How fast can you write?

Last week, I read a message board post by a moderately-popular science fiction / fantasy author, in which he claimed that he typically writes a 120,000 word novel in 100 hours. That’s 1,200 words per hour, or 20 words per minute.

That doesn’t seem possible to me, so I’m hoping those of you who are authors will leave comments and let me know your usual writing speed. I’m not linking to the discussion board because my goal isn’t to start an argument with the author in question. Instead, I’d like to determine a reasonable speed target.

In my case, typing speed isn’t much of a problem. I conducted two separate one-minute tests, typing a nonsensical story I made up on the fly. I averaged 66 words per minute. However, if I had to do things like revise sentences, think about character reactions, double-check science facts, etc., then I don’t see how I could get anywhere close to 20 words per minute.

My only fiction writing consists of a handful of short stories (none polished enough that I’m willing to share them with anyone other than family or close friends). I completed them at a rate of about 1,500 words per day. I never tracked my time, and these writing sessions were on weekends where I also jogged, grilled something for dinner, took my dog to the park, messed around in my garden, etc.. My best guess (a very rough estimate) is that it took me around 5 hours to write those 1,500 words.

A related issue: I’ve read numerous author blog posts which claim that a writer must not edit during the first draft stage. I guess I’m a little too obsessive-compulsive to follow this advice; I frequently spot something wrong earlier in a paragraph and return to it. I know it slows my initial writing, but I feel that my cleaner first draft results in fewer editing passes. I’d appreciate feedback on this as well.

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44 comments

  1. Hi PDC, to me the question is what shape that 100-hour manuscript is in. Maybe you could do that for a first draft where no editing has been done, but that’s a far cry from having it in final shape. I don’t see that being anywhere close to average, but I haven’t written a novel.

    I’ve seen that advice as well about not editing on the first draft. I think it all depends. There are different levels of editing. I don’t think it makes sense to focus too much on the word polishing in the first run, because you may find at the end that you need to restructure some of the things in your manuscript and you’re going to have to rewrite those sections anyway. That’s where too much editing up front could be wasted effort. However I can see needing to edit the bigger things as you go through, especially if your outline changes as you go (or you don’t have an outline).

    1. Hi Sue, the author seemed to be claiming that 100 hours was the total he put in to produce the novel. Perhaps he has an editor who is now bald from pulling out his/her hair.

      I can see your point about first draft editing. I might spend time tweaking the dialogue of a minor character, only to write them out of the story later…

      I don’t start typing text until I’ve put together a fairly detailed outline, but I still end up with moments where I say “wait, why would he do that, when it would be easier to do this?”

      1. Yep, I think that editor is definitely going bald. 🙂 I do the same type of questioning when I write anything. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that all writers have different tricks to keep themselves motivated, so if editing as you go helps you, I say edit away!

  2. Ok, as far as not editing while drafting, one of the most prolific writer’s I’ve ever heard of — Dean Wesley Smith — edits as he goes. He talks about it extensively in “Writing Into The Dark.” Also, Dean Koontz edits as he goes, polishing the entire way. He wrote about it on his website a year or two ago (sorry, don’t have a link). He described it as the best way (for him) to connect to his characters, the story, etc. So that should tell you something 🙂 I wrote my first book that way and intend to go back to it, because of the sheer number of mistakes and plot holes the “write without looking back” method creates. Check out episode 71 of the “Self-Publishing podcast” to hear a great interview with DWS and his wife, Kristine Kathryn Rusch. He was also on episode 70 of the Rocking Self-Publishing podcast, where he really gets into the writing speed stuff.

    But as for your question: how fast do you write? I type incredibly quickly, more than 80 words a minute back in high school, and that was 30 years ago. But writing? Waaaay slower. My writing sessions usually run 1-3 hrs, and I strive for more than 1k a day. Frequently I hit 1-2k. If I’m on a roll, and if it’s a weekend or I somehow have it in me to write like crazy, 3-5k isn’t unheard of (and that’s me pushing the 3hrs into 4-5).

