Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Woes of Word Counts

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
Being concise is difficult; so difficult many writers won’t do it unless forced. Most of us regard the red pen with fear and loathing. We don’t want to edit, we don’t want to cut. So why do we have to? We love words. Why can’t we write as many of them as we want?

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
One thing to keep in mind is that the demand for succinctness seems to apply primarily to unpublished writers. The Deathly Hallows is 759 pages, but The Sorcerer’s Stone is only 309. Rowling was probably forced to be more terse than she wanted with that first novel: once she established herself as a bestselling author, she was allowed to indulge. It is also true that some debut novels are massive: Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Marisha Pessl’s first novel, is 514 pages long — which translates to about 200,000 words. We look at her, cross our envious arms over our chests, and think, well if she can do it …

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
Another reason to write shorter is that it will force you to write better. “The only art is to omit,” said Robert Louis Stevenson. “If there is anywhere a thing said in two sentences that could have been as clearly and engagingly said in one, then it’s amateur work.” When I write freelance articles, I’m usually required to write no more than 800 words. My notes and interview transcripts run thousands of words, and it all seems important.

This is going to hurt
But I have to be economical: if I don’t slice those words, my editor will, and I’d rather be the one holding the scalpel. This forced concision means I have to think hard about word choice. Not only word by word, but paragraph by paragraph. Some passages, especially descriptive ones, add nothing substantive. They’re decorative, and when you’re on a word budget, decoration is the first thing to go.

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


  1. i understand your argument, but what of those of us in the literary world who have all but abandoned the publishing model to which you refer. i won't have anything to do with so-called literary agents, and many of my writer friends feel the same way. for us, the future is not about being on the best-seller lists or making heaps of money from what we produce, it is about art.

  2. I got to 80,000 words, and realised it was 3/4 done. You'd think by this stage 100,000ish words would be doable... I do consider conciseness to be rather good, inspired primarily by George Orwell's writings on the use of written English. Mind you, this would be only, in technicality part one of two... so make that 200,000ish in total.
    I suppose part one and two can be broken down into two separate books given that much will change by the end and new scenes and characters need to be introduced.

    That said, I ended up realising that I wanted to write an epic and that what I had written would only be one character perspective, albeit the main one. So presently I'm in the process of editing what has been done, goodness knows how many times I've gone through the first few chapters thus far, refining content and style. But I've also considered this and that plot elements to change and improve, so even if I made it very concise it'll still be rather long, and being a fantasy genre story a lot of the descriptions can't be missed.

    At it's core however, I have reason to believe that it's a thoroughly entertaining story written, although not excellently, well. So *shrugs* if in the end it's not applicable to the mainstream requirements, then they shan't profit from it. Their loss, not mine. I'll find a way. Time is on my side.

  3. Precision of words is something--IMO--debut authors need to worry about when writing. Once you are established, you can take some "chances" with information and word count. S.M. is the only one I've seen who was able to pen a HUGE word count right off the bat. Great post!

  4. I always write skinny. My first draft of my first ms was around 57k, but in revisions (oh so many revisions), I'm just under 65k (for a YA). Then last week I read an open submissions for a great small pub and - YA around 50k, absolutely nothing over 60. >:(

    A friend of mine was around 50k when she found her agent. Together, they trimmed out the extraneous and it sold at 43k words (again, YA). So, I guess it's true - tell your story. :)

  5. I just finished reading a genre thriller, nearly 400 pages in paperback, and it was liberally laced with beautiful descriptions, most of which could have been cut to meet a work count limit, but doing so would have chopped out so much artistry, so much of what made it a pleasure to read. I want more than bare plot--I want the frills and furbelows. Otherwise, it might as well be a screenplay rather than a novel. Novels are about more than simple storytelling. The craft, like the cross-hatching of a Renaissance drawing, reveals the unique hand and mind of its author.

  6. oops--meant a "word" count...Is there an editor in the house?

