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Should I Worry About Word Count—A Reader’s Question

on March 25th, 2013 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill and last modified on March 25, 2013

A reader of The Editor’s Blog asked about word count for novels and although I answered the question on the blog article where it was posed, I thought other writers might have the same concern. So, with only a few edits, the question and answer about word counts—

Question: I just finished my first manuscript.  I’m concerned because the word count is around 131,000 words.  It is the first book of a series.

I’m worried that a literary agent will not even read it because the word count is high.  Am I oversweating this?

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Answer

You’re actually not going overboard with the worry. High word count for first novels and for the works of unproven writers is a valid concern.

I don’t mean to imply that a manuscript with such a word count can’t be sold; it can happen and it does happen. But it is rare for new and first-time authors. You’ve honestly given yourself a harder challenge with that high word count. Agents and publishers are used to first novels being bloated, filled with too many story threads or characters or events that ultimately mean little to the story. So they may be primed to expect a bloated, unwieldy manuscript when they see the word count. They may turn it down for word count alone, because of what that word count can typically mean about the condition of a manuscript from a first-time writer.

You may be the best writer to come along in years and your story may be perfect, with every one of those 130,000-plus words a necessary component, but the reality is that agents and editors have a lot of experience. And that experience has often been with overly long manuscripts that highlight not a writer’s skills but his indulgence for his own words.

Yes, you may be penalized for the habits of writers who came before you.

Agents and editors also know, however, that judicious rewriting and editing can make a story shine. So not everyone would reject a manuscript on word count alone. But the stigma is there. And if you can do anything to give yourself an edge, especially something that’s in your hands to do, why wouldn’t you want to try it?

Sometimes there are simply too many words, unnecessary words, that could be cut at no cost to meaning or clarity or impact. Cutting words actually often enhances meaning, clarity, and impact. If you can reduce your word count, that’s a plus.

A writing skill that doesn’t come into play until the first manuscript is finished is the ability to cut and trim, the wisdom to see how cutting will strengthen a story and allow the necessary elements a place to shine. Only experience (and the advice of others with that experience) can help a writer know what will happen when he cuts out particular passages or cuts back on certain story elements. If X is cut, what other element naturally comes to the fore? Or, if the intention is to bring out more of Y, which other element (or combination of them) needs to be minimized?

This may not be true for you and your story, but one curse of first manuscripts is that they contain every good idea and quite a few of the bad ones that the writer had as he was writing. But not every idea, good or not, great or not, is appropriate for the story that is ultimately written. So what was excellent as the opening for Chapter Two when it was written might prove to be inappropriate once the story takes its final shape or when the tone changes or when the expected ending becomes a very different one.

Another common problem with first manuscripts is that the writer has a fierce and fervent love for every single word in them and for the way he uses those words. This can make him unwilling to change even the simplest of phrases, even if changes could make a major difference, opening the story to the possibility of what it could ultimately be.

Writers with more experience, those who’ve been through the rewrite and edit process with several manuscripts, understand that any word or phrase or even chapter can and should be dropped (or changed) if doing so will create a better story. Once a writer gets this, understands that no words are so precious that they must remain forever untouched, word counts will go down. And the words that are left, even if the word count is higher than the average, will be only those necessary for a strong story.

A way to know if you’ve got too many words? If you didn’t cut pointless scenes and long passages of exposition and go-nowhere dialogue and plot-muddying side plots after finishing your first or second draft, it’s likely you’ve got sections and elements you could eliminate or trim.

I’ll ask you a simple question—how does the current word count, for the draft you want to submit, compare to the word count of your first draft? If it isn’t appreciably lower, I’m guessing you haven’t done enough to reduce unnecessary words. Again, this may not be true in every situation and for every manuscript, but stories, especially first novels, should get shorter with successive drafts. First drafts could and should include any and everything you think you might use. But plot threads and characters and description and dialogue should all be pruned in successive drafts until what’s left is a cohesive story with all elements working together, a story with nothing more and nothing less than what’s necessary to satisfy characters and readers.

My advice is that you step away from your story for a couple of weeks. Don’t think about it and don’t look at it, not even once—don’t even peek at it to check out just that one section that’s been bugging you.  (Believe it or not, that’s one of the most difficult tasks for a new writer, to ignore a manuscript until the urge to mess with it cools.) And then print a fresh copy, take it somewhere quiet, and read. Be honest and mark unnecessary words, unnecessary repetition, unnecessary explanation or characters or events.

If events are similar, cut one. If a chapter doesn’t advance the plot or change the status quo, cut it. Combine two or three characters into one if they’re too much alike or have too little to do. Eliminate fascinating digressions that nonetheless mean nothing for the story that you want to tell.

