People often ask me how long it took me to write something: a book, a blog post, a paper, whatever.
I suspect what they want to know is this: how many hours did you put into it?
I never know how to answer. Even if I tracked my time, where would I draw the line? Would I count the time spent figuring out what to write, or contemplating the topic while on a walk, or in bed in the early morning hours? And for a book, do I count the months or years spent reading, researching, and talking with people?
Some of my most productive “writing” time doesn’t look anything like work.
Writing isn’t just one act – it’s many. This fundamental misunderstanding causes us to dramatically over- or under-estimate the time we need to do something.
Why it might take more time than you plan
We’re often unpleasantly surprised by the amount of time a project takes, whether it’s a simple blog post or a book, because we forget to plan for the entire process.
We think about the act of writing, but not
- Revising and polishing
- Proofreading and formatting
Mo Bunnell is a business author who actually tracked the time he spent writing his book, The Snowball System. His breakdown is fascinating. (You can watch the video below.)
To sum up, of the more than 700 hours he spent on the book, about 389 were spent on writing and revision. There’s a great deal of work beyond writing and editing.
Writing a book is an extreme case. You’ll put in a great deal of work on the back end to get through publication and book launch.
But the general concept holds true for nearly any important writing. Think about the project holistically.
What you can do:
- Don’t neglect the tasks surrounding the actual drafting.
- If you care about the quality of your writing, leave sufficient time for revision and editing.
Why it might take less time
If that was the glass-half-empty part, here’s the good news: Writing may take less time than you think, if you take advantage of your background mental processes.
Much of the work of conjuring ideas happens in the unseen corners of the mind, beyond the level of conscious cognition.
The writer who knows how to activate subconscious mental processes has an unfair advantage in terms of productivity.
When you’ve spent time pondering and incubating your topic, then the words come quickly while drafting. You get into the zone, the words flow, and your first pass at something is pretty darned decent. Phrases, metaphors, and concepts swirl around in your head and appear when summoned.
That’s when writing is fun.
The good news is, you can do things to set yourself up to have more of this fluid and fun writing.
What you can do:
Leave time in your schedule for your subconscious processes to work on your topic. (Psychologists call this unseen creative work incubation.)
To kick-start this offline work, you have to first engage with the topic. As soon as possible, start working on your writing project, through:
- Research and note-taking
- Talking with other people
Then give yourself a break, letting it simmer in your head and reminding yourself of the project. If time is short, try taking a walk while occasionally reminding yourself, gently, about the writing project.
When it comes time to actually write, you may be pleasantly surprised by how quickly you can finish the first draft.
That’s how writing can take less time, at least at the keyboard.
Read more about tuning your mental processes in The Writer’s Process: Getting Your Brain in Gear.
Or check out these other related posts: