How long should a writing project take? The quick answer is “it depends.” A poem can take a lifetime; some college students boast of writing 20-papers in a night.
That said, let’s look at three common projects, bearing in mind, of course, that every assignment is different. Based on a few assumptions, how long might each take to complete?
Web content: 150 words
Assume you have to distill a 5- to 10-page report or article into a succinct piece with a couple of links. You are fairly familiar with the content. (Note: Sometimes being too familiar with it is a killer because you have a harder time figuring out what to leave out!) It might take about 2 hours to figure out your main points, write them in a web-friendly way, take a break while you do something else, then return and take out the excess words you missed the first time around.
As for short blog entries, Tweets, Facebook comments, LinkedIn status–let’s assume 10 to 15 minutes per item, and that’s very generous.
Magazine article: 1,500-2,000 words
Assume you have to write an “overview” article for an association magazine or newsletter. You need to conduct 6 phone interviews–figure 1.5 to 2 hours per interview, including preparing beforehand and transcribing or cleaning up your notes afterward. You do another 1 to 2 hours of web-based research. To then write 2 drafts of the article, I would estimate about 24 hours for the project.
Speech: 10 minutes
For a 10-minute speech that someone else will present, assume you need to write 1,000 to 1,500 words. You need to meet with the speaker (ideally) or the person making the assignment (1 hour). You need to research or synthesize potential content, and also analyze the person’s speaking preferences (2 hours? depending on the source material). Ideally, you’ll write an outline before going right into drafting the speech. Let’s say 2 rounds of writing the speech, for about 8 to 10 hours in total.
You might have read this column and thought, “It takes way [longer/shorter] than that!” I agree completely. I’ve taken 5 or 6 hours to get through 1 hour of summarizing a meeting; I’ve whipped out web content in 20 minutes.
Each project has its unique quirks. That’s a good thing. To deal with the variables, you can try to break down an assignment into pieces, then factor in a small percentage for contingencies. Consider the following:
- Initial direction. Do you (and the person making the assignment) have a good understanding of the objectives of the piece, the intended audience, the tone? If not, it will take more time overall, as you struggle with how to organize the content and perhaps go through more renditions.
- Research. Will you dig up sources or are they provided? If you need to look, can you do a straightforward Google search or is more involved searching required. How familiar is the topic to you?
- Interviews. How many? In person or by phone? For a 30-minute phone interview, I estimate about 90 minutes, as noted above. Factor in time to set up the interview and, if needed, travel.
- Length of the piece. Shorter does not always mean less time, but a 4-paragraph website article should take less time than a 2,000-word article with a few sidebars.
- Number of iterations. I factor in 2 rounds of revisions for a writing assignment. But, like you, the “first draft” that I hand in is probably about my fifth draft on my computer, as I revise down to the push of the “send” button.
If you keep track of your hours, you’ll know, over time, how long different types of projects take you based on your own work tempo. And that is probably the best gauge of all.