Make It Word Count

If you’re an aspiring author like me, eventually two words are going to cross your path if they haven’t already: word count.

If you’re really new to this biz, you may still be telling people about how many pages your book is. And that probably works better for friends and family. But all that agents, editors, and publishers want to hear about is word count.

Why? Because you might be writing in Courier, Times New Roman, Squiggly Wiggly (please don’t), but the one thing that stays uniform across the board is word count. How many words have you crammed into that Word Document that is your novel? But more importantly, how many should you have crammed in there?

As is with a lot of things in the writing world, the answer is it depends. It depends on your genre, your age range, and whether or not you’re JK Rowling or Plain Tryingtagetpublished Jane. But is there any kind of guide for how many words a novel should be?

According to Writer’s Digest, this is a typical guide for novel lengths:

Adult: Commercial & Literary ~80,000-89,000 (for you newbies, if you have it double-spaced with Times New Roman, this will be around 300 pgs, depending on your formatting)

Sci-Fi/Fantasy ~100,000-115,000 although lean toward the short end of that figure

Middle Grade ~20,000-50,000 depending on age range

YA (they say the most flexible of ranges) 55,000 – 69,999 although the trend is getting closer to the top of the 80Ks for the max. Again this depends on genre, story, etc.

Picture Books ~500-600

BUT WHAT ABOUT (INSERT BOOK TITLE)? IT WAS WAY LONGER/SHORTER!

The thing is you can’t use other authors to argue the length of your book because 99% of the time your arguments are invalid. Especially if the author in questions is 1) super famous, or 2) wrote something a long, long time ago. When you’re a household name, you can write a 160,000 word book because odds are your name is the money-maker the publishing world sees (although for your reader’s sake, please don’t).

But if you’re trying to get your book published, even if you are going the self-pub route, the advice I’ve received from a lot of people—both agents and writers—is:

Keep it under 100,000.

Even if you’re sci-fi or fantasy, keep it under 100,000. I’ve read dozens of books I found more than a few scenes that could have easily been snipped. It may be interesting to you, but that doesn’t mean it’s interesting to the reader, let alone an agent/publisher. I guarantee there’s something in your novel that can be cut, whether or not you want to own up to it right now.

THE LENGTHINESS OF JAE

I have no problem whatsoever crafting a 100,000+ word story. In my early days it was easy to hit 180,000. And in my naivety I queried that puppy out. Granted, it was fantasy which gave it a little more help.

But not much.

Finally a few kind-hearted agents told me while they thought the idea was interesting, it was simply just TOO LONG. One even suggested trilogy. I finally heeded the advice and I’m so glad I did. When it comes to commercial fiction, readers tend to like multiple books about characters they’ve grown to love—at least I especially do. So take a very sharp katsu and hack that long baby up into more manageable pieces. Even if you can only get it down to 99,000, that will sit a lot better with agents than 100,000. It’s a magical threshold that gives you an extra chance of getting your foot through the door.

MAKE IT WORD COUNT

I know it’s a hard thing to do. That’s why they call it “killing your darlings.” If it was easy, they’d call it, “killing that dead weight you don’t care about anyway.” Go through your work, maybe even label each scene on a 3 x 5 card and then ask yourself: Do I really need this scene? What is this accomplishing for my story? Can I combine it with another scene and achieve the same effect? Is this scene still here because it’s needed or because I want it?

Maybe even cut the scene (whether mentally or physically) and see what you’d have to fix if you got rid of it. I’m currently in the midst of doing this now. It’s a lot of pain-staking work, but necessary if you really want to tell a good story. And especially if you want to wow readers.

Involve beta readers if you’re not sure which scenes those are. They’re in there, I promise. Good luck to us both!

Have you ever had to ‘kill your darlings’? Do you have any techniques you use for identifying dead weight scenes? Do you agree/disagree with the 100K word limit? Why? Give us your added advice below.

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35 thoughts on “Make It Word Count

  1. “Well, I wrote my story in wingdings, and the page count was… hey, where’s everybody going?”

    *cough*

    Cutting sucks, but sometimes it’s gotta be done. I’m a fan of the index card method, myself. Sometimes that’s all it takes to help me see that a series of scenes could be cut down to one that accomplishes the same work (character development/plot progression/whatever) in fewer words.

    I am glad that word count limits are a bit more flexible these days, now that e-books are becoming more popular. I’m less concerned about cutting words just for the sake of getting a story under 100,000 words than I would be otherwise. This goes the other way, too– I feel less need to pad out a novella to full novel length when I’m not worried about justifying printing costs. I like to read stories that are the right length for the story, not that are cut to bare bones or needlessly puffed up to fit the genre standard. That said, I think it’s still best to stick close to standard, if only because readers still expect that.

    Final note: I do wish some Fantasy authors would learn to kill more darlings. I love Jacqueline Carey’s stories, but I’ve only read two because 250,000+ words per book is just too much for me. I’d rather read three other books than one that’s that long. But that’s just me.

    • Amen sista! Patrick Rothfuss about kills me. I can still remember a few scenes where I actually said out loud: “Who cares? Why does this even matter? Get back to the STORY!!!!!!” Sometimes I skim ahead. Okay, often I skim ahead.