    So there you go 🙂

    1. Thanks for the references. I’ll have to experiment a little and see what works for me on the editing front. Thanks for the words per day info as well. Perhaps with more experience, I’ll move a little closer to your speed. I don’t think I’ll ever match you, but you’ve given me a nice ceiling to look up at.

    2. I, too, read something from Dean Koontz (this was many years ago) in which he said he doesn’t even go on to the next page until the one he’s writing is perfect. I’m an edit-as-you-go type, but that seems excessive to me. Clearly it works for him, though.

      1. Yeah, I tried doing the “don’t look back” approach and think I’ll go back to the way I was doing it before I started listening to advice from others 🙂 Thanks for the reply!

  3. Ugh…”writers” not “writer’s” — I always make mistakes when I leave blog replies. It’s a curse.

    1. I think a lot of us make errors in our comments that we’d never allow in our professional work.

  4. richgreen01 · · Reply

    I can manage about 1,000 – 1,500 words in a day when writing (RPGs)

    1. Any guess as to how many hours it takes you to get those 1k-1.5k words down?

      1. richgreen01 · · Reply

        Sorry, yes, about 4-5 hours, editing as I go.

  5. I don’t write in drafts–I write and rewrite simultaneously, so that when I get to the end, I’m done. I can write a thousand words in an hour, but I seldom write for an entire hour at a stretch–I get up, move around, do other things. I average about a novel a year, but I couldn’t estimate how many actual hours go into it. Sometimes I walk away from a project and don’t touch it for weeks.

    1. That’s an interesting approach, writing and rewriting in the same session. Sounds like it works pretty well, if you can put out a novel a year while working another full-time job.

  6. I always polish as I go. I read the chapter before every time I start, and if I see errors, I fix them. This only works with an extensive outline. My productivity depends upon the stage of the story. Middles are usually slow, and 500 words can be a good day. I once wrote 10,000 words in one day, when I was really feeling it. There is no graph in my case as to what I might, or might not, accomplish.

    1. That’s all great information. Why do you think middles are slower?

      1. I can only speak for myself, but beginnings are new and shiny. Endings are planned out and generally awesome. Getting from one to the other takes some time. An outline has helped me here, but it still takes me some effort.

  7. I tend to edit as I go, so my writing is much slower. Today in about 6 hours, I wrote about 1500 words – 250 words per hour. Some days are better, some worse, but I don’t really keep track. I’m not in a race 😀

    1. Judging from what other people have said here, that doesn’t sound too slow, especially if you’re also getting in some editing.

      1. Thanks. I don’t worry about it. I’m not a procrastinator, so I figure it’s just my pace and process. 🙂

  8. I, too, edit as I go. Anytime I go back into something to continue it, I find myself reading previous passages to “get back into the drift of it” only to find things I have to correct (underline and italic “have”) before I can continue. Obsessive/compulsive, indeed.

    However, I do not outline, just write on the fly, as it were. I don’t pay attention to plot or development, either. I write as it comes to me, and hope to gather it all together eventually. I know where, more or less, I think the story is headed, and if it changes, I make it ease to the new idea and try real hard not to alter what I already have.

    1. Wow. I don’t think I could write a single sentence of a story without an outline.

      1. I think I would get distracted by what I wanted to write if I tried an outline. Never did well with those in school, either. 😀

        To each their own, as the cliche goes.

  9. My clone edits/revises on the fly while writing his first draft, so the editing process AFTER that draft is written is quite brief. There are never large structural changes to the story once the first draft is complete.

