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I have heard that authors can do 5000 words an hour with dictation. For a six-hour day writing, that is 30,000 words. Thus it would take less than three days to complete a standard novel manuscript.

Since I've also heard that writers produce much better quality work by dictating, this seems to mean that they wouldn't have to spend too much time on revision or editing other than correcting a few minor mistakes here and there. Even with normal typing, writers like Dean Wesley Smith don't do much editing and never use editors.

This obviously means that we can expect to see prolific writers churning out new 100,000 word novels every week (at least) as dictation technology becomes more widely used.

Am I right in this assumption? Or where am I wrong?

  • 27
    That's worth reading? I suppose if you're a prodigal genius, but your talents would be wasted by not instead exploring the mysteries of the cosmos. Hawking probably could if he still had use of his vocal cords, if you wanted to hear about quantum physics and black holes for eight hours. – Mazura Jan 11 at 4:54
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    Enid Blyton wrote more than 50 books in a year during her most prolific period, that's about a book per week. The quality might have been what it was but they did sell like hotcakes. – Moyli Jan 11 at 13:15
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    I don't think creative writing's bottleneck is typing speed. – henning Jan 11 at 15:14
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    writers produce much better quality work by dictating That's a Citation Needed if I ever heard one. Assuming by "better quality" you mean fewer typographical errors, the results are still going to be heavily dependent on both the software correctly interpreting what the writer is saying (especially where homophones, punctuation, etc are concerned) and the individual writer's ability to form coherent sentences without stuttering or needing to adjust their phrasing/grammar after the fact. Are you sure this applies to dictation software and not just authors who dictate to a fellow human? – jmbpiano Jan 11 at 17:16
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    @Mazura I think Hawking's biggest issue right now is being dead. – forest Jan 12 at 10:34
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I can type at about 5K words per hour, but I can't write nearly that fast. I need to think of what's going on. I need to keep some sort of consistency, and I can't remember all the details. I need to do some planning. My creativity seems to burn out somewhere around 5K words each day. Putting words on the computer screen is one thing; knowing which words to type is another.

There is much more to writing than typing or speaking, and neither word processors nor dictation machines will affect that.

Historically, there were and are writers who could afford to write by dictating, using a human in the process rather than technology, and I don't know of any of them who were anywhere near that prolific.

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    Regarding your last paragraph, at least sometimes it wasn't so much being able to afford, as necessity. John Milton was completely blind by the time he dictated Paradise Lost. – Galastel Jan 11 at 0:14
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    Pretty much the only thing you could write that quickly would be a phone book. – Ryan_L Jan 11 at 5:27
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    Thomas Aquinas is famous for dictating several books at the same time, resulting in enormous output. – sgf Jan 11 at 8:15
  • Can't think of any names offhand, but there were numerous authors who did 10-20 books a year, back in the days of longhand or typewriters. – Hot Licks Jan 14 at 13:25
  • Props to you for 5K a day. My creativity burns out in less than half that. But I suppose I do also have a mentally-taxing 9-to-5 (which may or may not be true in your case). – icanfathom Jan 16 at 20:39
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In theory this could be possible, but such an author would burn themselves out after a couple of days with such an intense schedule. A novel is more than just 100,000 words thrown together. There needs to be a story and characters. You need to engage the audience, ensure there are no accidental contradictions. This requires planning and revisions and this is time not spent writing, but making sure everything flows together to capture the audience. This time spent developing a story from an idea is important, and it would be plain wrong to just ignore it when it comes to writing a novel.

From another angle, 5000 words an hour is 83 words a minute. Not too bad and definitely possible. Now keep it up for 6 hours straight, while maintaining focus and building your story from scratch. It's a bit harder.

Another comparison would be that the average typing speed is 40 words per minute. Or 2400 words per hour. A more advanced typist can reach up to 120 words per minute or 7200 words per hour. Which means they could pump out novels even faster by typing (Maybe once every 3-4 days).

The flaw in your comparison is that you assume 5000 words is a long term and consistent average. It's not. People won't be able to consistently work in a super high intensity environment for such a long period non-stop, and during the development of a book, time has to be invested into a lot more than pumping out 100,000 words as fast as possible.

As a final comparison, using Stenography, handwriting speeds of up to 350 words per minute can be achieved [From wikipedia]. This means 21,000 words per hour or an entire novel could be written in just a single day.

