I don’t really think writers are lazy bums. I just want us all to talk about the elephant in the living room: why does writing take so long?
The average person types 50 words per minute.
And that’s slow. I type about 80 or 90. Faster, if I have coffee. Even quicker with headphones blasting, or on deadline.
Coffee plus headphones plus a deadline? Fuggetaboutit. That keyboard is gonna sing.
The thing is, all the speed in the world doesn’t really matter.
Here comes the math
Let’s say you write full-time, all day, every day. No day job to worry about, no cramming in writing at 4 in the morning when the kids are asleep or scribbling forty minutes a day on a yellow legal pad (are there other colors? why yes, there are, including PURPLE) as you ride the train from New Jersey to the NYC.
Say you’re not that fast. Fifty words a minute.
Fifty words per minute =
- 3,000 words per hour
- 24,000 words per eight-hour day
- 120,000 words per week
That’s a ton of words. An incredible amount.
Let’s do a little more math to see how much we should be cranking out, if we’re not surfing the net, Twittering our lives away and checking out Facebook photos all day.
Here come the word counts:
- 200 words = letter to the editor
- 500 words = five-minute speech
- 600 words = news story
- 800 words = oped
- 1,000 words = 10-minute speech
- Up to 3,000 words = profile or magazine piece
- Up to 8,000 words = short story
- 3,000 words = 30-minute keynote speech
- 15,000 words = screenplay
- 20,000 to 60,000 words = novella
- 60,000 to 120,000+ words = novel
Of course, people don’t type every second of the workday.
Let’s say half your day is eaten by meetings, research and other things, and you only write four hours a day, or 20 hours a week. Even then, we’re talking about 60,000 words.
That’s most of a novel, four screenplays, 20 keynote speeches or 100 opeds.
In a single week.
Nobody writes that much. NOBODY.
Not even Stephen King, back when he was fueled by industrial amounts of caffeine, nicotine and other substances.
I know novelists who are happy to produce one good novel per year. If you divide 100,000 words by 52 weeks, you get a smidge less than 2,000 words per week and, I kid you not, less than 300 words per day.
I know reporters who crank out two stories a day, five days a week and columnists who do one or two opeds a week.
There are pro speechwriters, brilliant people I’ve known for years, who take two solid weeks to nail down a 30-minute keynote speech (3,000 words).
Before the invention of word processors, writing gods like Hemingway would pound on their Underwoods and count every word, quitting for the day when they hit 1,000–or even 500–that day.
But let’s be generous and say 2,000 words a day is a good day.
Where are the missing words? Why are all sorts of pro writers–reporters, novelists, poets, speechwriters–producing about 20 percent of what the math says?
Suspect No. 1: It’s not really eight hours or even four hours
This looks like the obvious culprit, because it’s the only person sneaking away from the crime scene with a guilty look and blood on the bottom of their shoes.
Reporters have to cover stories, get quotes from sources and meet with editors.
Novelists need to do research, talk to their agent, go on book tours and so forth.
Every writer, reporter and novelist has to do research, travel and attend meetings. Nobody is chained to the desk the entire workday, pounding on the keyboard like a typist. They need to eat of the food sometimes, and drink of the wine, and have a life.
HOWEVER: A lack of hours isn’t what’s wrong here.
Let’s say even more of the day is toast. Research. Phone calls. E-mail. Lunch with some big important person. Twittering to your buddies.
Fine, let’s go all the way down and say six of your eight hours are toast, and there are only TWO HOURS of actual banging on the keyboard.
3,000 words per hour X 2 hours = 6,000 words a day.
And yet the most writers typically can hit, day after day, is 2,000 words.
Where are the missing words?
Also, I know writers who spend six hours a day in meetings, doing research, returning e-mail and all that — and they still bang on the keyboard at least four to eight hours a day because they’re working crazy hours. A lot of writers work weekends, too. Writing is often a daily habit.
Yet 2,000 words per day seems like a kind of universal wall for writers of all stripes. Why?
Suspect No. 2: We type slower than narcoleptic turtles
This suspect doesn’t even get handcuffed and taken down to the station for a chat.
I used 50 words a minute because it’s the average typing speed of the general population.
Serious and professional writers are typically a lot faster, unless they’re hunting and pecking on an Underwood because that’s what they’ve always done since they first got published in 1926. There aren’t that many authors in that category.
If you dictate your stuff with Naturally Speaking or whatever, it’s more like 100 words a minute.
But let’s be generous again and pretend we all type really, really slow.
