How I Write - 2023 By The Numbers
Another year has run its course, so it’s time for another round of ‘what’s in my spreadsheets’!
Image by Lukas from Pexels
This past Saturday, I capped off the year’s writing with a chunky afternoon of editing to complete second-round edits on PROJECT ALTHROP. With the last creative words of the year written, it’s time for my now-annual end-of-year numbers post! This is the second one of these that I’ve done. Here’s last years post.
A bunch of people commented last year how useful they found this breakdown, so I’m hoping it’ll be even more useful when there’s two years of data to compare.
I said this at the start of my post last year and I want to re-emphasise it - this is not a yardstick. Please don’t look at anything I write here as a challenge, a brag or even a stick to beat yourself with. I still have the golden combo of stable employment with no commute, good physical and mental health, supportive family and no unpredictable caring responsibilities.
This is just how I work. Please take what might work for you too, or ignore any part of it you like.
What got written?
This year I’ve worked on two different novels and five short pieces of short fiction over the course of the year. That was less novel work than last year and one more short story. But it also included a complete novel draft start-to-finish and probably the biggest novel edit I’ve ever done. It’s been a lot of writing.
- I spent most of January working on PROJECT SHARD, a monster of a generation ship novel that I wrote the first draft of in 2019. That draft was an experiment in very detailed outlining, but it ended up coming in hugely over-length at 186,000 words. In January I was doing a lot of hard cutting to get the overall word count down.
- In early February, I worked on a 10,000 word novelette called Whetstone for the Black Library open submission call. The submission call only actually asked for a 500 word sample, but I was enjoying myself so much I finished the whole thing. It didn’t get picked up in the submission call, so now I have a novelette I can’t really do anything with, since the Warhammer 40K universe is an extremely specific vibe and there aren’t really any other markets that buy that kind of slightly OTT military SF, even with the serial numbers filed off. Ah well, that’ll learn me.
- In the second half of February, I went back to editing PROJECT SHARD, chopping another big wodge of words out of the draft.
- Right at the end of February, I spent a couple of days writing a short story (very short, for me) called Illumination, which I then performed for the Tiny Bookcase podcast. I wrote about recording that story and an interview in my March update. It’s a pretty fun little space story about the hazards of ship maintenance duty.
- Right after this, I got a very exciting opportunity, which I spent a couple of weeks preparing for. The prep turned out to be very worth it.
- In mid-March, I went on my first ever writing retreat in Wales with some friends from Edinburgh SFF. I’d planned to spend the retreat working on SHARD. However, on the first day, I had a Very Exciting Zoom Call. I then wrote the first 15,000 words of ALTHROP in a burst of frenetic activity as a result. When I got back, I spent another week or so editing, then sent that chunk off for consideration.
- While I was waiting to hear about ALTHROP, I went back to SHARD for almost exactly another month, chiselling off another huge chunk of words.
- In early May, I got the green light to keep going on ALTHROP and embarked on another month of drafting, getting the total word count on that up to just shy of 40,000 words.
- In late June, while waiting for some more feedback on ALTHROP, I wrote a new novelette called ‘Such Is My Idea Of Happiness’ which I sold to Clarkesworld later in the year. This was another story which had been knocking around my head for the better part of a decade. I actually wrote a version of it in 2014, but it had a completely different POV, different ending and (mostly) different plot beats. I didn’t go back to my old story, just re-wrote it from scratch from the same basic set of ingredients.
- At the start of July, I got the okay to continued with ALTHROP and launched into drafting the rest of the book, writing about 71,000 words across July and the first half of August. I finished the first draft on August 12th. I then spent just over a month editing the first draft down with the support of my critique group, before collapsing for a week. It was a long, busy summer and by the end of September I felt like I really needed a break.
- But first, I’d had an idea knocking about my head for two or three years which I’d summarised in a note as ‘trillion year love story’ - the story of two entities who were once human surviving until they witnessed humanity become a Kardashev Type III civilisation. I wrote the first six thousands words of that story, went on holiday for three weeks in Hungary, had an amazing trip, didn’t stop thinking about the story the whole time, then came back and wrote the last four thousand words. That was ‘Kardashev’s Palimpsest’, which I sold to Clarkesworld last week and which should be coming out next year!