    Speaking as someone who IS an editor, I can tell you that it doesn’t make much sense to mess with little things such as run-on sentences or whatever in the first draft. If you happen to see something and correcting it won’t interfere with your momentum, go ahead and fix it IF you want to.(For some people, NOT fixing it can interfere with momentum; that misplaced hyphen on page 47 nags at them in the background while they’re trying to write a fight scene.) On the other hand, large changes to plot or setting or characters ought to be deal with for the sake of continuity. Otherwise the writer just ends up spending the time later in correcting plot holes and inconsistencies in description, not to mention the tangent scenes that get deleted entirely because they end up not belonging in the story.

    I strongly suspect anyone who claims to have written a 120K-word novel in 100 hours is not counting the hours of preparation (whether that’s actual outlining or just thinking about the story and setting and characters ahead of time) due to some weird notion that the prep work isn’t part of the writing process, that you’re not working on the book if you’re not increasing word count AT THAT MOMENT.

    My clone and I are both binge writers: we write when we have something to write, and we don’t stop until we run out, and then we don’t write until we have some more to write. He’s done as much as 13K words in one session, but that’s not typical. I think he tends to do between 500 and 5,000 words, but not every day, and not without occasional pauses with the higher word counts. He wrote the first draft for one novel, 85K words, in 13 days. (The 13K-word binge was part of that.) My own highest word count for a single day (that I remember, anyway) was just under 12K, in about 5 hours, but that was nonfiction.

    Fiction writers don’t get paid by the hour (and editors shouldn’t, either, or where’s their motivation not to dawdle?), so why does it matter how many words someone writes per hour, except for mere curiosity’s sake? It’s the only end result — the finished story — that matters.

    1. I think the longest thing I’ve written so far is a 3k-4k word short story.

      Do you think there would be a speed difference between writing novels vs. a series of short stories?

      Besides curiosity, I wanted to make sure my writing speed wasn’t 1/4 to 1/5 of the average author. In that case, I might need to think about what I was doing wrong.

  10. As a writer who’s also been a consulting editor for two presses, I have to agree with earlier comments about this speed writer’s bald editor. Maybe we should all chip in for a wig/toupee for that editor. 😉

    As for my own writing, it’s difficult to gage. I write so much of any first draft (short story, essay, novel) with pencil & paper first. The creative process flows better for me that way even though it may look chaotic & messy to most other writers with all my notes to self and thumbnail sketches in the margins (or in the middle of paragraphs/sentences). I’m an edit-as-I-go kind of writer — love my Pink Pearl erasers!

    When I’m typing that draft, I rarely go over 3k words a day because (a) I work another job part-time, (b) three kinds of arthritis prevent me from sitting in one position at a desk for long stretches of time (four hours tops if I’m intensely focused, but I pay for it later), and (c) I’m not a fast typist and can only use 9 of 10 fingers, occasionally fewer than that due to work injuries (one-handed typing a couple of times). My personal record was 5300 words in a day.

    But the work itself varies how much time I need as well. One 2500 word short story went from conception & writing/typing to editing to submission-ready within 2 days. A couple of similar length works took 4 and 6 months respectively, but they were literary, experimental fantasies and required a lot of research, prep work, and detail editing.
    Currently, I’m working on a story that probably won’t go over 6k-ish words, but the research is giving me fits so I’m cruising along with a novella and a creative non-fiction piece as well illustrating a children’s book for another author. I always have multiple projects in various stages at any given time — I’m a juggler — but I’m persistent and work all projects to completion.

    Be aware of the various approaches, but don’t get too caught up with rigid words-per-day counts or other rules & expert advice about what a writer “should” accomplish in a writing session.
    What works best for you may be different from other writers but it isn’t wrong.

    1. I do my brainstorming and outlining with pencil and paper as well. I sort of wish I did it on the computer, so I’d have a typed outline ready to go, but I spend enough hours at the computer doing other things, so I don’t think I’ll change.

  11. I’m with the consensus.

    Superspeed writing isn’t readable writing, it’s just a very rough first draft, and bragging about it is just machismo. But I’ve also seen published work that has been written in coffee-fuelled outbursts without the benefit of an editor… sigh…

    And I polish as I go along – which is no substitute for full revision after completion

    1. Care to mention any of those published works? I doubt I’d want to read one, but I might check out the free sample portion from Amazon.

