How long does it take to write a book?

July 13, 2011 · 24 comments

Over lunch recently with a pair of travelers who are considering writing a book, one asked me how long it took me to write mine.

“More than a year,” I told him. “I worked on it full time for a year, then revised while getting my social-media business up and running.”

“A year?!” he said, practically gaping. “That’s a long time.”

It is a long time. Writing a book is no small project, of course, but sometimes I wonder what took me so long to write — and revise and revise and revise and revise and revise — 85,000 words. Of course, it’s not the writing that takes a long while; after writing on deadline for a newspaper, I know how to crank out paragraphs. It’s the telling of the story that takes time, discovering not what to write but how to write it.

Yet when I mentioned this to an author during my second writer’s residency at The Hambidge Center, she had the opposite reaction. “Two years for a revised version of your book? That’s nothing.” Plenty of authors take years to write a book, she said, and a year and a half or two years is a totally reasonable goal.

Of course, it depends on the type of book you’re writing, the length, your experience, whether it requires research and more. We often hear about how popular novelists pump out a book or more each year, while I read somewhere that it took Rebecca Skloot a decade to complete her fabulous The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

So I think the only answer to this question is that it takes as long as it takes. Likely longer than you expect. No matter how many months or years you plan to spend writing, a book is the kind of project you don’t want to take on unless you’re dedicated to spending a whole lot of quality time with it.

How long did it take you (or is taking you) to write your book?

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Lisa McKay July 13, 2011 at 6:15 am

Oh, if you count from when I first started, my first novel took eleven years (though if you count from when I came back to it seriously – six years to write, one to revise). I’m getting faster though – my second only took three years (and three full drafts). I’m a tortoise of a writer.
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kate | transatlantic sketches July 13, 2011 at 7:32 am

when i first read “one year to write,” my first thought was, “wow! she must have been writing quickly!!” more than anything else, i’m totally impressed with your drive and persistence to keep at it while still keeping all your other balls in the air – being a journalist, maintaining the blog, coaching… that’s a lot of psychological toughness, says this girl. it would be so easy to just take it slowly and work on your book little by little while other things take up your time.

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Alexis Grant July 13, 2011 at 9:49 am

Well, that first year I was working exclusively on the book — it only became a side gig recently! But thanks 🙂

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Emma July 13, 2011 at 9:33 am

It took me about 18 months to write and revise, revise, revise my memoir. I will no doubt spend more time on revisions if/when I find an agent and publisher.
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Michelle Cusolito July 13, 2011 at 10:02 am

I draw from my experiences abroad to write stories for children. I’ve been working on a 750 word picture book for about 3 months now. I don’t write full-time, but my co-author and I have been working steadily in those 3 months-whether sitting at a computer actively writing or batting ideas around in our heads. We’ve had multiple critiques that lead to 9 drafts to date. Being limited to a small word count forces you to make every single word the best possible word to tell that story. It’s similar to writing poetry in that regard.

My picture book manuscript, “When Camels Dance” (set in Niger West Africa) went through 12 complete revisions and multiple reads for both story critique and content accuracy.
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alisha July 13, 2011 at 11:30 am

I’m consistently amazed at how long it’s taking me to write a book! I wrote full-time for six months, moved across the world and lost some momentum, and now write about 10-15 hours per week. Since when I started it’s been about a year and a half and I still have much more to go! One day…:)

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Hope Clark July 13, 2011 at 1:41 pm

My first novel took twelve years. My second took 18 months. My third the same as the second, and is still under construction. My nonfiction book, The Shy Writer, however, took eight months. I can spit out nonfiction like it was breathing. Fiction and creative nonfiction takes me longer. It’s reaching into a different side of my brain. But when someone tells me they took a few months to write their book, especially their first book, I’m skeptical. Then, if they tell me it’s self-published, I’m turned off. We’re in an instant world, but writing is not instant in any way, shape or form. The best writing takes a serious infusion of time. And yes, with each edit it gets better. MUCH better. Only you choose how good you want it to be…when you decide to stop working on it.

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Alexis Grant July 13, 2011 at 10:10 pm

I’m the same way, Hope! I can spit out nonfiction, too, but creative writing requires hitting the trenches!

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Meredith Jaeger July 14, 2011 at 2:09 am

It has taken me two years to write and revise what I believe is now (finally!) the draft of my novel that will get me an agent. I wrote the first draft in six months and it was 134,000 words long. Now, a year and a half later, I have 82,000 polished words on submission. It took joining a critique group to show me that there was still more revision to do. I’m going to take everything I’ve learned to make writing the second book a faster process!

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Lee Cart July 14, 2011 at 9:28 am

Started my novel in January, took a month+ off due to health reasons but have 120 pages, with probably another 80 pages to wrap it all up. Working full-time and writing on the weekends means little sleep, but it definitely is worth it! My goal is to be able to start revisions by the new year, if not sooner.

