How long does it take to write a novel? The answer to that question depends on which author you ask and many other factors. Genre and the volume of research your story requires, for example. Read more on how long it takes to write a typical 90,000-word paperback, plus hacks to finish your project faster:
How long is the average novel?
It makes sense to start with a word count. How long is the average novel?
According to Amazon’s text stats as quoted by Huffpost in 2012, the average book was then around 64,000 words long.
Joe Bunting over at The Write Practice says:
As a general rule, the sweet spot for a novel is 90,000 words.Joe Bunting, ‘Word Count: How many words in a novel?’
Bunting also raises some caveats, such as the fact that the length of novels is not standardized.
And it’s true, look at the average epic fantasy novel’s length. Northern Lights (published as The Golden Compass in the US), the first in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, is an epic 112,815 words.
Then there are novellas such as William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying that have all the characterization, form, symbolism and craft of a novel but run much shorter (AILD is 56,695 words).
American author Don DeLillo once said:
It’s my contention that each book creates its own structure and its own length. I’ve written three or four slim books. It may be that the next novel is a big one, but I don’t know.Don DeLillo, interviewed by Robert McCrum, The Guardian
Let’s park that idea – that a book creates its own structure. Cuts or expansions can be made to market, to editors’ suggestions or publishers’ requirements, after the first discovery draft.
How long it takes to write a 90,000-word novel
Taking the ‘sweet spot’ Joe Bunting talks about, of 90,000 words, how long will this take you?
Assuming you write 500 words every day without a break (an unlikely assumption – life happens!), this would take you 180 days. Roughly a quarter of a year. For a draft, mind you, and not necessarily something polished and publishable.
If you can build the writing habit to write 500 words every day without fail, and even increase this count gradually, you could in theory write two full drafts in a year – the ‘down draft’ (getting everything down on the page) and the ‘up draft’ (picking up detail, nuance, and incorporating key changes).
How long it actually takes to write a book
Many authors start on the writing journey expecting to write a novel in 180 days or less. This is doable. Many authors who take part in the annual NaNoWriMo challenge (to write a 50,000-word MS in the month of November) achieve the goal (the varying quality or polish of writing output due to the time limit aside).
The truth is that it takes authors wildly varying time to write a novel. Working slow and steady is no less valid than churning out pages and pages in a fever dream.
Stopping to tweak as you go slows you down. Finding halfway in that you don’t have the structure or story development you needed to put in from the start slows you down.
A Now Novel writing coach shared that her first book took fifteen years to write because it took her some time to find its specific structure, for the exact pieces to fall into place.
On the other hand, authors on our Group Coaching plan have shared success stories such as finishing their drafts within two months, so it is possible to make swift progress.
How long it actually takes to write a novel depends on factors both within and beyond your control. Factors such as:
- Continuity (of process)
- Making (not having) time to write
- Competition for your time to write
So how can you finish your novel faster?
How to finish writing a novel faster: 7 hacks
- Switch off distraction
- Don’t stop to tweak
- Start with the structure of a plan
- Find what you need to show up and write
- Try productivity techniques
- Get a writing partner
- Plan a few steps ahead
Let’s examine each of these hacks for writing faster briefly:
Switch off distraction
American author Jonathan Franzen writes about the absolute necessity of tuning out life’s background noise when you write.
I need to isolate myself at the office, because I’m easily distracted and modern life has become extremely distracting. Distraction pours through every portal, especially through the internet.Jonathan Franzen, ‘Modern life has become extremely distracting, The Guardian, October 2015
The internet and other attention fiends compete.
Switch off your phone when you draft (don’t give in to the temptation of social media scrolling). Create a space for writing that fosters focus (the internet can foster this too – for example, in a writing sprint. More on that below).
Don’t stop to tweak
If you ask two authors how long it takes to write a novel, the author who says more than a year may well be a tweaker.
Fussing and fiddling with a draft is editing, not writing. It slows you down.
If you can’t help yourself searching for the mot juste (the right word), try turning your font white to match the page, so it’s like you’re using invisible ink (then ctrl-all and turn your font back to black before you save your progress for the day).
