The Output of Authors

by the editors of Pearson’s Magazine (UK)

pearsons magazine April 1897
Pearson’s Magazine (UK)
April, 1897

The following piece originally appeared in the April, 1897 issue of the British version Pearson’s Magazine. No author was credited, though one assumes it was the work of the magazine’s editor or one of his assistants.

The piece itself is the result of a sort of informal survey conducted by Pearson’s, and provides interesting and sometimes amusing first-hand descriptions of the working methods of prominent authors of the day. Any reader who writes for fun or profit will immediately see that while writing tools have changed considerably in the hundred years or so since this article’s publication, the travails of the writer have not.

Most of the writers quoted in the article will be less familiar to the modern reader than the working methods that they describe; below is a brief breakdown of the authors featured here, in the same alphabetical order that the article features them in:

Dan Neyer
May, 2015
Introduction © 2015 by Dan Neyer

Editor's note: Some of the author comments were unaccompanied by photos in the original article; however, three of the photo-less comments in this reproduction are the result of the condition of the source material, which made pictures of William Le Queux, Ian Maclaren and H. G. Wells impossible to digitially salvage.

Title art for The Output of Authors

Some years ago Mr. Anthony Trollope stated that he kept a book in which he entered day by day the number of pages of literary work he wrote. His average, he said, was forty pages, each of which was of two hundred and fifty words, per week. He might write as few as twenty, but sometimes he had done as many as a hundred pages in a single week: that is, he ranged from five thousand to twenty-five thousand words per week.

A good many people blamed Mr. Trollope for making this announcement. They considered that he was destroying, in making it, a certain artistic and almost romantic reticence which was supposed to hang around the literary profession. In other words, they thought he was giving the thing away, as it were, and showing literature somewhat in the light of an affair of trade.

Now, no doubt there is a kindly and even affectionate curiosity in the public mind as to the work, as distinguished from the works, of popular authors. Great interest is manifested in regard to what may be called the unwritten history of a particular volume, in personal details about writers, and especially in the methods which they employ in producing their books.

Through the kindness of the ladies and gentlemen whose names appear further on—most of whom are contributors to this magazine—we are able to give some interesting information as to the output of a certain number of well-known literary people.

I may add that the idea of this article was suggested by a statement made by a well-known author that he averaged 6000 words a day.

It is, perhaps, most convenient to take the names in alphabetical order.


Mr. W. L. Alden writes, in his own humorous fashion:—

I do not work with any great regularity, for a great part of my time is spent in cleaning my bicycle. However, I usually manage to do at least an hour’s work daily on the typewriting machine, and my usual rate of speed is about eighteen hundred words an hour.

If I am driven, I can write about three thousand words an hour. I seldom do more than four thousand words in a day, for by the time I have written, say, three thousand words, the machine refuses to spell intelligibly, and persists in writing about one word in four backwards.


Mr. Robert Barr is perhaps even funnier than his friend Mr. Alden:—

“Above all things, don’t take advice,” said the President of Princeton College to the assembled students. If the Editor of PEARSON’S wishes to know about the methods of authors, so that younger writers may learn something therefrom, his intention is laudable, but he comes to the wrong man when he approaches me. I can serve no useful purpose but that of an ’orrid example. “Look at this,” he may say, pointing to me, “and strive to be as unlike it as possible.”

I have no industry, no regular hours of work, no average number of words, no sane methods, no anything that a reputable man should have. If I could average a thousand words a day I would be rich. Some days I can do three or four thousand words, if it is not necessary that I should write that number; but if an editor is waiting for me or depending on me, I can’t do a line. The moment I make a contract, that moment I want to go off on my bicycle, and generally go.

Duty is abhorrent to me, and I often wonder that any respectable editor will sully his purity by having any business relations with me. A year or two ago I nearly worried one estimable magazine editor of London into an untimely grave. I had nine Revenge stories written and he contracted for the lot, with the proviso that as many others were to be furnished him. A most notable publisher arranged for the book and paid cash down.

There was, therefore, every incentive to write the other nine stories, and I had them all in my mind. It was so obviously the right thing to put these stories on paper that I could not induce myself to touch a pen. I got letters from that unfortunate editor (whom I sincerely pitied, although I have never been able to get him to appreciate that fact) in Spain, in Switzerland, and in various other quarters of the globe where I shouldn’t have been, first beseeching and pleading; appealing to my better nature—as if I had any!—then gradually rising to good sound cursing, but all in vain.

