Some Thoughts On Writing Speed

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I recently read a really interesting article on writing speed on Dean Wesley Smith’s blog. It’s a few years old now, but still relevant.

Without going into a lot of detail (because that would spoil the article for you), he talks about how people made really good livings writing in the Pulp era and how much of that came to output speed, about the history of the pulps, about differences in word lengths, and about how the fiction market as a whole has changed, evolved, and is leading us into a new Pulp era.

An era where your earning potential is going to be heavily affected by your writing speed.

And edits and rewriting kill speed.

The basic theory goes that, assuming 1000 words per hour finished production, Pulp Speed One is 1,000,000 finished words per year.

Holy smoking keyboard, Batman!

Finished words.

Mr. Smith makes the argument that none of the great Pulp writers and most of the great literary writers never rewrote anything. Period. Rewriting wasn’t a big thing until the 1970s.

Pulp Speeds Two through Six add another 200,000 finished words per year. If you’re counting, that means that at PS6, you’re producing 2 Million finished words per year. 8 hours per day, 5 days per week, 50 days per year. 2 Million words.

Now, I don’t work that way. I’m not sure I can.

My basic writing process (which I know I’ve discussed a number of times) has six steps:

0th Draft = Plotting and Outlining

1st Draft = Story Dump

Revision Notes = read through the story and identify issues

2nd Draft = fix issues

3rd Draft = make it pretty

4th Draft = read it aloud to make sure I’ve caught everything

Now, from practice I know my drafting speed is about 1800 words per hour (thirty words per minute) most of the time when I know the story I’m trying to tell. Doing some measurements at the various points, and making word count comparisons to figure out how much, on average, word counts change from draft to draft, I come up with 600 finished words per hour, on average, when I’m working on fiction.

I spend, on average, around 20 hours per week on writing activities.

If I wrote, edited, polished, only fiction during those 20 hours, I should, at the end of the year, manage about 624,000 words worth of finished fiction.

However, knowing my historical average length in the various length classifications used by SFWA, one year of writing, if I hit those weekly numbers, should compute to:

6 Novels

2 Novellas

4 Novelettes

12 Short Stories

12 Flash Pieces

And leave room for about 70,000 words of polished non-fiction left over. Since my non-fiction is mainly blog posts and journal entries, that 70 is probably more like 100 as I don’t edit as heavily, especially the journals.

But by Mr. Smith’s counting, I haven’t come near Pulp Speed One yet. It would take me 32 hours of dedicated writing per week, at that same hourly production level to get there, and 64 hours per week to reach Pulp Six.

Interestingly, if I count my current commuting time, I spend about 50 hours per week out of the house. That would get me to within spitting distance of Pulp 4 and three cents per word might let me not have a day job. You know, if I sold every word.


Because rewriting kills speed.

I’m not sure it’s in my nature to write one-draft fiction, and not just because I dictate a lot of my first drafts. Although, there have been times where I’ve let dictation cleanup and second draft be the same thing. When that happens, I’m usually fixing enough that the third draft doesn’t require nearly as much effort – if I’m cleaning up that much, it makes sense to make things pretty at the same time. But it requires a lot of willpower during the Revision Notes phase.

Still, maybe that’s a way to boost my production.

I keep fairly detailed track of how much I’m writing, so I’m well aware of production levels at any given moment. The math is always fun. I’m in my 10th straight month of solid production, although there was a break that lasted about three weeks in late October and early November last year.

But I’m a touch over 600,000 words of total production since I started back into things on the 30th of July last year.

And that makes me happy.

Getting paid for some of those words would be cool, too, but quantity lends itself to the eventual production of quality when it comes to creative endeavours. My time will come.

And I’ve got a lot of stories I want to tell.

Be well, everyone.

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