How Many Words to Word My Way to a Novel?

How many novels would a novelist novel if a, err, doesn’t really work. Anyway, I mentioned in an earlier article that I belong to a lot of Facebook groups and hear a lot of the same questions over and over.

I often hear writers ask, “How long does it take to write a novel?” Or, “How long should a novel be?” My original article was intentionally snarky, but I felt like these questions deserved at least a serious attempt at an answer.

The second one is pretty easy to answer. If you plan on Indie Publishing, it doesn’t matter as much, but I would still make it at least 50,000 words long before I would call it a novel. 17,500–49,000 for a novella.

But if you plan on submitting it to literary agents or publishers then 70–80k is a safe bet in most cases. Always check the submission guidelines though before sending any query letters.

The quick answer to the first question is, “It varies from writer to writer.” Some can knock out a 100k word novel every three months, others might spend years to produce a 25k novella.

Math, oh no that dreaded thing with numbers that writers like myself fear and hate, can help break it down for you though.

Don’t worry though, someone far better at math than me already did it all for us and threw it up on the internet where it can be easily found verified with Google. The catch though is that the math is going to vary by individuals as well. Luckily I have one thoroughly tested guinea pig novelist I know very well, mainly me!

So when I write and things are really flowing well I can usually pump out around 1000 words an hour, a little more when I handwrite stuff. Googling the math tells me that at this pace if I can keep it up every day, can land me a 75k word first draft in about 2.5 months.

The truth though is I usually can’t keep up this pace for 2.5 months. I write best in 20-minute chunks of time. I have learned 500 words a day is a good goal for me. I can knock out 500 words in one 15–20-minute sitting. If I feel
inspired I can do this several times a day at least. And I’m planning on putting this one to the test in a big way in about a month.

The problem here though is even though I can definitely pound out a novel-length manuscript in 5 months pretty easily at the 500 words/20 minutes a day pace more than likely I’m going to render a stinking heap of confusing gibberish that won’t be worth the years it would take to struggle through an edit to make it a readable first draft.

A tool that helps me with this is an outline. How to make an outline again varies from writer to writer. There are a lot of great articles you can find all about it though.

Personally, I like very simple and skeletal outlines that I build on as I go. Usually, they only include the opening scene of the first chapter, a few scenes for the middle chapters and a final scene as a place holder since it will most likely change by the time the first draft is finished. I also use a very loose timeline, short descriptions of the main characters, and various plot notes that I add as I go along. If I’m writing Sci-Fi or Cyberpunk I will also keep a list of terminology I make up as well. I found this saves me a tremendous amount of time when it is time to edit and proofread my novel.

As a side note, I should mention that I write fiction much faster than I write non-fiction for some reason. This 690 word or so article (so far) has taken me the better part of a day to write. A similar length flash fiction piece would probably only take me 20–40 minutes max to write. thought I would mention it just in case you decide to try and write some non-fiction and suddenly find the speed of your writing has changed dramatically.

So that’s a brief little description of my method for getting the stories out of my head and on to the page. Every writer will have their own unique methods in the end, but I hope some of what I do will be useful for those of you thinking about attempting a novel.

Steve Howard has a BA in creative writing from Western Washington University. His self-published collection of short stories Satori in the SlipStream, Something Gaijin This Way Comes, and Fly Fishing Out of a Dead End Life were released in 2018. His poetry collection Diet of a Piss Poor Poet was released in 2019. He currently teaches English in Japan and is a semi-professional standup comedian.