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    Your "from Wikipedia" is actually from the NY Times. (Edit: it wasn't the Times.) – wizzwizz4 Jan 12 at 11:01
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You are under the misguided assumption that writing is just the act of putting words on paper. The verb itself certainly has that meaning, but when applied to the writing of books, there is also conceptualizing, planning, outlining. Many works of fiction have at least the same number of words in notes and ideas.

And then there is the word that I'll only mention in a hushed voice, for it is the bane of every writer, especially those not long engaged in the art:

editing

Discarded chapters. Rewritten chapters. Re-rewritten chapters. Dialogs redone, characters removed, then re-introduced, then removed again, then rewritten to be a different character. Plot lines reworked. Language and grammar corrected, then corrected again, then reverted to a previous edit, then fixed by the lector, re-fixed by the author, discussed with the publisher...

For every word on paper, there are multiple words in the trash can, the edit pile, the notes stack and the "to be discussed" list of lector or publisher.

You might be able to put down 5,000 words in a day, if everything is already clear in your head. If you actually try to do that, you will find that even when you are just trying to report a recent event that you witnessed yourself, you will find that difficult. Right after dictating one sentence, you will think of a better way to say it.


That the assumption is nonsense could also have been clear from another perspective. If you look at audio books, 10, 12, 15 hours are not unusual running lengths for books. That is the time it takes to read the thing when it is already written. And it does not include the time for mistakes and re-tries, which are edited out. It also doesn't include correcting mistakes which are still common in dictation.

Given that it takes this time to read a book when finished, it is highly implausible that it would only take a little bit longer than that to create it.

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this seems to mean that they wouldn't have to spend too much time on revision or editing other than correcting a few minor mistakes here and there

You seem to consider revision as error fixing, but fixing the story is another major part of revising. This is unrelated to how someone created the text (dictation, typing, ...) and involves a lot of cut/pasting and reworking passages. Dictation will not cut this down any further.

Your question only considers the act of writing, but not the act of deciding what to write.

So in a way, yes a writer who already knows what they're going to write and how they want the story to go may be able to dictate and revise a novel in under a week's time, but knowing what you're going to write is the lion's share of a good writer's workload.


As a practical example, let's combine your assertion with other figures:

1 You assert that a writer can dicate 30,000 words per day. You do add some time for revising, but it roughly doubles the total time needed to create the book. So let's say that a writer averages 15,000 dictated words a day, including revision.

2 Word count per book of A Song Of Ice And Fire. Let's apply your assertion (padding for revision) of averaging 15,000 words a day.

       BOOK           |  WORD COUNT |   TIME TO WRITE
--------------------------------------------------------
 A Game of Thrones    |  292,727    |  3 weeks 4.5 days
 A Clash of Kings     |  318,903    |  4 weeks 1.3 days
 A Storm of Swords    |  414,604    |  5 weeks 2 days
 A Feast for Crows    |  295,032    |  3 weeks 4.7 days
 A Dance with Dragons |  414,788    |  5 weeks 2 days

Note: I'm considering a five day work week (six hours per day, as per your own calculation) to give you a realistic estimate.

That's 22 weeks and 4.5 days, let's call that half a year (= 26 weeks). I challenge you to write a book series, while dictating, from absolute scratch, mirroring the complexity and lore of ASOIAF in half a year, while also ensuring you make it feel like an original piece.

For reference, books 2 to 5 took about 15 years to write (assuming they were written between the release of book 1 and the release of book 5). And that's not even counting any effort spent towards future storylines when initially creating the lore when book 1 was still being written. This means that, assuming GRRM worked 30h/week, he's spent about 29 times more effort on world/storybuilding than on writing the books.

You can do the same math for other books, but the result will always be the same: any good story will take much more than twice the time you need to write down the letters (regardless of using dictation or a keyboard).

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    I like how this answer addresses one of the major points of the question: the assumption that revision and editing are somehow unnecessary (or at least necessary only for typing and grammar errors). – Liquid Jan 11 at 8:54
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    Just do expand on something you touched on - aside from deciding what to write about, there is probably a lot of research involved, too. Even an undisputed expert in a field would probably struggle to produce a book in record time by foregoing any sort of fact checking. – VLAZ Jan 11 at 11:33
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As other answers have explained, it takes time to devise engaging characters, plots, backgrounds, worlds, &c.  But some genres and styles need more of that than others; and it probably depends upon the length and quality level you're aiming for.