      I’ve become a lot more of a word economist these days. I think there are many instances where we can find three words that really should be one. I try to go light on attributions as well. But I think you’re right in that e-books do help some with flexibility. I still think for a lot of genres under 100K is the right goal.

        • Skim ahead to when he starts talking to Chronicler and I promise, you won’t have missed a thing. That’s actually where things get good. I’d have just started there, but obviously I’m not Patrick Rothfuss. Don’t feel bad about skimming ahead. He does have some fabulous descriptive language I feel like I learned a lot from, so I think at least the first book is a worthwhile read. Plus it’s a great example if you’re ever talking to other writers on why your beginning should be very strong (aka not Name of the Wind). 😉

  2. Great post! Right now my novel Believe is about 130,000 words and I want to get it down to 100,000 somehow and I do have a few scenes that I know are coming out but I admit, trimming is just so hard! I’m naturally wordy, so it’s a trial lol 😀

    • Another question you should ask yourself is can you chop it in half? I did this with my current novel SHADE and the second half revealed new characters I’d be too sad to live without. You’ll know what is best for your story of course. I’m a wordy one too, but we must kill those unfortunate darlings… 😉

  3. I’m probably odd man out here. I’ve done the cutting and editing to the extreme, but I’m always blowing 100K out of the water. Only reason I can think of is that having a 15 book series on my mind, I’m casting a lot of webs and I have multiple characters to work with in later books. Maybe it’s a good thing I’m an Indie Author.

    • It all comes back to “it depends.” But it sounds like you’re killing some substantial darlings. You’ve gotta always do what works for your story, right? 🙂

      • Maybe I have an extreme view of the statement. I always imagine it involves removing 70-90% of the original content. I’ll admit that happens if you count my detailed outlines getting murdered soon after I begin writing. The actual editing is more of a 30-40% alteration with me. As you said, it depends on the author. I know many who go with the first draft, typos and all.

        • Too many, unfortunately. The editing has to happen somewhere, whether back in the outlines or after the first draft. But many think golden ink drips from their pens (or keyboards). 😦

        • There are a few that can pull off a great first draft by being meticulous and edit as they go along. Yet, I think some people are still of the idea that self-publishing means churn out several unedited works in a short period of time.

    • Thanks! I think they look at books like the 4-7th of the Harry Potter series and think, well, obviously long books sell, so mine will too. They forget HP1 was really short. Even still I think we should always be trying to really whittle down our stories.

  4. Yup, one thing I wish modern authors would take from cinema, especially TV, where they have a strict 44 minute time budget, so every scene has to count. A lot of character building can be told in better ways that still involves plot building, which is where I think books differs. Also, the cut material can be used for mini stories, or lost tales or what not. It can still find a place somewhere.

    • I have an “extra” file where I paste long scenes I have to cut. I also have different files for different drafts. It seems to satisfy the voice inside that cries when I cut scenes because they’re not really gone. And honestly it seems like those scenes will show up at a later date and perhaps even in another story. No effort is every wasted.

  5. A piece of advice I’ve seen is to write the main action (1 sentence) of each scene on 3×5 cards and then give them to someone who’s not at all familiar with your story. Ask that person to put them in order and tell them they don’t have to use all the cards if they don’t want to. Any scene they leave out, you might be able to cut. Any scenes they put in the wrong order gives you a clue that maybe you don’t need the scene or that you need to be more clear in the scene and be sure how it relates to the plot is defined.

  6. I hear you, Jae. Kati and I have been in serious word trimming mode, and it’s so hard! But it makes a huge difference – even though I want to cry whenever we cut a scene (or character!) we really liked, after the pain of that passes I always think the overall story is better for it.

  7. My novels always naturally end around 70,000 – one consequence of not outlining and planning for more. Any ruthless chopping would need to be replaced so, subject to beta reading/editing I need to run with what I have.
    Writing 180,000 words would take me the rest of my life 🙂

    • I love hearing about how everyone’s processes work differently. It has firmly solidified in my mind that anyone who says “you must do it this way” is naive to what writing really is. Thanks for sharing!

  8. The first two novels I’ve finished fall in at hefty six-figure word counts. Writing to word count has been one of my main practices over the last couple years. One of my books has many sections of the story gutted out to make it streamlined and fast-paced. It’s been a good exercise, and I’m finding I can be creative while still being careful.

    • I think when writing a novel, at least for the first draft, let the ideas fly free. Of course, this is just how it tends to work for me. I’m trying out all kinds of techniques. Sounds like you’re a pantser. Is that true?

      • Somewhat. I usually have a general outline, and try to outline ahead by at least a few sections. However, I leave most of the details out because 1. I don’t have patience for it, and 2. I find that the story may need to change once I get to that point in the story because the characters have told me more of who they are.

  9. I’m that kid who was never, ever able to reach a word maximum on a single paper or exam in college or law school. It’s also hard for me to write blog posts above 500-600 words. So, unsurprisingly, word counts in my works-in-progress are a struggle for me. I have a pretty good sense of what aspects of the story usually need expansion, though (I skimp on scenery, for example).

    • I think we all have our weaknesses when it comes to aspects of writing. I’m bad with putting in descriptions of people and worldbuilding. But I guess knowing is half the battle. 😉

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