On Productivity

Over the past few months on one writing blog I follow – Magical Words, where a collection of traditionally-published midlist+ fantasy authors blog together about writing and the business – there have been a series of posts admonishing writers to “write fast”.  (For example: here, here, and here.)  The publishing industry is changing, they say, and one consequence is that publishers are demanding more than the typical one-novel-per-year rate that used to be the norm.  You’ve got to write fast, they say, to produce 2 to 3 novels per year, and a handful of short-stories, and so on.

I mused, in one comment to these posts, that as considering what first-time authors typically make on writing (see, for example, Tobias Buckell’s Author Advance Survey)… giving up a day-job to write full time, which is what many of us would have to do to achieve that level of productivity, wouldn’t make economic sense.  Does that disqualify us from this career path?  I don’t know.  Certainly, there are some authors who are still making a writing career work, while holding down a day job and outputting a book every year-or-so.  So the door hasn’t closed on that… yet.

My own personal productivity last week, however, got me thinking about this again.

As I mentioned on my weekly wrap-up, I generated the vast majority of last week’s generally high wordcount on a single day.  To wit: more than 3,500 words that particular day.  I wrote for a total of about 4-and-a-half hours that day.

I noticed something as I wrote that day.  The first hour I sat down to write, I wasn’t terribly productive.  Maybe 500 words, or a little less.  But as I kept writing, my rate of writing got faster, getting up to just north of 1,000 words in an hour before I took a short break.  After the break, my rate started higher than before and went back to that roughly 1,000-words-per-hour.

As I thought about it later, I realized that around 1,000-words-per-hour is my theoretical maximum rate of writing productivity.  I wondered.  What would that mean for me if I could write full time?

My reality, right now, is that I typically get to spend time writing somewhere between 2 and 4 days each week, for anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours.  Since my starting-cold writing speed is lower, around 500 words in an hour, it makes sense, then, why my typical weeks are around 2,000 words in a week, as I’ve observed before.

But if I were writing full time?  I did a thought experiment.  As a full-time writer I’d probably spend about 6 hours per day writing, with at least one break, possibly two for lunch and other necessities.  On a day like that, I’d easily hit my 1,000-word-per-hour rate after a short warm-up in the morning.  So let’s say I can do 4,500 words in a six-hour writing workday.  (I say 6 hours because I’d probably want to spend an hour or two with blogs, social media, writing-related business, and other non-writing but writing-related activities, which brings me back to a roughly 8-hour workday.)  Writing 5 days a week, that would be 22,500 words in a week.  Hmm.  That’s starting to look pretty fast.

If I posit a theoretical 150,000-word novel, plus another 50,000 words in background material per novel, a single novel, in one draft, is around 200,000 words.  At my full-time rate, I could manage that in about 9 weeks – or two months.  If I further postulate that it takes me double that time to review, revise, edit, and rewrite each book, that takes me to 6 months from word-one to a complete, revised manuscript.  Which means… I could do two books a year.  I’m sure I could manage to fill in maybe up to a half-dozen short stories over the same time.

This was an interesting revelation to me.  I’d always assumed that even writing full-time, I’d only be able to manage one book a year.

There are a lot of variables, there.  For example, one book may in fact take well in excess of 50,000 words in background notes (I’m at about 25,000 words on “Book of M”, for instance, with a good ways to go) – but the sequel might need less than half that in new notes.  Or a book might be as few as 100,000 words or as many as 250,000 words, and take dramatically different amounts of time.  Different parts of the process may take more or less time.  All of this is hypothetical.  So in one year I might be able to write only one book, and in another year I might manage nearly three.

With that kind of productivity, I wonder, what would make for a feasible writing income?  What would allow me to go from a part-timer to a full-timer?  I’d have to be able to do more than just replace my current income.  I’d have to make more to make up for the loss of a number of benefits.  But having an idea of my potential productivity level gives me an idea of how to answer these questions.

Back in reality-land, averaging 2,000 words a week, the same hypothetical 150,000-word-novel-plus-50,000-word-background-notes I can theoretically accomplish in about 100 weeks – or in other words about 2 years.  Going full-time would basically allow a four-fold increase in my potential productivity.  And that’s not counting revision.  But a novel-every-two-years-or-more isn’t a very sustainable career path, as a writer, unless you’re Robert Jordan or George R. R. Martin or maybe Patrick Rothfuss.  I’m not any of those guys.  I could be amazing, but right now there’s no way of telling.  Regardless… this suggests to me that my initial pseudo-deadline for myself, for completion of “The Book of M”, was overly optimistic (or aggressively ambitious, depending on your point of view).  It may need reassessing.

In the near-term… I expect my productivity to drop considerably.  No more 5,000-word-plus weeks.  Other non-writing and non-writing-related projects are a-brewing, and they will demand a considerable, nay, overwhelming degree of my attention.  I haven’t decided whether and when I may discuss said projects, though they may be pertinent as early as this week’s up-coming weekly wrap up on Sunday… So in advance I’ll say that a lot of my time is going to be consumed by a non-writing-related and non-blog-related activity of indeterminate length.  Hopefully the project won’t last long and I’ll be able to pour that energy back into writing productivity.

