Speedy writing

I keep coming across two assumptions about writers who publish a lot of books per year. The first1 is that if a book takes less than a year to write then it can’t be any good. So if a writer can produce two or more books a year they are total hacks.

It ain’t necessarily so. People write at different paces and in different circumstances. Some so-called slow writers are slow because they also have a full or part-time job, because they have a family, because they’re running the household, and their writing is snatched in the time between waking and going to work. Or before the kids come home from school. Or on their lunch hours.

Some writers are just slow because they’re slow. It takes them a while to think things through. They like to get every sentence perfect before they move onto the next. Or they do not know how to let go of their books and would be rewriting them until the end of time if their editor or agent didn’t snatch it from them.

Some writers are fast because all they have to do is write. They’re wealthy and have employees to take care of all the housework and admin. Or they have a wife (or, rarely, a husband) who takes care of all of that.

And some writers are just fast. They can write several books a year even though they have families and jobs and other responsibilities. It’s just the way they’re wired.

Some slow writers turn out horrible books. So do some fast writers. Neither fact on its own gives you any indication of the writer’s quality. And really it’s not like quality is something everyone agrees about. Would you believe there are people out there who don’t realise that Georgette Heyer is a genius? Shocking, but true.

The other assumption is almost its opposite: the idea that writing lots of books in a year is a matter of word counts and thus not that big a deal. A commenter on Miss Snark puts the idea succinctly:

Ok, at the risk of getting majorly snarked, I’m not sure why writing 4 novels a year is seen as an impossibility.

Let’s say you can write 1000 words/day. If you did that for 300 days of the year, you’d have 300,000 words. 300,000/4 = 75,000 words per novel.

You still have 65 days left in the year for polishing, too.

So why is it so incredible?

Writing four books a year is tough because you’re not just writing first drafts of four books, you’re writing second, third and fourth and as many drafts as you and your editor think the book needs to go through. You’re also checking copyedits and page proofs.

Those extra rewrites, copyedits and page proofs always come in while you’re hard at work on the next book. You’re buried in that world and suddenly you have to pull yourself out and turn to a book you haven’t thought about in months. It’s not easy.

Let’s figure out the time for that, shall we?

You’ve only got 65 days left after writing the four first drafts. That means you have slightly more than 16 days to rewrite, go over copyedits, and check the page proofs of each book. And that’s assuming you work every single day. It assumes you do no publicity for your books, and that you have no holidays, no sick days, no nothing.

For most people that would be impossible, or at the very least a recipe for no friends, a breakdown, and/or shingles. All very well if you hate people and love shingles.

I could not do it. I spend at least as long rewriting my books as I do writing the first drafts. It also takes me a solid week to go over copyedits (sometimes longer) and 2 or 3 days for page proofs. While I can write a first draft in three months or less, I need at least that time for everything else. At most I could write two books a year, but as I’ve never done that I don’t know for sure.

And I need days when I don’t write because there are days—many of them—when my brain is broken and I simply cannot write a single word. I have a sneaking suspicion that I am not alone in this.

Are there writers who can and do write four books a year? Yes, there are. How do they do it? By writing more than a thousand words a day,2 by writing fewer drafts,3 by secretly having clones, by being really really disciplined, and by other means that I can’t even imagine.

Like every thing else in a writer’s life, it depends.

  1. I see it so often I’m not even going to bother with an example. []
  2. More than 1,000 words a day is definitely doable. I once wrote 10,000 words in a day. But you know what I wrote the next day? Nothing. And the day after that. And the day after that. Several weeks of nothing, in fact. It was a definite case of brain breakage. I can write 2,000 a day sustainably for a few months. But I’m most comfortable and unbrain-breaky between 1,000 and 2,000. But that’s just me. I know writers who can write 5,000 a day for months without breaking into a sweat. I know who others who die if they go over 500. Not to mention the pre-industrial writers who just write until they’re done and then sleep for six months. []
  3. Some people will argue that writing only one or two drafts is the major sign of a crap writer. But there are writers who seem to only produce one draft, but that’s only because they pretty much write the book in their head before committing to paper. Their first draft is clean as a whistle. It’s just a different way of writing.