25 words a minute = 1,500 words an hour.
Even if we say Suspect No. 1 (Miss Most Hours of the Day Get Wasted) and Suspect No. 2 (Mr. Types Slowly) shacked up in a cheap motel and conspired to murder the creativity of all writers, it doesn’t get us down to 2,000 words a day.
Four hours at the keyboard at 30 words per minute is still 6,000 words a day. Two hours is 3,000 words, which is closer, but not plausible. Professional writers aren’t much slower than average typists–they’re a lot faster.
We need a better theory of the crime.
Suspect No. 3: Writing requires deep, deep thinking
Ah, this one is good. It’s lurking in the shadows.
It’s evil. Hard to refute.
How can you say that writing is shallow and easy?
How can you deny the art required, the creativity?
This isn’t an assembly line. It’s not a factory where we churn out widgets. Writers create something original, whether it’s a 500-word story for the newspaper or a 100,000-word novel.
Except I know better. Because I’ve been watching.
Going off my own experience wouldn’t be proof of squat. Maybe I’m an anomaly. Maybe I type 80+ words per minute (true) and separate writing from editing (also true).
But I know writers of all sorts. Reporters, speechwriters, novelists, you name it, and just about everybody who writes for money bangs on the keyboard at least four hours a day, and they’re all faster than 50 words a minute. That’s 3,000 words per hour.
Even going with four hours a day of actual writing, we should be at 12,000 words a day. Except we’re not.
Suspect No. 4: We’re creating while destroying
This is our killer. I’ve seen him at work.
I’ve helped other writers catch the evil scumbag, convict him and send him upstate so he can’t do any more damage.
We are typing away on the keyboard, and we’re not doing it at 10 words per minute. We are writing fast. It’s just that we destroy those words just as fast.
Why do we writers destroy more than we create?
Not because the words aren’t pretty. Sentence by sentence, they’re fine.
It’s because the structure is wrong.
I’ve looked at bad drafts that hit the roundfile. The sentences were pretty. It was the structure that failed.
We spend so much time trying to fix these things because we nobody teaches us structure.
Oh, they taught me the inverted pyramid in journalism school, which is the best possible blueprint for a story if you want to give away the ending right away and put people in a coma the longer they read.
Creative writing professors teach us characterization and the three types of conflict in creative writing.
Rhetoric professors give us logical fallacies and different types of arguments in speech and debate.
Journalism profs teach us hard and soft headlines and the different types of ledes.
Yet that’s not really structure. It’s tiny bits and pieces.
Building a house one room at a time, without blueprints
They way most of us write is like trying to build a house one room at a time. Winging it, without any blueprints.
Pour the foundation for the front door and foyer.
Frame it. Wire it for electricity. Drywall it. Paint it.
Now dig the foundation for the kitchen and build that.
Where should the living room go? OK, we did that, but forgot to put in stairs to the second floor, so we’ve got to tear it all down and start over.
That’s how I used to write. It’s how most writers I know do it.
You start at the beginning and work your way through it, trying to fix any problems with structure along the way.
My old friend and mentor, Robin, was guilty of this. He’d spend a week on an oped, which is only 800 words. He was a brilliant man, one of the smartest I’ve ever known, and a good example of why mixing research, writing and editing into a single process slowed everything down to a snail’s pace. He’d create and destroy thousands and thousands of words before he had 800 on a final draft.
Doing research, writing and editing all at once is no way to run a railroad. It’s building a house without blueprints, blindly hoping the beginning will magically connect with the middle and an end you haven’t figure out yet.
I’ve had houses designed and built. If a contractor tried to build a house the way we writers work, it wouldn’t take six months to finish it. It’d take six years, or forever.
So this is our killer, our time-suck, our nemesis.
Question is, how do you DO structure — and how do we, as writers, learn to draw good blueprints, so we stop spending 80 percent of our time at the keyboard destroying what we created?
25 thoughts on “Why are all writers lazy bums?”
I love this post – thanks Guy. I’ve written for commercial purposes for years and years and years (god, I’m soooo tired) and find that easy to do probably because I’m hard-wired to it. But sadly, I cannot switch over into creative writing / fiction writing mode any more (which was my first love). I’m working on how to do that. But as I read your post and everyone’s replies (thanks all 🙂 ) I realised I couldn’t work in those ways either and then an image came to mind and the lightbulb just went on – I feel a bit excited now to be honest. So the image – think of a police / crime drama and the “incident room” and then the whiteboard (ie. pre CSI fancy pants days). And think of all the characters, locations and “things” associated with their “story” then think of the red line that connects and links and cross links everything and ta dah! You start to get your picture and your structure and your timeline and your flow and and your writing. Of course there’s the wordsmithing and the polishing – the “work” – but how much easier to “follow the red line”. Maybe it’s an old idea – I’ve not come across it before – but I’ve just realised – that works for me. Thanks for the opportunity to stretch the cranial muscle – feels good.
