Why are writers such lazy bums?

by Guy Bergstrom

I don’t really think writers are lazy bums. I just want us all to talk about the elephant in the living room.

Why does writing TAKE SO LONG?

The average person types 50 words per minute.

And that’s slow. I type about 80 or 90. Faster if I have coffee.

Quicker if I have coffee, a deadline and something to look forward to after.


Image by bitzi☂ via Flickr

Here comes the math.

Fifty words per minute =

• 3,000 words per hour
• 24,000 words per eight-hour day
• 120,000 words per week

That’s a ton of words. An incredible amount.

Let’s do a little more math to see how much we should be cranking out, if we’re not surfing the net, Twittering our lives away and checking out Facebook photos all day.

Here come the word counts.

  • 200 words = letter to the editor
  • 500 words = five-minute speech
  • 600 words = news story
  • 800 words = op-ed
  • 1,000 words = 10-minute speech
  • 1,000 to 3,000 words = profile or magazine piece
  • 1,000 to 8,000 words = short story
  • 3,000 words = 30-minute keynote speech
  • 15,000 words = screenplay
  • 20,000 to 50,000 words = novella
  • 60,000 to 200,000 words = novel
Stephen King

Stephen King is a literary god, a living, walking, breathing Jedi master of storytelling. I bow down before him, though he should do more short stories and novellas like THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (perfect!) than 1,000-page monstrosities that could’ve been 400-page works of art. Image via Wikipedia

If you work an honest 40-hour week, you should’ve produced 120,000 words.

That’s eight screenplays or 200 newspaper stories.

It’s 40 keynote speeches or one entire novel. In a single week.

Nobody writes that much. NOBODY.

Not even Stephen King, back when he was fueled by industrial amounts of caffeine, nicotine and whatever else.

In fact, writers of all sorts are happy to produce between 500 and 2,000 good, usable words a day.

I know novelists who are happy to produce one good novel per year. If you divide 100,000 words by 52 days, you get a smide less than 2,000 words per week.

I know reporters who crank out two stories a day, five days a week.

Columnists who do one or two op-eds a week.

Speechwriters who take two weeks to write a 3,000-word keynote.

Before the invention of word processors, writing gods like Hemingway would pound on their Underwoods and count every word, quitting when they hit 500 or 1,000 a day.

But let’s be generous and say 2,000 words a day is a good day.

Where are the missing 22,000 words? Why are we writers – reporters, novelists, poets, speechwriters – producing about 10 percent of what the math says?


Image via Wikipedia

Nobody writes that much.


People are happy to produce 500 to 2,000 words per day.

So where are the missing 22,000 words?

Suspect No. 1: It’s not eight hours

This looks like the obvious culprit, because it’s the only person sneaking away from the crime scene with a guilty look and blood on the bottom of their shoes.

Reporters have to cover stories, get quotes from sources and meet with editors.

Novelists need to do research, talk to their agent, go on book tours and so forth.

Every writer, reporter and novelist has to do research and go to meetings. They’re not chained to the desk the entire workday, pounding on the keyboard like a typist. They need to eat of the food sometimes, and drink of the wine, and have a life.

HOWEVER, A lack of hours isn’t what’s wrong here.

Let’s say half the day is toast. Research. Meetings and phone calls. Email. Lunch with some big important person. Twittering to your buddies.

Fine, we’re down to four hours of banging on the keyboard.

3,000 words per hour X 4 hours = 12,000 words a day.

And the most we typically hit, on a good day, is 2,000 words.

If the “half the day is toast” theory is right, where are the missing 10,000 words?

Also, I know writers who spend four hours a day in meetings, doing research, returning email and all that – and they still bang on the keyboard eight hours a day because they’re working at least 12 hours per day. A lot of writers work weekends, too.

Yet 2,000 words per day is some kind of universal wall – for writers of all types. Reporters, novelists, screenwriters. Why?

Suspect No. 2: We type slower than narcoleptic turtles

This suspect doesn’t even get handcuffed and taken down to the station for a chat.

I used 50 words a minute because it’s the average typing speed.

Miss Four Hours and Mr. Types Slowly hatching a scheme to do us in. Also, they smoke cigarettes and play with revolvers. Image via Wikipedia

Professional writers are typically faster than that, unless they’re hunting and pecking on an Underwood because that’s what they’ve always done since they first got published in 1926. There aren’t that many authors in that category.

If you dictate your stuff with Naturally Speaking or whatever, it’s more like 100 words a minute.

But let’s be generous again and pretend we all type really, really slow.

25 words a minute = 1,500 words an hour and 12,000 words a day.

