Recently, Dean Wesley Smith did some math to say that it's possible to make a US $40k income per year just from short fiction if you work at it for an average of an hour a day for 6 years.
You might've also seen some of the, ah, less than credulous responses to it.
I don't care if you think it's possible or impossible to follow his advice. Do. Not. Care. (But let's leave the hyperbolic comparisons to scams and pyramid schemes in private where they belong, okies? Thank you.)
Dean's specific pace suggestions might not work for you. Fine. But don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. He touches on something that's important for everyone, whether you're a writer, a student, or just happen to write e-mails as part of your job:
Know your average writing speed.
- average writing speed
- the average number of final words you can produce in an hour, including the time for researching, drafting, editing, revision, etc.
Why is it important to know this? So you can set goals that are realistic for you.
Let's back up a moment to what made me think about this: I'm a freelancer, as you might remember me mentioning before. Well, how do freelance writers set their rates?
Freelance writers set their rates based on how long a project will take them.
I long ago discovered that I can easily produce a basic 300-word informational article in an hour—meaning I research, write, and edit in that hour. Therefore, if I find myself on track to spend more than an hour trying to produce 300 words, I immediately know something's wrong.
That "something wrong" could range from me being hungry to the client nagging me every five minutes. (There's a reason I refuse to take clients who demand the right to contact me at all hours: They ignore the detail that they don't own my schedule. People who contact a freelance editor and expect them to be able to begin work immediately have the same problem, but that's another topic.)
It's come to my attention recently that, though I know how long it takes me to produce client work (where I'm told what to write), I don't know how long it takes me to write my own fiction, like short stories, novelettes, novels.
That means, as a businesswoman, I don't know how long it takes me to produce my products (my original stories). Can we spell "dumb"?
But this also applies to college students. Why? You need that number for time management.
How would I know what course load I could handle if I didn't have any idea how long homework would take me? I didn't. So whenever I started a semester, I'd look at the syllabus, pay attention to how long homework took me, and use those estimates to plan out my schedule.)
One key factor that'll help you—whether you're an author, writer, freelancer, student, whatever—is to figure out your average writing speed. That rate includes all researching, copyediting, proofreading, prep time—even rewriting, if you're into that.
(Note: Researching ≠ writing ≠ rewriting ≠ content editing ≠ line/copy editing ≠ proofreading—all are different skills.)
But you'll also want to know your average drafting speed (getting the words on the page), average editing speed, etc.
To figure out these averages, you'll need a chart or spreadsheet that keeps track of the following 5 things for each sitting:
- start time
- end time
- task (research, write, edit, prep work, cover design, querying, etc.—and make sure to keep names consistent. Don't call the same editing pass "line editing" on one day and "copyediting" on another.)
- total words in story at end or number of words written in that sitting
When your task changes, make a new entry in your chart.
From those numbers, you can figure out the following data:
- total time spent on each sitting: (start time, subtracted from end time)
- total time spent on the entire story: (all times, added together)
- total time spent on each task: (all the times for a specific task, added together)
- average number of words drafted per hour: (total number of words written, divided by the number of hours spend drafting)
- average number of words edited per hour: (total number of words edited, divided by the number of hours spent editing)
- average writing speed: (total number of words written, divided by total number of hours spent on the story)
If you wanted, you could also eye how time of day and sitting length affected your drafting speed. (Personally, I seem to do better in the morning, but my current sample size is too small to say that for sure. That might just be the narrator I've been on.)
It's best to keep track of multiple stories, of multiple lengths, with multiple types of narrators, etc.
In other words, keep track of everything you write.
Because your average writing speed will change, based on factors you don't expect. It might also change as you gain practice and grow as a writer. If you keep track, you'll be able to adapt to those changes.
So. Once you know your average writing speed—and remember what that is?
- average writing speed
- the average number of final words you can produce in an hour, including the time for drafting, editing, revision, etc.
So. Once you figure that out, you can do math to figure out what you can handle.
(If you're a non-"writer", you can stop reading now and apply the above to your required writing to help with time management. I'm moving into how to use that average writing speed to figure out writing goals.)
For example, I have a short story that I finished drafting the other night. It still needs the "read through for errors" pass, then the first reader pass, then the next proofread or two—but I've already done the initial cleanup. Including prep time, etc., I've spent about 7.4 hours on 7k words. It's looking as though I'll have the final story completed—and ready to self-publish or send to markets—within 10 hours of work time, so that'll put me at an average of about 750 words per hour, for final product.
Formula for figuring out how many words you could write in a year:
average words per hour
X # hours you'll work on it per day
X # days you'll work on it per week
X # weeks you'll work on it per year
= # words you could write in a year
Note that all of those have "you'll" in there, not "you can".
Your personality will determine if you adjust that final member to make it high or low. I've tried aiming high and flunked. Now that I'm aiming lower, I've started hitting some of my "high" goals. (The subconscious is a weird and sometimes scary thing.)
Let's run a few examples (all fictional but developed from paces I've seen actual folks give):
- Writer Amy Apple, who drafts 600 words in an hour, spends 2 more hours rewriting them, then spends 2 hours editing those words, and averages another hour on the proofreading, prepping, formatting, etc. of those words. Total time invested per 600 words: 6 hrs. Amy's average words per hour: 100.
