How Long Does It Take To Write A Book?

A Painting of Russian writer Evgeny Chirikov

About a week ago, I finished the first draft of my third novel, so now is a convenient time to look at how long it takes me to write a novel. This statistic is actually quite important, because if you look at self-publishing, it seems like the novelists who are most successful are the ones who are able to write the most books in the least time. It’s unclear to me where quality factors in, but I suspect it’s of secondary importance to productivity.

So, how long?

I measure my time in hours, and I’ve got four main phases, First Draft, Editing, Final Editing, and Formatting. First Draft is simply the length of time creating the first draft, including outlining. After that, comes the biggest phase, Developmental Editing, where I do my own editing and send it out to beta readers and make changes based on their feedback. Once I’m happy with the manuscript, I send it to my editor and do Copy Editing based on their feedback. Finally, I need to do Formatting to create covers and make it so that both the print version and the ebook version look sensible.

 

Book 1

Book 2

Book 3

First Draft

225 (29%)

294 (39%)

190

Develop. Editing

428 (55%)

391 (52%)

 
Copy Editing

69 (9%)

56 (7%)

 
Formatting

53 (7%)

14 (2%)

 
Total (hours)

775

755

 
Word Count

82,000

97,000

79,000

 

In this table, Book 1 is The Battlefield Abductions, Book 2 is The Battlefield Recruits, and Book 3 is their yet-untitled sequel.

Thus, so far, it’s taken, on average 765 hours to write a book, with surprisingly low variance. For each of the first two books, Developmental Editing took the majority of the time, while actually writing the first draft was only about a third of the time.

One other noteworthy observation is though book 2 is 18% longer, it was actually slightly faster to write. I attribute this difference to the learning curve associated with both formatting and writing. The second time sourcing a cover is much easier than the first time. I imagine that I’ll continue becoming more efficient with each book, though obviously the magnitude of improvement will decline.

Projections

While the number of words between Books 1 and 2 can be compared, they can’t be directly compared to Book 3, since Book 3 is in a different phase. I added a substantial number of words—probably over ten thousand—to Book 2 after the first draft, and the same thing could easily happen with Book 3.

That said, I think Book 2 can be used to make a projection about how long it will take to finish Book 3. Book 2 did have some major structural changes, but it’s also reasonable to assume there will be big changes to Book 3 as well. So, I’d guess that would mean about 450 more hours before Book 3 is done.

It is, however, difficult to map this time onto the real world. The Developmental Editing phase is highly dependent on the turnaround from beta readers, while the Copy Editing phase is similarly dependent on the turnaround from my editor. Thus, though the 190 hours for the first draft took about eight real-time weeks, I can’t say 450 hours should be 19 weeks. It is likely to be much longer in real time.

The bottom line

That said, while you can’t calculate the real time, you can say that I should be able to write almost two novels a year. When I’m waiting for my beta readers to get back to me, I can continue to write something else. That said, it’s still unclear to me whether this pace is sufficient. Most successful self-published writers seem to do about three or four books a year.  My current rate of just under two per year may still be too slow.

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