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think “words per minute” to write better

(3 min read) Not how fast you write. How fast they read. Thinking in “words per minute” helps you connect with the reader. There isn’t much good writing advice about how much detail to include in your work. This is my favorite trick for that. Give it a go. You’ll write better and edit smarter.

You’re familiar with the difference between a TV commercial and a feature-length film, right? The difference is length. You can only get a certain amount of information into a 15-second ad. If you tried to make a 2-hour movie that only had as much information as a 15-second ad, it would be real boring. As a writer, the amount of time you’re asking of your reader is the prime determiner of how much you wanna try cramming in. You want to respect their time, use it well, and not overwhelm or bore them. So you need to make the amount of information right-sized for their reading time. How long they’re reading shapes how much to tell them.

Try letting this guide your editing.

Does this section belong in my book?” That’s tough. It’s a value judgement. It feels abstract. How can you possibly know if something belongs in a book?

Is this section worth fifteen full minutes of the four hours I have with my reader?” Much easier to tell. A more concrete perspective. Would you want to hear about this character’s personal backstory for fifteen full minutes, or would you get bored?

Try mapping out your draft in minutes and see what you notice.Three minutes about the city’s politics, one minute about loneliness, then eight minutes of conversation with that barista… wait I really don’t need eight minutes with a minor character who never comes back; let’s winnow it down.

How to find your minute count? There’s a little math, but it’s not awful. (If you don’t like math, I’ve got a useful link a bit down the page to automate it.)

Averages aren’t perfect, but they’re a decent start. Average reading speed for adults is 260 words per minute for fiction, 238 words per minute for non-fiction, and 183 words aloud. (Those aren’t random stats from a sketchy Google result; it’s proper scientific work published in the Journal of Memory and Language.) Non-fiction is slower to read because it has more long words. You can help people read faster if you use short words, short sentences, and short paragraphs. You can make sure people slow down by shifting gears to use longer, more complex language, and sentence structure. It’s your highway and you set the speed limit. But the average span is a good rule of thumb; unless you’re doing poetry, you won’t write anything much slower than 175 words per minute or quicker than 320 words per minute, so when you think about general reading speed it’s useful to round to about 250 words per minute. You’ll be in the ballpark.

(If you don’t want to calculate, you can use Scrivener. It’s like a souped-up word processor with lots of useful features for writers; it has a built-in feature that estimates reading time. You can start with a free trial of Scrivener to see if you like it. If you find it useful and end up buying the program through this link I’ll get a few coins as an affiliate partner. I fell in love fast and bought it on day two; now I use it for everything. Have a go with a free 30-day trial of Scrivener.)

So, you’ve got your reading time in minutes. (Either with Scrivener or manually.) Good information. Does it still feel a bit abstract?

To help the minutes make sense, I like to use songs.

Fell In Love with a Girl by the White Stripes is 2 minutes and 1 second, or about 500 words.

Call Me Maybe by Carly Rae Jepsen is 3 minutes and 20 seconds, or about 825 words.

Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen is about six minutes, or 1500 words.

 I use this benchmark when I’m editing, but also for outlines and planning. It’d be great if the scene at the skating rink was really short and sweet, just kind of quick and fun like “Call Me Maybe.” I’ll get it done in around 800 words. Suddenly we’re not making an intimidating work of great literature; we’re just making a mixtape.

(This post is a quick peek at a big idea. I could write a whole book about time and language! But I knew I wanted you to get in, out, and on with your day in about 850 words; you’ve paused with me just about long enough to listen to Toxic by Britney Spears.)

Thinking words per minute helps you focus on your writing as an experience, not as a product. You’re not making a perfect sculpture that exists on its own, waiting to be observed; you’re making a waking dream that someone will have for five minutes, or fifteen minutes, or fifteen hours. Writing isn’t finished when you add the final comma. It’s finished when the reader dreams it off the page and into life.