The Slow Productivity of Brandon Sanderson

Like many other people, one of my favorite authors is Brandon Sanderson. I have read all of his Cosmere books, and more or less any new book or blog post from him is an auto-read for me. Ditto with most of his YouTube videos.

Also like many people, I read everything published by Cal Newport, and have found his advice continually helpful in striving to live a deep and meaningful life, especially while living with an autoimmune condition.

So naturally, a couple weeks after reading Slow Productivity, I found myself unable to stop thinking about how Brandon Sanderson is an exemplar of this philosophy. After many days of thinking, I find that I can’t not write it out, so I might as well do the best I can and share it.

As a disclaimer, I am just a random dude who happens to be a superfan of both authors and dreams of someday writing something worth reading. The bits of Cal Newport’s philosophy I reference are pulled from his newsletters, articles, podcast, and of course his books. They have all been filtered through me, but I hope still resemble his intentions.

Everything I know about Brandon Sanderson’s professional life and habits is based off of his podcast episodes, blog posts, weekly update videos, watching his lectures on YouTube, and other assorted videos he has posted. Naturally, I’m sure there are errors or subtleties that are unavailable or I have forgotten.

With all of that out of the way, let’s dive in.

One of the first things to note about Sanderson’s approach is how early he started. He began writing novels in college, not just taking classes about how to write a story, but also classes on how to get a book published and asking agents and editors for advice. Throughout college and immediately thereafter, he took jobs that had a primary feature of allowing him to continue writing, or at least developing stories in his head.

A self proclaimed night owl, his favorite job was being the night clerk at a hotel, a position which left him with 8 mostly undisturbed hours at his ideal time of day with which he could write. And write he did. He ended up writing about 13 novels before he was ever published.

1: Specifically not Name of the Wind 😅

Since that first publication in 2005, he has published 35 novels¹ 18 novellas, and numerous short stories, graphic novels, audiobooks, and story collections. His Stormlight series of books are all over 300,000 words and are hefty enough tomes to seriously damage your foot if you drop them.

So what makes me think someone with such remarkable output (averaging nearly 2 books per year!) can be considered an exemplar of slow productivity? Let’s walk through the principles as Newport presents them and see.

Do Fewer Things

Ok, I’ll admit this one seems ridiculous on the face of it, doesn’t it? I mean, in 2020 the man famously wrote FOUR novels, somehow keeping them all secret from his staff and publishing team.

So lets look at the details. Every week, Sanderson publishes a short YouTube video in which he discusses his progress that week, plans for the next week, and usually some status or reminders for sales or events fans may be interested in. The relevant part of these Weekly Updates is the very brief segment on his progress and plans. Typically, only one project is discussed that he is actively working on, whether it be writing, outlining, or editing. For several months now the update has always been progress on writing or editing Stormlight №5. However, for a few weeks last year, the Stormlight №5 progress stalled out and every update was about him editing a Skyward novel in order to meet a publication deadline. While there are many projects going on at a time, he is solely focused on one at any given time and not bouncing frenetically between editing, writing, and emailing throughout the day.

In fact, another thing Sanderson has done to enable this focus is outsourcing nearly all the other work. He has actually created his own media company, called Dragonsteel, to manage everything else. The company has an art department, additional writers, editors, video producers, etc. Because of this, Sanderson has said that he often gets two four-hour chunks in of focused work each day, one of which is at his preferred night hours. It seems like takes everything off his plate except writing great stories and providing creative direction for everything else that Dragonsteel releases.

Speaking of eliminating the small, remember the four books he wrote in a single year? Well, that was during 2020, when he found himself suddenly unable to attend all the conventions typically considered mandatory for such a high-profile science fiction & fantasy author. Eliminating all the travel, administrivia, and live signings opened enough time to write four additional books. So what did Sanderson do? He publicly acknowledged the lesson and has stepped back from conventions and public appearances. He still attends a few a year, including the one he hosts, but it is a dramatic reduction that has been reflected in his writing. He just concluded a BackerKit crowdfunding campaign that included another surprise novel, despite also spending 2023 working on his largest novel yet.

