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How Long Does it Take to Write a Book?

course on how to write a book
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“How long does it take to write a book?” If you’ve asked this question, you’re not alone: I hear some version of this several times a month.

You probably know what I’m going to say next:

It depends.

The Factors

How long it takes to write a book depends on the type of book, how often you write and for how long, how quick or slow a writer you are (no judgment here), how many rounds of editing you do, how long the book is, how much research is required vs. how much you already know…and much more.

In a moment, we’ll break it down.

But first, I want to point out a few things.

  1. Let’s start with books for grown-ups, my specialty, as opposed to children’s books. Prescriptive books like how to, business or self help are my sweet spot. If you plan well, get really clear about your book concept from the outset, and work with an outline, you can sometimes have a first draft quite quickly. Later in this post I’ll provide some tips to do that. Participants in my Bring Your Book to Life(R) Program often complete a first draft of their nonfiction book within 8-12 weeks.
  2. Many people assume it will take FOREVER to write a book. Others assume they can whip up a book in a weekend. Ummm. Not usually.
  • To the FOREVER people, you’re likely to get what you expect. If you expect a long slog, you’re likely to get that. Consider that maybe there are some steps you can take to write a book with more ease and speed, especially if you plan it. That said, some books do take years. That’s okay, too.
  • To the weekend folks, maybe. Some books come fast, at least a first draft, but a weekend, well that’s a bit quick. Again, it depends on the type of book, but if you want to write an exceptional book that provides valuable information, transformation or entertainment, you may need to consider putting more time in. Just sayin’.
  • A journal can be written more quickly than other types of books, since the reader will do most of the writing! I wrote a very rough first draft of The Joy of Writing Journal (launch date moved to this fall) in a few hours BUT…the book went through many drafts after that first version, benefitting from beta readers’ feedback and professional editing by an editor colleague. The whole process took about five months. If I’d published something akin to that first draft, well, it would have been a mistake. Don’t rush your book — even a short one. Giving yourself extra time to get brilliant ideas (and genius feedback from your friends, beta readers and editor) usually means the difference between a satisfactory book and a compelling one.

To figure out the timing to write your book, let’s start with how long a book you’re writing.

How Long Should a Self-Help Book Be?

Books are getting shorter, no doubt.

Jess O’Brien, an acquisitions editor at New Harbinger, which specializes in self-help and psychology books, says, “Our self-help books have a range of lengths.” Jess suggests a typical 6″ x 9″ self-help book should be somewhere around 55,000 words.  “Small gift-sized books will run around 35,000 words. For oversized workbooks with big pages, it might be closer to 60,000 words.”

He adds, “From what I can see, all the different book formats continue to thrive–gift books for a short intro to a topic, trade sized for an authoritative treatment approach, and workbooks with fill-in’s for direct hands-on practice and tracking results.”

How Long Should a Memoir Be?

The length of a memoir can vary tremendously, but most popular memoirs are somewhere between 60,000 to 100,000 words (and occasionally longer). For a new author, literary agent Rachelle Gardner recommends staying under 75,000 words.

The important thing to remember when writing a memoir is to pick a theme or period of time to write about. You can include flashbacks or even flashforwards, but don’t try to encompass every big event in your life or every funny story. If it doesn’t have to do with the book’s theme, save it for another book (or a blog post).

It’s going to be difficult to decide on exact length until you’ve written the thing. Writing a memoir is an organic process and you’ll likely find yourself changing course, deleting and adding scenes throughout the journey. 

Again, my advice about giving yourself time holds true especially with a memoir. You need time for the material to gel. As my colleague book coach, editor and ghostwriter, Stuart Horwitz, says, “If you rush a book, you don’t allow time for nuance to show up.”

How Many Words Can You Write in a Week?

Once you have a sense of how many words you’re aiming for, you need to figure out how many words you can write in an hour and multiply that by the number of hours you plan to write each week for a  weekly estimate.

Let’s do the math:

1. How Much Time Can You Put into Writing a Book Each Week? Let’s say you put in 2 hours a day, 3 days a week. That’s six hours a week.

The more hours you put in, the sooner you’ll have the book, right? Be realistic, though. If you have too much on your plate, see what you can take off so that you truly can make the hours. Also, scheduling your book writing times in your calendar and keep it sacred. Otherwise, our calculations won’t mean much. Even worse, that book won’t get written! Are you committed? Yes? Good.

2. Divide the average (or a target number you decide upon) number of words for your genre by the number of words you expect to write a week. Voila, you have the number of weeks.

Over time, you may find you write more quickly than you did at first (or more slowly). You’ll want to evaluate your progress throughout the journey.

Types of Editing: Writing a Book Doesn’t End with Your First Draft

Okay, all our calculations have been for writing a first draft. Now comes the revision or editing process. Yikes! I mean, Yahoo! You’re going to get feedback and make your book even better.

