Writing, Quantified

Ever wonder how much you could write if you just sat down and wrote? Me too. So I decided I would write something for those of you hovering on the edge of possibly, just maaaaaaybe considering giving it a try.

Writing a novel can seem daunting, especially starting out, and the idea of finishing an entire one in just a single month is, I think, a turn off for many people–really the whole concept is just a trick to get you far enough in that you have something mostly done which you can then finish at a later date. After all, a month is hardly enough time to write a whole novel. . .


Well . . .

It depends. A common question among writers, both of the would-be and the more established variety, is, “Just how many words should I write on any given day?”

Everybody’s got their own answer, so we’re not going to bother with that. Today’s topic is how many words a person could write, without getting bogged down in the practical reality of it. Like the Google Maps route for a long trip, it’s just best-of-all-worlds look at how you’re getting from where you are to where you want to go, and estimate of how long it will take based on those ideal assumptions.

Now, as many of you know, this isn’t a straightforward question. Drafting is different from editing, is different from polishing up a second or third draft of a manuscript, which is, in turn, different from the sort of writing you’re doing when you’re transforming something you’ve already written into something more exactly reflecting what a client wants to see. Likewise, fiction and non-fiction are entirely different worlds. Sourcing takes time, research takes time, interviews take time. This is the way of things.

The Parameters Examined

If we’re going to look at anything in depth, we first need to decide what range our variables will cover. Because science.

The first thing we’re going to look at is how long it takes someone, in a very raw sense, to write down 60-120,000 words. Usually, books are in the 80-100,000 word range, so this should be a broad enough sample to yield useful data. This is taking place in a world where we do not pause, consider, backtrack, change, or edit. We simply put one word after another at steady pace until we’re done. Which is what you should do on your first draft, anyway.

The next thing to consider is typing speed. I took a test online, and I transcribe text at about 60 WPM, which is a fair bit slower than I write when I’m doing my own stuff. I’m fairly average, I think, so it seems (for writers) a fair range for typing speed would be around 50 words per minute (WPM) on the slow end and 100 WPM on the super fast end. I suppose there are a few writers out there that punch words out with their index fingers in exaggerated motions, and some former pianists who type so fast their fingers blur, but I think most of us will fall somewhere in the 50-100 WPM range I’ll be using for the graphs.

The other question, of course, is how long we work, and that’s going to vary a lot from person to person, but whatever length of time that happens to be should  be a fairly straightforward multiple or fraction of the three I’ve chosen: 8, 12, and 16 hour days.

In Summary:

  • Word counts will be graphed in the 60-120,000 word range.
  • Typing speed will be graphed in the 50-100 words per minute range.
  • Workdays will be examined in 8, 12, and 16 hour ranges.

The Graphs

Okay, we’ve got the basics ironed out, time to go to the spreadsheets–for me, anyway–I won’t force you to endure any such thing. Instead, I’ll render the numbers into the pretty pictures!

So let’s look at a simple graph of how much writing a person could potentially do in a single day:

WPM Bar Graph
WPM on the X-axis, Word Count on the Y-axis.

As you can see, the fast-to-moderate typing speeds start overlapping with the minimum word counts for complete manuscripts (the gray box) within a single workday of writing! Hot diggity damn!

I know these seem like some big numbers but don’t panic, don’t despair, this is an idealized version of events. It just gives you a baseline. Sure, writing a book seems like climbing a mountain. . . but it takes about the same amount of time, if you’re willing to keep up the pace. It’s not too surprising. Between both blogs and various projects, it’s not unusual for me to write 5000 words on a perfectly normal day, and I imagine that’s, if anything, on the low side for full-time writers.

Since it’s been awhile since I’ve played around with graphs, and I enjoy doing so, I’m going to get a little more complicated. That’s right, we’re taking these graphs into the third dimension.

(Besides, if science majors don’t use spreadsheets to make complicated graphs at least once a month we get the shakes and go into withdrawals. Some more fairly basic math can be done, and I hope it will encourage some of my writer-readers to get on with finishing a book or two, or, [though I don’t want to get too ambitious here!] even commenting on a post or two!)

I know you find that as exciting as I do: When I say, “3D!” you say, “Z-AXIS!”



Wasn’t that exciting?

Alright! This needs a little explaining. What we’ve done here is taken that graph from above, and we’ve tipped it over so it’s laying flat, and then we’ve stretched each section upwards from the page so that we can see how many days it would take to finish a novel of varying lengths at various typing speeds. For simplicity’s sake, we’ve also separated out (by color) the 8, 12, and 16 hour workdays. It’s a lot of information, but it’s very simple compared to the half page of a spreadsheet each graph represents. I promise.

I decided to break my earlier parameters (bad scientist! bad!) and extend the maximum word count range to 130,000 because it was quick, easy, and gave an even number of rows (8) on these graphs.

I think you’ll see what I mean:

Typing 8 hour days
8 Hour Workdays: X-axis WPM, Y-axis total manuscript length, Z-axis days to completion.

I realize that may look a little intimidating, but it is simple enough when you get the hang of it: The taller the cylinder, the more days it takes to complete. Moving from the front towards the back you move from low to high word counts, and as you move left to right you increase in typing speed.

So, the bottom right corner is how long it would take to write a 60,000 word book at 100 WPM, and is obviously the shortest amount of time on this graph at just over one day (1.2 days), while the bottom left corner is how long it would take to write a 60,000 word book at 50 WPM (2.4 days). The upper right corner reveals how long it would take to write a book 130,000 words long at 100 WPM, and so on. We’ll take a look back at that one in moment, after we glance at the 12 hour and 16 hour workday versions of the graph.

12 Hour Workday
12 Hour Workday: X-axis WPM, Y-axis total manuscript length, Z-axis days to completion.

As you can see, that extra four hours of work really cuts down just how long it takes to finish a draft. By a third, to be exact. *winkwinknudgenudge* Shocking, right? Now let’s see what it looks like when we cut the original in half with our 16 hour workday:

16 Hour Workdays:
16 Hour Workdays: X-axis WPM, Y-axis total manuscript length, Z-axis days to completion.

Put like this those books look like manageable little hills, don’t they? A single 16 hour workday at 100 WPM can produce a 99,000 word novel draft. I’m going to put one last graph up here, and it’s simply all three of these superimposed. Doing so makes it much harder to read, which is why I included separate versions of them here for you, but it reveals something I think is critical for every writer aspiring to become a novelist to grasp:

Same as above, all three smushed together!
Same as above, just all three smushed together!

The reason for including this particular graph is to show you the contrast between the maximum and the minimum, and the very important lesson it holds. As you can see in the bottom right, by typing like a demon you can churn out a 60,000 novella in about ten hours, or a 130,000 word monstrosity in weekend, which is cool in and of itself, but that’s not the important bit.

The real take-home of this post should be that turquoise bar standing tall above all the others in the far upper left, telling us is that, even typing at a moderate pace, for eight hours a day–or, for that matter, a meager 25 WPM for sixteen hours a day, it is entirely possible to finish a manuscript at the far, far lengthy edge of publishable length, in less than a week!

Not only is NaNoWriMo possible to complete, but, really, NaNoWriWe would be fairly easy, and even NaNoWriWeekend is a plausible option. And that’s a big deal. It’s a big deal because a lot of people have things like jobs and children and so on (or, as I like to think of them, unnecessary distractions) which sadly prevent them from focusing a whole month on writing a novel.

You know what though? Even someone with a job and a family can leave their kids with friends, family, or a spouse, rent a hotel room for a weekend, and put in two solid sixteen hour days. Not only can you write a novel this month, but, if you are willing to really buckle down and do it, no excuses, no surrender, you can write a novel this weekend.

So the only real question is, Why haven’t you?

Maybe it’s because you don’t work that way. That’s fine. Next week we’ll be looking at how little you can write–and still succeed in finishing that book!

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5 Thoughts on “Writing Quantified: How Much Can You Write?”

  • I am pretty impressed with these numbers, Connor. I am even more impressed with your graphs. What kind of software superimposes one atop the other? Reveal your secrets, please!
    I am betting that you’ll have four novels done by the end of November.

  • lorrainemariereguly I just used OpenOffice. Any science degree is basically a masters-level education in how to make graphs in Excel and Excel-like software. ;)
    This will ruin my coolness, but all I did was make three graphs with the same scale and Z-axis tilt, then drag’n’drop ’em on top of each other. 
    Four? That seems ambitious, how about 3.5?

  • Connor Rickett lorrainemariereguly LOL You’re still cool. I have never made graphs before, so that’s why I was wondering. I know it’s not rocket science, but when I went to school, I didn’t have a computer. When I went to university, I used theirs, in the computer lab, and that was mainly for typing up my essays. Now I finally have one of my own, and little things amaze me.

    I’ll be expecting at least one book out of you. Four seems a little much. LOL

    Stay motivated!

    Oh, I’m hosting a book giveaway starting tomorrow on my blog, did you know that? Tell everyone, please!

  • I never realized that a novel could be written so quickly and easily! People used to tell me that it took YEARS. Thank you so much for sharing this information!

    • The caveat here is that it’s sort of an idealized scenario where you can write as fast as you you can type. That said, people do build it up into a more intimidating mountain than it needs to be! Thanks for stopping by Page!

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