The world record for the number of novels written in one year is 23, held by romantic novelist Barbara Cartland (as reported by Wikipedia), which averages around one every 16 days (including weekends).  She apparently dictated her work for 2–3 hours a day, with a secretary taking notes (backed up by a tape recorder) and transcribing them for the following day.

Whether you see that prolificity as reflecting more on the exceptional ability of Dame Barbara, or on the quality of her work or of romantic fiction in general, is not for me to comment…

  • Now I'm thinking I'd like to read a couple of those books, just to see what they're like.. Could she actually write a coherent, well-organized, serious book in 2 weeks? – Jay Jan 11 at 21:36
  • @Jay: I have no idea; but if you do get any, please do report back! – gidds Jan 11 at 22:30
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    @Jay, I can imagine she can. I've never read any of her books, but from what I heard is that many of the books follow a similar and relative simple flow/plot (that's not to be seen as a critic towards Barbara Cartland -- considering her sales figures, that's what a lot of readers want). She probably took much longer to write her first books. (Of course, you could also just claim her books weren't serious -- but that's just a matter of opinion.) – Abigail Jan 12 at 17:18
  • Not only did Barbara Cartland write 23 novels in one year, but she averaged one novel every 40 days for her entire career, which is phenomenal. Imagine what she could have achieved if she spent more than 3 hours a day at it! – Bob Jan 13 at 14:34
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    @Bob, probably quite a bit less. There's a limit to how much time you can spend producing coherent work; if you exceed it, your productivity actually goes negative, as you're making mistakes faster than you can fix them. This applies just as much to writing novels as it does to digging ditches -- it's just that the inflection point hits a lot faster with creative work. – Mark Jan 14 at 3:15
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I could probably write a book every week or two by dictation. IF that book consisted of me rambling about any subject or no subject as thoughts popped into my head.

But if you want an actual book, a book that would be coherent, well thought out, and interesting to read, that's an entirely different question. Maybe in ancient times when it took considerable time for a writer to put words on sheepskin with a quill pen, the process of writing down words was a major component of how long it took to write a book. But since the invention of the ball-point pen at least, that is not a major issue. What takes time is the thinking and planning behind a story. Doing research so you can make your story plausible. Writing a chapter and then realizing that it goes in a totally wrong direction so you have to throw it away and start over.

It's theoretically possible for someone to be such a genius that he can just dictate a novel off the top of his head, word for word from beginning to end, in order, with no advance preparation, no pauses to think, and no need to go back and fix anything.

But wow. Even if someone is writing unimaginative trash, that would be awfully hard.

It's like saying that an artist should be able to produce a masterpiece every day. Hey, I can throw some paint on a piece of canvas and smear it around in fifteen minutes. What's the difference between that and a great work of art?

3

It is not impossible to write something like that. I even wrote short story's on a daily basis and released a chapter every day. But the most essential part in that is a simple, but very underestimated principle:

Quality needs time

If you write a whole novel in 3-4 days, you can be certain, that it lacks the quality it should have.

Lets take a japanese Light Novel Author. A light novel has around 240 pages in average. A light novel author published around 2-3 novels per year.

So: What do you miss, if you write a novel every week? First of all: The development of your story comes very short. I know there are different approaches on writing a novel, but all have something in common: Worldbuilding. How can you create a charismatic world to describe in your story, if you just have 3 days time? It takes so much time to consider which informations are useful for the reader and whats not.

And just assume you managed to write a novel with your described technique. How can you know, that everything is grammatically correct and that the sentences make sense? If something makes me sick as a reader, it is bad language.

So I would advise: It is better to take more time and get something done very good, instead of releasing stuff every week, sacrificing quality for it

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    I think the practical limit is somewhere around Kamachi Kazuma's pace. Apparently there was a period of time after 2014 where he was releasing novels every month. He also wrote Index volume 2 in 17 days. – ahiijny Jan 11 at 18:22
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I don't think so. You need to first research stuff to make your content seem believable, then for everything you write you read your stuff over and over and revise and scrap and rework and struggle quite a bit to get something so good you are happy with the result.

If you get happy with results too fast you are probably not having high enough standards for your own work.

If you had a whole novel ready written, maybe it would be possible to read it out loud in a weeks time and a computer to digitize it with dictation. But to get to that point it takes muuuch more time for everyone except maybe some kind of weird super duper genius Rainman type.

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