    Me, I need to work stuff out on the page, so I go through multiple drafts. My first drafts? Um, not clean as a whistle—more in the pig-pen range. Put it this way: No one ever gets to see them but Scott, and he is not very appreciative of the honour. Nor would anyone with functioning eyeballs. []


  1. elizabeth bear on #

    yer smart.

    I usually write between three and five drafts. (One book went to twelve. We speak not of it.) and I can write, depending, between 750-1750 words a day most days. I’m not a fast writer. I’m a dogged writer. That 750-1750 wpd takes me 3-8 hours of butt in chair. I used to do 3K days, but I also used to do nothing but sit in my chair and type. (We call this a coping mechanism for clinical depression, and don’t recommend it.)

    This winds up being between two and three books a year, in practical terms. And yanno, each one of them is the best book I could have made it if I spent twice as long on them. Because by that last draft, I am fiddling commas.

    It’s done. It’s as done as it gets.

    People are weird. Creativity refuses to be categorized and follow rules, and many people secritly want one way to be the best way. But not so, not so.

  2. Jay Lake on #

    What Bear said. I get flak on the “if it’s fast it can’t be good” axis sometime, but less and less of that as I go along. At least to date. i blame MFA programs, frankly, for a lot of the “polish-or-perish” mentality,

  3. Chaz on #

    What Bear said, and what Jay said, and what you said. All of that.

    Further to what Jay said, about mfa programs: I used to teach on one, where the whole creed was “writing is rewriting”. I stuck with it, largely because I thought they could use a contrary voice to tell the kids that it ain’t necessarily so. Me, I grew up pre-computer, when every new draft meant retyping every word; I learned to polish in my head before anything went down on paper. With much practice, I learned to do that fast. My habits have changed in thirty years, but not entirely: a draft and a half, and I’m down to pickin’ commas.

  4. Dawn on #

    You know, I don’t ever understand the people who try to classify writers by everything that they do or say without even reading a single word of their writing. So what if they can push out ten books in one year, or that they can write a whole book in a month? The only way someone could say that the amount of time used to write it had an influence on the actual quality of the book is if they sat down, read it, and then thought afterward- “Wow, that felt incredibly rushed the entire time” or something along those lines. I think an author’s writing does a pretty good job of being able to speak for itself, so people should let it do so more often.

  5. Jeff VanderMeer on #

    Most fiction classics, once we look 20 to 30 years back so we have perspective, are written by writers who did not write even a book a year.

    Is this statement true in the literary mainstream?

    Is this statement true within genre?

    Is it true for certain time periods and not others?

    I don’t know whether the statement is true; nor do I know the answers to the questions. Just putting it out there.

    For my part, which is not everybody’s way, I need at least eight drafts, if not more, to get to a point where I’m beginning to be happy with the material. And, often, years to think about the characters and their connection to the narrative. The writing itself can then be quite fast, and in large chunks. But the rewriting always takes a long time.

    But there are probably some objective things you can say if you study which books have stood the test of time and you can identify the work habits of the writers involved. Although many things are subjective, some things may not be.

    One thing I find myself having to do in workshops continually, though, is getting my students to slow down because they’ve had this X word count a day business drummed into their heads. To the point where there’s no muscle or sinew to their paragraphs.


  6. Diana on #

    Jeff, it’s my understanding the dickens wrote pretty darn fast.

    I’m wondering if some of this isn’t an unfortunate byproduct of author transparency. when the reader knows in advance how long it took the author to write it, or get an agent for it, or sell it, etc., knows if the author has an MFA, or wrote media tie-ins for years under a pseudonym, or never put pen to paper before that moment, they are going to approach the book with a set of assumptions and then go looking for it in the book.

    “Oh, she wrote ten books this year, this one she wrote too fast.” I’ve seen comments like that in reviews, when in actuality, the author had merely PUBLISHED ten books that year, and had actually written the book in question eight years earlier, and took five years to do so.

    maybe we should all be recluses and let the product stand on its own.

  7. Justine on #

    Your responses confirm what really should be obvious. We all write differently.

    Sidenote: I’m certainly not against polishing. I’m all for it.

    Dawn: Exactly. If you haven’t read the books how can you criticise them for being written too fast? I’ve read books that took years to write where the ending felt very rushed indeed.

    Jeff: I’ve certainly seen what you’ve speak of in workshops. People zooming along when they haven’t learnt to write yet. It can indeed be a recipe for bad writing.

