I was asked this question by a non-writer this week, and it took me one very long email to answer it. It’s a complicated question!
By Rich Keele, Horus Sundials (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons
First, what do we mean by writing a book? Are we wanting to know how long it takes to write the first draft? Or how long it takes from imagination to published book? There’s a lot of research involved, and a lot of thinking time where the writer isn’t doing anything but sitting and thinking, too.
Then there’s the variant between writers: some type fast, some slow. Some are full-time and can spend 8 hours a day, others only get an hour a week to spend on their craft. Some can crank out a book in 4 weeks, while others take decades.
For a published author, if they produce one book every year, they are considered prolific. I know there are a lot of fabulous authors out there who take longer or shorter, but let’s use this as a base line, since we have to sstart somewhere.
Assuming that a professional writer does not have another job and relies solely on writing, they are probably spending 40 hours a week on their craft. With 52 weeks in the year, that’s about 2,080 hours. But then you have to subtract holidays, sick days, and vacation days. If we assume it’s like any regular 9-5 job with paid time off, that’s probably around 2 weeks of vacation, 10 holidays, and 10 sick days (because if I were self-employed, I’d be tempted to take the maximum number of holidays and sick days off…we can call them writer’s block days if we want). That brings the total number of hours in a year down to 1,840.
There are a lot of other things to consider, though. For instance, novels written on a typewriter or by hand take longer. Those written on a computer are faster. Someone who can type faster might be able to finish quicker. Also, depending on what kind of software the writer uses, it could be a cumbersome experience or a slick and easy one.
But….there’s also the time it takes to revise a novel. Just writing it is not the end. There are second, third, and sometimes fourth drafts that have to be written. (In my case, sixth drafts. *headdesk*) And they all have to be edited, proofread, and edited again. Then there’s the time it takes the publisher to make a cover for it, typeset it, build a promotional program for it, negotiate with booksellers to display it in their stores, and finally, print and distribute it. From the time an author signs a contract with a publishing company to the time their book is first available in bookstores, six months to a year and a half could have passed.
So, let’s say that those 1,840 hours are not all spent on just writing the first draft. Let’s take a stab in the dark and estimate about half of them are spent writing, the other half are spent editing, proofreading, rewriting, researching, and submitting to publishers. That leaves us with roughly 920 hours of writing time.
Some writers hire personal assistants to do menial work for them, like the editing, proofreading, and submitting to publishers, so that they can have more time to write. Which does make it take significantly less time.
Also, someone who is writing a book for the first time is going to be much slower at it than someone who has ten bestsellers under their belt. So, the first novel might take 3 years of working full time at it, but the second might take only half that time, and the third, a half of that.
The person who asked me this question said he read an article that it takes 450 hours to write a book. To which I say, good for that writer! But that’s hardly every writer.
As you gear up for NaNoWriMo this year, keep these things in mind. You already know you’re going to try and write one draft in a month. How much time do you think it will take you to research and outline before then (assuming outlines work for you)? How much time will you need afterward to edit your magnificent but sprawling beast of a manuscript?
If you are consistently spending x hours per week on writing, put a number to how many hours you think it will take each step in the writing process. (And if you’re able to do this, can I just say good for you, because you are regularly writing? Congratulations!)
Then do the math to figure out how long it will take you to finish your book at your current rate. It’s a fun little exercise, especially when you don’t want to write and need a distraction. Perhaps you will see that you need to put in more time per week to finish what you started. Or maybe it will motivate you to make more use of the writing time you do have.
The important thing is that it puts your writing in perspective. It changes your thinking from “someday I’ll reach the end, or maybe it will go on forever” to “I know approximately when I will be done if I keep at it, and every time I don’t put off writing, I’m rewarding myself by bringing that finish line one day closer”.