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How Much Time Should You Spend Writing a Story?
That’s the wrong question, but I do have some answers
Writers often ask how long it takes me to write an article. As you might guess, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. In fact, the question is all wrong. But I can offer some helpful parameters and, more importantly, firm advice on how to use your time wisely. I’ll even tell you exactly how long it took to write this piece.
First, I want to emphasize that time spent rarely corresponds closely to story length. A long story can flow out of my fingers with ease; a short story can take forever as I struggle to be concise yet offer sufficient context and decide what wonderful bits to leave out. If neither of these scenarios sounds familiar, you have lots of headroom to grow as a writer (and I hope to be your coach and mentor).
Time doesn’t equate directly to quality, either. I have written properly contextualized, successful stories that took only an hour or so of actual writing, and I’ve spent 20+ hours writing and rewriting a story that I ended up not being particularly proud of, and which flopped with readers. And everything in between.
But the most important thing to know is this:
Some of the best writing comes when you spend less time writing and more time doing all the important things that go into the writing.
The wrong question
The very question “How much time should I spend writing a story?” is flawed. What you do before and after you write is at least as important, and can take considerable time — sometimes more time than the writing.
There’s the dreaming up, the research, the mental framing, the actual outlining, then finally the writing. Then the rewriting, more dreaming and cogitations, the jogging to, ahem, jog some headlines and better phrases out the brain, more research, more writing, and the proofreading. Then there’s the uncertainty, which starts the whole damn cycle over again. Not necessarily in that order!
The question of how long writers spend writing is, nonetheless, one I’ve asked writers for my Writers on Writing series (and yes, I wanted to see if they’d pick up on the fact that it’s the wrong question!). Here’s what a couple of them have said:
I have never tallied it all up, but I would say about five hours for a 1,500-word article. About half of that is spent researching, reaching out to other experts, and interviewing. The rest is spent writing—or staring off into space waiting for the words to arrive.
—Eric Kort, MD (full interview)
I can remember the high school and college years when I could sit down and write a logical, flowing, compelling essay on class tests in an hour or two. With neat handwriting too! Now I find that most of my writing is much slower, bogged down with finding the right words and phrases, so I often take 10-12 hours for a 2,000-word essay. I couldn’t even define how much of this is “writing” and how much is “editing.”
—John Kruse, MD, PhD (full interview)
How to use your time wisely
Here’s my best advice: As part of the scoping and brainstorming and planning process, give your story a likely time-investment limit. Estimate this before you start writing. The time estimate may vary considerably for many reasons, including where the story will publish and who the audience is. You might choose to invest no more than an hour or two in a blog post, for example, but you’ll need to budget a lot more time for that freelance piece The New York Times is paying for.
And don’t just consider the writing time. Add in the time needed before and after the actual writing. Force yourself to ponder a story’s importance, its possible length, how familiar you are with the subject matter, and thus how much research and/or interview time might be needed, and how difficult the ultimate writing will be. Then add some minutes or hours for taking a walk or a jog to clear your head.
Sometimes, giving serious thought to all that might encourage you to drop a story idea, or shelve it for later.
I generate far more story ideas than stories. Depending on my schedule and my mood, I might sometimes look for the one I can research and write in a few hours—get it done today—because that’s what I need on a given day to keep my brain engaged but not overloaded. Or I’ll get started on one that I know is going to require several days of stop-and-start effort, for the research, some interviews, some outlining — all before any writing.
But then, ultimately, don’t let your plan ruin a good story. You may get a piece half-written before realizing you don’t have what you need, and you have to do more research or find another expert to interview. Tough tooties. Do the work.
But often as not, if you have in advance a strong sense of the time investment a given story will take— two, five, 10 or 20+ hours of overall effort—you can then approach it knowing if you’ll be able to tackle it all in one go, or spread the effort across multiple days.
Have a long list of ideas
Because stories come in all shapes and sizes, time-wise, it’s smart to always have more than one ball in the air.
I’m usually juggling two or three stories at any given time. I might be writing one while another is fully researched and ready to be written while yet another is done but sitting in a drawer fermenting (I’ll look at it tomorrow to see if it’s the fine wine I imagined or if it’s turned to vinegar).
Plus I’ve always got a long list of ideas, written down, potential stories that either were not urgent, or I couldn’t quite flesh them out well enough to feel that starting them would be a good use of my time just then. They are there when I need them, like a rainy day fund.
A few of these ideas will never see the light of day; several will morph significantly from the original conception; some will get hung on a hook that presents itself in the news or via a trend I spot. Most will just be written as conceived, in due time, with perhaps more elbow grease required compared to the articles that seem to write themselves.
So how long did this story take?
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This story made it onto my idea list a few weeks ago. All I had was the headline and a paragraph that I’d written in an email to a writer who had asked the very question that generated the headline.
Then yesterday came. I hadn’t written this week’s free newsletter post yet. They go out on Wednesdays. And I had only a couple hours to spare. So I looked at my long list of ideas for one that would pretty much write itself, and chose this one. And yep, it took me two hours to write it (including editing time and some aimless wandering around the house).
So you want a bottom line? OK, here goes: In the end, every story should take exactly as much time as needed to make it worthy of your byline.
Questions? Thoughts? How do you manage your writing time? Chime in!
Related: How Long Should a Story Be?