People often ask me how much they should be able to write in a day. Should never applies because there is no mandate, but the realm of what’s possible is highly variable on a number of factors that have little to do with someone’s typing speed. But there are some statistical trends that we can look at that we’ll delve into later in the article.
Writers, especially new writers, easily become preoccupied with the accomplishments of those around them and can be motivated or demotivated based on a comparison. They feel like the achievements of others are somehow setting the bar for what they themselves should be able to achieve. This is a dangerous line of thinking for several reasons. Not only is writing a highly intimate, personal experience, but there are factors in play that make these sorts of comparisons impossible.
Do you have two kids, a job, and struggle to squeeze in an hour a day for your writing? If so, why would you compare yourself to an unemployed person in good health who can spend ten hours a day at the keyboard? Health, family, stress… these are just a few of the factors that come into play with writing productivity.
The most important thing is that your writing nourish you, whether it’s a few hours a week or a few hours a day. There is nothing about comparisons that will nourish your creativity. In fact, they could hurt you. We’ll discuss what’s possible for an average writer, but that isn’t meant to be a bar. It’s a discussion of statistics. Don’t be a statistic.
But first, there is another factor at play in productivity: lying.
One of the most interesting experiences I had as a younger writer happened in a local writer group associated with a national organization geared toward romance writers. I’d already published, but I didn’t make a habit of discussing that in the group. This older writer in the group often spoke about her progress, productivity, and communications with “literary agents and publishers” without ever giving a name for any of them.
During the year I was with the group, she stated that she finished seven full-length fantasy romance novels (probably in the range of 150k each). Of course, I never saw a single one because she never asked for opinions on her work, but she was certainly free with advice. Usually, craft advice that was better left in the 1960s. She didn’t have much to do with me because I wrote erotica. This woman gathered a few friends who, in retrospect, enabled her behavior.
Sometimes, we had little workgroups to discuss our current writing projects, share chapters, etc. She never participated in those. Finally, one of her friends figured out that this woman was lying her ass off, and while she was certainly writing, she’d never finished a novel, much less written seven in a year. I didn’t know enough, really, about the whole thing to have an opinion. I soon left the group due to politics and systemic racism of the national organization. It was, at the time, very oriented towards white women, which I found offensive as hell.
Regardless, as I’ve gotten older and come to understand the craft of writing and the creative process, it became clear that this woman couldn’t have written over one million words in a single year. She worked a full-time job, had a 45-minute commute to that job, and was married with several children. I’m not trying to pick on her or anything, so I won’t reveal a name. I don’t know if she ever published. I’m honestly not even sure she’s still alive. That’s how long it’s been. It’s not really about her as an individual.
Let’s talk about the stats for a moment.
The average writer can produce between 20 and 25 words per minute (wpm). A productive writer who has time to dedicate to writing can and does produce anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 words a day. A professional writer producing 10,000 words in a single day is practically unicorn territory. It can be done, but it’s a once-in-a-blue-moon situation. I’ve never met a single writer that could maintain that sort of pace on an everyday basis.
20 wpm –> 3 hours of non-stop writing –> 3,600
25 wpm –> 3 hours of non-stop writing –> 4,500
25 wpm –> 9 hours of non-stop writing –> 13,500
To write 1,000,000 words in a single year, the average word count would be 2,777 words every day. Or let’s say this writer only wrote 5 days a week—that’s 260 days with a word count goal of 3,846 words a day.
3,846 words –> 25 wpm –> 2.6 hours of non-stop writing every single day.
Consider this, could you write non-stop for three hours? Could you do it for nine? No eating, no bathroom breaks, no standing up to stretch, no Google, no Youtube, no phone calls, no conversations with the people you live with—just non-stop writing for three solid hours. We know this unrealistic on any given day, but could you do it every single day? Would you even want to try?
Here’s what we know: most professional writers can produce between 1,000 and 1,200 words in about an hour if they have the time, space, energy, and concentration to do it. Writing is not just a physical activity, obviously, but some people overlook how mentally exhausting it is. This is why a 10k day is a minor miracle of sorts for most writers. It’s also easily 10 to 14 hours of work when you leave room for being a human being and not a machine.
Let’s go back to that 1,000,000 words in a single year and use the 1,200 words an hour as the base.
1,000,000 words at 1,200 an hour = 833 hours of writing or 2.3 hours of daily writing for 365 days.
These numbers don’t reflect: research, plotting, character building, inspiration, or the human condition. They certainly don’t reflect time spent editing.
I’ve seen ridiculous challenges where more than one writer tried to 50k in a day during NANO. I’ve seen one succeed, but he was useless on the writing front mentally and physically for weeks afterward. He also ended up with a repetitive motion injury in his wrist that required physical therapy. Good news? He had 50k of a novel. Bad news? Physical therapy and four months of editing to make that book he wrote make sense. He said, in the end, that it would’ve been faster to just do a regular NANO because he’d never had an edit last that long.
On a final note about writing speed: typing speed and writing speed are not the same thing. My top speed as a typist is around 120 wpm. But my sustained typing speed is only around 80 wpm. My writing speed is between 20-25 wpm on an average day. There have been times when I’ve pushed up over 30 wpm when I’m in a scene that’s flowing really well, but that is not and never could be my average. While it’s true that being a proficient typist will have some impact on your overall output, it’s not the gating factor on productivity.
The lady in the writing group wasn’t a rarity. I’ve encountered all sorts during the course of my life—people who pretend to be writing a book, people who believe they should write a book about their lives, people who think you should write a book about their lives, people who make outrageous claims about their writing speed and their productivity. And their lies are rarely confined to their writing statistics. It’s frustrating to be around these kinds of people because they can damage morale in large groups, and they often create a deeply toxic environment that reasonable people will start to withdraw from.
If you tell me you write over 20,000 words a day every single day for days on end, I’m not going to believe you. In fact, you can miss me with that bullshit.