    Here's a serendipitous selection from a table of books in an independent bookstore a couple of days ago: When I Am Playing With My Cat, How Do I Know That She Is Not Playing With Me? Montaigne and Being in Touch With Life, by Saul Frampton. Halfway through and enjoying it very much, which means it's bristling with post-its. It's relevant to this discussion, I think, because Frampton tells us about Montaigne's essays, and about how deeply Montaigne dove into and considered so many aspects of his life and wrote about them, without apparent concern for word count. His work wasn't fiction, but like Proust, he wrote at great length about the minutiae of life--like O'keeffe, he paid attention to things that are easily missed, and used art to help us see what we'd otherwise miss. The novelist's impulse includes this kind of close attention to things, and many of us readers feel nourished by, and privileged by, the gift of that attention.

    I think agents and editors experience books very differently from consumer-readers. Those in the business are so pressed for time, they must always be reading with a sense of urgency and forget what it's like to read for leisure and pleasure.

  7. I'm Tamara, posting as Anonymous simply because I'm too untechie to have an account in one of the listed choices. I'll figure it out...

  8. Rudolfo: I hear you and often feel the same way, but for me wanting to be published isn't about fame and money. It's about finding an audience: I just want to share my story. It seems the official routes are still the best way to connect our work with the widest audience. But that does mean lots of red pens will hit our beloved pages. :(

    Nodgene: A series is different from a long book: so long as part one has its own story arc, you're golden. I hear agents/publishers love it if you've got a sequel in the works or already written, too, especially in genre.

    Alleged: Exactly! You said what I said, only, you know ... more concisely. :)

    Erica & Christy: How frustrating! The idea of cutting 5K sounds agonizing, especially when you've already done so many revisions. Will you submit anyway?

    Tamara: Hi! I agree that the beautiful descriptions can elevate a fast-paced book. Some books I've read truly needed more description ... a chance for the reader to pause from endless action and reflect on events. To see the scene in her mind's eye. Sometimes I wish very fast-paced books would do that more: if they need to lose word count, they may need to lose entire scenes instead, especially cliff-hangers wedged awkwardly in the pages to manipulate the reader into heart palpitations.

  9. As far as technical stuff with Blogger, I remember struggling with this at first too. The "comment as" window can be confusing. In the upper righthand corner, do you see a "sign in" option? I think you can create your Blogger account there, if you don't already have one. Mine's the same as my Google account, since Blogger is their thingy; if I sign in before commenting, I save myself hassle.

  10. Hi, I'm a fellow campaigner (group 40). Stopping by to say hi. I love that too many notes part in Amadeus.

  11. I'm awful at keeping things succinct. I want to write and explain and make it all flowery so that no one in their right mind would attempt reading it!

  12. Wow! Sister Stephanie this is a good topic but one that hits home. My first novel was about 200.000 words, I combed through it freeing it from adverbs, passive voices, even compound verbs. I ended up with 150.000 words. Since it was still too long, I went on killing characters and erasing chapters. By the time I had 119.000 words (still way over the word count), I realized I had no novel. There are stories that can be told in a 100 pages. Others need 500 or more to work, just as “The Snow Queen” is a much longer tale than “The Ugly Duckling” and yet both are equally good...
    Yes, editing and learning to be concise are necessary skills, but let´s be honest. The industry is not concerned with excessive adverb usage or protecting forests. The reason behind their word limit is that they don´t want to bet in a mammoth novel by some unknown author. And yet everyday we see debut bestseller novels that exceed the 100.000 word limit. How did they bend the rules? Are they so exceptional? Or is it that their agents were more visionary and ballsy that the average, and were willing to stick their necks for their clients?

  13. Melanie: I wondered if anyone would get the Amadeus reference! :) The king is like the original annoying editor.

    Su: And yet you have the most succinct response so far. :D

    Violante: I hear you. Stories can most definitely get too pared down. I keep telling the members of my critique group I love their descriptive passages and want *more* of those.

    How do those rule-breakers get away with it? The cynic in my wonders if they have friends inside the biz or some other "in." Then again, I'm flipping through Pessl's book now and that there's some pretty fantastic writing.

  14. I love Amadeus. I remember when the movie came out my piano teacher told me all her students wanted to play Mozart (including me!)

