A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
~William Strunk, Jr.
|The dreaded red pen|
The simplest reason is that the publishing industry clearly demands it. The magic number is 100,000. You can’t go over that word count for a novel without severely hampering your chances of getting published. (In some genres, it’s even less.) To be honest, I don’t really understand why this is. Maybe one of our readers in the publishing industry can explain it. In a recent informal, completely nonscientific survey, the majority of my friends said they prefer long books: the longer, the better. They like getting lost in another world. We can all think of a dozen bestselling exceptions to the 100,000 rule: War & Peace. Pillars of the Earth. Gone with the Wind. Harry Potter. According to this guy, all modern books (all!) are too long. So we may be forgiven for feeling sniffy when agents tell us to keep our submissions short.
|Doubles as a doorstop|
But the most salient truth here is this: many literary agents really do reject on word-count alone, and it’s never a good idea for a novice to assume she’s the next Marisha Pessl. Getting published is hard enough. To ignore the word-count guideline is to run a marathon with one leg hobbled.
|Not an ideal way to enter a marathon|
|This is going to hurt|
Not everyone, of course, is inclined to write long. Last summer I took a writing class with a woman struggling to complete a middle-grade book. She’d been told she needed to add about 2,000 words to get it to the “right” word count for that genre, and she was devastated. “I don’t know if I can do that,” she said, mournfully regarding the pages in her hands. I was puzzled: for one thing, 2,000 words doesn’t seem like that much. For another thing: think of the chances she had to develop character! To wax eloquent with a scene description! To throw in some snappy dialogue! But for some writers, reaching the word-count minimum is the trick. (That magic number, if you’re wondering, is 50K for mainstream adult fiction; 30K for middle-grade.)
What about you? Do you feel hampered by industry’s word-count limits, or do you find the guidelines helpful? Do you wonder, especially with the growing popularity of e-readers, if this limitation is becoming irrelevant? Have you been told by an agent or editor you need to cut — and if so, how did it affect your story?
Too many notes, Herr Mozart