Writing a book can take a lifetime. But realistically, how long should you expect yours to take?
If you’re trying to balance a full-time job, a family, or every other priority life throws in your path, where will you find the time—and how much time do you need?
Your book should serve as a way for you to say something important.
Breaking it into small chunks makes it doable.
How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
But again, where and how do you find the time for those bites?
You don’t. You can’t. You won’t find the time. You must make the time.
What does that mean? Well, ask yourself, How badly do I want to become a published author?
If your schedule is brimming to capacity, obviously, something will have to give if you’re driven to write. What will it be?
What are you willing to sacrifice in order to give yourself time to write?
If you find yourself unwilling to give up any of your discretionary activities, you’ll never make the time you need for writing.
Factors That Affect Writing Time
1. Word Count
Knowing the rough length of your book will help determine your writing time and how to map out your schedule.
It may take a few weeks of writing to get a feel for your most comfortable pace. That’s important, because—while there’s no right or wrong—you must simply write at a tempo that doesn’t put undue pressure on you. Hurrying the writing is never a good thing, even if you find you work more deliberately than others.
For instance, probably due to my having gotten my start in the newspaper business, I’ve always been a fairly fast writer. That’s irrelevant to you. While I may have some discipline and strategies it would pay you to emulate, speed is not one of them—unless you just happen to write quickly too.
If you’re writing a novel, word counts can range between 35,000 and well over 100,000 words.
The genre of your book also influences your word count. Here’s a guide that will help you plan yours: https://jerryjenkins.com/how-many-words-in-a-novel/
While parameters exist for each genre (important to research before submitting your manuscript to publishers), occasional outliers also come into play.
J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is aimed at the Young Adult (YA) market, and thus could have been as short as 50,000 words, but some of those titles are nearly 200,000 words long. It’s hard to argue with that kind of success, but I wouldn’t recommend that for a debut novel.
While word count is important, don’t worry so much about that—especially about exceeding the norms while writing your rough draft. Get the story down and save the cutting for the revision stage. That’s where the magic happens.
Done correctly, this can greatly impact your writing time. Done wrong, research can become procrastination and thus negatively affect your writing time.
Beware the myth that if you’re an expert in a nonfiction subject you don’t need to conduct much research, or that if you’re writing a novel, you can simply make things up and do no research.
For me as a Pantser (meaning I write by the seat of my pants), I love to jump headfirst into my novels and see what happens. Stephen King advises fellow Pantsers to, “Put interesting characters in difficult situations and write to find out what happens.”
I love writing fiction as a process of discovery, and maybe you do as well.
Many novelists are Outliners, taking more time in advance to plan everything out. Regardless your approach, research is crucial to both Pantsers and Outliners.
If you’re a nonfiction writer, you need to know this: Pantsing doesn’t work in nonfiction. You and a potential agent or publisher’s acquisitions editor need to know where you’re going.
And for both fiction and nonfiction, remember that research is not the main course. The story or the nonfiction theme is the main course. What you learn through research adds seasoning, which lends credibility and believability.
In either genre, you must get things right. Inaccuracies will NOT go unnoticed and they WILL pull readers out of the reading experience. You lose credibility and authority, and often that’s the end of the experience for readers.
If you’re like me, you’ll find research is also a great place to find inspiration. For fiction or nonfiction, I always discover new ideas and avenues while researching.
So, how can research go wrong? When you become addicted to it and allow it to keep you from the writing itself. Or when you learn so much that you’re tempted to regale readers with everything you’ve found. Remember, it’s seasoning, not the main course.
If you’re a Pantser, research what you think you may need to know to tell your story, and then be willing to conduct more research as the story unfolds.
If you’re a nonfiction writer with credentials in your subject, you’ll better know where to find the research you need, but it’s no less important to conduct it thoroughly.
Keep Your Writing Time Sacred
Once you’ve determined what you’re willing to sacrifice from your calendar to give yourself time to write, be careful to maintain your other real priorities.
