Jane Austen: Writing at the Speed of Thought

“In composition she was equally rapid and correct.”

This is what Jane Austen’s brother Henry had to say about Jane’s writing style in the “Biographical Notice” at the front of the combined Persuasion and Northanger Abbey.  The short biography in the December 1817 publication informed readers that the author, to that point unknown, had recently died.

This brief comment has led to the general impression that Austen wrote rapidly and without much in the way of revision. Yet her few extant handwritten manuscripts show an author constantly revising, editing, inserting. People overlook the rest of Henry’s comment, which was that an “invincible distrust of her own judgement induced her to withhold her works from the public, till time and many perusals had satisfied her that the charm of recent composition was dissolved.”

Restated from the author’s perspective, Henry is saying that Jane understood how easy it is for a writer to fall in love with her own words as they flow from the pen—“the charm of recent composition.” The amateur asks for someone to critique her book and flies into a rage when the reader finds problems or suggests corrections. This is my baby—it’s perfect! In contrast, the professional comes back to the work to fix issues and develop material that contains the typical problems of “recent composition.” Austen returned to her works repeatedly in the years when she was unable to publish.

Undoubtedly, she found flaws every time she did and set out to fix them. She learned to be a professional by recognizing that, when the words grew cold, she could examine them with a fresh eye. The objectivity of “time and many perusals” enabled her to see, and revise out, any writing errors or plot problems she found.

Of course, the family did not want Austen represented as a professional, which is why Henry and Austen’s nieces and nephews spoke of her writing as if it were a casual pastime rather than hard labor. “Neither the hope of fame nor profit mixed with her early motives,” Henry wrote. Though her letters make clear she fought for compensation, Henry said that payment for Jane was “a prodigious recompense for that which had cost her nothing.” Nothing, of course, except a year or more of her time, countless reworkings until her eyes could no longer focus, and the nonstop anxiety of failure that comes with the writing life.

Her revisions show that Austen did not achieve “correctness” until after many changes. But how rapid was she? It is an axiom that writers should produce 500 words a day. This is not a high-end goal but more of a working average. The amount does not seem daunting—about a page and a half a day. At that pace, a writer can produce a book in a year. A writer in the flow can produce several thousand words a day for weeks at a time, but 500 words per day is a handy yardstick. Dry spells, false starts, plot stumbles, and other practical writing issues cut the daily average.

We have enough compositional dates to estimate Austen’s writing speed. Family records show that, with Persuasion, Austen took 19 days to revise one chapter and write another, effectively expanding one chapter into two. This came to roughly 9,000 words in 19 days, or about 475 words per day. This is not particularly fast; it indicates instead her effort at excellence. She probably produced a new draft in a week or ten days and spent about the same amount of time revising it to her satisfaction. (The image above, by the headline, shows her messy revisions of Persuasion; from the British Library.)

The unfinished Sanditon was similar. She worked on it for 50 days, producing 23,300 words, or 466 words per day.

Austen was seriously ill at this time, but her production during healthy years was actually lower. Her longer works would have required more time to develop complicated plots. Her 14-month stretch on the prodigious Emma comes in at 370 words per day. We don’t have precise creation dates for Mansfield Park in the overall span of 1812-14, but it would have been about the same. Even if we used something like 300 writing days a year instead of 365, the numbers would only bump up toward the “standard” of 500 words. Emma, for instance, would be more like 450 words per day.

Serious writing works on something like a half-life. Meaning, for a book of length, say 100,000 words, it would take six or seven months for the first draft; three or four months for the second draft; and perhaps two months for the third draft. Thus, about a year. (The schedule doesn’t include any additional time the writer has thought about the topic before beginning to write.)

For a book of 100,000 words, a year works out to an average of 555 words per day for the first draft (six months); and considerably less for the next two. Writers usually don’t add many words in the later drafts. They cut, they add, they revise, they rearrange, they edit. The result might be a final length that is 20 to 30 percent longer than the original.

Austen, then, did not write fast. But she wrote steadily, as can be seen in her output. According to Amazon, the average novel today is 64,000 words in length. Books in Austen’s day tended to be longer. Mansfield Park is 159,526 words. Emma is 155,887 words. Only 9 percent of novels in the English language are longer. Even the somewhat abridged Persuasion is 87,978, which is 10,000 words longer than Northanger Abbey.

Thus, in the eight Chawton years, the last two of which at least she was in failing health, Austen produced three new lengthy novels and revised her original three to some degree—how much is unknown. She also oversaw the production of four of her six books, which would take up several more months of her time. At one point in London, she was overseeing the production of Emma, the reissue of Mansfield Park, and the writing of Persuasion.

Austen was also caring for her desperately ill brother, Henry, and negotiating with her publisher, John Murray, because of Henry’s illness. During these same years, she was also reading novel-writing efforts by two teenagers: her niece, Anna, and her nephew, James Edward. She gave them writing advice in lengthy return letters.

Jane’s last three or four years of life are undoubtedly among the most productive of any serious writer in history. In composition she was not particularly rapid and probably not very correct, but in editing and rewriting she was as reflective as a philosopher and as dogged as a bill collector.

The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen, which traces love from a charming courtship through the richness and complexity of marriage and concludes with a test of the heroine’s courage and moral convictions, is now complete and available from Amazon and Jane Austen Books.


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