How many words do you need to write to become a successful novelist?

I was once at a friend’s BBQ talking about how I was hoping to become a novelist (that hope since blossomed into desire, then began burning as ambition and is currently raging as a deep factual requirement that the universe itself will not be able to deny) and about how I had just completed Nanowrimo as practice.

If you don’t know, Nanowrimo challenges you to write 50,000 (basically the first draft of a novel) in one month.

The significant other of my friend looked thoughtful before announcing that he didn’t think he’d written 50,000 words in his entire life. In total.

I have heard it said that you need to write a million words before you start writing any good ones. Or, a better known made up statistic is that it takes 10,000 hours to become any good at anything.

There are two types of reactions to this claim. A) It’s bad news, because that sounds like a lot of work. B) It’s good news, because it means that if you’re willing to put the effort in, you can do anything you want.

Because, as my parner is fond of saying: You can be anything you want, but you can’t be everything you want.

You see, it’s nonsensical when people hear a pianist play beautifully or see a wonderful artwork and say, “I’m not good at music / art / whatever. I really wish I was.” Well, you know what, sweetcheeks? That person didn’t just wake up one day with that ability. They put in hours. Tons of freaking hours. If you got off your butt and put in tons of freaking hours (preferably sacrificing the time spent watching Strictly or Bake Off) then you could be a musician or artist. Or writer.

So to return to the original question – how many words do you need to write to become a succesful novelist?

How many words do you have to write before you become a succesful novelistLet’s grab some unjustified numbers and do some wild guesstimates.

A quick skim research on the web suggests that most people will have written 3 – 5 novels before getting one published.

Let’s assume that an average novel is around 100,000 words – BUT it takes several drafts to get to a final manuscript and it’s likely that not a single word of the original draft will remain. So, for argument’s sake, let’s say 300,000 words go into a single novel of 100,000 words.

Let’s also assume that a novelist will have spent some time writing short stories, research notes, character profiles, etc. Let’s pluck a number out of the air and say that’s another 50,000 words total.

So, we’ve got (300,000 x 4) + 50,000 = 1,250,000 words total.

Looks like our guestimations aren’t so far off the mythical ‘write a million words before you write anything good’ after all.

So, it seems logical to therefore assume that it’s true. You have to write a million words before you’ll get published.

And that is pure, unquestionable fact, right there. That’s who this science thing works, right?

If anybody has any comments on how many words they think they’re written in their lifetime, further input would be most intriguing…

One comment

  1. My tutor at Uni said that an author finds him or herself at about 500,000 words. He has written at least five novels that I know of, and written for TV shows like The Bill and Cold Case so he has some idea what he is talking about. I never thought to ask him why 500,000 though; it’s a bit late now as it was almost ten years ago! I reckon I’ve written around 250,000, maybe a bit more.

    Liked by 1 person

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