by Jenna Kalinsky
Recently our Write Your Novel in 4 Months Program became embroiled in a semantic debate on Facebook. It was an articulate one (the benefit of writers debating is they sound very smart while doing it), sparked by someone who questioned the veracity of the claim in the program’s title that one could “write” a book in 4 months.
The instigator of the debate felt it was disingenuous to purvey a program geared toward helping people research, outline, draft, revise, edit, and publish their book in 4 months.
Now, if the person had read the program description, they would have seen what the program does purvey. But we’re a headline society, so the individual was taking issue with the idea of what it means to “write a book,” which is more a fault of English and less a fault of theirs.
How could there be such misunderstanding around the idea of what it means to “write a book”?
To be able to answer this question accurately, we have to look at 1) the definition of “to write” and 2) tease out the distinction between what writers say to non-writers about the process of writing a book and what writers say to ourselves while undertaking this complex work.
How long does it take to write a book is a great question, for sure, but to answer it, these two issues need to be unpacked so we can get to the heart of the terminology that defines the process.
1) The Definition
One can argue that throughout the process of working on a book, one is making marks and creating or recording in words every step of the way, including in the early days of planning and outlining all the way through to the last days of proofreading. Indeed, not a day goes by when you’re not touching some part of the draft, whether it’s in generating pages, reordering and smoothing out a chapter, or doing a nip-tuck on a single sentence.
This is where English has let us down; despite it being an incredibly specific language, one that sports the richest, most extensive vocabulary of all the world languages with 171,476 words in use and continual absorption of words from other languages, it still can lack the right word for every occasion, “writing” a book being one of them.
2) Common Usage
The phrase “writing a book” has become the catch-all for distilling the complex process for non-writers. In broad society, when people say they’re “writing a book,” they could mean they’re anywhere on the spectrum of inception-creation-revision-finalization.
This phrase shields us from having to explain what exactly we are doing with the book and serves as a protection mechanism; writing a book is vulnerable, multi-faceted, and mysterious. Having to explain the details to someone who is not a writer leaves you open to the elements.
(If you’ve ever tried to explain what you’re writing or how you’re doing it to someone and seen their eyes glaze over, you know how awful that feels.)
So whether we’re in the throes of developing the narrative or ideas or we’re copy editing and close to sending ‘er out to be published, we fall back on “I’m writing a book,” and everyone is happy.
The problem with this is we use the phrase so often even writers don’t necessarily know what “to write a book” means. The phrase as a catch-all doesn’t just smooth things out on the positive side; it also obscures what writing a book looks like on the ground, such that writers, especially those new to the process, often don’t know what to do or which steps are needed to make the book come to life.
That lack of clarity has turned off many a would-be writer to the process because all they see when they start out is … nothing.
Claiming the semantic distinction
If a writer learns and identifies the various stages of writing a book by name, they will see that while “to write” according to the dictionary definition could be applied to some degree to each step of the process, it’s not doing most of them justice:
- Inception, outlining, researching, and planning
- Drafting (when the writing is in full flow)
- Editing (involving its sub-steps of structural/substantial editing, line and copy editing, and proofreading)
Seeing them laid out makes the process clearer, doesn’t it?
Knowing the semantic (and logistic) distinctions is empowering. It also enables us to continue to use the idea of “to write a book” but to assign the verb “to write” to the part when you’re most assiduously engaged in all that mark-making and creating in words full-steam ahead, which is the drafting phase. That’s when the hands are flying in response to the ideas pouring forth.
That’s the writing.
*Click to see my full article, “The 5 Stages of a Manuscript: The Path to Publication”
Taking Back the Word “Write” to Move Forward
Did I have a tiny suspicion when I named our 4-month book programs that this misunderstanding could happen? Yes, but I chose to name the programs as such because
a) “Draft Your Book in 4 Months” sounds terrible
b) As a writer who honors and respects language, I chose to use the literal act of writing as what it is and assign the right name to the right stage of the process.
In some way, I named the program as a rallying cry, a protest against vague language, and to bolster the use of “to write” as the correct word for this initial push into the creation of the work.
This program is also for writers. It’s important we use the right terminology that describes what we do. Writing is writing, while revising and editing are redistributing, tinkering, Jenga-playing, chess strategizing, and tooth-checking.
Where writing is fluid and forward-moving, all flow and slip, revising and editing are done in fits and starts like a teenager driving a stick shift.
Now for the timeline: How long does it (really) take to write a book if “writing” means writing the first draft?
To answer this question, you must have a regular writing practice that consistently puts you into the chair and during which you are actually writing, so you can quantify your results.
♦ If you have lots of time, or you’re a professional writer, you may be in active writing mode 2-4 hours per day, allowing you to yield a completed rough manuscript within a couple of months.
♦ If you’re an adult with a job and/or not a professional writer and spend 1-1.5 efficient hours per day, 7 days/week, you can generate 2-3 pages (or about 500-750 words), which adds up to a book-length manuscript in 3-ish months.
♦ If you write one page per day (about 250 words), you will yield a book-length manuscript in 7-8 months.
♦ If you write when you are inspired or when the muse shows up, it may take you anywhere from months to years to never to write your book.
Discipline + Support = Success
As you can see from the above examples, it’s the disciplined writers who treat their writing like a job, ensuring consistency for their flow of ideas to find purchase in narrative or idea development, who are the ones who can answer the question of how long it takes to write a book.
Tip: those writers who are so disciplined are also the ones whose books make it to the shelves.
But the writer who is intrinsically motivated is a rare breed; most people (from emerging writers to professional authors) require some external motivation to pull them along, provide inspiration and accountability, and give insights during this exciting but, let’s face it, frustrating and challenging creative time. Without that outside force, it is far easier to falter, fall back on working intermittently, and potentially not cross that first-draft finish line.
Our 4-month programs for the novel, memoir, and business/self-development books are valuable because right away you’re swept into the purposeful embrace of structure and care: the insightful and watchful eyes of a mentor, a schedule designed around your life, family, and job responsibilities to encourage maximum success, and guidance by way of tools, strategies, and systems that you learn and apply to your work along the way.
So supported, you’re freed up to take risks, give rise to exciting creative energy, and feel confident that you have room to bloom. The writing stage is for some the hardest part, so making sure your mark-making is in the best flow is key for getting that first draft down. From there, you’re able to carry on into the other definable steps, and ultimately to publication, where your book belongs.
It’s up to you how long it takes to write your book
In the broad non-writer definition, writing a book, given all the steps (scheduling, support, revision and editing, research, editor or beta reader availability, how much of a consummate tinkerer you are in the final stages, and so on) can take an indeterminate amount of time.
But the actual writing of the book as the initial generative act that develops the work both on-page and off can be measured by how you approach the process, the sweat, creative release, and determination you pour out in equal measure, and what systems you have in place for guaranteeing a predictable timeline.
It’s our job as writers who both revere language and respect the distinction between each stage of the book-writing process to be specific in how we name the work we do. That way we’re acknowledging our own hard-earned efforts for having moved from one stage to the next, managing our expectations as artists and thought leaders, giving ourselves clear markers to light the way, and allowing ourselves to enjoy each level of success as it comes on our way to having a finished book in hand.