The Writing Life: How Many Hours Do You Write Every Day?

It’s a question every serious writer, professional or not, eventually gets asked. If you haven’t encountered it, just wait. You will.

Long before our first sales, most of us have figured out that writing isn’t a 9 to 5 job, complete with OSHA-approved coffee breaks. We write when we can, if we have day jobs or families. We write when we must, whether it be to deadline or because the story has taken over our brains and we have no choice. Some stories are content to allow us to meander gently through them, a page or two now and again, a conversation here or there, or a scene at a time. Others are aptly described as Attack Chapters or Attack Novels. Occasionally, we write the way we would like to.

I have come to appreciate that every writer has her or his own pace of working. By this, I mean that some of us are more suited by creative temperament to different styles. Sometimes people are described as “skimmers” or “deep divers,” but I don’t like those terms. There’s an implied value judgment that somehow, “skimming” is less profound or significant than “deep.” The most important thing to remember is that whatever works for you is the best.

Another way to think about “skimming” is “slow and steady wins the race.” Writers who are most comfortable in this mode work on a regular schedule, often every day, sometimes in multiple daily sessions broken by other activities.

My version of “skimming” reflects several factors: one, my body simply isn’t happy sitting in one place for any great length of time, and it isn’t going to get better with age. The challenge then becomes how to maintain my focus when I’m “on a roll” and simply must get up and move around. I choose boring activities, things like sweeping the porch that require little verbal concentration and allow me to mull over the scene in question. This strategy may also require training family members not to approach when mom has “that look” on her face.

Secondly, my personal history has given me lots of practice in short bursts of writing because I made my first professional sale when my oldest daughter was still a baby. I’ve written about this in How I Write When There Is No Time. Nobody had told me that writers “should” be churning out pages 8 hours a day. My choice was to use the little bits of time I had or to not write at all. I became skillful in “pre-writing,” knowing exactly what I was going to write as soon as I got 10 minutes at the typewriter. (Even 5 minutes would have been better than nothing!) We tend to prefer the mode in which we first learned to write, since it is more familiar.

Some writers who have day jobs find themselves with a choice between carving out small amounts of time during the week or committing the entire weekend to marathon writing. Which is better? Neither is “better” — it all depends. Most of us prefer one or the other, but if we’re mindful (and fortunate) we can learn to work in both ways. Then we have choices.

This happened to me about 10 years into my professional career, when my family lived in France for the better part of a year. Both my children were in school and I couldn’t do my previous day job. I sat down to write…and finished the scene I had carefully rehearsed in my mind. Then what? I wondered. Six hours and a blank screen stretched before me. I had to learn a different pace, one in which the processes of imagining a scene and writing it down were no longer separate but overlapping or simultaneous. I also needed to sustain the process over longer periods of time. I likened the two styles to “100 yard dash” versus “marathon.”

There are marathons and then there are marathons. Some writers (and many scientists and engineers I know) will plunge into a project and not emerge until 10 or 12 or 14 hours later. (In between projects, they tend not to write at all.) They immerse themselves in the world and its story. Only after a long period of exploration do complexities of plot and character, and subtleties of theme arise. Note that this is not the only way to achieve richness in writing; it is one way that works for some people.

Me, I’d go numb in mind and bottom. Isn’t it a good thing there is no Writing Style Police?

I’ve been talking about the process of generating prose, of writing that first draft. Revision is for many of us a whole “‘nother ball of wax.” For me, revision requires a shift in depth. At this stage, I need to broaden my focus, to see more of the picture at once. Time and obsession are my keys to a more panoramic view. Again, this is a personal style. Other writers find revision tiring because of the intensity of attention it requires, so they stay alert and do better with shorter sessions.

All of which leads up to how I answer the question about how many hours I write every day?

“Oh,” I say, “about a year for a novel.”

A year?

That usually shuts them up.

Deborah J. Ross has been writing fantasy and science fiction professionally since 1982. Her first novel, Jaydium, will soon be serialized and released as an ebook here on Book View Cafe.



The Writing Life: How Many Hours Do You Write Every Day? — 7 Comments

  1. I really loved this post. I often go through long periods of being unable (through external circumstances) to write, but it’s not as if I don’t do constant “pre-writing” for when I will have the time. On a day where I can’t write, I might spend upwards of nine hours doing mental pre-writing in the background while I do whatever it is that keeps me from physical production of words. And then, when I have a few hours free, I’ll churn out several-thousand words in one sitting. Say, 8,000 words in two hours. When I write without all that pre-writing, I might only get a 2000 words in that period of time.

    The other main point I found useful is being able to work in many different modes. I know some writer’s who do a lot of short stints, and others who need one uninterrupted period to work. But I think the most efficient and worthwhile structure is being able to make use of whatever time you have to the fullest. If you have eight hours to write: great. Five minutes? That’s a few hundred words, and those small chunks can really add up.

  2. That’s fatal for some of us, you know. Distracted by knitting, diverted by sewing a summer dress, the muse completely taken up with the idea of painting abstracts in neon acrylic hues, the fiction shunts to the back burner.

    Brenda (almost infinitely distractible)

  3. Back burner is not necessarily a bad thing. I think it depends on how driven you are to keep hammering away at the writing project. Over the years, I’ve developed a sense of what is productive distraction for me (i.e., I need to get my front-brain offline so my back-brain can chew on a problem) and what is a warning sign. If I’m REALLY not wanting to write, either I’ve boxed myself into a hole and my Muse is getting claustrophobic fits or something else is going on. In either case, distractability is my friend because it lets me know there’s something in either this project or my unbalanced life that needs care.

  4. I completely agree. You do what works for you. I sometimes feel guilty that I can’t sit at a computer and write for hours on end. That only very rarely do the words pour out of me and I can’t stop. But I have gotten pretty good at getting a slow trickle each day. I’ve written 300 words per day on average since the start of the year. Some of that have been book reviews on my blog and some have been planning notes, but that’s still over 20,000 words this year, and it’s only March.

    You do what works for you. Grahame Greene wrote 500 words per day. Scott Lynch tries to write 9-5 like a full-time job. You do what works and you keep doing it.

  5. Good for you, Laura! Thinking long-terms is a wonderful strategy. If you can write 300 words 5 days a week, you can write a novel in a little over a year.

    Some days I’m very productive. Other days, I consider it a triumph if I’m up, my teeth brushed, I’m wearing clean underwear, and I have a cup of tea in hand. (Sometimes on those days, I “settle” later in the day and get a lot done, anyway. Aren’t people strange?)

  6. As someone who’s having an internet-and-cookies day instead of working on my due-in-June book, I really appreciate this post!