- Once that story was out on submission, I went back to SHARD, working on it continuously throughout November, apart from a brief detour to redraft a short story of mine called New Town for the Nova Scotia 2 anthology call. I was much happier with the redraft and sent it off to the anthology folks.
- I then pulled off a neat bit of timing. Once I got word that I’d be getting edit notes back on ALTHROP in early December, I ramped up my edits on SHARD and managed to get the third redraft finished the day before my edit notes came in. That book is now a very comfortable 135k, down from 186k.
- And finally, this past week, I worked on my fairly light combined developmental and line edit on ALTHROP, which I finished on Saturday 16th of December, my last fiction writing day of the year.
- I briefly considered doing another short story with the last week or so of working time, but I decided I was long overdue for a bit of admin time, organising my working files for 2024, getting wrapup posts like this one written and generally putting the year to bed. So that’s me, for 2023.
How did I work?
This is Year 5 of my regular writing routine (Monday to Friday, 06:15-07:45) so I won’t go over my daily routine in too much detail - this post describing it from February is still pretty much accurate.
One thing I did do more of this year was writing past my planned working time. Most mornings, I try to finish writing around 07:45 or so, then go out for a walk, as a bit of a dividing line between my writing and my day job work day. But quite often, it was raining, I was in the groove with the writing I was doing, so I just kept going (more in the stats below). This is actually a real change I want to remark on. If you’d told me six or seven years ago that I’d routinely want to keep writing and sometimes have to force myself to stop to go out for a walk instead, I’d have laughed in your face. But that’s the power of repetition, habit, routine and self-reinforcing cycles.
I also did a fair few longer sessions on long train journeys, in hotels and in various airport and train station lounges (I did more travel for work and publishing stuff this year than last and you can see that in the figures). I am also consciously trying to write in different places and at different times, mainly so that my routines don’t drop off a cliff twice a month when I travel for work. And it is extremely useful to be able to reliably write or edit even when you’re on the road.
It’s Metric Time
Time to get into the details - what did I actually get done this year, in raw numbers? Again, this isn’t to-the-minute or to-the-word accurate, both because I’m human and lose track of time and because I can’t actually track precisely every word, given the way document word counts work with aggregates, not actual words typed. Again, like last year, I’d say these are probably within 5% or so, plus or minus.
In 2023, I wrote for about 426.4 hours. Again, this is a slightly wobbly number, though it does feel more accurate than last year. It’s also, weirdly, within about 10 hours of last year’s figure. Which is kind of spookily consistent. But that’s very handy, because it means the word counts are directly comparable too.
That adds up to 17 rounded twenty-four hour days of the year, or about 60 seven-hour working days. So, just like last year, another three working months on top of my day job. Again, I definitely felt like I worked an additional three months of full time job hours, although I think I was better at taking breaks - I was tired at the end of September when I finished ALTHROP, but I wasn’t on the cusp of burnout like I was last year.
I did something writing related on 243 days of this year, which is actually 29 fewer days than last year, so I think that means I was writing more on average on the days I was writing. Which tracks with my feeling that I was more often going over my planned writing time. I spent 84 days drafting new work this year, which is 40 days fewer than last year (again, writing more and writing it faster). Editing accounted for 130 days, 32 days more than last year, which I think reflects the heavy redrafting I was doing on PROJECT SHARD between the other work for most of the year. As per last year, the rest was split between a lot of process admin, some outlining, a ton of pitch writing and a few days of critique work for other writers when I didn’t have the energy for my own work.
I wrote 177,140 aggregate new fiction words across the whole year, which is a little over 24,000 fewer words than last year. Again, like last year, this number could be 4-5k words in either direction, so I’ve think I’ve been extremely consistent with the previous year. A little less overall, but also a hell of a lot of editing and chopping of previous drafts.
Well over half of that total was on PROJECT ALTHROP. The remainder was short fiction, although I also probably wrote 10-20k in aggregate on PROJECT SHARD, although that word count was entirely swallowed by the 55k that I cut from it over the year.
