How long does it take to write a book?

It’s a simple question. Seems like it should come with a simple answer.

But of course it depends.

Some books take six months to write and some take six years and some take longer. (Just ask Robert Caro. Or George R.R. Martin.)

I published my own book last year, I’m ghostwriting and book coaching for others, and I have edited and copy edited books as a freelancer. So that’s the experience I’m speaking from. Setting aside externally imposed deadlines, here are a few things I think determine how long it takes.

  • The size of your ambition. What are you trying to accomplish with your book? It’s OK NOT to aim for world peace or to describe the unifying theory of everything.
  • The bigger your ambition, the longer the book’s going to take. That’s not writerly wisdom; it’s just math. The more you want to accomplish, the more time you’ll need. When you have big ambition, you end up with a lot of raw material. I love this essay by Caro because it shares a great example of that.

    Even if you’re a confident writer, this organization stage—deciding what goes where, and crucially WHY things go where they go—just takes a long time when you have a lot of stuff you’re trying to say.

  • Clarity. A lot of people, (including Caro in this review) talk about knowing the book’s ending. When they knew the ending, the rest came together more quickly. With clarity like that, you make fewer trips down side roads that you thought were the main road. If you don’t have clarity, you can write your way to it. (I talk a lot about the process of writing your way to clarity in my book,Be About Something.)
  • Improving your estimates so you don’t frustrate yourself. You’re going to get interrupted a lot. Having kids makes it worse. But today, my kids are in daycare, and still I am getting interrupted dozens of times. I’m sitting outside because we don’t have internet outside. I figured that would improve my focus. But now that I’m out here I’m noticing hummingbirds whose red-orange necks shimmer in sunlight. Never seen them before.
  • Most interruptions are not that charming and a lot of them come from inside your own mind. You can shut off the internet, but what the heck do you do about your brain?

    If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. “Join ’em” means getting to know how often you’re interrupted and how long it takes for you to reset your focus. On average.

    As with almost all other big projects, you will overestimate how much you can get done in a day, in a week, in a month. Recalibrate your estimates based on what you learn from observing your writing sessions. Don’t base your estimates on arbitrary, theoretical expectations that you can’t meet and then beat yourself up for “falling behind.”

    Ta-da! THAT’S how long it takes to write a book.

    OK. No! But! These are the variables that determine how long it takes. As a ghostwriter, I don’t just write the book. I also account for these variables. It’s part of what I love about this book-writing partnership between my clients and me.

    M

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