How Isaac Asimov Wrote 500+ Books (or “3 Writing Habits for Long-Term Success”)
In the early stages of writing my doctoral dissertation, I was lucky to eke out more than a few sentences a day. Words came out as slowly as liquid petroleum dripped out of decaying dinosaur bones. Each idea or turn of phrase was scrutinized, re-scrutinized, edited, then deleted. At the end of each day, I looked on in despair at how few words I had written. It went on like this for months.
But then my world was turned upside down by a mutton-chopped man with horn-rimmed-glasses who died more than 20 years ago. He showed me how to increase my output from a few words a day to more than 1000 by following some simple habits for writing success.
Enter Isaac Asimov.
Asimov, the late doyen of science fiction, had a productivity that frightened all but the most prolific novelists. He wrote or edited more than 500 books, hundreds of short stories and essays. On top of that, he fired off 90,000 letters and postcards to fans around the world. Asimov's books were published in nine of the 10 major categories of the Dewey Decimal System. Had he written a book of philosophy, it would be 10 out of 10. Although he is best known for his epic sci-fi works such as The Foundation Series, Asimov also wrote about Shakespeare, the Bible, limericks, ancient history, and even a guide to the slide rule.
For an average writer to produce an output that high, they would need to finish one book every two weeks for 25 years. Most of Asimov's books were 70,000 words long, which works out to 5,000 publication-ready words a day. Any writer will tell you that the first go-around is not ready for print, suggesting his daily word count was much higher.
So how did he do it? How did he manage to out-write other authors by a factor of 10 or even 100? For three reasons…. His habits for writing success.
1. Asimov wrote every day, whether or not he felt like it.
According to a 1969 New York Times profile, Asimov started his work day between 9:30 and 10 am. He typed over 90 words a minute on his electric typewriter, with a backup in case it broke. Asimov took only small breaks and worked well into the night. He went to bed at 10 or 11 pm, probably drafting an outline for the next part of the book in his dreams. Through this process he sometimes churned out an entire book in a few days. His daily writing habit was not for the weak!
Asimov's lunch pail approach to writing made him put words on paper even if the muse did not visit him that day. He scoffed at the idea of “writer's block.” His father was a candy store owner in Brooklyn who opened his doors at 6 am every day, whether or not he felt like it. The elder Asimov did so without ever complaining about “shop keeper's block.”
Asimov's gatling gun style made him in many ways the anti-writer. The image of a novelist sitting at their typewriter, straining to produce each word and tearing up their manuscript if it is not perfect haunts the imaginations of many first-time writers. For this reason there are many self-proclaimed “writers” who never write. They claim the title as their profession but never produce out a word due to paralysis by analysis.
But Asimov typed words by the gross because he believed that output was far better than deeply nuanced dithering.
2. Asimov used a simple writing style.
Asimov preferred a completely unembellished style of writing. His characters were so simple and the dialogue so functional that it approached the telegraphic minimum of language. There is little literary criticism on Asimov despite his widespread popularity and influence as a writer. This is because he stated so clearly to the reader of his intention in the plot what is happening in the story and why it is happening. Characters do not speak so much as exposit. There is very little for a critic to interpret when characters do the work for them.
Asimov credited this approach more than anything else to his high output. When Writer's Digest asked him the secret to his prolific writing, he replied, “I guess I'm prolific because I have a simple and straightforward style.”
3. Asimov didn't care about critics.
Many authors avoid such simplicity in their writing because they want to appear sophisticated. As a result, they often use impenetrable prose in order to impress critics with their “deep ideas.” Asimov attracted criticism for avoiding this approach.
In 1980, science fiction scholar James Gunn, wrote of I, Robot that:
“Except for two stories [of Asimov]—”Liar!” and “Evidence”—they are not stories in which character plays a significant part. Virtually all plot develops in conversation with little if any action. Nor is there a great deal of local color or description of any kind. The dialogue is, at best, functional and the style is, at best, transparent… The robot stories and, as a matter of fact, almost all Asimov fiction—play themselves on a relatively bare stage.”
Asimov was never offended by such criticism. To the contrary, he welcomed it. He followed in the writing tradition of authors such as Ernest Hemingway, who favored short sentences, direct speech, strong verbs, and powerful prose. He believed that flowery language, useless adverbs, and nonsensical metaphors would only clutter up his writing and make it more of a chore for the reader. Here’s Asimov's explanation on why he wrote the way he did:
I made up my mind long ago to follow one cardinal rule in all my writing—to be clear. I have given up all thought of writing poetically or symbolically or experimentally, or in any of the other modes that might (if I were good enough) get me a Pulitzer prize. I would write merely clearly and in this way establish a warm relationship between myself and my readers, and the professional critics—Well, they can do whatever they wish.
While few of us will ever reach Asimov's level of output, his methods are useful for authors today. Thanks to following his advice, in the last two years I have been able to write 12 short history books, all while wrapping up my dissertation. He made being prolific more possible than I could have ever believed.
About the Author
Michael Rank is a doctoral candidate in history. He is the author of 12 books and host of the History in Five Minutes Podcast. His new book is called The Most Productive People in History: 18 Extraordinarily Prolific Inventors, Artists, and Entrepreneurs, From Archimedes to Elon Musk.