Speaking of cuts - this was an editing-heavy year. I cut somewhere around 64,000 words, nearly all of which was on SHARD and a tiny bit on ALTHROP, over the course of the whole year. As with last year, I’m comparing word counts at the start and end of a session, and eyeballing the difference, so it’s far from precise. But I definitely hit the delete key a bunch this year.
The editing I did do was a lot more precise and targeted - I was chopping words and paragraphs more often, instead of whole scenes and chapters. That took more time, but it actually got more words out of the draft in aggregate. And I think the results are better and more finessed than when I just take a hatchet to the novel.
My shortest writing session was about 30 minutes. The least I wrote in a drafting session was 48 words. I had twenty seven sub-500 word drafting days in the year, which is about five times more than last year. I’m not sure if these are really actually mis-classified editing days, or if I actually did have five times as many days with very low word counts.
My longest writing session was about six and a half hours (fairly fuzzy guess this was when I was on a writing retreat and it was a drafting day). My highest single day word count was an absolutely monster 6,290 words, which was right at the end of the draft of PROJECT ALTHROP (a lot of things were happening very fast in the narrative). That was a 3.5 hour writing day. I had eight other 3,000+ word days, which is double last year. Again, the feeling I’ve been writing longer, more often, is borne out in the data.
Once again, the vast majority of my writing days were somewhere between 800 and 1,500 words.
Averages and consistency
As a reminder, I don’t work to word count targets, but I do record them. Here, again, is how I break down my rough bands of word count achievements.
- Any day I write is a win, full stop, the end.
- If I get more than 500 words, I consider it a reasonable day.
- If I get more than 1,000 words, it’s a good day.
- If I get more than 1,500 words, it’s a very good day.
- If I get more than 2,000 words, it’s a great day.
- If I get more than 2,500 words, it’s a superb day.
- If I get more than 3,000 words, it’s a BEAST MODE day. I got nine of these in 2023, nearly double last year.
Averaged out, my daily word count is 729 words (almost exactly the same as last year). My median is 1,302 (a little more than last year). My average words-per-hour over the year is 415 (a little less than last year).
In reality, like last year, those averages are skewed a bit by a few very short, low word count days and quite a few very long, high word count days. Just like last year, most days that I’m drafting, I write about 750-1,000 words per hour.
Once again, days in the chair add up. Just clocking in at the Word Factory to do my shift. Decoupling the outcomes from the effort is essential for my motivation and my productivity. I’m in this for the long haul, and that means trying to keep things as steady and sustainable as possible.
What about previous years?
I won’t rehash the summaries of the last four or five years like I did in last year’s post, and I’ve been comparing last year’s figures with this year’s throughout the post. But here’s the headline numbers for this year and last.
- 2023 - 426 hours, 177,140 words drafted, 63,516 words cut
- 2022 - 404 hours, 201,478 words drafted, 52,057 words cut
Consistency, consistency, consistency.
Lessons and plans
Last year, I decided that in 2023 I wanted to plan for consistency, breaks and structuring my work, focusing on balance and sustainability. In the end I had to actually re-plan on the fly quite a few times as the PROJECT ALTHROP process wound its way through my year, but I was pretty good about scheduling my work and building in time for editing on other projects, short fiction and more.
Next year, it’s all about consistency again - basically this year but even more consistent. I’m not going to overschedule myself, working 2-3 months ahead on my calendar instead of trying to pre-plan the whole year. And I will very definitely be planning regular breaks, like taking off at least a week from writing every 6-8 weeks. I did that basically by accident this year and it was very, very good for my brain and body.
This is my second year of writing this annual roundup and, just like last year, it’s been as illuminating to write as I hope it has been for you to read. Just breaking down the year and thinking about what I did and how I did it is useful, if only because it helps me go into 2024 with more of a sense of my progress than just… vibes. And purely in motivation terms, I stacked up a ton of days and a ton of words this year, and I was, broadly, happier than last year into the bargain. Taking stock of that is always worthwhile.
It’s been a good year. If you’re a writer too, I hope you were able to achieve the goals you set for yourself and that you can look back at the year gone by and be happy with what you’ve done. If you haven’t and you’re not, I believe you will in 2024. Be kind to yourself and focus on consistency - you might just be amazed at what happens.