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Michelle July 14, 2011 at 2:54 pm

1.5 years, so far, but long from done!

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kasey July 14, 2011 at 3:24 pm

Alexis – What a great question! I think a helpful follow-up question to inform someone new to the writing world is How long did it take you to get your book Published? Love your blogs!

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Kim Kircher July 14, 2011 at 5:55 pm

It took me almost two years to come up the fully revised version of my memoir, The Next Fifteen Minutes. Once I found a publisher, I had some further edits to do, which took a few months. Now, three years after starting, it will be published in October. That’s a pretty long project to stay excited about.
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Torre DeRoche July 16, 2011 at 8:59 am

I was feeling a bit ashamed of how long it has taken me to write my memoir until I read the comments above and realized two years is pretty standard. The editing and polishing has been a long process.
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Caszie July 19, 2011 at 11:06 am

I thought I was on a roll when the free write took less than two months. That was almost a year ago. And I foresee at least another year of revisions.

But I still love the process. Warts and all.
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Lori January 14, 2012 at 5:31 pm

It took me 21 months to get the first draft of my YA novel written. I’ve been revising it now for only one month, but I expect it will take another six months to a year before I finish. So, two to three years, probably. And that doesn’t count the three years I spent just *thinking* about the story in my head!

I’ve been teaching full-time for years, so I do all of my creative writing between grading papers and develop course content. I wish I could write full-time! Oh, to dream, to dream . . .

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Rob March 18, 2013 at 4:29 pm

I came up with an idea in late 2004 and have working on this piece ever since. It is roughly 92,000 words currently. And it may have to spread out into two books (if the first is successful). I hope to pump out the final before 2015.

I also work full time and am in school full time as well. So, it is no easy task by any means.

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Shovon Chowdhury July 31, 2013 at 12:11 am

I took eleven years. I was writing about the near future, and it kept changing.

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Donna August 13, 2013 at 3:13 am

I went on holiday to a quiet cabin and in two weeks time, was able to pump out some of my best work. That’s 72,000 words in just two weeks. Of course I’m revising now so that’ll tack on time. The first book I wrote was actually a series and it was (before being cut up into separate books) over 300,000 words and I wrote that in a year as well. I’m thinking that I write very, very fast. But also, I don’t have many distractions. I am living in the Netherlands after moving to be with my boyfriend. I don’t have a job or any daily routine. So I end up spending at least 5 hours writing a day. I’m very lucky to be in the situation I am in- especially considering that I am a writer.

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Carolyn Cornell Holland January 17, 2014 at 3:08 pm

I’m still writing the first draft of a historical romance novel that began evolving in year 2000—this is 2014. How long, oh how long? http://www.intertwinedlove.wordpress.com (novel site) and http://www.carolyncholland.wordpress.com (online magazine)
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Joe June 30, 2015 at 12:57 pm

I have an idea for a book/novella/novel, the ideas swim constantly, yet I haven’t wrote anything down, more things come into the whole idea (I won’t get into that, you have to wait for the book) as I am usually thinking about it at some point during my daily routine at least once. Some new factor will rear it’s (ugly/not so ugly) head, and I make a mental note of it. I feel that once I start, I can use some of the ideas here (first draft, set aside, edit, etc, etc.) and hope that many of the ideas haven’t left me by then. Like many of you, I can usually find the words to make what I want to say on paper appear to be correct and have context for the normal course of things, yet this is new to me. Hope to be able to get the main work started soon although I don’t have a definite start or end time. I’m in the beginning of a great adventure, and I want to see it all (or most of it) before I let on to the rest of the world what I have seen. Ok, Thanks for your time, now back to your regularly scheduled programming. 🙂

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Elise August 8, 2015 at 7:29 pm

I have been writing a book since Jan 9th 2013. That being said, I am still in the process of writing it. Fortunately or not, I chose to write a spy thriller and there were many aspects that I needed to know and had to knowledge of so I research and write at the same time. I have to agree with the author. The time it takes to write a book is not as important as the book itself. How you want to move the reader thru the story takes careful planning. It is also important not to try and copy another’s work. Hence I read no spy thrillers or see any spy type movies. Yes writing is difficult but revisions are worse but what matters most is once your done, are you as the author satisfied…and just think of all the things you learn on the way!

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Lian Slayford May 25, 2016 at 11:19 am

Wow, I didn’t realise how long the majority of authors actually take. I wrote my first novella (40,000 words) within two weeks and I’m currently finishing up creating my outline for my next book. Depending on the length I refuse to let my books go over a month but I write eBooks for a living anyway so I’m used to writing to a deadline.

Keep on writing no matter what and you will achieve your dreams.

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