Monday 19 January 2009

Count what you can manage

Numbers improve creativity

As an avid reader, and a loyal follower of Mariella Frostup’s Book Show, I am fascinated with how authors produce their work.

What strikes me about authors’ working habits is how often numbers occur in answer to interviewer’s questions about how they produce their books. Writing is a creative process – yet authors appear to be methodical and systematic.

In his book ‘On Writing’, Stephen King says that he writes 10 pages a day without fail, even on holidays. I wonder whether my idea of a holiday is the same as Mr King's, but his disclosure is nonetheless impressive.

Here are some comments made by the Book Show guests about how they work:

I can really focus and just get on with writing my 1,000 words. Then I get to spend the rest of the day playing with the babies…” Jenny Colgan (best selling chick-lit author, mother, and blogger extraordinaire)

I always start the day by going into my office at about nine o’clock. This is where I work on my four books a year. When I’m writing a book, I write about 3,000 to 4,000 words a day; I don’t really have to think about what’s going to happen in the books: it just seems to come from my subconscious mind. I write for two to three hours and then I come out of the ‘trance’, as it were.” Alexander McCall Smith author of The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency

My working day starts at about 2.30pm and continues on through to half past six or seven o’clock, when I stop because I’m knackered.” William Boyd – prize winning author and film writer

I’ve got these files here and then I’ve got my marvellous patterned notebooks. I’m absolutely devoted to them. I must have about 200 by now, ‘cause I do about 20 for each subject.” Lady Antonia Fraser – historical biographer

J G Ballard, who wrote the cult novel ‘Crash’ was reported in The Times as saying:

I try to write about 1,000 words a day in longhand and then edit it very carefully later before I type if out. I have been known to stop in the middle of a sentence sometimes when I've reached my limit. But self-discipline is enormously important; you can't rely on inspiration or a novel would take ten years.”

Performance management in action

This is Performance Management in action. The numbers – whether the hours they work, the number of words or pages they write, or the research notebooks filled – are part of the creative process.

Of course the numbers themselves don’t make the stories more gripping or their characters more life-like. They don’t compensate for poor grammar, or improve their spelling. But they do allow the authors to improve all of these things by the regular, systematic, and consistent application of their creative energies.

The numbers enable these authors to manage their creativity. They are conscious of when is the best time of day to write. They understand their own personal balance between targeting a number of words, and keeping up the quality of what they write. They set their own targets with words, pages and books –authors’ equivalent of a KPI.

Best selling lessons for business

All the authors I’ve quoted are best-selling authors. By literary and commercial standards they are successful. Their scorecards are filled with the number of words they write each day, the number of hours they work, how they edit, their research notebooks, and how they get started when faced with a blank sheet of paper. The book sales then follow.

In contrast, business people often start with the sales figures. “This year we are targeting sales of the XYZ product to be 1,000 units a month …” Business scorecards are filled with sales revenue and profit targets. Whilst these figures absolutely have their place, they are not the figures that business managers are actually able to manage. What we can manage is the efficiency with which we produce our products or services. We can decrease defects, or increase features. We can improve distribution or marketing communications, etc.

Metrics for creative types

The concept of applying “cold, hard numbers” to creative processes such as man management or writing isn’t intuitive. Metrics appear too stark, too simple and don’t convey the ambiguities of day to day business or the plot of a novel.

In reality they convey a great deal. The writer knows that a day that produced 1,000 words is moving them closer to their finished book – even if they eventually have to re-write every word.

Equally, successful managers think carefully about the key metrics in their business, and then ensure they are monitored and improved regularly. Because of course that’s the whole point. By creating targets and measuring the key parts of the process we are able to improve on what we do: improve the process, and the deliverables. Clever people, authors.


  1. Caroline

    Very interesting had not thought about creativity like that before in terms of warm numbers.


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