    I’ve also seen people constantly polishing and rewriting and never ever finishing. And that troubles me also.

    I’m sure if we could agree on a list of classics (which I suspect, Jeff, we couldn’t) and researched the speed of their writing it’s likely a majority took more than a year to write (Kate Chopin’s The Awakening certainly did).

    But again I think exceptions are important. Diana’s mentioned Dickens. I would throw in Collette, George Sand, Zola, Dumas, Walter Scott (an uneven output but when good, very very good.) And more recently Georgette Heyer and Georges Simenon. I’m sure there are more but my brain is not coughing them up right now.

    I think it’s no coincidence that my examples were all working writers. Part of what happens in debates about speed of writing is that it gets forgotten that being able to write fast is a distinct advantage if you’re trying to make a living at it.

    And, yes, I have seen folks trying to make a living and writing too fast and the quality of their work suffering.

    All I’m saying is that too fast and too slow are entirely dependent on who the writer is. If I had a writing student who was churning out fast crap. I would definitely be telling them that writing fast is a problem. But I would not announce that to the entire class. (Unless all of them were doing it.)

    Diana: Absolutely! I had two books out this year. One took three years (Daughters), the other (Magic Lessons) nine months. The assumptions readers make about production can be really annoying. If my adult novel is ever published it will have been almost twenty years in the making. It would be hilarious to be accused of hackery if it came out in the same year as a couple of my Young Adult books.

    The prejudice against the working writer who writes fast has been around for a long time. Certainly way before the internet. There’s definitely a class aspect to it. You can afford to write slow if you’re independently wealthy but not if that’s how you make all your dosh.

    There’s also undeniably plenty of evidence of terrible books that were written very quickly and barely copyedited or proofed at all. So it’s not hard to see why looking at cheap shoddily written and produced work people would conclude that writing fast is a bad thing.

  8. Rebecca on #

    my first novel went through nine drafts before i quit it for something better. my third novel is in its fourth draft. neither one of them is anywhere close to done. *sigh* i’m definitely a slow writer, overall. plus school and novel writing don’t mix. sure it can be done, but it’s not easy. and throw a job in the mix, and you’re pretty well screwed no matter how fast you write. i once wrote 24k in 24 hours and i will never ever do that again. the last hour was jibberish. i can write fast, but what comes out is raw. it has to be seriously messed with afterward. i predict that, if i didn’t have a job, i could crank out 2000 words a day on a fairly regular basis. right now i’m just trying to maintain 2000 a week, b/c that’s what’s realistic. even though, on a good day, i can do 2k in under an hour, it’s a hell of a lot harder when one has had a long day of other things to do and deal with. it means i’m rather zombie-like (:D) and won’t do much of anything no matter how much free time i’ve got. so even fast writers can take a while to get a finished product. i envy the writers who get it all figured out in their heads first. i don’t much like revisions, so i usually just rewrite the book with little to no regard for what i wrote in the previous draft. jennifer lynn barnes says she can finish a book in about three or four months (i think). i know meg cabot puts out a million a year. they’re both fantastic fast writers.

  9. David Cake on #

    And then there is that Sean Williams, who in 2005 churned out 400,000 words of published fiction in one year. But then, he has never claimed not to be a hack!

  10. Chris S. on #

    And ‘writing’ doesn’t always and only mean the physical act of putting words on paper. I know more than one novelist who spends days/ weeks/ even months at a time not-writing while the ideas coalesce. That blank page time is followed by a burst of tremendous output – but the book isn’t ‘written’ in that short, frenzied time. The whole process is writing, staring at the wall included.

  11. Colleen on #

    I’m surprised no one has said yet whose fault it really is that everyone thinks writers should write faster.

    Joyce Carol Oates.

    The woman has made some sort of deal with the devil ala Robert Johnson and I’m not afraid to call her on it.

    It’s all because of JCO and her 20 books a year (in multiple genres mind you)! It’s all her fault!!!

    Um, yeah. So – wanted to get that off my chest.

    I write sporadically. I try to aim for 1,000 words a day and sometimes I can get in a groove and do that pretty well but I have a five year old son so really, it doesn’t happen with any regularity. The best time for me to write is late at night, after everyone else is asleep and the dogs have been let out and no one will bother me because even though my husband thinks writing is important and good and worthy he still can’t seem to find the flashlight, alarm clock, remote control, sweat pants, kid’s sweat pants, ice tea mix, dog leash, shoes, kid’s shoes, shampoo, etc etc etc., without asking me to help him find it first.

