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A Practical Way to Estimate the Writing Time You Need for a Project

Award-winning writer Kathy Widenhouse has helped hundreds of nonprofits and writers produce successful content and has gained 600K+ views for her writing tutorials. She is the author of 9 books. See more of Kathy’s content here.

Updated 4.19,24

Writing time: there’s never enough of it, even though I’m all in for making the most of the minutes that I have. 

I use a calendar to block off time for each project. I set word count goals. I use deadlines as a tool to help prevent my writing perfectionism. When a project is due next Tuesday at 5 PM, I create a timeline to get it done by that date and time.

Yet all those productivity tricks can’t negate two truths: 1. I’m not a machine, and 2. good writing takes time. Despite my optimistic bent, I’ve grown to be more realistic about the amount of writing time I need to complete a project. This is one instance where less really isn’t more.

A practical way to estimate your #writing time for a project with Word Wise at Nonprofit Copywriter #FreelanceWriting #WritingTips

Underestimating Writing Time Can Lead to Discouragement

When I first started freelancing, I had no idea how long I’d need to write a project. I was still learning the craft. So when a new client asked, “How much will you charge for writing this newsletter?” I privately estimated my hours and then named a dollar figure. I can’t tell you how many times I was overly optimistic and woefully off in my projections for the amount of time I’d need to dedicate to a project. Call it my enthusiastic nature coupled with a bit of opportunism. I wanted gigs.

The simple fact is that 90% of the time, projects take longer for me to complete than I think they will take. Writing is more than simply pecking out the words on the page. Research, concepting the piece, back-and-forth contact with the client, revisions … my misplaced optimism leads me to underestimate those calculations or neglect them altogether. The result can be long hours into the wee hours at the keyboard or a rush job as my writing becomes formulaic or hackneyed. The worse part: I feel like a failure. If only I was a better writer, I’d be able to knock out creative content in less time, right?

So while “less is more” is the ideal mantra for streamlining my content, I’m not convinced less allotted time produces more efficient writing results.

Writing Time Can Be Unpredictable

The truth is that writing doesn’t follow a logical timeline, especially when I want to produce quality work.

Recently I was assigned a feature article for a local lifestyle magazine that announced a restaurant re-opening. I interviewed the new owners. The chef served me a luscious sample meal and the host staff gave me a tour of the remodeled facility. Yet after that information-gathering, what should have been a simple 3–4-hour writing project turned into a two-day struggle to find an article slant. My problem? Restaurants open every day. Why was this one so special? I didn’t want to settle for an article with a bland “here-is-the-new-menu” tone. Finally, after plenty of mental gymnastics and mind mapping, I latched onto a hook: local passion. The restaurant had been closed for a year and residents who lived nearby were clamoring for it to re-open.

Any simple hitch, like that bump, can compound the time you need to write a project well. Maybe you’ve created your outline in just a few minutes, but writing the draft eats up an extra hour when you can’t find the attention-grabbing quote or powerful statistic to illustrate one of your points. Or an interview goes longer than you planned. On top of the overtime, you hadn’t factored in extra background research on the subject, preparing interview questions, or cleaning up the notes afterward.

The human factor skews the schedule, too. You wake up groggy and cannot focus on your topic. Your children interrupt you six times. You accumulate tear-jerking material, but now you’ve got to process it with a box of tissues next to your elbow. Or you’ve written ten milquetoast headlines and you’ve got to churn out a few more to get one that sings.

The Solution: Overestimate the Writing Time You Need

Here’s where The Excess Luggage Principle comes in handy — “luggage” as in what you take on a trip. The principle centers on a traveler’s tendency to overpack. You’ve been there, stuffing your suitcase full of options just in case. “After you pack your bag, take 50% of it out,” advises Bruce Poon Tip, founder of G Adventures Travel. That’s good advice for the traveler.

Apply that principle, in the reverse, to your writing. Excess baggage — not in words, but in writing time — is essential. Extra padding in your schedule allows for inevitable delays. Start on the front end by estimating how much time you think a project is going to take. Then double that figure.

I’m not suggesting you should invoice a client twice the amount you’d typically charge — in fact, charging per project instead of per hours spent is a practical billing procedure. Instead, plan your schedule to allow twice the time you think a project will take to complete.

How does The Excess Luggage Principle play out in real life? Let’s look at an example. Here’s an estimated timesheet for writing a 1,500-word article.

  • Conducting research and interview(s): 1 hour
  • Concepting and outlining the article: 0.5 hour
  • Writing the first draft: 1.5 hours
  • Working through the editorial process (communicating with the editor, making revisions): 1.0 hours
  • Total: 4 hours
  • The time I will allot on my schedule: 8 hours

That sounds like a lot of time, you’re thinking. Yes — that’s the idea.

If you’re done sooner, kudos! In fact, there’s a good chance you’ll beat your padded writing time estimate. This is especially the case if you’ve got a bit of experience and know-how in a particular niche. When you’ve accumulated reliable research, lingo, and quotable sources (keyworded in files), and have become familiar with a publication, editor, and their preferences, you’re able to streamline your preparation.

Spend the “found” time on another project. But upfront, when you’re planning a project, be realistic. Pack extra luggage — as in extra time. Overestimate how long you need to complete your writing project.

When you do, frustration will stay at bay. You won’t be plagued by panic or repeated feelings of failure. Instead, you’ll complete more projects, defeat discouragement, and have a reason for optimism — a reason that’s genuine, rather than misplaced.

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