Why everyone underestimates how long it will take to write a book (and what to do about it)

October 28, 2021
by Louise Tondeur
Screenshot 2021-10-26 at 10.28.32
“a writing project will always take longer than you expect”
Louise Tondeur

Welcome to the third blog in our new craft of writing blog series! In this series, novelist, poet and short story writer Louise Tondeur shares her top tips and writing advice. Read all the blogs in this series so far.

Why everyone underestimates how long it will take to write a book (and what to do about it)

by Louise Tondeur

In my third post in this series on the craft of writing, I look at two seemingly contradictory time management ‘laws’ – Hofstadter’s and Parkinson’s law – and apply them to the writing life, and include some cognitive dissonance and some all-day postcard writing in Bognor along the way.

Cognitive dissonance and a viral dress

Our brains don’t like cognitive dissonance – holding two contradictory ideas at the same time – and we instinctively go out of our way to avoid it. Remember the ‘What colour is this dress?’ debate that when viral a few years ago? Was the dress white and blue or white and gold? Why did so many people argue about it? Because our brains don’t like the idea that they see a white and gold dress that’s ‘really’ white and blue.

That said, I like a bit of cognitive dissonance. I write about it here if you want an overview. One way of learning something new and finding out what you really think about it is to introduce some cognitive dissonance as a thought experiment and to put up with the discomfort for a while.

Introduce some cognitive dissonance, and your brain will get to work attempting to assimilate the two ideas, which can be productive. Why on earth would you want to do that? If you have no problem with turning up in your writing space and getting on with it, then there’s no need, but if you suffer from either lack of time or procrastination, then it could be a game changer.

Here we go then. I give you two seemingly contradictory time management ‘laws’ that will both help with your longer writing projects. Hofstadter’s law and Parkinson’s law.

Hofstadter’s law

When I’m working on a writing project and have spent time getting organised, it’s frustrating to discover that I have underestimated how long the task will take. I was surprised to learn years ago – in this short column by Oliver Burkeman – that this is a cognitive thing, and not my lack of awareness about how many hours there are in a day! We tend to underestimate how long projects will take even if we know that we do it. This is known as ‘Hofstadter’s law.’

Cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter coined the term in 1979 in a book known as GEB, stating that a task ‘always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.’ Hofstadter was actually discussing why a computer hadn’t yet beaten a human chess champion. That didn’t happen until 1997, proving his point nicely.

If Hofstadter’s law is correct, then we can take hope from the students Oliver Burkeman mentions in his column. When asked when they would complete an essay, on average they suggested it would be done 10 days before the deadline. In reality, they gave in their work, on average, one day before the deadline. Here’s the key piece of advice. According to Burkeman, when ‘asked when they normally completed such essays, they knew the truth: one day before deadline.’ It seems the only way to estimate how long something will take to write is to record and remember accurately at how long it took you last time you did it.

A few years ago the Alliance of Independent Authors (Alli) asked me to write a blog post on finding more time to write. In that post I take Hofstadter’s law and attempt to answer why we’re so bad at estimating how long a task will take, using the example of cooking a roast dinner. It is still online here if you want to read it, but summary, it’s because we tend to forget we have a life. Most time management advice does this too, but it’s crucial, when you’re setting writing goals, to remember the rest of your life.

Parkinson’s law

I don’t like cleaning the house at the weekend because I resent it taking up so much time when I could be, say, walking on the beach or having breakfast with my family. But if someone announces they’re coming round in half an hour, I somehow manage to tidy and (at least semi) clean the house in that time. This is a trick I can’t replicate by pretending that my mum’s about to arrive at the house imminently, but it might be a reason to invite people round more often! Could my cleaning mojo have anything to do with Parkinson’s law?

This piece of time management advice comes from an article by historian Northcote Parkinson: ‘work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.’ Parkinson, who was born in Barnard Castle curiously enough, wrote the article for the Economist in the mid-1950s and subsequently turned it into a book. Here is a link to Parkinson’s original article, which is worth reading just for the first paragraph. I make reference to it throughout.

If Parkinson’s law is correct, then our writing is expanding to fit the time allocated to it, and that’s at least deserving of consideration. Despite the outrageous sexism and ageism, I like how Parkinson’s first example in the above article is about writing and I strongly identify with that ‘elderly lady of leisure’ in Bognor taking all day to search for, write and post a postcard. Apart from the bit about the umbrella, it sounds like me when I’m editing a poem to submit to a journal. I also think that the ‘elderly lady of leisure’, whom Parkinson so readily dismisses, is the key to making Parkinson’s law and Hofstadter’s law work together. I’ll come back to that in at the end.  

How can these two time management ‘laws’ help with our writing?

So, in a nutshell, a writing project will ‘always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law’ and ‘work [writing?] expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.’ Let’s look at three ways in which these ‘laws’ can help with a writing practice.

