Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
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?
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.
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.