Writing is isolated work, performed within the mind, transferred to paper by simple mechanical means, and then finally shared only after it’s finished. Like any art, the stages of the project are most often hidden, and the artist is left on their own to do the ugly work.
Creative projects are often emphasized as being all about the end product. That is, after all, what everyone else gets to see. Below is an averaged (and highly estimated) idea of the time commitment to making a quality, edited novel for public consumption.
For this much time spent, writing is infinitely more difficult if you don’t embark with the intent to enjoy the journey. It’s a long one. It’s not only long, it’s also lonely. Those happy moments where that stubborn plot knot gets straightened out, when a character finally decides to cooperate, or when the story takes a thrilling turn not even you could have predicted, the joy and pride of those moments don’t translate to anyone. Other writers may relate, but they can’t experience that with you, not in the context of your work.
The ugly work found in the hours of drafting, piles of painful feedback, and waves of periodic self-doubt are an unfortunate but necessary weight to carry. The highs, however private, are why we write. Every project has something to share, and a new part of yourself to explore. Time and diligence make the ugly work less ugly, so stick with it, practice, and learn what works for you.
How Long Does it Take to Write A Novel?
Whatever the project, it needs to be translated from thought to the page. The following are estimates of time for this first drafting stage:
50 words per minute: An average (and faster than most) typing pace for composition.
50,000 words: A standing “average” length for a finished novel. Lengths vary depending on genre, target audience, and industry standard.
Up to 2/3 of the first draft will be cut or condensed in editing. This estimate taken from comments made in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.
Conclusions: 150,000 words in first draft, which translates to 50 hours of actual fingers-to-keyboard drafting.
Actual time may vary depending on individual writers’ power to avoid procrastination, distraction, real life responsibilities, day jobs, hunger, potty breaks, pity parties, etc.
Recommended minimum of 3 full reads (with steep content cuts). Many novels will demand more, but brutally honest editing rounds, if properly heeded, may reduce this to two.
Reading a draft out loud is recommended as the more thorough method of identifying draft issues. The following numbers reflect this method at 3 words per second.
150000 word read-through (out loud) about 14 hours
100000 word read-through (out loud) about 9.25 hours
50000 word read-through (out loud) about 4.5 hours (2-3 hours when read silently, about the length of a movie or stage play performance)
Each read-through will require scene rewrites, overall structure/content changes, and skill development. It’s a conservative estimate to say 50,000 words of new content will be produced for these changes – roughly 17 hours of rewriting.
An essential stage of writing involves having others read the work and provide constructive feedback. While this isn’t direct work on the author’s plate, this entails wait time, discussion, and review of any written critiques.
Editing is a highly flexible process, subject to any number of delays, creative setbacks, failures of communication, and drastic revision. The above is an incredibly generalized estimate.
Even with a traditional publisher (and the query/submission process is a major commitment of time and emotional effort unto itself) the work of sharing the finished product largely lands in the hands of the author. The following are rough estimates for a modest author platform.
4.5 hour read-through (For self-publishers, sometimes multiple rounds to be confident in your defense against misspellings or typos.)
3 hours a week for website, blogging, social networking (Platforms and methods vary.)
8 hours a week for direct marketing (This doesn’t include the above website allotment. This estimate is dedicated marketing/meeting/conference/glad-handing your product.)
The amount and financial investment into marketing is a hugely personal thing. These are suggestions of time, but so much of this part of writing depends on personality, preference, personal budget, and social support. Many people take years to work up from their starting best effort to an admirable workload. Be kind to yourself, and stay determined.
Earl Nightingale shared a thought that’s become very popular. It may be unsupported by science, but it’s still an idea that resonates:
“One hour per day of study in your chosen field is all it takes. One hour per day of study will put you at the top of your field within three years. Within five years you’ll be a national authority. In seven years, you can be one of the best people in the world at what you do.”
Writers should read. Successful authors are quite vocal about this point, and in any other business continued professional education is a valued element of a company structure. So, add to all these hours ½-1 full hour a day reading. Preferably more than 4 hours a week.