At last he wrote to me (in Ireland) that he had cancelled the contract, and that he would be obliged, if on meeting him hereafter, I should expect no recognition from him. I replied, bitterly, that I never expected to meet him hereafter, as I hoped to go to heaven.

Now that there was no reason why I should write the remaining Revenge stories, for I had forgotten all about the book publisher, I wrote them one after another with the greatest facility until twenty were finished. They appeared in various magazines—one or two in PEARSON’S.

Then the wily publisher, who all the while had never stirred me up to do my duty, announced that the book was ready, with two more stories than I had promised him.

And thus, as many noted persons have said on the scaffold, I hope you will all take warning from my fate and lead a virtuous 6000-words-a-day-life. I write these solemn lines merely because I am in the midst of a thrilling novel which I had resolved to let nothing on earth interrupt.


Sir Walter Besant writes:—

I find that, although days vary very much, and it is necessary to give up work or change work on some days, the rate at which a novel advances in my hands, taking one day with another, is not more than about a thousand words a day. A long novel of, say, 180,000 words, takes me from eight to ten months. I do not find that it is the least use attempting to work at fiction for more than about three hours a day.


R. D. Blackmore quotes the verse:—

The proper point about a book—
Or be it praised or smitten—
Is not to ask how long it took,
But what it is when written.


Mr. Hall Caine says:—

As a novelist I have never been able to consider my work in relation to speed and time. As a journalist in the old days I was compelled to do so, and can remember that at the death of Prince Leopold I wrote a memoir of many long columns between seven o’clock at night and the time of going to press with the morning paper. On another occasional, during the eight or nine hours occupied by a journey from Scotland I wrote something like an entire page of a London daily newspaper.

It would be nearly impossible for me to say at what rate of speed I have written my novels, the mere writing of the words being only a part, and not always the most important part of the labour of production.

“The Deemster” occupied, I think, about nine months in the writing of the text, but it had been nearly a year in hand before I began to write. Something like the same circumstances occurred in the case of “The Bondsman.” “The Scapegoat” was written either two or three times word for word. The first half of “The Manxman” was written twice, and it is the second complete version of “The Christian” that I am now at work upon.

Thus, my rate of producing mere sentences would be a very misleading guide, but even in that regard my speed is far from great. It is not every day that I can write at all, and if I do three or four days’ writing in the week, and produce five or six thousand words with which I am content, I am satisfied and more than satisfied.

It would be difficult to say which kind of work comes easiest to me, but on the whole I should be disposed to say that one often does easiest and quickest that one does best. Of course the reverse of that would not always be true of me.

The only value of these particulars is to help to disabuse the public mind of the idea that the professional literary man is a human spinning-jenny for the production of strings of words.


Mr. S. R. Crockett favours me with the following:—

I think, plan, average slowly, often keeping a story months and years in my head without writing a single word, slowly adding, altering, trying this way and that, till I am decently satisfied.

Then when it comes to writing, I put down the first draft rapidly, caring for nothing but continuity of action and swiftness of motion. Generally, the more swiftly at this stage I am able to write, the better pleased I am with the result. If I write slowly, the effect is an unsatisfactory patchwork, as dull as it is careful and praiseworthy.

I never care in the least about the number of words I do in a day—only about getting the impression of the scene upon paper while it is in my mind’s eye.

Then, after that, I begin really to work, often going over the whole four and five times before I let it go. I am naturally an early riser. I live in the country, and I like work for its own sake. Hence, though I can produce with some impression of rapidity, I am essentially a slow worker, hammering things out on the anvil of a day to which the artisan’s eight hours is but a morning breather.

I have done four and five thousand words of first draft in a day. I have been equally well satisfied with eight hundred; because in either case I count that first writing no more than the raw material of fiction.


Dr. Conan Doyle writes:—

As far as I am concerned, I think from fifteen hundred to two thousand words a very good day’s work. I never take more than one contract at a time, and never promise to produce work at any rate which does not give me ample time for those “off colour” days which authors are, I think, more subject to than anyone else.