All part of the service.
Thanks for the fun post! I’m on board with the deep theory. But it’s not just thinking. It’s feeling. It’s rooting around in the psyche. It’s learning how to follow images and not just pound out words. Then, it’s whether or not I get to follow the flow (sometimes I do; sometimes I don’t…ie, life & responsibilities, day job, etc..). Charlie Rose once asked Neil Young how he was so prolific. He replied (from memory…not direct quote), when the muse arises, I respectfully withdraw from whatever else I’m doing and honor it, unless it’s a family emergency. Ah! I use this as my guide to the extent that I can. It’s helping!
Thanks for commenting.
The Neil Young story is beautiful.
Here’s why it takes me so long:
1) I don’t write full-time. I have a full-job doing something else. I also have a family and other obligations, and therefore, constant interruptions. Boo hoo, poor me. So does everyone else.
2) When I actually am writing, though, I am editing as I go, trying certain sentences several different ways, adding details, removing details, closing my eyes to visualize the physics of certain movements, imagining how they feel in a character’s body.
3) I type REALLY fast. My fingers aren’t the problem. I can only think as fast as I can think.
The create-destroy-create is my nemesis. Also the time spent at profession during the day at my real job takes time, but I tr to make up for it writing at home.
I must admit, I’m a thorough researcher and during the day, similar to what Fiona does, I’m floating ideas around in my head, before I spend time doing my probably sixty to seventy-ish words a minute pecking.
So yea, count me in on the create-destroy-create crew.
Great, great post here. I learned this lesson the hard way with my most recent novel. I will never again struggle and drudge my way through a long work without mapping everything out beforehand. There is very little point in writing large swaths of text that will not end up in the final piece, just to “see where it goes.”
The fastest I’ve ever written was 25,000 words in 3 caffeine and nicotine fueled days, and I could only do it because I had outlined every single scene beforehand.
Thanks for the comment, Elly the Zupko, and welcome to my silly blog.
25,000 in three days glorious, and it’s now my new target. WHERE IS THE COFFEE?
http://www.3daynovel.com/ Invented by the Candadians–can you believe it?
The same way you hem a skirt. Tack the beginning. Tack the end. Tack halfway between. Then tack half way between again. Seriously. They don’t teach you that in nancypants class but they do in Home Ec. Another reason why Women Will Rule.
I’ve not yet been published, as a book author, but I still write in hopes of someday. I write with the entire sketch and go for it feverishly. I pound the keys on the keyboards. Once I’m finsihed, I start my refining. I may rip out entire sections, add entire sections or rearrange entire sections, depending upon what I’m writing.
I’ve written newsletters for parents and a few articles for military newspapers, but I don’t consider them as being published; just helping other people.
I love this post. And you may be a nut and an anomaly, but that doesn’t make you wrong.
I do create structure before I sit down to write, but in the act of writing I may find infrastructure won’t support the design. This can be particularly true when dealing with fictional characters, who grow before your eyes and change things.
Maybe it’s the act of immersion in the creative process that causes the 2,000 word limit. I know that when I’m writing, I move back and forth between scenes and characters, making notes or changing whole sections. I have been known to write 1800 words and then rip them all out the same day because they “weren’t right.” And yeah, that includes some of my darlings. In fact, I may slow myself down a few minutes more by looking for a way to keep that sweet phrase, even though I know it’s useless.
I know a lot of writers, including Bradbury (one of my heroes), feel that getting words down is the most important thing. I don’t subscribe to that, though. To me, it’s more important to walk away from the keyboard feeling that I’ve done some good work. So I edit as I go. This makes my time at the keyboard longer, but I still manage to put down around 2,000 words a day. And I’m happy, because they aren’t just words, they’re words I think are right.
First, I am reading this blog when I should be…writing. Sweet.
