Today, I am excited to introduce you to Matt Herron, who will discuss production rates for writers. Matt is working with me on the Story Craft Books Project, along with Kathryn Arnold, who has also written a guest post for the Word Essential blog.
I’m thrilled to have Matt on the team, because I knew he would bring strengths where I bring weaknesses, like on the technical side of things. And here I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that I hired Matt to redesign my site, www.wordessential.com. That’s right, he brought me, tech-baby that I am, from the 2000s to the 2010s. Matt already has a novel and a nonfiction book out in the world. He’s a natural leader, and if you’re in Austin, Texas, you should definitely check out his group, Indie Publishing Austin. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go track some writing hours.
The Key to Production Rates and Scheduling for Writers
Once you make writing a priority in your life, you’ll probably wonder how long your writing project will actually take to finish. Experienced writers talk a lot about production rates and deadlines. Since they make a living with their writing, they need to know how long it will take to get from idea to polished manuscript. It’s not just about setting deadlines—it’s about meeting them.
No matter where you are in your writing journey, you’ll also benefit from understanding your own production rate. It will make scheduling easier, and it will remove the stress of not knowing from your writing.
You can figure out your production rate as a writer with a little experience, a lot of data collection, and a willingness to be kind to yourself.
Learn from experience
During the production of my first novel, I was both successful and terribly unsuccessful at scheduling my writing.
In the first draft, I committed to writing 1,000 words per day. It took me about 2 months to finish the draft. I was off by a few days, but my schedule was accurate enough that I count it as a success. I feel comfortable with my production rate for first drafts.
When it came to the second draft, however, I missed the target by several months. I thought I could revise the novel in 4-6 weeks. It took me a full 12 weeks to get through the second draft because I kept running into sticky plot and character development issues.
It wasn’t long before I abandoned the timetable I was trying to meet for publication completely. I decided that making a good book was better than making a fast book. I published that novel in September of 2015—four months after the original deadline I set.
I’m glad I took the extra time to make that novel better, but it was a humbling experience. I came away with one big lesson: give yourself more time. The only way to truly know your rate of production as a writer is through experience.
If this is your first attempt at writing something (whether that’s a short story or a novel or anything else), I suggest you throw any attempt at scheduling out the window and content yourself with slow but steady progress.
“Write every day” is a common suggestion for new writers, and that’s because it works. If you sit down and add words to your manuscript every day, eventually you will have a finished draft. It’s not magic. It’s math.
Once you get to know yourself and your writing process, experiment with a few small deadlines, building up over time. Start with a daily rate, and work up to hit a certain number of words over a period of a month or two.
What exactly does ‘production rate’ mean for a writer?
When I say production rates, I mean the pace at which you go from idea to finished work. As you practice hitting your self-imposed deadlines, ask yourself questions like:
- How many words can I write per hour? Per day?
- How many drafts does it take me to complete a short story? A novel? A novel in an existing series?
- How long does it take me to revise a novel after I get feedback from my editor or beta readers?
- And if you’re self-publishing, how long does the post-production process (book cover, formatting, print layout and proofing, etc.) take?
If the answers don’t immediately pop into your brain, or you aren’t able to work them out by doing a little math based on your past experience, then you probably don’t have enough information to determine your production rate—yet.
How to determine your production rate
When you’re ready to define your production rate as a writer, put on your analyst hat and start collecting data.
Here are some suggestions:
- Record your output. Every time you write, record how many words you wrote and how long it took you. You can do more extensive data collection to figure out when you’re most productive (I.e. in the morning or late at night). Once you’ve done this for a while, you’ll be able to calculate a words per hour or words per day production rate.
- Determine how many drafts you need. Answer this question honestly based on your past experience: how many drafts does it take you to complete a book/short story/novel? For your schedule to be accurate, you need to include all of the drafts. Otherwise you’re just pulling the wool over your own eyes.
- Pad your schedules liberally. Using these figures, you’ll be able to work out a rough schedule. Say you can write 1,000 words a day for the first draft of a 60k word novel. That’s sixty days—but give yourself weekends off and time to think. If you don’t know where to start, consider giving yourself a weekly rate: “1,000 words a day, 5,000 words a week” gives you two off days where you can spend some time thinking, journaling, or just resting.
- Adjust based on experience. As you work using a schedule, you’ll begin to notice discrepancies. A rough draft took you two weeks less than expected, or the revision took you two months longer (like mine did). Record this data like you do everything else (I like using spreadsheets but a journal or calendar is just as good), and make adjustments based on your own personal experience.
- Be kind to yourself. Last, keep in mind that everyone is different. I know we all hear about those crazy prolific writers that publish six to twelve books a year or write 10,000 words a day, but you have to understand that those people have been writing for years, or at least writing full-time. They know their own production rate, and they’ve turned their writing process into a greased machine. Don’t compare yourself to them. You’re not them, you’re you. Push yourself, but be quick to forgive when you miss a deadline or have a bad day.
You’ll get better with practice, especially if you record the results and learn from them. The more you write, the better you’ll understand your own writing process. And the better your writing process, the faster you’ll be able to write.
How do you schedule your work? Do you use strict deadlines or just let it flow? Share your own process and experiences determining your writing production rate by leaving a reply in the comments.
Matt (MG) Herron writes science fiction thriller novels and nonfiction how-to guides. His first novel, The Auriga Project, was published in 2015. His first nonfiction book for writers, Scrivener Superpowers, was published in 2016. When he’s not bending words to his will, Matt organizes Indie Publishing Austin, a local Meetup for writers and authors. He also likes to climb mountains, throw a frisbee for his Boxer mutt, Elsa, and travel to expand his mind.
Get Your FREE Guide to ReVision
Join hundreds of Word Essential writers to receive inspirational writing tips and advice.