The Pace of Writing

The United States has the highest worker productivity on the planet. That is, the average American laborer will produce more widgets, or process more paperwork, or cook more burgers, or design more aircraft than their equivalents elsewhere.

How does an author measure his or her productivity? One way, of course, would be to point to the number of books written, or the number of articles generated, or the number of short stories or movie scripts that have your byline.

But more often, if writers are talking amongst themselves, or neophytes are seeking insights from their already published brethren, the question come down to the practical: what happens on a given work day? How many hours per week does an author write? And how does that translate into written documents? That is, what is considered normal in the writing world when it comes to daily page count, or word count?

Most authors, if they are full time, have a normal work day, like anyone else who works in an office. Although one can make one’s own hours, a schedule and rhythm is very helpful if you want to be a real writer and not just a hobbyist. Real writers, as the saying goes, write. More than that, they develop a certain amount of self-discipline. If you don’t have self-discipline, your chances of ever being successful are slim and none—even more slim and none than your chances from working hard and regularly.

So, for myself, I work five days a week, for about eight hours every day, usually nine to five, with time off for lunch. On occasion—like the time I had to write two books in about four months—I wind up working far longer hours and my weekends become virtually indistinguishable from the rest of the week. During those sorts of marathon sessions, I forget what color the sun is and my children see me so seldom that they wonder “who is that strange hobo I just saw in the kitchen getting another cup of coffee?”

But, during the vast majority of my year, I am writing only forty hours per week. For almost a year, I was finding it very difficult to focus and accomplish anything during those hours, as my dysthymia was getting worse. But following diagnosis and the proper medication, my ability to concentrate has returned—and thus my productivity has gone back to where I expect it to be.

Some authors merely set for themselves the goal of spending a set number of hours each day sitting in front of their computer. Others set for themselves word counts. For instance, the science fiction author John Scalzi tries to write a minimum of 2000 words per day. He has an amusing posting on his blog, Whatever, where he explains how his mind works in this regard. If he writes less than a 1000 words, he tells himself that he is a toad who doesn’t deserve to eat. If he reaches his minimum goal of 2000, then he pats himself on the back and eats a donut. 3000 words, he’s on fire. 4000 words, he’s in danger of blowing a brain lobe. At 5000 words he’s reduced to a babbling idiot. He posted that the most words he ever did in a day was 14,000 and that he had to sleep for three days afterwards. I think the most I’ve ever written in a day is around 10,000 words. Most of the time I’m producing half that.

For myself, I prefer to set page count goals. I’m currently working on three novels, a new science fiction novel with the working title, Cold and an old novel, Hacker’s Apprentice, that needed heavy rewriting, and a newer novel that I’m rewriting and needed some additions with the working title Bent Anvil. For the last month I’ve been maintaining a pace of at least thirty pages per day—ten pages in each book—five days per week (for the books I’m rewriting, I often cover many more pages than that). I now estimate, barring any life crises, that I’ll finish those books to a level I can let someone read around the end of summer.

For some authors, that sort of schedule would seem nightmarish. For others, they’d wonder how it is I can be such a lazy goof-off. Isaac Asimov, the late science fiction author, worked upwards of ten hours a day—and he worked seven days a week. Consequently, he authored about 500 books in his lifetime, not counting all the short stories and magazine articles that he also wrote. Romance novelist Barbara Cartland holds the Guinness World Record for the most novels written in a single year: in 1983 she produced 23 of them! I’m a complete slacker–or to use Scalzi’s word, “toad”–compared to that.

And I have no desire to try to emulate that sort of productivity. I like to write well enough—it’s a wonderful job. But it’s still a job and frankly, it’s not the only thing I like or want to do any more than ditch diggers enjoy working more than 40 hours a week.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm the interim pastor at Quartz Hill Community Church. I have written several books. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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