    How the man ever flew airplanes for a living I will never know.

    Late at night, all alone, that’s when I get my writing done. The problem is that I’m tired too though. So lately that 1,000 words has been hard to come by. (But I’m working on it!)

  12. elizabeth bear on #


    If Shakespeare had a word processor, he could have been banging out seven plays a year. He managed two or three longhand, while holding down a day job and traveling on business.

    Retyping is a *bitch.* Writing a fair copy out by hand, triply so.

    Imagine what Dickens would have done with a typewriter.

    Twain was certainly prolific, and again… he had mechanical assistance.

  13. Jeff VanderMeer on #

    What I find faintly amusing is that I just posed the questions. There wasn’t any condemnation of fast writers in my posting–just a list of questions.

    I could care less how long it takes a writer to write something if it’s good. But, if fast writers want to avoid the *appearance* of churning it out, then they shouldn’t continually keep mentioning word counts and note progress in terms of word count. It creates a perception, I would think, that something facile is happening.

    Please note–I’m talking about appearances, not reality.

    And, if you say on your blog “this is the best book I could do considering my deadline,” that doesn’t give me very much confidence, as a reader. I mean, c’mon, objectively, that’s not a stretch.

    I think all this talk about word counts is fairly boring anyway. As a way for a writer to kind of psyche themselves up to write by saying “look what I’ve accomplished,” great. But it doesn’t make for scintillating blog reading.


  14. elizabeth bear on #

    Actually, Jeff, I note my word counts because it is a reminder to me that I *have* accomplished something.

    Because if I don’t track them, I tend to work until I fall over. It helps me pace myself, and set limits, and produces a feeling that I have in fact done something with my time.

    Because, as I noted above, left to my own devices, I would spend all day, every day, working, in an obsessive and unhealthy manner, and never give myself credit for what I *have* accomplished.

    My blog is not about you. Nor is it for you. It’s for me. And for anybody who finds the insight into what I do and how I do it interesting.

    And frankly, if you have deadlines, every book you write is going to be the best book you can write considering your deadline. Me, I try to write far enough in advance of my deadlines that I can get three drafts done before my editor ever sees the book. That also requires a certain amount of discipline and planning.

  15. Jonquil on #

    Why should fast writers avoid the appearance of churning it out? Shades of Harrison Bergeron, dude.

    Some people create content at top speed: no praise, no blame. How I feel when I read about Rachel Caine’s insane-almost-certainly-fueled-by-illegal-pharmaceuticals bursts of productivity… well, that’s my problem. The books are still a pleasure to read.

    There is no inherent virtue or vice in process. The virtue or vice is in the book.

  16. Jonquil on #

    hasty note: Please turn the irony flag on in the comments about Rachel Caine. i was being admiringly snarky, and had forgotten how seldom that comes across on the Internet.

  17. Kelly McCullough on #

    I actually find that the faster I write (within limits, of course) the smoother I write in terms of prose, voice, and plot. It’s when I’m moving slowly or sporadically that I’m most choppy and have to do the most rewrite to make a seamless whole in later drafts.

  18. Tim Pratt on #

    Actually, some readers do find word counts on blogs to be scintillating reading. I can’t count how many e-mails I’ve gotten over the years telling me my word counts were inspiring or encouraging or heartening. (While I can certainly count, on one hand without using all my fingers, the number of times I’ve been sent e-mails telling me I write too fast!) Though I don’t track word counts on my blog much these days anymore, since I’ve been keeping a daily work diary offline. (Well, unless I do a crazy 15,000-words-in-a-day burnout writing binge or something — I mention that in my blog the same way I’d mention trying jump a ravine on a skateboard…)

  19. Penni on #

    Daily work diary?
    Man, I’m impressed.

  20. Tim Pratt on #

    Don’t be impressed. I do it because I live in fear of being audited by the IRS and want to prove I really truly am a writer, and should get to write off all those wacky things as expenses. It’s irrational, but I soothe my fears however I can. (The work diary has a lot of “No work” and zeroes on it, too.)

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