I used to be what is affectionately known as a “panster”, but then I realized that is just most people’s way of avoiding drawing up an outline and/or character log-lines and backgrounds. Now, I not only outline my story, I type up a background for each major character, along with a graft that shows the major turning points and moments, that I know of, for the story. I’ve found the more I do beforehand, the easier it is to write the novel. I do try to keep it loose, though. If the story veers to the right or left, I go with it. Being rigid is the best way to kill my creativity. Good points in above post, thanks for sharing…
Naturally Speaking is magic now. Your life as a writer will radically change.
Congrats on overcoming that.
Have you tried NaturallySpeaking? The old versions of 5 years ago or whatever sucked. The new version rocks. I have it. Can save you a ton of time.
The typing isn’t what slows me down, it’s all that thinking. http://betweenborders.com/readings/the-three-day-novel/
Personally I’d LOVE to be writing all day, but the royalties don’t allow for that. I have 4 young-adult kids, 2 are in college, and 1 more will go next fall. I work 2 p/t jobs that take up most of my day. When I can, I “work through” scenes in my head. When I get time to sit and type at my laptop, I can produce prodigious amounts of words…but that time is far and few between. The question is a matter of hours in the day. Writers have to promote every day, just to get noticed. So add up the hours I work 2 jobs, the hours I promote, trying to say hello to my family members once a day, and sleep (I’ve been trying to wean myself off of it, to no avail), and you get damned little time left to write!
John Irving plots his novels in his head for months and months. Not writing a single word. When he knows EVERYTHING about his story, he writes. Meticulously. One page a day.
I guess it’s different for everyone. I can produce a pretty decent 2K in an hour or two for my novel. I can write a news article, speech or oped piece much faster.
But with all of that there is prep work. You cannot WRITE 40 hrs a week. You have to interview, research, promote, sell, plot, think, create, plan, edit.
And as I said, most writers have to do a whole hellofalot of promoting. That means twitter and FB and engaging people so that when we do finally get that book out, we have people who want to read it.
All that being said, I need to write more. To focus better and not get so distracted. I have pretty ambitious book writing plans for this year, which requires a more concentrated effort at writing at full capacity.
Don’t know about you, but when I write too fast, I write crap and end up having to revise it endlessly. If I take my time to think it out, I may only end up writing 500-1,000 words, but it requires much less editing. And I am lazy, I guess. I’ll do anything to avoid editing!
Rebecca the G,
Methinks you are right.
I am a Bear of Little Brain, but I do know this: writing is about editing and rewriting.
I’m with Elise the Logan. If I were just typing meaningless text for hours on end, I’d finish a book a week or so. It’s the thought behind the typing that makes all the difference.
I did NaNo in November to force myself to crank out as much as possible without going back to edit old chapters, wring my hands over a couple of sentences, or stop to worry too much about crafting the perfect scene. I wanted to kick the editor off my shoulder.
It helped. A lot. I produced over 50,000 words that month. My best month ever. But that’s still an average of less than 2K/day (though I had a 3800 personal best in there). And without some kind of outline (a new thing for me), it never would have happened.
We’re writers, not typists. That implies a whole lot more work than the act of pounding keys, whether writing fiction or a newspaper column. Right now I’m in plotting mode. That means probably 4-6 weeks of writing scenes that might never make it into the book just to get to know my characters and figure out the story line. It means my brain is constantly distracted while I work out, eat, drive, whatever. *That’s* what eats up so much time: the thinking.
Writing is one of the few jobs where we can be lying on our back staring at the ceiling and legitimately–and with a straight face–say that we’re working. 😉
The elephant’s dead. Now go drink some bourbon and get off my back. I’m trying to write over here.
Elise that is a very good theory indeed. Perhaps I was looking at it wrong. The problem has to do with time not words. Thanks for the food for thought.
I think it’s because the attention spans of the average reader are much shorter, therefore we labor to cut, cut, cut so we can get to the point faster. At least that’s what I find myself doing.
Because writers are our own worst critics. Every word is a labor of love, crafted lovingly and thoughtfully. Which means that for every 1000 words that go on the page, I’ve probably thought about and plotted about and angsted about them for several hours. A lot of my “writing” time isn’t actually spent, well, writing. At least, not physically. Some is spent plotting, some developing characters, some researching settings and professions and God knows what else.
So, maybe the question isn’t what happened to the other WORDS. It’s what happened to the rest of the TIME.
All those statistics really puts it in perspective. Great post. I don’t have an answer but I do have thoughts. Does the 2,000 words a day include all the ones we’ve written and deleted 50 times or just the finished product? Novelists spend a lot of time outlining, researching and developing characters which eats into their writing time. I wish I knew how to get more productive. If anyone knows the secret please share it with the rest of us!