Work at a Natural Pace

2: for reference this post is ~1,700 words and took me a couple hours to write the second time, not including editing and the first write

Surely he must be writing massive amounts of words in those large uninterrupted writing blocks, literally after the family has gone to bed. Nope, I was shocked to learn that with an entire four hours available to him, his daily target is only about 2,000 words. Granted, for a mechanical engineer such as myself that would be a challenge², especially at the caliber of writing Sanderson is at, but still, it seemed low. Especially with how many words per hour he has said professional authors can typically write. But then I realized that if he achieves that 5 days a week for an entire year, that is 520,000 words. That is approximately 1 ½ Stormlight novels, or — coincidentally — just under 4 of his more standard length novels.

But of course, that’s his daily target. Somedays he far exceeds that target. Especially when he is on what he calls his writing retreats. Several times a year, he will fly out to Hawaii, often taking his family, and set himself up at a cabana on the beach to write the day away. I believe he once posted his word totals from one of these retreats and hit near 8,000 words some days. His most recent secret novel really came together” in a single week-long writing retreat.

Surely the boost to his word count during these retreats enables seasonality in his work. When watching the weekly updates, it quickly becomes apparent how he will spend several months in writing mode, before switching to editing for just as long. Add onto this hosting a convention and book launch celebration every winter and teaching a class on writing Sci-Fi & Fantasy for publication at BYU every spring semester, and it quickly becomes apparent that there must be some shape to his year and it is far from a monotonous day-in-day-out typing life.

I would be remiss if I did not mention Sanderson’s embodiment of Work Poetically”, which Cal Newport has already discussed at length on his podcast and blog. For those unaware, Sanderson bought the empty lot next to his suburban home in Utah, and had an Underground Supervillain Lair” built to run his media empire from. It includes a large dramatic dining room often featured in his YouTube videos, a podcast studio, an enormous fish tank, and a movie screening room.

Obsess Over Quality

Who needs a movie screening room? Well, a huge cinephile, which also happens to be Newport’s first proposition for obsessing over quality. It doesn’t take long into any given episode of Sanderson’s podcast or any of his BYU lectures on YouTube to realize that he loves storytelling of all kinds: film, video games, and books (naturally). His passion is often evident in how much time and energy he spends picking apart any given story and identifying what worked, what didn’t, and how things might change if different aspects are tweaked. Watching his BYU lectures on YouTube has greatly expanded my understanding and appreciation not just of books (my preference), but also movies, TV shows, and video games.

And he doesn’t just pick apart other people’s work. He edits his own books multiple times. As I write, his website shows he is nearly complete with the 3.0 revision of his next book and there is one more revision after that. He is constantly improving his work, accepting feedback not just from his editor but from his writing group. A writing group that he has been a part of since college and bears a striking resemblance to Lewis’ and Tolkein’s Inklings” that Newport describes in Slow Productivity. Several other members of Sanderson’s writing group are successful authors in their own right, and several more are employees of Dragonsteel.

And, as is only befitting of a fantasy author, his love of quality is most visibly obvious in the leatherbound editions of his books that he sells through his own Dragonsteel storefront. Priced at $125 for one volume novels and $250 for two volume novels, these editions feature foil stamped leather covers, gilded pages, full-page artwork throughout, and are truly eye catching. While I do not yet have any of these leatherbounds, the Dragonsteel versions of the Secret Projects are among the finest books I own.

There is nothing new or groundbreaking here, just a confirmation of Newport’s propositions in Slow Productivity. But, at least for me, thinking this through provided some great additional examples of how an author I respect and enjoy has naturally found the same set of solutions. Much of the specifics don’t map 1:1 to my life, but they still resonate and inspire me on my own quest for depth.

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Have a great day!

April 1, 2024