- Writer Bern Banana, who drafts 2000 words in an hour, then spends an hour each revising, editing, proofreading, and prepping/formatting those words. Total time invested per 2000 words: 5 hrs. Bern's average words per hour: 500.
- Writer Cecil Celery, who drafts 900 words in an hour, with an average of 2 hours spent on other writing tasks for every hour spent writing. Total time invested per 900 words: 3 hrs. Cecil's average words per hour: 300.
- Writer Sara Strawberry, who drafts 2000 words in an hour and spends an average of an hour on the cleanup and other writing tasks for every hour spent writing. Total time invested per 2000 words: 2 hrs. Sara's average words per hour: 1k.
- Writer Tara Taro, who drafts 1000 words in an hour and spends an average of 20 minutes on other writing tasks for each hour spent writing. Total time invested per 1000 words: 1 hr, 20 min. Tara's average words per hour: 750.
I'm not saying any of these paces are bad or wrong or anything like that in themselves. They're examples. I might think that some of the paces are unwise, or I might suspect that some paces suggest you don't have all that many stories under your belt, but that's supposition, not fact.
Let's assume each of the writers work full-time. They can therefore only pull an average of an hour a weekday from their work schedules (1 hour a day, 5 days a week), though they'll sometimes have to pull that from their (off the clock!) lunch break. Let's assume they won't be able to write at all during their 2 weeks' vacation time, so that's 50 weeks a year. (Total time spent on their writing: 250 hours per year.)
How many ready-to-go words could each of our example writers produce in a year?
- Writer Amy Apple: 100 words an hour X 250 hours per year = 25k words per year
- Writer Bern Banana: 500 words an hour X 250 hours per year = 125k words per year
- Writer Cecil Celery: 300 words an hour X 250 hours per year = 75k words per year
- Writer Sara Strawberry: 1k words an hour X 250 hours per year = 250k words per year
- Writer Tara Taro: 750 words an hour X 250 hours per year = 187.5k words per year
What does this tell us?
This tells us how many words those writers could conceivably finalize in a year in the current time available to them. The writer could then use that knowledge to set writing goals that are realistic to them.
For example, does Amy Apple want to make her writing goal to be 5 finished short stories? A finished novella? A quarter of a novel?
What about Bern Banana? Does he want to write 2 short-ish novels, 4 novellas, 25 short stories, a combo?
But though Sara Strawberry might reasonably plan to write 50 short stories in a year in her "hour per weekday", that would not be reasonable for the likes of Amy Apple, Bern Banana, or Cecil Celery. Not yet, at least, though they might learn to do that.
Now, let's change gears and assume all of the example writers write "full-time". Let's assume they each spend 2 hours per day marketing, 1 on e-mail, 1 on their favorite writing forum. That leaves 4 hours a day to work on their writing.
Let's assume, again, that the writer will only work on weekdays (5 days a week), with 2 weeks off a year (so they work 50 weeks a year). Total time spent producing final draft words: 1k hours per year.
- Writer Amy Apple: 100 words an hour X 1k hours per year = 100k words per year
- Writer Bern Banana: 500 words an hour X 1k hours per year = 500k words per year
- Writer Cecil Celery: 300 words an hour X 1k hours per year = 300k words per year
- Writer Sara Strawberry: 1k words an hour X 1k hours per year = 1 mil words per year
- Writer Tara Taro: 750 words an hour X 1k hours per year = 750k words per year
But let's say our writers have health problems that leave them bedridden for an average of 1 week of every month. That means they can only work for 40 weeks out of the year. Let's also assume that their health only permits them to work an average of 10 hours per week. Total time spent producing final words: 400 hours per year.
- Writer Amy Apple: 100 words an hour X 400 hours per year = 40k words per year
- Writer Bern Banana: 500 words an hour X 400 hours per year = 200k words per year
- Writer Cecil Celery: 300 words an hour X 400 hours per year = 120k words per year
- Writer Sara Strawberry: 1k words an hour X 400 hours per year = 400k words per year
- Writer Tara Taro: 750 words an hour X 400 hours per year = 300k words per year
Again, these are all final words. (See earlier in the post where I gave how to figure out your "average words per hour" in the way I'm using the term.)
Now, keep track of the next several things you write, including research, editing time, etc. Figure out your average words per hour.
From there, figure out how many hours you can invest in your writing in a year. (Note: If life sends you a curveball, recalculate. Don't make yourself sick(er) by panicking and trying to hit your original goal.)
Once you have an estimate for how many words you can write in a year—slightly low, slightly high? You should know your own personality well enough to know which is better for you—plan what you'll write: short stories? Novels? Novellas? A mix?
Guess how long they'll be, on average, to estimate how many you'll produce.
If you really want to, you can use those production estimates to guess how much you'd earn from self-publishing them—and that's a good idea to do, if you plan on self-publishing—but you always have to remember that such estimated earnings are guesses, and to guess low. (Personally, I have income goals and production goals, and the production goals are intentionally high to the point that if I'm not hitting the income goals by the time I hit the associated production goals, I'm doing something wrong—but I also might not hit those income goals until I hit those production goals.)
Businesses can change rapidly. If we don't know the variable we do control—what we produce in a year, how much we are reasonably capable of writing—then how can we make informed decisions about the other variables?
Do you know your average writing speed (for producing final words)? Do you know your average drafting speed (for getting words down)? What do you think of using that average to figure out your writing goals? What are your writing goals?