Sacrifice your faith, your family, your friends, or your health in order to finish your book and you’re certain to live with regret.
That said, once your priorities are in place, keep sacred the time you DO set aside to write.
How ever many hours you give yourself each week for writing, let nothing get in the way of them.
Redeem the time so you’re focused and productive.
Depending on your stage in life and your personal priorities, your writing time might be very limited. Regardless, set it aside and stick to it.
Eliminate distractions, turn off media, and lock yourself away where you can fully focus on your work.
Make clear to family or friends when you’re available and when you’re not.
Get that First Draft Written
Perfectionism plagues even the best of us.
In its proper place, Perfectionism, can be a tremendous asset to a writer. But if you allow it to rear its head during the rough draft writing stage, it can paralyze you.
Accommodate, even wallow in, your perfectionism at the editing and revision stage. Keep it at bay during the creation stage.
Accept the fact that most first drafts are messy—yes, even for the most successful authors you know.
Take off your Perfectionist hat as you write your first draft. Expect to produce something messy, maybe even ugly.
Most important: get those words onto the screen. It goes without saying—but here I go—that if you allow perfectionism to keep you from writing, you will have nothing to revise. .
Books can take hundreds or even thousands of hours to write. If that gives you pause, you may not be cut out for this. Finishing alone is a major accomplishment most writers never achieve. If it were easy, anyone could do it.
Doggedly stay at the task, and you’ll eventually produce a first draft.
That’s when you can happily put on your Perfectionist cap and meticulously examine your work to determine how it can best be improved.
My goal is to see you become an aggressive, even ferocious, self-editor, so you’re ready to submit a manuscript with which you’re wholly satisfied, happy with every word.
Give the revision stage all the time it needs.
- “Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.” — William Faulkner
- “By the time I am nearing the end of a story, the first part will have been reread and altered and corrected at least one hundred and fifty times. I am suspicious of both facility and speed. Good writing is essentially rewriting. I am positive of this.” — Roald Dahl
- “Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something—anything—as a first draft…Until it exists, writing has not really begun.” — John McPhee
- “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” — Terry Pratchett
- “I would advise any beginning writer to write the first drafts as if no one else will ever read them—without a thought about publication—and only in the last draft to consider how the work will look from the outside.” — Anne Tyler
- “No one is ever going to see your first draft. Nobody cares about your first draft. And that’s the thing that you may be agonizing over, but honestly, whatever you’re doing can be fixed…For now, just get the words out. Get the story down however you can get it down, then fix it.” — Neil Gaiman
- “You can’t edit a blank page.” — Jodi Picoult
- “The research is the easiest. The outline is the most fun. The first draft is the hardest, because every word of the outline has to be fleshed out. The rewrite is very satisfying.” — Ken Follett
- “The first draft is a skeleton—just bare bones. The rest of the story comes later with revising.” — Judy Blume
- “I believe the first draft of a book—even a long one—should take no more than three months. Any longer and—for me, at least—the story begins to take on an odd foreign feel.” — Stephen King
- “The faster you blurt, the more swiftly you write, the more honest you are. In hesitation is thought. In delay comes the effort for a style, instead of leaping upon truth…” — Ray Bradbury
- Leo Tolstoy took six years to write War and Peace
- Stephenie Meyer took three months to write Twilight
- James Joyce took seventeen years to write Finnegans Wake
- Ray Bradbury took two and a half weeks to write Fahrenheit 451
- F. Scott Fitzgerald took close to three years to write The Great Gatsby
- J.K. Rowling took nearly six years to finish Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
- Robert Louis Stevenson took six days to write Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Take Your Time
Stephen King says, “When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest.”
Be willing to get lost in the forest. It’ll be a day-by-day and week-by-week process, but don’t give up.
In the end, you’ll produce a first draft of your book.
From there, you can map out the forest.
Sure, it can be daunting, but remember, dreamers talk about writing. Writers write.
For more help, download my guide Maximize Your Writing Time.