14 thoughts on “On Productivity

  1. I’m envious of your organization. You have it all plotted out so well. I work full-time too, and have never been very organized about my writing. I’m just trying to meet my self-imposed deadline of two stories a week. I don’t always make it, but usually do.
    It would be easier if I was more organized about it. Happy writing!

    • I try to take an organized approach to my writing, yes. It’s what works for me. But not everyone works the same way. One of the drawbacks of my approach, as you’ll see in this post, is the extra work it takes to plot and plan everything: I may write 25% to 75% more in wordcount for supporting information that doesn’t appear directly in the story itself.

  2. Don’t underestimate the time it takes to edit as well! It took me far longer to edit than to write a first draft, but then again, I doubt it would take as much time for future novels. Getting a hang of it was daunting this time around.

    It all boils down to how much time you have really and I’ll join in with the math! I love this part 😉

    I also write at about 1k per hour, and I aim for 1k per weekday (an hour) plus 2k on weekends, with 1 weekday day off (so 8k per week). At that rate I can finish a first draft in 4 months… put it aside for another month to rest, then get to edits, then wait for betas… then more edits… by then it looks like about a year from start to finish for one book while working full time.

    • Yeah, in my “writing full time” calculation I included editing time, assuming it would take twice as long to edit as to do the original draft – for a net total from start to finish of 3x initial draft time: so that if the first draft was done in 2 months the whole thing could be done in 6. While working the day job full time, however… if I’m doing 2,000 words per week and completing an initial draft in 2 years then that means it would take a total of 6 years start to finish to write and edit. Obviously that is… not a comforting thought. And that’s not feasible, either. I can’t have a writing career if it takes me 6 years to write a single novel. If I’m going to keep my day job – which I think I have to unless some miracle were to occur with regard to, say, a sudden burst in popularity of my writing.

      This makes me more than a little sad – and reinforces the notion that for me writing will probably only ever be a hobby, no matter how much I want to turn it into something more. If I were to be offered publication for a book I wrote – a long shot by itself – I don’t know how I’d handle it. Even if I can dramatically improve my part-time-writing productivity – say I double it, for example – I still can’t deliver a second book in anything that looks like a reasonable amount of time.

      What I haven’t really figured out, for sure, is whether my productivity rate on writing raw draft will be different, for instance, than my productivity rate writing background notes. With the background notes I’m mostly making stuff up as I go. When I get to the draft, in theory, I’ll know where I’m going – so I might be able to get into it faster, and ramp up my speed. I wonder even whether 1,000 words per hour is my true maximum drafting speed. I type at close to 60-70 wpm, adjusted for errors… which means that in theory I could draft at a rate of close to 4,000 words per hour… but that typing speed is based on copying an existing document. Obviously the speed slows down when you have to compose original words, becuase you’re adding an additional layer of mental processing. But still… could my true drafting top-speed be more like 2,000 words per hour? I don’t know… but I hope I can improve that speed… and I hope I can be a little more diligent with the time that I have. I’ll probably reassess my productivity in another month or so to see how I’m doing.

      But if you can do a book a year, I think that’s great. Whatever the changes in the industry, I think that’s still a feasible productivity level to maintain and carry into a writing career. So that’s great!

      • Let me amend my statement above: I’ll probably reassess my productivity in another few months. A month might be a little too soon considering the “non-writing project’ mentioned in the post that will probably keep me from writing much of anything over the next few weeks.

  3. This was an inspiring post, S.W. No, seriously.

    First off, because it’s nice to hear, I just want to say you did a great job writing this post.

    Secondly, my fingers tingle when I read this, at the thought of how much writing I could actually get done! Oyvey. If only we writers could all live out our dream.

    You must also take into account reading for half an hour to two hours a day. Because, as the quote goes, if you write more than you read, you’re basically a loser…Okay, maybe I have the wording wrong. How did it go again? 😀

    And then, there must also be an alternative creativity outlet.

    • Oh, I hope that’s not how the saying goes. 😛 Writing time and reading time occupy pretty much the same free-time space for me: which isn’t overflowing. So, yes I read, but when I’m writing I’m definitely doing a lot more writing than reading. I do have other creative outlets – but since writing is higher priority for me I pretty much don’t spend time on them at all right now, because I barely have the free time to write.

  4. As much as I’m tempted to go through this same exercise to project daily word counts into total books written per year, I think I’m going to wait on this until I’ve actually finished my first novel and edited it.

    The math looks right, but I’ve regularly writing fiction since December 2009 and only have two unfinished novels to show for it. Show, at least for me, I need to focus my energies on how to get my daily word count to achieve a full first draft.

    Then, I’ll debrief my process and timelines and see if I can’t improve for #2…

    • That’s a different sort of problem: whether producing a finished or unfinished draft. I’ve operated under the assumption that if I can produce the necessary wordcount, I can write the book: if I can do 150K or 200K words then I have a book, more-or-less. But I realize that’s not always true for every writer. Producing sufficient wordcount is not the same as producing a finished first draft. Although… saying “two unfinished novels” doesn’t say much about the overall productivity level. How large are the two novels? How complete are they? (I’m not asking you to answer here, but asking rhetorically… as questions you might consider in analyzing your own productivity.) And for some writers… having two projects like this – and project-switching – is the only way to stay productive. Either way… keep at it and eventually you’ll have a finished draft!

  5. Pingback: Writing Progress: Week Ending October 22, 2011 « The Undiscovered Author

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