Writing speed: How long does it take to write something?

Is it normal to write so slowly? How can I write more quickly? These are the questions my coaching clients always ask. Like most people, it seems, they think they write more slowly than the average writer. Research shows most people also think they’re an above-average driver. Statistically, neither belief can be true.

So what’s normal? What speed should you aim for? A while back, I put this call out on Twitter:

Writers, how fast do you write? My coaching clients often ask: "how long should writing take?" My instinct is to say "Longer than you think"

— Clare Lynch, writer (@DorisandBertie) April 22, 2015

The responses confirmed what I already knew: writing takes time, even for those of us who make a living from banging out words. Here’s what you need to know.

1. Every writing job is different...

@DorisandBertie Anyone who doesn't write would probably say "too damned slowly". But it does depend on what's being written.

— Gareth Jones (@gjoneswriter) April 22, 2015

Gareth's right. How long it takes to write something depends on a range of factors. How research-intensive the work is. How technical the subject. How “salesy” the piece. (And the closer you are to what you’re selling, the more painful it is to write – just think how much you sweat over your own CV).

2. ...just as every writer is different

Only one writer was prepared to put a figure on their output:

@DorisandBertie 1/2 a page of quality stuff per hour

— Noj (@ce60) April 22, 2015

Now, assuming half a page is around 250 words, this looks pretty fast to me. Today, my ballpark figure for business writing is 800 words of polished prose a day. (But, I repeat: it depends on what I’m writing.) That makes me pretty fast.

Other professional writers I’ve commissioned have quoted me one day’s work for a 500-700-word piece. And I once heard a pretty established professor say he could produce 300 words of dense academic prose in a day (footnotes and all, presumably).

Even that’s more efficient than it sounds. I wrote my 100,000-word PhD thesis over six years. Assuming I wrote Monday to Friday for every week during that period (which, of course I didn’t), I was averaging 64 words a day. 64 words a day.

But even that's fast compared with Virgil. The famous Roman poet took eleven years to write his masterpiece, the Aeneid. That's 28 words a day and he was paid by the emperor to do nothing but write all day. Even then he demanded on his deathbed that it be burnt – presumably because he thought it wasn't up to his usual high standards.

And you think you’re slow? So never trust, still less be intimidated by, anyone who says they can produce thousands of words a day. They can. But those words will be utter rubbish.

3. If writing takes time, you’re doing it right

@DorisandBertie agree. Good writing takes time... Even for professionals. Non-writers don't understand multiple drafting process & editing.

— MargaretEWard (@MargaretEWard) April 22, 2015

Margaret's right. Writing is rarely a wholly efficient process. Nobody gets it right first time. Even professional writers always go back and edit, edit, edit.

In fact, enjoying the editing process is what separates the mediocre writers from the brilliant ones, the amateurs from the professionals.

And, as any editor will tell you, editing takes time. I recently came across one professional editor who admits it can take her an hour to slog through just 250 words.

And that’s editing someone else’s work. Bringing a critical eye to your own work is much, much harder.

4. But there is one bit you can do quickly (aka how to beat writer's block)

@DorisandBertie@tekstnet I agree hehe. And always advise to bang out a first draft as quickly as possible! Timers are your best friend.

— Kelly Meulenberg (@kellymeulenberg) April 22, 2015

I don't use a timer myself, but Kelly's tip is great. Because it forces you to get down on paper that horrible, shame-inducing first draft. That initial splurge of mental vomit that gives you something to work with.

The point about getting something – anything – down (or up, perhaps, if we think of vomit) is it kickstarts the editing process. And that, as we know, is what writing’s really all about (see point 3). So, as my old PhD supervisor used to say when I was battling with writer's block, “Don’t get it right, get it written”.

5. Shorter = longer

Ever heard that Mark Twain quote “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long letter instead”? Kevin Mills was bang on when he tweeted:

@DorisandBertie The shorter, the longer. In my experience.

— Kevin Mills (@bravenewmalden) April 22, 2015

A deck of ten PowerPoint slides? Well, that can take longer than a ten-page report.

A strapline? We could be talking days or weeks of brain ache for inspiration to hit.

And as for coming up with that company name? Better set aside a few months.

I suspect one reason shorter is harder is you've got less material to work with - a smaller amount of mental vomit to clean up into something gorgeous (see point 4).

6. In other words, you're just like the rest of us

So, if you feel like a failure because you struggle to bang out a well-honed paragraph, sweat it not. Keep at it.

You’re just like the rest of us. The answer to the question "what's normal" is: "there is no normal"

Still think you’re horribly slow compared with the rest of us? For an insight into how difficult getting ideas down on paper can be, do check out this video.

It records every keystroke the writer made when writing the post itself, and it's excruciating to watch.

What's your take on writing speed? Let us know in the comments.