Even if we say Suspect No. 1 (Miss Four Hours) and Suspect No. 2 (Mr. Types Slowly) shacked up in a cheap motel and conspired to murder the creativity of all writers, it doesn’t get us down to 2,000 words a day.

Four hours at the keyboard at 25 words per minute is still 6,000 words a day.

We need a better theory of the crime.

Suspect No. 3: Writing requires deep, deep thinking

Ah, this one is good. It’s lurking in the shadows.

It’s evil. Hard to refute.

How can you say that writing is shallow and easy?

How can you deny the art required, the creativity?

This isn’t an assembly line. It’s not a factory were we churn out widgets. We write original pieces, whether it’s a 500-word story for the newspaper or a 100,000-word novel.

Except I know better. Because I’ve been watching.

Going off my own experience wouldn’t be proof of squat. Maybe I’m an anomaly, or a nut. Maybe I type 80 words per minute (true) and write things damned fast (true) because I turn my brain off (true) and think research is for nancy-pants (not really true, but let’s go with it).

But I’ve been watching, and talking to, writers of all sorts. Reporters, speechwriters, novelists, you name it.

Most professional writers bang on the keyboard at least four hours a day, and they are definitely faster than 50 words a minute.

I know writers who put in 12 or 14 hour days. It’s not like these writers are staring into space half the time. They’re cranking out words.

Even going with four hours a day of actual writing, why doesn’t the average writer have more than 2,000 words before they hit the sack?

We’re still missing words.

Suspect No. 4: We’re creating while destroying

This is our killer. I’ve seen him at work.

I’ve helped other writers catch the evil scumbag, convict him and send him upstate so he can’t do any more damage.

We are typing away on the keyboard, and we’re not doing it at 10 words per minute. We are writing fast. It’s just that we destroy those words just as fast.

Why do we writers destroy more than we create?

Not because the words aren’t pretty. Sentence by sentence, they’re fine.

It’s because the structure is wrong.

I’ve looked at bad drafts that hit the round-file. The sentences were pretty. It was the structure that failed.

We spend so much time trying to fix these things because nobody teaches us structure.


Oh, they taught me the inverted pyramid in journalism school, which is the best possible blueprint for a story if you want to give away the ending right away and put people in a coma the longer they read.

They teach us characterization and the three types of conflict in creative writing.

They teach logical fallacies and different types of arguments in speech and debate.

Yet that’s not really structure. It’s tiny bits and pieces.

They way most of us write is like trying to build a house one room at a time, without any blueprints.

Pour the foundation for the front door and foyer.

Frame it. Wire it for electricity. Drywall it. Paint it.

Now dig the foundation for the kitchen and build that.

Where should the living room go? Okay, we did that, but forgot to put in stairs to the second floor, so we’ve got to tear it all down and start over.

That’s how I used to write. It’s how most writers I know do it.

You start at the beginning and work your way through, trying to fix any problems with structure along the way.

But it’s no way to run a railroad. It’s building a house without blueprints.

I’ve had houses designed and built. If a contractor tried to build a house the way we writers work, it wouldn’t take six months to finish it. It’d take six years, or forever.

So this is our killer, our time-suck, our nemesis.

Question is, how do you DO structure – and how do we, as writers, learn to draw good blueprints, so we stop spending 80 percent of our time at the keyboard destroying what we created?


Guy Bergstrom won awards as a journalist before working as a speechwriter and cashing checks from The New York Times as about.com’s expert on public relations. He wrote a thriller (FREEDOM, ALASKA) that won some award and he’s represented by Jill Marr of the Dijkstra Literary Agency. Follow him on his blog redpenofdoom.com, or Twitter at @speechwriterguy, or Google+

Ten years later, it’s the same game for this celiac

Ten years ago, it was okay when no one knew about celiac disease. The medical community labeled it rare. The general populace had never heard of it. People didn’t eat gluten-free. Shit, people didn’t even know what gluten was.

I was diagnosed in 2003, after 11 years with mysterious symptoms ranging from radical weight-loss to chronic fatigue. It ended with a nine-day hospital stay when I dropped to 96 pounds. At first, doctors told me it was all in my head. I just needed antidepressants. Eventually, they did a biopsy to confirm celiac – but they never apologized.

Back then, I did my grocery shopping with my cell phone so I could call the 800 numbers on the labels. (Why buy it if I can’t eat it?) More often than not, the question “Does this have gluten in it?” was met with “What’s gluten?”

But now, when federal law requires food labeling with or without gluten —

When people routinely eat gluten-free (even if it’s because they mistakenly think it’s healthier) —

When everyone and their mother knows someone who has celiac or is gluten intolerant —

There’s just no fucking excuse for your gastroenterologist to not understand why you need gluten-free medication.

And yet . . .

