How Long Does it Take to Write a Book?

I was looking around Amazon and I saw a book title that, to its credit, caught my attention. Since it might seem that I’m being a bit critical of the book I don’t want to call it out directly. It might be a great book. All I really know is the title which is basically, how to write a book in four days. I’m not going to say it’s impossible, but I will say that it’s probably a bad idea.


Now I understand the point. Writing doesn’t have to be scary. National novel writing month (NaNoWriMo) is a great idea. But it’s also a month long, not four days. And beyond that most people who have done it haven’t edited their book yet.


Let’s examine the most basic problem. If you type a hundred words a minute and if you write a novel just 40,000 words long (which isn’t long) it will take 6.6 hours of just typing to write a first draft of your novel. And 40,000 is basically the minimum length to call a book a novel. Any less and it is considered a novella in the publishing world. Still, assuming the very basic to write a book you’re looking at 7 hours of typing.


But of course it’s not just typing. Whether it’s a novel, which requires you to focus on a story or a work of nonfiction that requires you to be factually correct it’s going to be a lot more work than just typing. Beyond that, while I can type a hundred words a minute, that is largely because I’ve been writing every day for ten years. The average typing speed is actually around 33 words a minute. That’s going to make that 7 hours of tying into something more like 21 hours. If you’re working 8 hours a day you’re into your third day just typing. But I’m going to be generous and assume that you’re working much longer than that. After all this is a passion project. Still, assuming you sleep and eat 15 hours a day means you’ve used up a day and a half with nothing but typing.


Of course that’s assuming you’ve got something to type. If you want your book to be anything more than rambling you’re probably going to want to have a plan for what you want to write. So let’s assume that each chapter of your book is 2500 words, that is 16 chapters. A fairly standard number of chapters for a short book. For each of those you’re going to want to have some type of a plan. To be generous, you could probably write a very basic outline for each chapter in 15 minutes. Any less than that and you’re going to have to think about what you’re writing while you’re writing and that’s going to slow you down anyway. That’s four more hours and you’re up to two days.


Now each page of a book you should expect to be about 250 words.  That means your novel is going to be about 160 pages long. Now the average person can read about 50 pages an hour, give or take. This is important because you haven’t edited your book yet.  Assuming you’re going to do a second and final draft (which is the absolute minimum) it’s going to take you about six hours if you can edit at the same speed you can read. Editing should take longer. For a professional editor it’s generally considered fast to do 20 pages an hour of just proofreading. Your first draft is going to require more than proofreading.  But let’s be generous and assume you are excellent at grammar on your first pass and don’t need any major rewrites on anything. It’s going to take you eight hours for the second draft and another four for the third. And again, that is absurdly fast.


That’s your third day gone. So you’ve written and edited your book assuming you’re able to type quickly while writing, edit at speeds faster than the professionals and don’t spend any time doing anything else besides sleeping and the occasional bathroom break. You even have another whole day left so you could have spread out your work more.


Now of I’m really not trying to call out someone for a catchy book title. I really do understand why the book exists. There are a ton of people who want to write a novel. But there is something about the idea that you can just bang out a novel in a couple of days, or even a couple of weeks does bother me just a bit. Not just because trying to do that is going to result in something that is, most likely, unreadable, but because it propagates the idea that anyone can write a book. Technically it’s true of course. If you can read you can write a book and I don’t want to discourage anyone who wants to write a book from doing it. I just want to discourage the idea that it’s easy or doesn’t require skills beyond that of being able spell words correctly and use grammar. It’s an art and trying to publish a book when you haven’t put in the hours isn’t all that different from picking up a paint brush and expecting someone to buy what you make.


But even if you have the skill writing isn’t easy. In traditional publishing, it is generally accepted that you should put out one book a year. There are writers who are faster than that of course. That’s why Stephen King used a pen name for years to publish more books. On the other hand, George R. R. Martin, who many people say is a good author writes at a slightly slower pace. His first book was published in 1996. A Clash of Kings came out in 1998. The next book was clearly a rush as a storm of swords was published in 2000.  Of course he couldn’t keep up that pace and the next book was 2005 and (much to the dismay of many of his readers), his next book was published in 2011. He’s written other things of course, but my point is that speed is not the mark of a good writer and neither is writing slowly.


So how long should a novel take to write? I have no idea. My calculation of taking 21 hours to type a novel isn’t entirely wrong. I often type first drafts very quickly to avoid editing and can write the first draft in a couple of weeks assuming the story is working and if you’re focused on a first draft of a reasonable length NaNoWriMo is actually a fairly good measure. If you simply sit down and write 1500 words every day for a month you could have about 45,000 words written in a month and if you’re anything like me you’re going to feel far better about that than the 40,000 words that you wrote over a long weekend by doing almost nothing but typing.