“George Egerton” is good enough to send the following:—

I have no average, nor do I work every day. Nor, if I did, would it be possible for me to work daily by rule of thumb—so many hours, so many words. No writer of temperament or inspiration could possibly do so.

Moreover, it irritates me to have to consider how many words there are in anything I write. I write just as many as I need, no more, no less, always less if possible. I have no idea how many words are contained in any story I have written, nor which took longest or shortest to write. Some have been written straight off at a sitting; some have been begun and laid aside for weeks.


Mr. George Griffith tells me:—

So far as I am concerned personally, the answer to your question [about his rate of speed] does not depend upon myself. It depends upon those impalpable and headstrong creatures which condescend to strut and dance upon the stage which I place at their disposal. This is about all I really do.

If they are in a good humour with each other and with me, they, as I might say, rush through their parts at express speed, and the output, as measured by the column rule of the sub-editor, is often more than I should care to plead guilty to. If, on the other hand, any of my characters has anything the matter with his or her liver, or if any of them has quarreled with any other, they just go off the stage and decline to do anything at all. In such a case the output varies from a few hundred words to nothing.

Perhaps I have reached my best speed when I have tried to work out a few chapters by myself. In this case the characters seem to resent my interference, take the matter into their own hands, and keep me talking as their interpreter—for I never write anything—as fast as the typewriter will work.

I regret to say that once I perpetrated 12,500 words in one day. My average, when I am able to place myself at the disposal of my characters and they are on good terms with me and each other, is from 5000 to 6000 words—but this is their fault and not mine.


Mr. Rider Haggard writes:—

I find it almost impossible to give an average which would be at all exact, the amount of each day’s work varying so much, according to circumstances of correspondence, interruptions of all kinds, etc. Thus I have written a story in six weeks, while others have taken the greater part of a year to complete.


“John Oliver Hobbes” (Mrs. Craigie) tells me she does not write more than 150 words a day.


Mr. Cutcliffe Hyne, who is more communicative, says:—

The popular author you quote, who averages 6000 words a day—which means 2,190,000 per annum—is about 2,000,000 words ahead of me in annual output. I’m afraid I am horribly unsatisfactory in that way. I never race to see how much paper I can dirty.

My daily output varies prodigiously. Some days I do a lot. For instance, I turned off one of the “Kettle” tales for PEARSON’S in some seven consecutive hours. A performance like this usually inspires me with good resolutions for the future. If a man can produce one tale in seven hours, he can easily do three hundred in a year and yet not be at all over-pressed—so I say to myself.

I consider this proposition with diminishing complacency during the next week, stare at a clean paper-block, use a nice soft B pencil for a tobacco stopper, and—don’t get a single word written. At last, when I have quite arrived at the conclusion that I shall never evolve another line of fiction as long as the world stands, I get started again, and with vast laboriousness evolve sheet after sheet of pencil-scrawled MSS. till another tale is added to the tally.

Instead of taking seven hours, that parcel of fiction has very probably mopped up seventeen days, and so if I wish to make an estimate of output, it has to be calculated on a fresh basis.

From a distance I have always admired men like Zola, who turn out so many square feet of MSS. per diem, as though it were matting to be woven from a material which was always handy, and which only required a certain modicum of dogged physical labour to clap together in orderly rows.

This is a feat quite beyond me. Perhaps the reason is I have no desk to go to. I just put a block on my knee and write on that, and it answers equally in a railway train or at sea, or in the privacy of mine own chamber.

I have been many times tempted to get a regulation desk and try the effect of sitting at it, say for eight hours a day. The only drawback to this scheme is that at present I seem to turn out most work at sea, or whilst travelling, or, in fact, anywhere away from the ordinary utensils of the writing man one hears about.

I am sorry I have got nothing more interesting to tell you about the matter, but you see I did not learn my trade in any of the conventional schools, and so have only been able to let my methods of toiling evolve as Nature chose.


Mr. Frankfort Moore writes:—

Personally I myself write a story at fever heat, which I take to be, for a novel of 120,000 words, 4000 words per diem; but I can only work up to this rate of speed after I have had my plot maturing “in the wood,” so to speak, for at least two years, and after I have been considering for at least three months the form in which the story should be cast.

I rarely take more than five or six weeks to write a long novel, and I never re-write a line or even a phrase.

