How much time does it take to write a book? Planning the timeline

Let’s start by acknowledging that I am talking in generalizations, things can happen to slow down the process, and every press is a little different. That said, this post focuses on the timeline to get the completed manuscript submitted, not the timeline for publication.

Factors to Consider

  • How much of the research will you have to conduct as you are writing? If your book requires months or years of research before you get to the writing stage, you’ll obviously need to build in that time. Some authors prefer to do all of the primary research first and then start writing the manuscript. Others switch off by chapter. Your approach will depend on the type of research, external considerations (i.e. travel to an archive), and your own preferences. I generally prefer to work chapter by chapter, but have had to be flexible based on archive trips. For me, it is easier to live and breathe a particular time period and topic than to jump around. Always take detailed notes and keep your materials organized so it is easy to access them even when you’ve been away for a bit.
  • What other work and personal obligations will you have? Build in extra time if you have a life-changing event coming up, lengthy trip, or other time-consuming work/home project. Note: you will always feel like there’s never enough time until writing becomes your priority.
  • Are you a quick writer? Are you used to writing every day? How much time do you need to edit your work? Writing a book will help you become more efficient. If you are not already doing so, start blocking off part of each day to write and set detailed goals for your self. Consider joining the “Any Good Thing Challenge” for extra motivation. To write a book, you need to write consistently and productively, routinely making your daily, weekly, and monthly objectives. It’s the only way to write a book.
  • Have you written book chapters before? I ask because the style differs from writing peer-reviewed journal articles or popular works. If you are already accustomed to writing chapters, creating your own manuscript will probably be a little easier. I will post about writing book chapters in a later blog entry.

Estimating the Length of Your Book

How do you go about estimating the length of your proposed book? Different presses have preferred word count rages–the longer the book, the more expensive it is to produce.
To give you an idea of the word count vs. finished product, here are the approximate counts/pages of my books:

85,000 words = 152 pages in Microsoft Word= 263 pages in the proofs
56,741 words = 176 pages in (edited) book
81,118 words= 148 pages in Microsoft Word= 286 pages in book
133,169 words = 352 pages in (edited) book
108,424 words = 316 pages in (edited) book
48,000 words = 120 pages in book

I won’t get into how long your book needs to be, except to advise you to be mindful of the length. If you are estimating more than 250-300 pages and this isn’t a sought-after, advanced contract for a senior scholar situation, consider saving some of the content for a second book later on.

Start with your proposed Table of Contents (ToC). For single-authored books, I usually estimate about 6-8,000 words for the introduction and conclusion and then 8-10,000 per regular chapter. With this formula, a book with 8 chapters would be approximately 80-85,000 words and a 10 chapter book would be about 96,000-100,000 words (I rounded up the range). Figures, tables, images, references, appendices, and other extra features will also impact the page length.

Does your estimated word count range work with the press guidelines? If it’s not specified, look at the typical length of books that the press has recently published in your area. For my epidemics book, my press (University of Massachusetts) requested a maximum of 85,000 words. I omitted several chapters from the original ToC to make this word count. You can always expand your work to fit the word count or cut your material down later. However, your completed manuscript needs to match your book contract. Do not produce a manuscript that is significantly under or over the number listed in the contract.

Contract Question: Manuscript in Hand or to be Completed?

Some people prefer to seek a contract with only sample chapters. Others like to complete the manuscript and then find a publisher. There are pros and cons to both approaches. If you get a contract with much of the work ahead, you can shape the manuscript to the press guidelines and consult with the editor on the content and scope of the project. Yet, it may be more difficult to get the contract and you may run into issues if you can’t finish on time. On the flip side, it may be easier to get a contract with a manuscript in hand. This might make sense if you are turning your dissertation into your first book. If you are starting from scratch, though, I don’t recommend waiting to write a full manuscript before getting the contract. It is helpful to work with an editor as you are writing your book and it’s also motivating to have a deadline. Plus the contract can (positively) factor into hiring and promotion decisions.

So how long do you need?

Going forward, I’m assuming you do not have a completed manuscript as you query editors. Save deciding on the estimated completion date for the last step of the proposal. You should write the sample chapters, query editors with emails, and apply for grants (if applicable) first. Once an editor requests a proposal, then you think about the date — after you’ve written the other parts of the proposal. Why wait? Because writing sample chapters and querying is time-consuming. Going through this process will also help you clarify the scope of your project.

Estimating your timeline in your book proposal is a tricky deal. On one hand, you want to be fairly realistic in your approximation. Don’t list 6 months from now as the completion date if you really mean 2 years. On the other, if you list a date that is too far away (and this is your first book), you likely won’t get the contract. If you honestly don’t think you can finish and submit a manuscript within the next year, I recommend writing more of the book before you seek a contract.

Setting (and Making) Your Own Deadlines

I’m a big fan of using an Excel sheet for all of my books, noting the chapter #, tentative title (or topic), deadline for my self, status, and word count (once it’s finished). Like this:

Once you’ve laid out your chapters and identified the general word count, determine the order for writing your book. Do you want to work chronologically? Are there resources you need to request that will take time? Do you have research trips planned? Are some chapters going to be easier to write than others? What chapters currently exist as peer-review articles and just need revision? (Get permission NOW for the reprint).

I can’t advise on how long conducting your primary research will take. Nor will I delve into the particulars of writing a book chapter (maybe in a later post). What I will say is that you need to a). WRITE everyday (not just listing literature or taking notes from your microfilm. Actual writing that will lead to a chapter, which will lead to a draft). and b). Make every deadline that you set.

Break it down. If you have a 8-10,000 word chapter to write, with the primary research completed and organized, you should be able to produce a chapter draft in a month. 8,000 words/30 days is only 267 words per day. Or, if you’d like 2 days off per week (following the Any Good Thing Challenge), is only 364 words per day (but write at least 400 for the challenge). Set a word count goal per day, plus other assigned tasks (editing, finding sources, reviewing literature, etc.). It’s not really a secret. The best way to get writing done is to write. See my tips here. In other words, have your big deadline (one week before your manuscript submission date), individual chapter deadlines, and then micro-deadlines for each chapter. Give 5-7 days between each chapter deadline to allow for additional edits, elaboration, etc.

Remember that this is only the first draft. You want to produce quality work, yes, but you also need to finish your manuscript. A draft is the beginning and can be revised. An empty Word doc cannot. Don’t become so worried about the final product that it halts your writing. The more that you write, the more that you will learn about your project and gain confidence in creating the manuscript.

What if you don’t make your deadline?

Don’t allow one missed deadline to sabotage your project. If life truly gets in the way, then you’ll need to do extra to get back on track. Reevaluate your daily goals for just that chapter so that you can catch up before you miss the next deadline.

If you come to a point in which you do need to ask for an extension, be upfront and polite in asking your editor about pushing back the deadline. Only ask once though. Presses have deadlines too and your project is part of their production schedule.

The Timeline Beyond the Timeline

As I will cover in a future post, completing your manuscript is really just the first (HUGE) step toward a finished product. When you submit your manuscript, definitely celebrate the accomplishment! Know that it’s only the beginning of revisions, proofs, cover design and other steps. Then again, you’ve come this far so you can get the rest done!

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