Time Tracking Tools for Writers

Hourglass Sand Timer

A good way to get a better handle on what to charge for projects (or which assignments to take on or which markets to pursue) is to track how much time it’s taking you to do various “production activities” for different types of projects.

  • How much time does it take you to run down the statistics for those health articles – or for that health center promo copy? Or to find experts willing to be interviewed for those gardening articles?
  • How much time does it take you to transcribe a 20-minute recorded interview?
  • How long does it take you, on average, to draft a 1,000-word article? Or a 500-word blog post?
  • Then how much time do you spend editing and polishing those projects?

If you have some idea of how much time you need for each production activity, you can better and more quickly gauge the number of hours – or days – you will need for a particular project. Multiply that by the amount per hour or per day you need to make in order to be profitable, and you will arrive at a base amount you know you can’t go below.

So how do you keep track of all these activities? Several tools can help you –

Darkroom Timer● Years ago I had a darkroom timer. It worked especially well because I could position it at 0, start the timer ticking off the minutes, and when interrupted by a phone call (or child’s question) could easily stop the timer; then restart when I returned to the project at hand. I kept a Project Sheet with each project, and simply noted how much time elapsed while working on each activity. At the end of the project, I totaled the various activities, which gave me a total time for that project. This is the old-school way of tracking time, but for some it still works well.

● Another writer once explained in our newsletter Freelance Writer’s Report how she used her oven timer, which happened to be within earshot, to alert her when she had been working on a particular aspect of a project for, say, 30 minutes.

1 Time ● You can download a free timer or alarm utility (search for Free Countdown Timer in Google or your favorite app store). I’ve been using one called “1 Time” for years now, and find it useful. It works in the background, counting down for the time length I have set, then beeps (or I can set it to alarm to any of several sound files). I do not believe 1 Time is still available, but you should be able to find a similar utility or app. Or, you can use an online timer, such as http://e.ggtimer.com/

A double benefit with a count-down timer (or your oven timer) – you can set it to count down until a specified time frame (90 minutes, 60 minutes, 45 minutes, whatever), note that amount of time thus far on your project log, then take a break to relieve eyestrain, wrist strain, neck strain, or to simply walk around your office a minute to stretch those leg muscles. Then reset your timer and go back to work.

kitchen timer● If you prefer a non-computer or non-device, more versatile timer, look in the housewares section of your favorite grocery or discount store for a kitchen timer. I bought one several years ago for less than $10. The advantage of the kitchen timer is that you can use it as either a count-up timer (like the photographic timer), or as a count-down timer (like 1 Time or an oven timer). The disadvantage (in addition to having to buy it as opposed to the free app download or browser timer) is that it runs on a battery, which you will have to replace if you use it regularly.

Working on several projects today or this week? You can still track each one’s time.

I use TraxTime for tracking several ongoing projects. It’s a Windows program, but if you review what it does, you may be able to find a similar program for Mac – or even for an iPad or android tablet. Note: Our Network is not an affiliate for TraxTime; I do think it’s a program worth sharing. And its cost ($39) is reasonable. You can also download a 30-day free trial.

TraxTimeTraxTime works very simply – you name your project or task, then punch in when you start working on that project or task, and punch out when you switch from that project or task to something else. You can track an unlimited number of projects and quickly switch from one to the other.

TraxTime is especially great for tracking how much time you need to bill clients, because you can instantly go off the clock when the phone rings or family concerns grab your attention – like the old darkroom timer. Then, click, and you are back on the clock. I do copy editing for a client for an hourly rate, and invoice monthly – really easy with this tool, which tells me how much time I’ve put in on copy editing for the day, week, month – whatever time-frame I need to invoice.

You can also create reports, which could be helpful for documenting work for projects that will repeat, such as annual reports for a client. For example, if you have to contact 25 companies for one project, then a year later the same (or a similar) project comes along, you can quickly look back to see how much time you spent on that part of the job – helpful information for either quoting your fee or scheduling your time.

