been periods in my life...long periods...where my goals made my life miserable.

Back then I came up with a simple statement: I'd get an agent in a year. As far as goal statements go, it worked. Concise, memorable, well-defined. Being who I am, I went to all lengths to get there. I wrote the best I could, got critiqued, obtained professional help, wrote a damn good query letter. When I got the thumbs up from a number of trusted people and I felt ready, I began to query and was sure I'd hit my goal when I got a good number of requests. And then...rejection. Rejection after rejection. Slowly, all my queries dried up. The year mark passed.

In summary: I failed.

Another practice my company does is a post-mortem on failed projects (think of a lunch meeting where we eat pizza and talk about what was right and what was wrong). After the initial sting subsided, I managed to do this recap. And what I really found was that I'd only failed in meeting my goal. I'd succeed in writing something that I was truly proud of. I'd succeed in growing a ton as a writer. And I'd succeed in having a great time working on it.

So why did I feel so bad? Obviously, because my goal--my metric--was a flaw. I'm sure you've seen it for a couple paragraphs, but it took me some time to let the emotions settle enough for me to realize the exact issue: getting an agent is out of my control. I can write the best book I can. I can write it in a year. I can query 50 agents. But no matter what I do, it takes two to tango in the agent dance.

I measured my self-worth with something outside my realm of influence. A better goal would've been to query in a year...or to write a book I loved (flaws and all)...or...that sort of thing.

There's nothing wrong with wanting to get an agent and working toward that, but in corporate speak this is more of a vision or mission statement. And in that case, the timeline aspect would have to be dropped. It's the ultimate goal and an achievable one, but it's longterm in nature. My mission can be GET AN AGENT and my goal of QUERY IN A YEAR is one step forward to meeting it.

I believe the same goes for any writer. You can't make people buy your book or give a good review or blurb you (well, not in an ethical way). You can't force a book onto the NYT Bestseller list or make them give you a Newbery. These would be good missions. And the goals associated with it need to be obtainable and within your direct influence.

Today, I'm having a "metric ton" of fun working with my new harmonized goals and mission and I feel much, much more successful.


Brilliant words, Bret. Thanks for the encouragement!

Great point Bret. Thanks for sharing. Have you in your air quotes work place or otherwise heard of "SMART" goals or objectives? Granted I think some folks change up the letters a bit, but either way, there is an element of something being Attainable or Achievable... something within your control, as you talked about here.

Bret, I love this. Knowing what you can and can't control is beyond helpful in writing and in life. Today I realized, for example, that I cannot control the weather. LOL! Instead of sitting at home, in New York State, and cursing the snow, snow, relentless snow - I decided to go with the flow and hibernate. Isn't that what bears do when it snows?? Bring on the naps!!

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