An Organized Mind: Making Spreadsheets Work For Your MFA

After a BA in Creative Writing, I had some idea of what to expect in an MFA program, but I was still woefully unprepared.  Eleven years had passed between earning that BA and returning for my MFA.  I had a career in editing, which equated to far too many 60-hour work weeks and not enough hours reading or writing.  In the year before I started the MFA, I read only 5 books and wrote just under 20,000 words.  Starting the program I suddenly needed to read 10 books and write about 14,000 words per semester (not to mention write papers—another skill I’d all but forgotten).  Needless to say: these were not things I had been doing the past eleven years.

What I had been doing was utilizing spreadsheets to make schedules and manage projects.  It turns out those skills transfer beautifully to an MFA program and have, quite honestly, been the secret to my success.

Pace Your Reading

My first obstacle was figuring out how to go from reading 5 books in 12 months to reading 10 books in 4 months.  The syllabus outlined that we needed to read about one book a week, which sounded insane at that point.  I had no idea how I was going to get through so much material or retain any of it for discussion.  The only solution was to pace myself.

I started by making a chart of everything I needed to read and how many pages were in each book.  Then I added end dates—plotting out when each book needed to be finished for class discussion—and a start date for when I could theoretically start reading (you know, the day after I finished the last book).  

I used two very simple formulas to make my spreadsheet automatically calculate how many pages I still had to read (“To Go”) and the rate at which I’d need to read each book.  Both formulas fed off the column I continually updated: how many pages I had read.

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All of those numbers may look like a trip to Crazy Town for most writers, but having this daily responsibility was key to reacclimating myself to college life.  Also, if you have the spreadsheet know-how to add a progress graph, suddenly the crazy numbers become crazy rewarding.

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Look, 41.6% finished with the first book and 14.6% finished with all the reading for the semester!

Utter geekiness aside, this little spreadsheet kept me on task for the semester and kept all of my reading assignments feeling reasonable.  Sure, a daily reading goal of 50+ pages is no picnic, but when you can break down an 800-page book into a smaller goal, it feels much more manageable.  

If you’re adverse to using a spreadsheet, you might consider joining GoodReads (which is yet another thing I use to track my MFA reading habits).  For GoodReads, you either scan the book barcode with your smartphone or look up the book on the website.  As you read, update what page you’re on and GoodReads will calculate your percentage complete.  This doesn’t work for keeping track of how many pages you need to read each day, or determining how many you need to read if you fall behind (my typical problem), but it’s a good no-spreadsheet way to motivate yourself to keep reading.

Tracking Your Thesis

A thesis is essentially a very long project, and project tracking was literally my job.  As with any project there are many steps between starting and completion—drafting, revising, incorporating workshop comments, submitting to your thesis director, revising (again), and proofreading.  When you’re juggling multiple stories (or chapters, as in my case), it’s easy to get confused about which stage each individual part is on.  A simple progress chart can keep you on track—and is a great way to show your thesis director how dedicated you are.

I started by identifying the steps for my thesis project.  For me that included a first draft, revision, a review by a friend, incorporating her comments for Draft 2, a review by my thesis director, incorporating her comments for Draft 3, and a proofread.  Once I figured out my steps, it was all about color-coding and laying out my chart.  

Ack!  What about workshops, though?  Workshopping every chapter wasn’t feasible for my project, so instead of adding workshop as a step, I included it as a color filter on the chapter description.  It helps me remember which chapters have an extra revision.

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For anyone doing next-level thesis tracking, you might also include a word count for your stories/chapters.  Once you have a word count in place, you can use formulas to estimate your current page count, even if your stories/chapters are spread across multiple files.  It’s an easy way to figure out when you’ve finally hit the minimum number of pages (or, if you’re writing a novel, when to warn your thesis director just how long your project will be).

For putting together these formulas, all you need is to sum your column of word counts, and then divide that total by 250 to get an estimate for the page count.

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Fight the Fear

A spreadsheet can be intimidating when you first open it, but it can be a powerful tool for staying organized.  Even if you don’t know how to make a spreadsheet sum a column of numbers, you can still use it to track your progress using color coding or even just an “X.”  It can also be helpful to have a place where you list the date when you completed something or sent it off for review (and when you expect someone to send it back).  

These two spreadsheets have saved my MFA life—I’ve made it through all of my assigned reading, and am (mostly) on track for completing my thesis.  It already takes a lot of brainpower just to stay on top of MFA assignments, so keeping organized can remove some pressure.  
11018943_10205275475260725_4011872638109292908_nAlli Martin is a second year MFA student at the University of Central Florida. After completing a Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing at UCF in 2003, she worked in editorial at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. She is currently a graduate assistant on The Cypress Dome, UCF’s student literary magazine. Her fiction appears in the 2011 anthology Dreams of Steam II: Brass and Bolts.

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