  1. Whether we really can substitute ‘writing’ for ‘work’ in Parkinson’s law remains to be seen. Rifting on his law, others have suggested that ‘busy people get more done’, to which I have to ask the question: what if ‘getting more done’ isn’t my overall aim? What if taking a ponderous approach to my writing is actually useful? Creative work doesn’t necessarily benefit from getting more of it done or doing it quickly. Certain aspects of it do, but sometimes you’ve got to let things marinate. One benefit of Parkinson’s law, then, is in its limitation: it doesn’t take the ponderous side of work into account – to me that need to marinate ideas is made obvious by its absence.
  2. How much time will your writing project really take? You could consider how long a previous project took and to use that evidence to estimate how long a current task will take, but what if you haven’t undertaken something similar before? If this is the case, I suggest writing and editing something short to a specific deadline and submitting it. (You can give it to a friend to read if you don’t want to send it out ‘for real’.) Record how long it takes, then extrapolate based on the estimated length of your longer project. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s better than pure guesswork.
  3. Know what your values are and why you want to write what you’re writing. That will help you to prioritise what’s important to you, to remember that you have other things in your life. If taking time over a project, taking a ponderous approach with an open ended deadline, is important to you, forget about time management ‘laws’. But if you have or want a deadline and you need to figure out how much writing time to fit into your schedule in order to meet it, then learning a few time management tricks and tips may help.

Where are you on the time management continuum?

As I hinted in the introduction, we can suffer from (or think we suffer from) two different time management problems as writers. At one end of the time management continuum, it feels like we have far too much going on in our lives to fit in any writing time, at the other end, like the postcard writer in Bognor, we have far too much time on our hands and therefore it’s easy to put off writing, because we could do it another time, or we spend too much time editing over and over without sending the work out.

You might come across these challenges at different times in your life, but you may face them during the same week or month, or even on the same day! If you generally spend your time looking after others and suddenly have an afternoon to yourself, you’ll know what I mean. Weighing up what you think about Hofstadter’s and Parkinson’s laws in advance of this happening can help you discover your ideal writing time – in terms of when you do it and how long for. And it turns out there is an ‘ideal’ writing time. More on that in a minute.

Spot the difference

Did you notice a slight difference between the way Hofstadter’s and Parkinson’s laws approach the concept of time? (Ignoring the fact that one is talking about 1970s computer chess and the other about productivity in a typical 1950s office.) The difference is that Hofstadter is discussing projects and Parkinson is talking about tasks. A project is long, can’t be done in one go, and contains within it a series of tasks. The possibilities for interruption and distraction are seemingly endless. It isn’t always obvious how a project will pan out. A task is a discreet action, which could be done in one go, and it’s probably obvious how to do it, even if it is unpleasant.

Turning a project into a series of tasks can help you to make sense of it. Each of the following tasks is arguably better than simply planning to ‘write my novel’: Write 1000 words or spend 25 minutes writing without looking at the internet or go to the library and research irate paranormal activity around pillar boxes in Bognor Regis.

Taking a day to write a postcard

I said that our postcard writer was the key to making these seemingly dissonant concepts work together. That’s because she has all day to choose, write and post that postcard. Would it really take all day? Of course it wouldn’t. What would you do if you had all day to write that postcard? More to the point, what would you do if you had all day to work on your writing? You’d spend some time on your writing, some time staring into space (good), some time cooking yourself a lovely lunch or going to a café (also good) – I like to think of our postcard writer talking high tea at the Beachcroft Hotel – maybe you’d go for a walk, go swimming, or phone a friend. All good. These things are arguably not procrastination; you need to do them to write at your best, or you’re simply living your life. Back to the key question: how much time would you spend writing?

According to research by Anders Ericsson, when they have total control of their time working writers ideally spend 4 hours writing a day. It seems that when faced with a choice, most writers do not prefer out and out productivity. Most find a balance between focused writing time and everything else. So if you’re tempted to be self-critical about the way you approach your writing time, take heart, and take time management ‘laws’ with a pitch of salt.

About Louise Tondeur

Louise Tondeur writes fiction, poetry, plays and nonfiction and has supported countelss numbers of writers with both written and verbal feedback. Before doing a Creative Writing MA at The Univeristy of East Anglia, she trained as a Drama teacher and brings her knowledge of the theatre into her conversations with emerging writers.

In the noughties, she published two novels with Headline Review called The Water’s Edge and The Haven Home for Delinquent Girls, then she did a PhD in Literature and Cultural Theory at the Reading University, started a family, and became a Creative Writing lecturer, while publishing mainly poetry and nonfiction. In 2017, she left her full-time job to focus on fiction writing. Her short story collection, Unusual Places, came out in 2019 and she is currently working on a series of crime novels set in Norfolk/ Suffolk border country where her grandparents lived for 40 years. Louise grew up in Bournemouth and after a long time in London, and spells in Cambridge and Norwich, she now lives in Hove with her wife and son and two black cats. Louise teaches on the Open University’s Creative Writing MA and blogs at: www.louisetondeur.co.uk.