Depending upon whom you ask, there are generally three types of editing you may need:   

  • Developmental Feedback: This is big picture feedback: what to add to the book, what to cut, where to move things, where the writing gets confusing, boring or repetitive and where it sings, for example. A developmental edit can help you make your stories, anecdotes or scenes come to life. At the end of the developmental edit, you’ll be doing more writing and fine tuning. You may go through more than one developmental edit.
  • Line Editing and/or copywriting: Line editing gets into the weeds of how you word things, line by line: syntax, tone, voice and more. Some people refer to this as copyediting, while others may mean “proofreading” when they refer to copyediting. 
  • Proofreading: Here’s where your editor fixes grammar, spelling and punctuation mistakes. If you do some additional editing, or even writing, after proofreading, you’ll want to have the manuscript proofread again.

Within the developmental feedback and line editing, it’s advisable to work with both some beta readers in your target market and find a professional editor. Find out what your beta readers like, where they get confused or bored, what they want more of, what’s missing and any other feedback they are willing to share.  Here’s how to find beta readers and questions to ask. I advise just a handful of beta readers. Do you really want to try and figure out what to do with feedback from 100 readers?

How to Find an Editor

My free ebook, 7 Questions to Ask an Editor Before You Hire Yours can help you find the right editor for you and your book.

So, how long does good editing take? Most editors will get back to you within several weeks of starting on a project. You will likely need more than one round of editing. If your book needs many changes, based on the developmental edit–such as writing new material or expanding upon stories, anecdotes or research–you’ll need to factor in more time to write again. Then it’s back to the editor, or perhaps your beta readers.

On the shorter end, allow for 6 to 8 weeks to fine tune your book if it’s in very solid condition and only needs a round of editing and a round of proofreading. On the longer end, and more common, if you’re revising several times, it could take over a year. In fact, sometimes it takes longer because you need to give your book some time to integrate and you come back to it with fresh ideas. That’s fine.

Don’t beat yourself up about taking time. Many of the award winning authors I’ve worked with have taken a hiatus or a year or more, gotten published by their top choice publisher or won prestigious book awards. Trust in your personal process.

7 Tips to Write a Book Quickly

Still, I get it. You may feel an urgency to write a book quickly. Here are a few tips to help you do just that:  

  • Before you write a single word of the book, get clear on your book concept: vision, readership, benefits of the reading this book, tone, voice, content, features and structure. 
  • Outline your book in detail: If you outline your book in detail before you start writing, you can cut out a lot of time 
  • Survey your readers: If you want to know what your target market wants, ask them! Use a free survey program like Survey Monkey to understand what your readers want before you start writing!  
  • Check out the Amazon reviews of comparative titles: Look for books your readers might buy about the subject and see what they loved about the books on the market and also what they didn’t like or thought was missing.  
  • Get beta feedback after writing your first chapter: Have one or two trusted beta readers from your target market read the first chapter you write. Ask them about the tone, voice and any ideas for features, what’s missing or what they want more of. They may share brilliant ideas for features or additional information you’ll want to put in all your chapters, and it can save time to get that feedback on chapter one, rather than having to rewrite an entire book with a new tone or voice, for example.
  • Work with an editor or coach or take a book writing course from the get-go: Working with a coach or in a book writing course can help you nail your book concept and structure before you start writing. It will likely save you time, even if your book concept continues to morph over time.  And you’re more likely to write the “right” book to meet your vision and goals when you have the feedback of a seasoned pro.
  • Find a way to be accountable: An editor, coach or book writing course can help you stay accountable, but you can also find other ways such as a friend who is also working on a project such as a book. Check in at least weekly to see that you are on track with what you committed to. Ask each other what’s working? What’s not working? How can you fix what’s not working and do more of what works?

Join Me for a Free Training Call

Bring Your Book to Life in 2021 - Free Training with Lisa Tener

Get the information you need to get going on your nonfiction book in this free training call “Bring Your Book to Life® in 2021.”

  • Wednesday, March 31
  • 8:30 pm ET / 5:30 pm PT

Join Me To Learn How To…

  • Get started, stay motivated and finish your exceptional book in record time.
  • Break through any self doubt that’s getting in the way.
  • Unlock your unique voice as a writer.
  • Have fun and stay connected to your inspiration throughout your book-writing journey.

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Lisa Tener

Lisa Tener is an award-winning book writing coach who assists writers in all aspects of the writing process—from writing a book proposal and getting published to finding one’s creative voice. Her clients have appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, CBS Early Show, The Montel Williams Show, CNN, Fox News, New Morning and much more. They blog on sites like The Huffington Post, Psychology Today and WebMD.

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