If You Add Up All Your Writing, Will it Equal a Novel?

Am I writing The Great American Novel, one 5-minute read at a time?

“If you added up all your writing,” my husband says, “I bet you’ve written a novel by now.”

Yes, Husband, I know I’m publishing so much writing these days, it’s hard for you to keep up with it.

But it got me thinking: Is it true? Can we add up all the little pieces we write, put them together — mentally, if not literally — and come up with a novel?

First, the obvious objection: novels are fiction. And essayists write the truth. (Or, I do, anyway.)

Next, those of you who have written an actual novel might point out it takes a certain stick-to-itiveness to follow one protagonist around for so long. To that I say, you’re right. You’re amazing. I’ll probably never write a novel. But also, I could argue that I’m my own protagonist, and, yes, it has taken quite a bit of perseverance to stick around so long, to keep telling my story.

Okay, but your novel has a beginning, a middle, and an ending — an ending satisfying enough to get someone to read a whole damn book. Again, you’re right; novelists are amazing. But essayists (and short story writers) have to come up with a multitude of engaging endings.

Okay, it’s not a competition! (And if it were, I’ll admit fiction writers have me beat.) Every one of us writers is working our asses off every day, battling imaginary mind-demons and internet trolls, typing or writing, even though we have no way to know who, if anyone, will read our words.

I know my essays will never literally, literarily add up to a novel. Or even a memoir (without a significant amount of additional work). But still I wonder, how many essays — how many words, how many minutes of read time — does it take to equal the length of a novel?

First, let’s quantify a novel.

This blogpost from Writer’s Digest decrees 80,000–89,999 words as the sweetspot for adult novels and memoirs, with 90,000–99,999 words being “generally safe” as well, and sci-fi fantasy running a bit longer.

Yes, there’s a lot of variance in novel-length: George R. R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords clocks in at a whopping 424,000 words. But we’re trying to feel good about ourselves here, so let’s go with the norm. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eight-Four is 88,942 words. Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club is 91,419 words.

So if you’ve written (after editing) 90,000 words, buy yourself a cookie; you’ve just sort of, not really, but you know, kinda sorta written a novel! I mean, kind of.

Medium measures our work in read time. Medium Support tells us, “Read time is based on the average reading speed of an adult (roughly 265 WPM). We take the total word count of a post and translate it into minutes, with an adjustment made for images.”

Time for some math!

90,000 words, at 265 WPM, equals 340 minutes. In general, novel-length means 5 or 6 hours of read time.

I’ve published 123 pieces on Medium, ranging from frivolous 2-minute reads like

to intense pieces over 20 minutes long:

Mostly, my stories are between 4 and 8 minutes. But those minutes add up.

So far, almost halfway into the month of May, I’ve published 45 read-time minutes on Medium. Here are my monthly read times since I joined Medium:

July: 4 minutes
August: 37 minutes
September: 13 minutes
October: 24 minutes
November: 54 minutes
December: 79 minutes
January: 90 minutes
February: 81 minutes
March: 123 minutes
April: 102 minutes

No wonder my husband can barely keep up.

My Medium writing adds up to a grand total of 552 minutes of read time. We’ve established that a novel is 340 minutes. 552 is bigger than 340 (math!), so that means…

I wrote a novel! I wrote an honest-to-god novel! I’m a novelist! Tell everyone!

I mean, maybe if you really squint your eyes just right?

Go ahead, actual novelists, roll those eyes at me. I deserve to do this dance of writerly pride at all I’ve created. And you deserve to scoff at my insolence, then do your own prideful happy dance.

There’s room for all our successes.

Right now, my success looks like 146,280 words (552 minutes x 265 WPM). So, basically, I just wrote Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (76,944 words) and Brave New World (63,766 words), and I still had just barely enough words left over to tell you about…