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

Writing speed

Photography by Wil Stewart

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:

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…

 

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:

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

 

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)

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:

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.

24 comments so far . . . come and pitch in!

  1. An editor of mine once boasted he’d written the leader column (three pieces, about 900 words) in an hour. That seems the limit for a professional writer when they don’t need to do much research, just remind themselves what they’d read that week. I usually managed half that speed.

  2. Clare Lynch says:

    Hi Patrick

    Even half that speed is impressive. Although I would like to know how well those 900 words read.

  3. Louise says:

    It definitely depends on what is being written and how much research there is to do. Thanks to NCTJ training I can still whip up a 200-word news piece – based on a single interview/press release – in less than half an hour. A finely crafted, in-depth piece with multiple research strands at around 800 words will take most of a day at the very least.

  4. Paul Eveleigh says:

    Unable to specify time, Clare.
    Writing tight takes longer than waffle.
    You write fast when you know your topic.
    Writing ads takes days, weeks or months. How long to write”Just Do It”?
    Writing that grabs and holds readers’ interest, takes time.
    Anything worth reading takes time.

  5. Clare Lynch says:

    Yes, Louise, being trained to have a clear idea of where you’re going before you start certainly speeds up the writing process.

  6. Clare Lynch says:

    Exactly, Paul. As the saying goes: ‘Easy writing makes hard reading’.

  7. Ian G says:

    I guess the moral of the story is; don’t boast about how quickly you can write. Time is not a good indicator or quality.

  8. Ian G says:

    Oh, and excellent post by the way.

  9. Clare Lynch says:

    Exactly, Ian. it’s like choosing a brain surgeon based on how quickly she can perform the operation, rather than her survival rates. It’s one reason I’ve learned to quote by the job, rather than giving clients a day rate.

  10. Dunstan says:

    Most of the stuff I write is very technical, and depends on good diagrams, so I often spend a time ratio of 3:1 diagramming to writing words. Once the diagrams have made the meaning clear, it becomes easy to write in short sentences.
    I also normally run through it with someone on a whiteboard before I start writing: if you don’t have a lucidly clear understanding of the design then you can’t start documenting it.

  11. jason says:

    I have been banging my head for 6 months trying to write copy for my website. Trying to explain a really simple product in simple terms, has almost fried my brain. Never saw that coming.

    I think I am in the league of Mark Twain. Not for writing brilliance, more for writing long. I would agree that being too close to a subject makes it harder. And I find it bloody hard to write short. In hindsight, it would have been better to have someone else review my initial purge of what looked remarkably like verbal diarrhoea.

    Anyway I am almost there and I still think it looks like amateur hour. But, I am not a writer, and thankfully learned a lot from doing Clare’s course. There are moments of brilliance of course, but that only happens when I am driving. Pity we can’t write and drive.

    And this post is great, as it gives us a good clear benchmark of what is normal and achievable. So at least now I feel a bit better.

  12. Clare Lynch says:

    Writing: Thinking = 3:1 sounds about right, Dunstan. I also agree that running your work past a second person is always a good idea.

  13. Clare Lynch says:

    Jason, thank you for your response. Re: your website text – I feel for you! If it makes you feel any better, I also struggle to write about myself and my company. I have often thought it would be easier to hire another professional to do it. And like you, I have my best ideas when I step away from my desk – I sometimes think the brain is like a naughty child. Very glad you enjoyed my course!

  14. Great article! This is a good way to compare with other writers. As you point out, Clare, it really depends on the subject. But here are a few other things that affect writing speed:

    Use of quotes — the more direct quotes you use from someone else, the faster it will be.
    The “inertia factor” — it doesn’t take me much longer to write 600 words than it does 400. Once I get going, things chug along much faster.
    Inspiration — you can’t wait for inspiration to hit, especially if you’re a professional writer. But once it does, ride the wave for as long as you can.

    Here’s something I’ve found helps speed up my writing. The natural tendency is to rewrite immediately after you’ve written. Sometimes I even rewrite sections as I’m writing. There is nothing wrong with this, if it suits your style.

    However, sometimes I do catch myself getting bogged down in the process. If you sense yourself “spinning your wheels” as you’re editing, put it aside for a day. Of course, this is great advice for rewriting anyway, but the point here is that there is no need to spend 30 minutes now rewriting an article when you can do it in 15 minutes tomorrow. If you’re polishing and nothing’s getting any more polished, put it aside.

    It usually takes me three hours to write a 400-800 word article, but that includes research and interviews. Writing itself takes 30-90 minutes, and rewriting 15-60 minutes all told. In other words, a 400-word article in less than an hour is on the fast side for me, but not unreasonable. (These 350-odd words in the comment took about 15 minutes to write, albeit with little polishing…)

    The number one tip I ever give for writing faster: learn how to type faster. I’m not the fastest typist in the world, but I found that honing my typing skills has helped immensely.

    ~Graham

  15. Clare Lynch says:

    Thanks for taking the time to write such a detailed and helpful comment, Graham. Some really great tips there!

  16. A very brilliant post indeed,
    I’ve never really taken the time to check my own writing speed but I do know that I’m neither fast nor slow.

    The only thing that I know that usually slows writing speed is when you don’t really have a complete data of what you’re writing. In a case where you ran out of idea while writing and you had to start researching again.

    But overall, if I know all I want to write about, I can write about 3000 words per day.

    Thanks for sharing

  17. Clare Lynch says:

    Thank you for your generous feedback, Theodore! Having a clear idea where you’re going from the outset certainly speeds up the writing process. But that balance between research and writing is always a tricky one, isn’t it?

  18. I am so glad that somebody has the guts to address this. As a newbie to copywriting and freelancing, I have been racking my brain with how to quote clients with time needed to create content. It really does depend on what you are writing and how knowledgeable you are on the subject. I am the type who needs a good deal of research time if I am going to get inspired, but less time to write and edit. If I don’t have the research time or prior knowledge, I spend more time editing. Another key point is getting your writing condensed while still getting across the information. This can be tricky and, I agree, more time-consuming. Thanks again for letting me know that there’s no “normal” pace.

  19. Clare Lynch says:

    Glad you found the post useful, Shannon. Pricing your work is one of the trickiest parts of the job!

  20. Alicia Rudzka says:

    Thank you for a great post. I’ve recently been thinking that I write so slowly because of my advancing years. Now I feel that I’m getting better 🙂

  21. Josephine G says:

    Great blog post! I’ve never timed myself but it can vary so much. I’ve done various types of business writing for around 20 years and sometimes I can rattle off a 250 word piece in what seems like minutes, whereas other things can be so tortuous! It will be useful in future to be more conscious of when I’m quick or slow and be more mindful of why! 🙂

  22. Clare thanks for this post, it is a great topic with some fascinating insights from others; and there isn’t a single answer, except in a vague sense. I recently wrote a 3000-word pitch which took me a day but I had done all the research beforehand. Conversely I usually allow a fortnight for a 3000-word Blog from start to finish, but that is not working on it full time. And typically that would be 2500 words in the first day, then -2000 +2000 +500 in the next 13 days; i.e. self-editing is what really takes the time. And I always write Beginning End Middle.

  23. Ros says:

    You always seem to post on exactly the topics that trouble me most Clare. How do you do it? 🙂 Some great analogies above, especially like the ‘brain vomit’. Getting started is my biggest problem. I try to spew that quick first draft but find it excruciatingly hard, even after 20 years in the job. Nice to know I’m not alone.

  24. Clare Lynch says:

    I feel your pain, Ros! My absolute favourite quote about writing is Thomas Mann’s “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”

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