Tracking time when collaborating

If you like to use online tools, check out Clocking IT.  I’ve not used this, but a colleague calls it “a fab free tool that lets you plan and time-track whatever you’re working on, as well as collaborate if necessary.” Certainly, if you’re working with someone else on a project, using a browser-based tool is crucial.

Why time each activity instead of the project as a whole ?

Because no two projects are rarely alike. But if you know about how long it takes you to transcribe (or recap) an hour-long interview, and you know the proposed assignment will entail three such interviews, you can project an educated guess as to how long you will need for the interviews and transcribing. If you know how long it takes you, on average, to dig out medical statistics online and via phone, you can project how much time you will need for that phase of another article heavy on statistics. And if you know your average time for a first draft for a 2,000-word article, or for a 4-panel brochure, you can factor that into your pricing.

So when an editor or client calls offering an assignment, ask her to email you what she has in mind for the completed project, and you will get right back to her. This will allow you time to list the various components and activities, plug in your average times for each, and arrive at your minimum total for the job.

Don’t wait – start tracking your time now

But you don’t have to wait for an assignment. When you explore an idea for possible querying, go through the same process. By knowing how much time it will likely take you, you can better determine what you need to earn for it, so will be able to market it to those publications or websites paying at least that amount of money.

Note: A portion of this article appears in 100 Keys to Freelance Success

What do you use to track your projects – or your various activities? What works well on a Mac? Have you found a particularly good time tracking app for your iPad or android tablet? Please share below . . .



About Dana K Cassell

Hi, and welcome to our Network. I'm Dana Cassell and am the one writing most of the posts on this blog. I've been in this writing/editing business for way longer than I care to admit. My goal here is to provide you with useful insights from our professional members and from my own experience - to help you achieve your own success, grow your editorial business, and publish successful and worthy books,


  1. Jimmy Wills says:

    When it comes to time tracking there are lots of options available in the market but some useful time tracking tools are proofhub, harvest etc. Check them too.

  2. This is something I spent a LONG time experimenting with and found quite a few solutions to.
    For tracking ideas on a longer timeframe: Wunderlist
    For tracking what you need to get done today with alarms set at time intervals: Action Manage 2
    For tracking what you are doing with a tool that will print out a PDF report (for freelance work): ManicTime
    For a task list that allows subtasks to be added and is nice and simple to use: Swift To Do List (Lite)

    At the end of the day – it’s important not to get too caught up in deciding what to use (being “busy” for the sake of it) and just pick one or two that work. It’s too easy for us to get focused on tools of the trade rather than the trade itself!

    • Dana K Cassell says:

      You are so right, David! Every time I get sidetracked with trying a new app, I very quickly realize it’s costing me time instead of saving, and tell myself to go back to the ones I’ve been using all these years. Thank you for your suggestions – they will be helpful for those who have not yet settled on their own favorites.

  3. For my windows pc, I use Cool Timer, which is free, and can be set to either count up or count down. For my iPad I have only found a free count up timer to use called Alarmed.

    • Dana K Cassell says:

      Angie, I have Timer+ (Minima Software) on my iPad, which counts down. It’s free with an ad (which I have); $1.99 to shed the ad. You can set multiple timers at once, and it runs in the background so you’re free to use other apps at the same time.

  4. Sandra Matuschka says:

    I use a normal inexpensive stopwatch; it has a clip and a magnet on the back. I’ve used it almost every day for I don’t know how long, and have never had to replace the battery. I use an old-fashioned thing called a pencil to record my times in a loose leaf book, for which I can buy inexpensive refills. I don’t have to worry about my computer crashing or forgetting where I logged my times on it, and I can invoice very well right from the good old fashioned paper record. 🙂

  5. Tracking your time really is a big productivity boost. When I’m writing I often do sprints, usually 15 minutes. Our brains have a way of expanding our tasks to fill our time, which if unbounded, can be pretty unproductive. Great post!

    • Dana K Cassell says:

      Good tip, Eve. Your “sprint” technique is probably akin to deadline pressure – seems like the closer I get to a hard deadline, the faster the words spill out. Using a 15-minute timer to complete some writing or editing task would provide that deadline pressure. Thanks for sharing!

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