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 I believe the first draft of a book–even a long one–should take no more than three months, the length of a season.

–Stephen King, On Writing

On Writing by Stephen KingI’m no Stephen King–nor do I aspire to be– but when you want to write a novel it helps to look to those who have already succeeded at the task. And King, with more than fifty-five novels in publication, certainly fits the description.

Today we’re talking numbers:

King aims for his novels to be approximately 180,000 words in length. Thus, within in a three month period, he commits to writing 2000 words a day. He writes every day and doesn’t stop until he has those 2000 words.

Once I start work on a project, I don’t stop and I don’t slow down unless I absolutely have to. If I don’t write everyday, the characters begin to stale off in my mind–they begin to seem like characters instead of real people. The tale’s narrative cutting edge starts to rust and I begin to lose my hold on the story’s plot and pace. Worst of all, the excitement of spinning something new begins to fade. The work starts to feel like work, and for most writers that is the smooch of death. — Stephen King, On Writing

And why three months? For King, any longer and “the story begins to take on an odd foreign feel.”

You and I may have different goals, personalities, and experiences while writing than King does, but I find his overall approach to be very helpful. Most writers face the dilemma of finding making, no, taking time to write (Time is not missing. Nor do we create it. Time is there, right in front of us and all around us. How do we choose to use it?).

If I want my first draft (aka my diarrhea draft) finished by September 1st and I’m aiming for 70,000 words, then I must commit to writing approximately 750 words/day. My calculations take into account what I’ve already accomplished and are based on writing six days a week. (I figure if the Author of our universe took the seventh day to rest and enjoy all of creation, then so can I take the time to rest and appreciate the world I’m creating).

But let’s say you don’t know how long your novel should be. And let’s say you’re not particularly driven by a deadline for completion. Let’s do some math:

If you commit to writing 300 words/day, five days a week, you will have a 78,000 word manuscript within a year.

Commit to writing 300 words/day, six days a week, and you’ll have a 94,000 word manuscript within a year.

Commit to 400 words/day, six days a week, and you’ll have a 86,500 word manuscript in 9 months.

I don’t know about you, but I find that encouraging. 300 words a day is very do-able. And to have a complete (albeit first) draft is nothing short of wonderful.

Really, the numbers thing– the math– is about taking the overall dream of writing a novel and dividing it into day-to-day reality. Commit to these numbers in day-to-day life and then the moment will arrive when you wake up to your dream come true.

What do you think? Do you find encouragement in this number-crunching? What goals or deadlines are you working towards? Have you ever read a Stephen King novel?


I’m going to write this novel. Word by word.

Current status: 12,266 words