Cut both major scenes and little piddling words. Allow yourself the freedom to cut even your favorite lines of dialogue or description if they draw more attention to you than to the story.

And remember to save everything you cut, in case you have the need to add it back or use it in another way. If you’re writing a series, you may find that what was a pointless digression in Book One is actually the intro to the very necessary secondary plot thread in Book Two.

If you’ve already done this several times, if you’ve cut and pruned and snipped and altered, then you shouldn’t worry as much over the word count. If the story needs those words, if it can’t stand without them, then submit with the higher word count, keeping in mind that your path to publication might take a little longer.

Do a bit of research to see which agents and publishers take on longer stories and the writers who write them. Then start targeting those individuals.

And start work on the next story in the series. If you intend to make a career of writing, you’ve got to keep writing, even as your manuscripts are making the rounds.

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This question was originally addressed in the comments section of the article How Long Should My Story Be. That article contains more information about word count, including genre specifics.

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10 Responses to “Should I Worry About Word Count—A Reader’s Question”

  1. Philip West says:

    I am in agony as we speak on this topic! One of my main issues, both as a writer and a speaker, has always been not ENOUGH words! I just can’t seem to fill out my scenes, chapters, stories, with enough words to make them feel, to me, like the kind of writing I read. Of course, I would LOVE to think I’m some kind of minimalist GENIUS. But, that’s hardly the case. How do writers do it?

  2. Philip, having too many words is more common than having too few, but not having enough is a real problem as well. Scenes can seem thin and stories flat if characters don’t have enough to do or say or worry about.

    There are different solutions, depending on the true nature of the problem (if too few words is actually a problem).

    If dialogue is spare, maybe characters aren’t pushing enough. If they always answer with only one- or two-word comments, their dialogue won’t feel full.

    If the writer doesn’t push, doesn’t go deeper into emotion or let a character fly off the handle for more than a brief moment, word count could be lower. So if characters are satisfied with the first answer from another character or if they’re easily turned away, without making a big deal out of things, you’ve probably got a lower word count. You don’t want to pad word count but you do want full scenes and full dialogue.

    You also want to flesh out your characters. So that means we see them doing typical, ordinary actions, not only running from the bad guys. You don’t want to spend time on meaningless action and events, but you take what’s normal behavior for the character and add the plot events to it. So perhaps your main character feels a need to go to the gym. Maybe he needs to pound the heavy bag or take on the speed bag to relieve frustration. Maybe he needs to run off the hangover and the memory of what he did the night before. Maybe he just needs a place to go to be alone for a while.

    But you wouldn’t let him only get away and relax. You either give him thoughts while he’s working out, thoughts that solve a problem or get him even more worked up, or you show that even his gym isn’t a safe place when his enemies follow him inside and shoot it up. Or you do both, give him thoughts and actions in that once normal place that advance plot and ratchet up tension and conflict.

    If you don’t have solid secondary plots, your story may be too short. So work on plotting to fill in the gaps.

    You may not have enough story events, events that lead to even other events as you make that push toward the climax. So look for ways for the main character to be frustrated and challenged and defeated multiple ways before your story’s end. Introduce new characters to mess up the newest status quo so characters have to adjust again.

    Give the main character (and major secondary character and/or the antagonist) additional problems. They may relate directly to the main plot problem or they may simply make the character unable to deal with the main problem because they get in the way.

    Be sure to include setting details and description, including character reaction to setting. Introduce sense elements. What does your main character notice and why? If he notices smells, make sure to put that sense to work for the story.

    Make sure you give your characters multiple problems as well as different types of problems. Make him not only have to work, but work in a different way to solve his problems and best his challengers. And don’t allow all problems to be solved in a single chapter or two. Your lead character might have to line up other folks to help him out, so he’d get highly frustrated to find that he needs to help Sophie break her brother out of jail before she’ll hack a computer network for him. And while he’s carting Sophie around town, helping her put together a breakout team and buying tools for the job, you could have his snooping sister-in-law catch him with Sophie a couple of times, thus creating new problems with his wife and his already shaky marriage.

    Go deeper and push farther. Think depth and breadth. Look beyond and make characters push beyond as well.

    These are all ways to add words without merely padding the text with unnecessary words.

    Yet, do note that some novels are shorter than others. Mysteries and YA and some romances and westerns are shorter than thrillers and political suspense and epics. The type of story often dictates or influences word count.

