Measure What Matters as a Fiction Writer

In my middle-management day job, “measure what matters” (the title of a book by John Doerr) is an oft-uttered phrase. In business, “what matters” is an articulation of the real goals, the things that, if achieved, will enable the business to succeed, and if not, may cause the business to fail. You can measure a lot of things about your business, some more easily than others. And when you consider yourself to be “metrics driven,” you’d better be sure you’re driving from the right metrics, not just the most accessible ones. Choose the wrong metrics, and you can win battles but lose the war.

I try to apply this principle to my writing life too. There are things that are easily measured, especially with all the digital tools at our disposal:

  • Money earned
  • Awards won
  • Positive reviews
  • Size of readership
  • Stories published
  • Stories submitted
  • Stories written
  • Words written
  • Rates of any of the above

But do any of those things “matter?” Will any of them make or break your commitment to write?

If you’re a professional whose livelihood depends on writing, those things absolutely matter. For a hobbyist like me, it’s harder to find true measures of success, which boil down to very personal, philosophical and psychological reasons why I write. How does one quantify improvement in craft, and internal and external validation?

My “metrics” look more like:

  • Have I improved aspects of my craft?
  • Am I writing more complex, sophisticated stories?
  • Have I written something I enjoy reading?
  • Have I written something people I respect enjoy reading?
  • Did my writing touch someone in a meaningful way?
  • Did I gain a deeper understanding of something by writing about it?
  • Did my writing help someone else understand something better?
  • Do I feel satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment from having written a piece?
  • Do others see me as a writer? A “good” writer, even?

These questions are hard to measure, except through proxy metrics. Good reviews might indicate people enjoyed the story, but not everyone writes reviews. Selling to higher-profile magazines may mean I’ve improved my craft, or it may just mean I’ve tapped into the zeitgeist. Leaning on proxy metrics can lead one down a path of optimizing things that lose sight of the true goal.

But writing is slow and lonely, and when writers form communities, they want to share their progress in their writer’s journey. Ironically, we often don’t tell stories, we post metrics. And we get caught up in measuring what doesn’t matter, simply to fit the format of having something regular to report. (That’s a trap we fall into in business all the time.)

I’m still shy of coming to a conclusion around this. I will probably still post metrics, crow about sales, and track my number of submissions as an indication of my “seriousness.” But I’m posting this as a note to self: tell the stories around accomplishments that felt like accomplishments. The data is not the narrative.

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