  12. I usually write for a couple of hours each day. For a first draft, that might mean 1-2,000 words. For an edit, it might mean more.

    My best performance was while writing Runaway Smile (~5,500 words). It felt like someone was dictating it to me, and I managed to write it within a single Saturday. It took me some 3-4 hours, though, and I’d already had the story in my head for weeks.

    1. I haven’t managed to find a daily writing time that works for me. I’d settle for doing some writing every weekend!

      1. I’ve done that for the longest time (and still do when the day job proves too demanding). It’s all about pacing yourself 🙂

  13. I’ve clocked myself at a maximum writing speed of approximately 800 words per hour. I think my average speed is more like 500 or 600 words per hour. A lot depends on how cooperative my muse is feeling.

    1. If I remember correctly, you mostly write short stories. I’m starting to wonder if short stories take longer to write on a per-word basis…

      1. That’s possible. It’s been quite a few years since I tried my hand at novel writing, but it did feel like I could write a little faster back then. I think I ended up spending more time on editing, though.

  14. That number of words per minute does seem high. I think everyone’s productivity numbers vary depending on the distraction of their day job and their home job (kids, house, etc.). I agree that with such a word count per minute, the draft probably requires a lot of revision afterward. For myself, I usually review what I wrote the day before and then go forward. The whole manuscript will go through the arduous editing process but it still gets a little while in the first draft stage.

    1. That’s very true, most self-published authors probably work around a lot of distractions.

  15. I am an extremely slow writer… I mean technically I can type like 80wpm… but coming up with ideas are slow slow slow… when I get a burst of creativity I can sit down and write page after page… but then it could be weeks before I get another… usually then I do go back through rereading and editing trying to figure where it would go next… and what to do when I get there… sometimes just rewording of a paragraph helps to keep things moving along… but while I think it’s good for people to work at their own pace… sometimes I think people get in too much of a hurry… I know this from some of the books that get sent to me for review and I think if they had taken a bit more time on this it probably could’ve been a good book… nowadays everyone’s in a hurry and some things just can’t be rushed…

    1. I know that due to my own limited writing time, I’ve often come up with a better mid-story twist or ending than if I had rushed the story out.

  16. The writing process should take as long or as little time as the writer needs. I completed the nano once, ending up with 55,000 words of pure crap. To end up with 120k, panster anyone?

    1. I can’t imagine writing 50k words in a month. I’d be thrilled if I wrote that much in a year!

      1. I just follow the voices in my head.

  17. If it helps… I edit as I go. I have trouble moving on through a book until all the done stuff is reasonably polished. When it comes to output, it would take me more than 100 hours to write a book but I can definitely crank out 2,000 words an hour and while it’s worth my thinking a bit about each scene before I start writing… You know, for about 10 minutes or so, I don’t tend to plan. I just set the characters up and they do what comes naturally to them. It takes me 18 months to produce a book at about 120k but in real time that’s probably about six months. I did Nano once but I kind of knew what I was going to do beforehand so it was more like dictation than writing a novel.

    Cheers

    MTM

  18. Hm. Well, 20 words per minute doesn’t sound that crazy. However, is he including brainstorming, outlining, plotting, everything in between? I guess it all depends how you write, how deliberate you are. If writing is like full blown word dump OR you already know what you’re going to be writing in every scene, I bet you could get some very high productivity. But that entails you having taken the time to already figure out what you’re going to write.

    I mean, I wrote a 80,000 word book and it took me two years, granted I probably wrote three books worth of writing given how much editing I did.

    Sure, could someone churn out a 120,000 page book in 100 hrs? probably. I would hazard a guess that it would require twice that amount of time in editing once it is done lol. While you definitely want to stay productive and write every day, I would say that speed is a much poorer goal compared to quality.

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