    What you might want to be sure you’re not doing is censoring as you write. Say it. Say everything. Whatever comes to mind, get it down for the first draft. You can always cut later. Don’t try to edit yourself as you create. Instead, let it all come out. Ideas give birth to other ideas and when you have a lot of ideas, you’ll start finding some to keep and expand and flesh out. And then you’ll have a full story.

    I hope you get some ideas and have success with your writing.

  3. When I finished my first novel, I was proud. 156,000 words! Wow, what an accomplishment. I asked an editor friend to give it the final go over and she scoffed, in the nicest way possible. Hurt, I wrote her an angry email, loudly proclaiming my intuitive knowledge of fiction. Then I wanted to entered a contest. Only problem was the contest rules said entries could not exceed 150,000 words. Yikes! How could I cut that many? After reading some great writing/editing tips, I went to work. Currently, the novel is at 113,000 words and with an editor. I imagine that, when finished, it will be even smaller. The book is better, I learned a ton, and am so grateful (yes, I wrote the apology letter to my friend) that she was wise enough not to take me on so I could learn the lesson. Thanks for this post and the good reminder. Word count matters, not just for the novel, but for the writer. Editing is cathartic, like cutting away unnecessary baggage in life.

  4. Destiny, when I finished my first fiction manuscript, I was astounded at the word count—and yes, it was higher than yours. And when I realized how long it actually was, I was embarrassed that I’d asked a couple of friends to read it at that length.

    As a reader, I like long books because I like the adventure to go on and on and because I want to get my money’s worth. But I only want a good long story, not simply a long story.

    As an editor, I recognize that most first manuscripts are unfocused, thus the many words and disjointed, rambling feel. As you pointed out, cutting out what doesn’t work or fit or contribute is a good thing.

    Here’s hoping the 113,000-word ms. is an incomparable success for you.

  5. James Piper says:

    I don’t think new writers appreciate the amount of editing required to create a novel. I know with my first novel, an early draft had 120K words. Through many rounds of editing, I lost 1 in 6 pages and yet the story was the same. Nothing was lost but excess verbiage. 17% seems like a small number, but it isn’t. And while I spent many hours creating that first draft (outlining and researching and writing), those hours were less than the amount of time I spent editing.

  6. James, rewriting and editing truly do make the book. Thank you for sharing your experience here—it’s good for all of us to know that reducing the word count can be done, and at no loss to the strength of the story.

  7. April Brown says:

    I’ve never finished a first draft over 40,000 words. Even reaching 60,000 is a stretch, though I once I reach it, that 80,000 sweet spot is a breeze.

    No idea why.

    I start my second drafts with half a book, and have to flesh it out. Of course, I read nonfiction for fun and relaxation.

  8. Susan Spence says:

    While I agree with your take on excess words, my experience has been different. My novels get longer with each rewrite. Some areas need trimming, but others need fleshing out. I delete scenes, but add others. The word count on my latest book barely changed (around 103,000 words) my last time through, an indication to me it was finished.

    I’ve also read data showing that people like longer books. As a reader, 90,000 words is barely adequate for a good story.

    But yes, every word has to count.

  9. April and Susan, you both seem to have adapted well to your writing styles.

    It’s true that most writers do have to flesh out their drafts as well as cut words from them. So a first or second draft for one writer might be heavy on dialogue and light on action events. Some writers might have to fill in all their description or dialogue on a second or third draft.

    Some of this simply comes from the way a person writes, how they see story unfolding; they may write in chunks, getting down what to them are the important parts. Some comes from us naturally wanting to do first what we do best. So those who write action or dialogue well—or simply love that part of a story—may load a first draft with those elements and then have to add in the other elements.

    Susan, I’m with you in that my projects typically get longer as I add elements that I missed. Yet once I’ve got what’s necessary, I can usually cut enough to make a difference in the word count, even if I’ve been trimming all along.

    Every writer has his own path to creation, so whatever works for you, keep doing it. But keep in mind publishers and their practices; they also will continue to do what works for them, and that’s not often taking on a new author whose books don’t fall into some standard category. It can happen, of course. And once you’ve got a track record, almost anything goes. But if you’re going the traditional route, it’s good to know what’s expected of you and what you’re up against.

    Yet a story has to stand on its own. If it’s incomplete at less than 110,000 words, give it the full 110,000. And be willing to fight for those words. Yet don’t be a stranger to compromise; if cutting 5,000 words is the price to pay to get your dream contract, that seems a low price to pay.

    Thanks to you both for sharing your experiences. That’s encouraging to others, especially to those who might think they’re doing it wrong in some way. There may be inefficient approaches to producing a high-quality manuscript, but if you get it done, your approach isn’t a wrong one.

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