How Many Hours to Write a Novel?

Photo Credit: Craig Chew-Moulding / flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Craig Chew-Moulding / flickr / Creative Commons

I just finished the third draft of Pair Alleles, the fourth book in my Derivatives of Displacement series yesterday. This was probably my most challenging novel yet to write. I have a more demanding job than ever before, requiring me to fit writing around all sorts of critical things like meetings, data analysis, and generally trying to look like my job is super important to me (which it is, but I’m sure most writers can identify with the feeling of being torn). In addition, as the fourth book in a series, Pair Alleles is more complex with many plot threads to keep track of and pull through from the previous books. It is also longish at 120,000 words.

Pair Alleles took me seven months to go from blank screen to third draft, and that felt like a very long time with many hours of toiling at my screen. I did not record the number of hours I sat at my desk writing my novel, unlike for work, where I record my time down to the fifteen minute increment, which provides me with a lot of useful data with regard to exactly how long it takes me to write a report, sit through a meeting, or craft an evaluation plan. I started to think that analyzing my productivity on the writing front might be helpful too.

How long, really, does it take to write a novel?

How many hours of work really go into a first draft, a second draft, and the final product? Google the question and generally speaking you won’t get a satisfying answer. Many of the responses are trite.

“Writing a novel takes as long as it takes, no more and no less.”
“Writing a good book takes however long it takes.”
“You will get to however many pages you want in the right amount of time for your story.”

As a lifelong measurer and a data analyst by day, these kinds of answers drive me nuts. Of course they are partially true. How long it takes to write a novel depends on how fast and experienced a writer you are, how long the novel is, what kind of novel it is, how much research is required, how many days a week you work in it, and how many hours a day you work. I know that, but surely we can come up with more precise data than “it takes as long as it takes.” Yes, there will be outliers—there always are. But there will be an average, median, and standard deviation as well.

People often talk about writing a book in terms of months or years, like I just did when I said it took me seven months to write Pair Alleles. Many literary fiction novels take three to ten years to write a novel, while some famous romance novelists, such as Nora Roberts and Barbara Cartland can write a novel in a month. We all know of novels that were written in a very short time—I have blogged about this before. Sarah Gruen wrote Water for Elephants in four weeks. A Clockwork Orange was written in three weeks. We’ve all heard of novels that take almost twenty years to write.

A year is often thrown around as the time it takes to write a book. Indie writers often do it faster, with many producing a novel every one to three months.

But the thing that is deceptive about all of those time frames is that we have no idea how many hours a day the writer is working. Do they show up to their desk at nine for a leisurely two-hour stint, write frantically for an hour every night after the kids have gone to bed, or spend fourteen hours chained to their desk? Do they write every day, or just on weekends?

How long does it take to write a novel in hours?

Was Sarah Gruen working twelve hours a day seven days a week for those four weeks? If she was, it took her 336 hours to write her novel. Or was she writing three hours a day, five days a week? If so, she churned it out in a measly 60 hours.

After doing some math based on the average number of hours I write per day (3.5), the number of days I write per week (7) and accounting for the days when I had meetings, social events, holidays or soccer tournaments to attend, I figured that I wrote on average 17 hours per week from February 1 to August 26, with four weeks off in which I had to write a short story for The Future Chronicles and a one-week marathon of 12 hour days when I was trying to finish Pair Alleles up. Conservatively then, Pair Alleles took me 476 hours to write, with 357 hours for the first draft, 85 hours for the second draft, and 34 hours for the third draft.

Is this normal—how many hours does it take other people to write a novel? An intensive Google search yielded not very much. Most writers do not calculate or record the number of hours that it takes them to write a novel, but I did find a few people (often data wonks like me) who tracked it and got the following numbers:

  • 736 hours for a shortish novel that included a lot of rewriting
  • 376 hours for a non-fiction book
  • 200 hours for a first draft
  • 200 hours for a 100,000 word first draft
  • 120 hours for a bad 100,000 word first draft
  • 272 hours for a 120,000 word first draft and 140 for a second draft for a total of 412

The last estimate, recalculated based on my word count, from data collected from a survey of 380 writers developed by Holley Lisle is the most useful number because it reflects the experiences of many writers and it includes the word count. Thus my total of 442 hours for a first and second draft is somewhat similar to the experience of other writers.

Why Track your Writing Time?

All of this was interesting to me. I felt like I worked at writing Pair Alleles doggedly, despite my more limited hours to devote to writing. I made my word count of 1000 words a day most days during the first draft phase, and yet it took me 135 days to write my 120,000 words, so I must not have hit it every day. I was also able to calculate my words per hour to be about 336 for the first draft phase.

Chris Fox is a big advocate of tracking how many words you write per hour in order to analyze your productivity and continually work to improve your output. His book is entitled 5,000 Words Per Hour, and that is how many words he claims to write per hour. Obviously at 336 words per hour, I am well off this goal. Until now, I had not really seen the value of tracking my output that obsessively—after all I obviously write as fast as I can write, and I already know I am far more productive in the morning than I am in the evening. But since I already track this kind of thing for my work, why not track it for my writing? I doubt I will ever get to 5000 words per hour, but maybe I can aim for 1000 words per hour. During my marathon “I have to get this done” session of 12 hour days, I was able to write 500 words per hour… better, but still room for improvement. Nevertheless, it is interesting to know that as I suspected when focused exclusively on writing, my output per hour increases.

So my resolution moving forward is to track my output more vigorously. I will report in when, and if, I have some interesting data - until then keep writing! What are your experiences tracking your productivity?