Wednesday, I got a generic substitute medication from my mail-order pharmacy that my doctor okayed. This is a new generic drug, released in late November 2013, to replace a brand name medication I had been taking for more than a year. Naturally, I need to make sure it’s also gluten-free.

When I eat gluten, I alternate between the bed and the bathroom for several days. Having an autoimmune disease that almost no one knew about when I was diagnosed, and that makes eating a minefield, absolutely sucks. But it’s doable once you get used to it.

So I called the GI doctor.

“Hi, I got a generic substitute medication in the mail and I have celiac. Is this generic gluten free?”

They don’t know. I should call the manufacturer or the pharmacy.

“If you don’t know if it’s gluten-free, why did you okay it with the pharmacy?” I ask.

A nurse will have to call me back.

Nurse Robin rings me later, saying she called the makers of the brand name and they say there’s no gluten.

“I know the brand name has no gluten. I was taking the brand name up ’til now. But this is the generic. Why would the brand name people know if the generic is gluten-free? Don’t I have to call the generic manufacturer?”

She says it’s usually the same company. (It isn’t.) But she will call me back with the number so I can call myself.

When Nurse Robin calls back, it’s to tell me she called my mail-order pharmacy and someone named Duane says no gluten is in the generic. She didn’t call the generic manufacturer (how could she? several exist and we don’t know which one made this bottle) and she doesn’t give me the number.

“Okay, as long as it’s labeled, then I can take it,” I say.

“Well, I can’t say if it’s labeled gluten-free,” she says. “I’m just telling you he said there’s no gluten. If you’re really nervous about taking it, we can send a new prescription and require no generic substitution.”

But, she says, I will have to pay full price, which is more than $500, because the pharmacy tech said it has no gluten.

I explain this is serious. I will be violently ill if I ingest even a little bit of gluten. I can’t play games and risk it.

In the past, I have listened to the pharmacist who assured me a medicine was gluten-free, only to find out the hard way he was wrong. (Incidentally, pharmacists routinely make these mistakes for a variety of  reasons that aren’t their fault. The law doesn’t require labeling on medication, so it’s guess-work.)

Nurse Robin says she’ll send in another prescription for brand name medication and we can see what happens.

We hang up.

I call the office again and ask to make an appointment with the doctor to sort out my medication. Paying $500 a month for drugs is ridiculous. It’s not okay to not have my meds. It’s not okay to take medication that may have gluten and make me sick.

But I’m not due for an appointment, so they will put me through to the nurse. But I just hung up with the nurse. I need the doctor.

They still have to get the okay to schedule an appointment – from the nurse – but they’ll call me back.

“I can’t make an appointment to see the doctor?”

“You’re not due. Someone has to okay it. We’ll call you back.”

They did. Today. Another woman, named Danielle. The doctor can see me Feb. 4th.

“But that’s almost a month from now,” I say. “I don’t have my meds.”

“Yeah, I saw the notes. The pharmacy said there’s no gluten in it.”

“When I spoke to the nurse yesterday, I told her I was happy to take the medication if it is labeled gluten free,” I say. “She said she couldn’t confirm it was labeled, only that the pharmacy tech said there is no gluten. I’m not trying to be difficult. I just don’t want to get sick.”


“I don’t know what to tell you. The first available appointment I have is Feb. 4th. I mean, I could put you on a cancellation list.”

At which point, I told them not to worry about. I’ll get another doctor.

Celiac patients – myself included – are accustomed to researching this shite on their own. For brand name drugs, calling the manufacturer or searching online works great. For generic drugs, you have to know who made it first. Every pharmacy has a different generic drug supplier. Every time a prescription is refilled, I have to check with the manufacturer of that generic to make sure it’s gluten-free.

The label on this bottle of generic medication is covered by the label of my stupid mail-order pharmacy, so I can’t see who it is.

Further internet research tells me six companies make this medication: License to produce was granted to Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories, Kremers Urban Pharmaceuticals, Lupin Pharmaceuticals, Mylan Pharmaceuticals, Teva Pharmaceuticals and Torrent Pharmaceuticals, according to the FDA website.

I spend a half-hour methodically peeling the pharmacy label, trying to make sure I don’t rip the maker’s name underneath.

Success: Lupin Pharmaceuticals. I call them – in India – and they tell me it is gluten-free.


It took two days, too many phone calls and several hours of research to get an answer to something my gastroenterologist should have known before he allowed a generic substitute.

This is not okay.

Because no one is going to pickup the slack around here if I am in bed for several days because I’ve been poisoned by gluten.

Because no one is going to be fined $12,000 if gluten is in this medication. (Read that. Irony much?)

And I feel helpless and lost.

Until a longtime friend and editor says, “You should write about this.”