As a matter of fact I find that the story which I write fastest sells fastest. Of course, when I was writing books of adventure my literary output was over 6000 words per diem, but that form of work is only exercise.


Mr. Max Pemberton says:—

I answer your questions very willingly, though I am afraid my experience is a very “slow” one. The idea of writing 6000 words a day appalls me. I never wrote more than 2000 in one day in my life, and then regretted it.

My average day’s work is four hours. I may spend another hour writing letters or correcting proofs, but I never exceed four hours at my novels. In this time I may write no more than 500 words, I may write as much as 1500 words. It depends upon the mood and your neighbour’s piano. I consider 1500 words an exceedingly good day’s work: no words at all may also be a good day’s work if you are at a difficult place in your book.

I wrote my last novel, “A Puritan’s Wife,” at the average, roughly, of 1000 words a day. My “Queen of the Jesters” stories were written more slowly, the scene being more difficult to handle: 800 words represented a good day then; this, perhaps, is my slowest book.

“The Iron Pirate,” written with the rashness of youth, was the quickest. I find a modern story goes very much faster than an historical novel, and it takes much less out of one. The various hours of the day vary your speed enormously. I can always do my best work between six and seven o’clock at night.


Mr. William Le Queux says:—

My average per day of literary work throughout the year is 1500 words. I generally endeavour, however, to write two days in succession, and devote the third to reading or recreation. In face of this I have recently been surprised to learn from several journals that I am “the lightning story-writer,” a position that I must now certainly relinquish to the popular author who averages an output of 6000 words per day.

Several of my books have occupied me over a year, while others have been completed much more rapidly. As an instance, in order to obtain material for “The Great War in England in 1897,” I found myself compelled to visit all the coast defences from the Forth to Plymouth, besides going over all the imaginary battle-fields. These journeys took me over four months, and the actual time I occupied in writing the book was just over a year.

On the other hand, however, “The Great White Queen,” my last published romance, which contains 83,000 words, was conceived, written and delivered to my publishers within thirty days. I cannot dictate, nor can I use a typewriter.


“Ian Maclaren” tells me that he considers his experience in writing so slight that he does not think it becoming to give any statement to the public as to the speed at which he does his literary work.


Mr. H. G. Wells says:—

Heaven alone knows how much I write on an average; but on an average I burn half at least of what I write—the net product is not more than 1000 words a day.

I like thinking out my stories, but I hate writing them; the only things that are pleasant to write are essays (but they are not nearly so pleasant to sell) and malignant criticisms of my contemporaries. For six months or more, when I was scrambling for a footing amongst novelists, I must have turned out, Heaven forgive me! about 7000 words each working day. “Moreau” and “The Wonderful Visit” came in that feverish time, and there were theatrical criticisms, and book reviews, and copious articles, and the beginning of a novel that was a bother even to burn.

I hope some day to give two years to a book, and to be able to burn it at the end if I do not like it. No novelist can do his best work until he feels free to do that.


“John Strange Winter” says:—

What is my average per day of literary work? It is a terrible question, but I will try to answer it as clearly as I can. The largest year’s work I have ever done was 437,000 words. To me a comfortable year’s work is about 250,000 words. The largest day’s work I have ever done was just over 11,000 words, but that was not entirely fiction.

It is, of course, much easier to do such work as answering correspondence than to do fiction. I believe that 7000 words is the most I have ever done, and that with a stenographer.

Personally I find that I cannot work as quickly as I could ten years ago. Three or four thousand words is a good day’s work for me when ideas are running freely. If I am in the mood I do more, but I find myself no good the following day.

I believe that my quickest piece of work was “Aunt Johnnie,” which I dictated with great ease and rapidity. But at the last chapter I stuck fast, and spent an unconscionable time over it. Work that sticks very often proves the best.


Mr. Allen Upward writes:—

When I decide to write a book or play, I spend months of misery in the preliminary wrestle. I invent about fifty plots, and reject them all, write something one day, and scratch it out the next, copy out the opening about a thousand times, and finally give the whole thing up as a bad job. During this time I shun my species, quarrel with my best friends, take to drink, and curse my publisher. Last of all, I make a desperate plunge, sit up for three or four nights in succession till 4 or 5 a.m., and write the thing.

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