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Word rates

July 25th, 2003

My model in work is Anthony Trollope who turned out 50 or 60 three-volume novels despite having, for most of his life, a full-time (admittedly, not very demanding) job at the Post Office (he invented the pillar-box). According to his autobiography, Trollope achieved his output with a writing stint of three hours per day, starting at 5am. He set a target rate, with the requirement to write more if he fell behind for a couple of ideas.

All of this sounds crass, at least to those impressed with the Romantic notion of spontaneous expression, but, for those of us who aren’t tortured genii, I think Trollope’s rules are spot-on. To adapt a favorite maxim of the Labor Party, write early, write often and write lots.

That said, I can’t really believe Trollope’s claim that he regularly wrote 250 words a quarter-hour for a three hour stretch. I imagine my methods are similar to his, in that I have my pieces turning over in my head for a fair while before I sit down to write them, and so, when things go well, I’m basically constrained only by typing speed. I can manage about 30 wpm with moderate error count, so that, in principle I ought to be able to beat Trollope’s output rate handily, 450 words to 250. But even the most modest cleaning up – correcting typos and grammatical errors, rearranging clumsy sentences and so on, is going to take 5 minutes in every 15, which cuts my maximum rate to 300 words per quarter hour.

And, while I’m not Flaubert, agonizing over “le mot juste”, I care about picking the right words and so, pretty clearly, did Trollope. I spent 30 seconds or so in the previous para thinking about whether to write “typos” or “minor errors”, and this kind of delay is bound to hit you every few sentences, even when you have the main ideas clear before you start.

All up, I consider myself pretty satisfied when I can turn out a 750-word column in an hour and a half, which is a rate of 125 words every quarter hour, or half what Trollope claims. Given that Trollope was writing by hand, and had to rewrite anything he wanted to change, I don’t believe he could consistently achieve twice that rate.

Trollope described his methods in his Autobiography, which he ensured was published posthumously. He knew that his production-line work ethic would shock the Victorian public, and I suspect he stretched the truth a bit to increase the shock value. (425 words, 45 minutes!)

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  1. Me No No
    July 25th, 2003 at 08:57 | #1

    But John, I’m not saying your AFR columns, for example, aren’t instances of sublimity, but what if, after the hour and a half, you sat with your 750 words and tried to improve it? Surely you would. You would rearrange pars perhaps, make it punchier, make it as lean as possible, and so on.

    You could do this for say two hours – assuming you had the time – and squeeze just that extra oomph out of it.

    There’s obviously a point beyond which returns will disappear, but I’m getting at the obvious point that time is not the only consideration.

    You say (425 words, 45 minutes!), but surely the quality on your blog is different to that required for a 750 word Fin Review piece? If not quality, then at least the genre differs.

    You say Trollope wrote good stuff, but if he wrote garbage then his claims to speed would be nothing to write home about (boom boom). Any dill can just type and type.

    And what if he cut his volume by three quarters: might he not have produced really good works that would today have him mentioned in the same breath as Orwell et al?

  2. July 25th, 2003 at 11:04 | #2

    Trollope’s “not very demanding” job also had things that added to the load. For instance, he was posted to the West Indies, British Guiana I think it was. The dislocation of travel and the wear and tear of working in a developing area with all its added crises must have added to that (I have family background that confirms this). Certainly it was standard that expatriates working in tropical areas retired early, as the last few years that would have been normal in Europe would have worked them until they dropped in the tropics.

  3. July 25th, 2003 at 11:55 | #3

    why don’t you dictate instead? and leave the typing to those of us who do 100wpm.

  4. July 25th, 2003 at 14:26 | #4

    Cato the Elder (234-149BC) said: “Grasp the subject, the words will follow.”

  5. Jim Birch
    July 25th, 2003 at 18:51 | #5

    Based on minimal empirical and anecdotal evidence I’d say that writers at the computer tend to blast away knowing they can edit later, while pen-based writers develop a more disciplined approach that requires limited hacking. Thus Trollope may have spent less time reworking his text.

    Further, some gifted writers are able to produce coherent articulated text that requires little revision. This is less a capacity that would be associated with a producer and developer of ideas (like JQ) but more of a “writerly” or perhaps even a musical capacity. I would be interested to know what Trollope was like as a speaker. Mozart was supposed to have written at least some of his stuff in one pass, direct from a clear internal musical space.

    Even without this “natural” capacity, Tollope may have developed some by the 20th three volume novel.

    (186 minutes)

  6. dsquared
    July 25th, 2003 at 20:57 | #6

    I don’t think it sounds that difficult (7 words, 10 seconds).

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