Start with the structure of a plan
Planning might seem like extra time and labor.
In reality, it can save you a lot of time later, because you have a map with the arterial routes through your story.
You can always backtrack to the well-lit road when you know that it’s there and can see its distant glow from where your story stands.
Create a guiding plan
Create an outline in structured, prompted steps in the Now Novel process and simplify the challenge of writing a longer story.LEARN MORE
Find what you need to show up and write
How long it takes to finish writing a book depends on how often you show up, sit down, and put words on the page.
It sounds easy, but as many writers can attest it isn’t always. It’s often pulling-your-hair-out grueling, in fact.
Exercises such as writing Morning Pages (at least in the run-up to starting a new story) are great for stirring up ideas and making yourself get into a habit. It’s like warming up a muscle. That pitchy singer at the half-time show? Chances are they didn’t do any warmup.
Aside from warming up (or building a repeatable process), what else makes it easier to write?
Journaling your progress is a helpful way to catch what makes the task easier and what gets in the way. Keep this part of the process brief and rough, though – it shouldn’t eat into large chunks of drafting or story planning time.
Try productivity techniques
There are many approaches to productivity. Habit-stacking is one we’ve written about before, for building small, replicable actions you want by linking them to ones you do almost without thinking.
The Pomodoro Technique is another (it involves breaking extended periods of work into smaller sessions with breaks, to avoid burnout and extend focus).
The right productivity hack could save you a lot of wasted time procrastinating and writing with reduced efficiency.
Get a writing partner
What is a writing partner?
They’re an accountability bringer who helps you stay focused on your goals and keep showing up to honor them.
Writing sprints (where you meet in person or virtually with other writers and sit in silence, writing together, for a set time) are also effective.
Now Novel Group Coaching members have finished drafts in less than 180 days simply by showing up to sessions like these and putting in the work.
Plan a few steps ahead
If you feel that planning your story in exhaustive detail will wear you out, try a different tack. Plan a few steps ahead.
This could mean creating succinct scene outlines before you launch into the next two scenes. Read tips on organizing scene outlines using Now Novel’s story dashboard here.
The above are just seven ways to finish writing a novel a little faster.
What methods do you use to work smarter rather than harder? Share any tips in the comments, and join Now Novel for help developing and finishing your novel each step of the way.
5 replies on “How long it takes to write a novel (hacks to finish faster)”
I think it’s also important to mention that it takes even longer to edit than to write. I’m pretty sure some of those estimates for time aren’t just taking into account the initial writing stage that people tend to enjoy.
[…] How long it takes to write a novel […]
I think one book per year is about it for me. But I have yet to devote myself full-time to it, or even half-time, for that matter. Still, I’m working on a book that I hope to self-publish in early 2017. I began writing it Summer 2015, but then had to set aside it for 5 months. It’s already approaching 80,000 words, and is far from being finished.
I find it progressively more difficult to finish the longer my novel becomes and the more time I spend on it. Mostly because this story is written in first person POV and present tense. So the more I write the more it feels like I repeat myself. I’m at 65k words or so. The ctrl+f to just check a how many times I have used a certain phrase or words is a curse that I can’t avoid. How do I even manage to ever finish when all my other projects start looking more compelling because in those I haven’t reached the point when I feel restricted by myself?
ps. sorry for my grammar/lengthy sentences. English is not my first language. 🙂
Hi Tomb, thank you for your question and for reading our blog. This is definitely something an editor could/would help with, especially in a developmental edit. I’d recommend a round of editing if you tend to repeat yourself, since a professional with a good grasp of style and flow can make judicious tweaks that bring out the leaner, impactful prose that’s buried within repetitious writing.
If this is a first or early draft, though, do give yourself permission to repeat yourself and let it be ‘messy’. Then when you’re finished the complete draft, put it aside for a few days, then read through from start to finish, and just highlight and comment in the margin anything that seems like repetition to be cut (but leave the actual cutting until you’ve finished that process). Compartmentalizing the tasks this way makes each a little easier, in my experience. I hope this helps!