First Draft Finish Line: What’s Your Speed?

How long should it take you to write the first draft of a novel? There’s no right answer, really, but as both a writer of novels and a former editor of authors who write novels, I’ve identified three categories that most writers fall into (more or less). This is all ballpark math, but it might be helpful to folks thinking about tackling that first novel.

Before I get into the details, let’s talk ground rules. I’ll be using daily word count (DWC) goals to measure writing speed in conjunction with a five-day “work” week. So, 1,000 words per day would be 5,000 words per week. I’m using 90,000 words as the target number for a completed first draft. That’s fairly average in the genres I write, but shorter or longer novels are not uncommon in other genres. Now, I know not everyone is comfortable with word count goals, so if you’d rather use time or pages written, just figure 1,000 words is roughly two hours of work and about five double-spaced pages.

Speed One – Easy Does It

  • DWC: 1,000
  • Weekly Word Count: 5,000
  • First Draft Completed: 18 weeks

Notice I didn’t call this speed slow. That’s for a couple of reasons. One, I think words like slow, deliberate, and so on have negative connotations that aren’t useful when discussing something as challenging as writing a novel. Two, 1,000 words a day is plenty fast most of the time, and it’ll get you a first draft in six months, which is entirely reasonable.

Writing at this speed has a lot of advantages. Let’s discuss some.

Not Overwhelming: I think 1,000 words per day is manageable for most folks. If you can write flash fiction, then writing 1,000 words per day on a novel probably won’t be too arduous.

Good For Complicated Novels: If you’re writing a book that needs you to do a lot of research, this is a comfortable pace. In fact, this what I’m doing right now, as my current work-in-progress requires me to do a fair amount of research while I write. It also has a lot of characters, so I find myself referring to my outline and character spreadsheets a lot. I can do all this, and still hit 1,000 words without feeling overwhelmed.

Good for Multitasking: If you write blog posts, articles, short stories, and other stuff on a daily basis, another 1,000 words on a novel is still manageable. Especially, if you do your 1,000 words on the week days, and then write shorts or whatever on the weekends.

Speed Two – The King Method

  • DWC: 2,000
  • Weekly Word Count: 10,000
  • First Draft Completed: 9 weeks

I call this the King method because this is the pace Stephen King writes. He does 2,000 words every day, but for we mere mortals, 2,000 words a day, five days a week is plenty.

So why write at this speed? Here are few reasons.

Fast but still Manageable. This is my usual pace for aa first draft, and I’ve found that it’s possible to knock out this many words in two to four hours depending on how I’m feeling, how much research I need to do, and so on. I generally don’t feel overwhelmed at this speed, and I always feel like I’m making good progress.

Solid Output for Deadlines: I’ve written a number of novels on deadlines, and, generally, if you can complete first drats in around nine weeks, most publishers are gonna be happy with that. Of course, there’s the usual revision and editing that needs to take place, but you’re getting a good jump on it.

Still Pretty Good for Multitasking: This pace still allows you to write other things, but I will say it drains the creative battery a bit more than 1,000 words.

Speed Three – The Deadline Looms

  • DWC: 3,000
  • Weekly Word Count: 15,000
  • First Draft Completed: 6 weeks

For most folks this is really moving, and I’ve done it once (finishing a first draft in 43 days). Unlike the other two speeds, there are some real drawbacks here as well as advantages.

Fast but All-Consuming: Knocking out a first draft in month and a half is really moving, and when I did it, I found I didn’t have much time for anything else. It requires a lot of commitment. But is it necessary? Probably not. I know plenty of authors who write fulltime, who don’t write this fast. In my opinion, it’s great for when you really need to churn out the words for a deadline, but I generally find it unsustainable.

Fresh in Your Mind: The advantage of this pace is that everything stays fresh in your mind. The plot, the characters, themes, all that stuff because you’re so immersed in the book. For me, 3,000 words is roughly one chapter, so when I did this, there was a real feeling of completion and progress, because I’d finished an entire beat in my outline. In other words, you’re less likely to forget details about the plot of characters at this pace because, well, it wasn’t that long ago that you write about them.

I chose these three speeds because they’re paces I’ve actually written, and I can relate firsthand knowledge. I’ll reiterate, however, that there is no right speed to write a novel (unless you have a deadline, and then you should, you know, hit that deadline). I started at 1,000 words, but, hell, if all you have time for is 500 words per day or 250 or whatever, then do that. Those words add up, and if you keep plugging, you’ll have a first draft before you know it. What I’m saying is that, most of the time, the right speed is one you can maintain and one that results in a finished first draft.

What’s your speed? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

2 Comments on “First Draft Finish Line: What’s Your Speed?

  1. Have you not skipped a step? That being the planning and outline step. How long does that take you?

    • Good question, but hard to quantify. Not everyone outlines, so they might have been thinking about (prepping for) the novel for months or even years before they actually put words on a page.

      For me, you could probably add a week to these totals where I’m actually writing the outline, but, as I mentioned above, I’ve been thinking about my current WIP for years.

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