    I'm one of those writers who overwrites and then has to go back and cut half of it. But I think my "relationship" with word count has gotten into a "healthier" place now. I used to ignore all word-count talk completely when I first started. (What writer doesn't think he's the exception?) But in every conference I attend, I hear agents complain about this. I think there's validity to this concern (because it's risky for a publisher to invest so much money on a book by an unknown writer) but I also believe people make too much out of it. Like Violante says, if an agent is ballsy and visionary, and most importantly, loves the novel, she'll take it despite its word count (and work with the writer to make it shorter, if needed). But I think a lot of agents just use this as an excuse to say no and have one less query in their inboxes.

  15. My first draft stood at 142,000 words, and was rejected over and again. My last draft stood at 98,000. That's lot of my hard work thrown to the cutting floor. But I've been picked up. So therein lies an example to support your blog.

    Last night I snuggled into bed with my favourite, Wuthering Heights, and thoroughly enjoyed every unnecessary word, line, paragraph with the utmost pleasure.

    I'm hoping the writing trade will come the full circle.

  16. Sister Steph,

    I think this is a great topic to write on. There has been much debate of late concerning word count, and quite frankly, if you are going the traditional route, word count matters. There are a couple of reasons for this, the first mainly money. The cheaper a first time author is to print, the better. Longer novels mean a lot of money, and if a publishing house doesn't know if you'll sell or not, then they aren't interested. Plain and simple. Secondly, as writers we tend to get our own God complexes like, "My novel is awesome!" "No one would reject such beautifully crafted storytelling!" Baloney! I was rejected in what I see as one of the worst ways when it comes to my writing. My oh-so-serious historical novel was rejected by an agent who told me it read like YA. That's bad, because it's not even remotely YA (or so I thought). I had to step down off my little pedestal and really figure out how to fix my manuscript. Word count is just another fix we writers run into, whether we like it or not. Otherwise, craft it as a series and split it apart with different story arcs.

    As to e-books, I personally don't like reading an extra long novel on my Kindle. I think it's the monotony of clicking that little Forward button that gets to me!

  17. "I think it's the monotony of clicking that little Forward button that gets to me!"

    Haha -- yes! I was grousing to a friend that it's depressing when you keep clicking the forward button and that dang percent-read number won't change. Of course, if you're paying attention to the percent-read, probably the novel doesn't have you fully engaged.

  18. I'm the opposite. I seem to read faster in my Nook. By the way, I don't get percentages in Nook but page numbers, which is actually encouraging (only 100 pages left!)

    From all these comments, I gather that the norm for new writers is to write very long manuscripts but the bumps along the road teach us to cut down. I guess we have a lot to say when we first start!

  19. But second novels tend to be longer than the first ones, so writers still have a lot to say!I guess the art of being succint only works for the first novel

  20. I was advised to leave word count out when querying my Russian novel, since I've finally gotten to a point where the query emphasizes the grand, sweeping scope and large story arc. I want any potential rejections to be based on an agent's opinion of the writing, NOT a prejudice against very long books. It was around 342,000 words when I pulled it out of the obsolete file formats it was on for a decade, and after a lot of cutting of junk from the original sections and doing a lot of rewriting and adding new scenes, it's around 349,000 words. I'm fine with that, since it was intended to be a very long book. Cutting out entire chapters or important secondary characters just to drive down word count would destroy the entire essence of the book and cause the entire plot structure to collapse. It wouldn't be nearly the same story anymore. The sequel is around 250,000 words now, with about 100,000 more to go till I reach the goal I set for myself. Some books are meant to be very long and can't be properly developed and told within 300 pages.

    My Atlantic City books are generally 300 pages or less, but that's because they take place over shorter timespans and are part of an ongoing series. If a book only has a few main characters and a smaller scope, and takes place over a short timeframe, I understand why it would be very slim. But not all books can be fit into the 100,000 words or less modern-day mold, because some stories are meant as sagas. Very long books used to be the norm, and I've heard many people saying they love very long books and wish there were more of them being published nowadays.

  21. My problem is too few words. I'm too brief. My dissertation was the thinnest on the shelf in my department. I know my current work-in-progress needs to be longer. I am adding more description during the revision process. Thanks for reminding me that I can add more dialogue.

  22. But as much as I loved Harry Potter and I adored that series, some of her later books could have been edited tighter. I loved Harry enough not to care. I enjoyed that first shorter book more than the later ones---especially Book 5.

    Still I love that series enough that if she wants to be wordy, I'll forgive. :)

  23. Carrie-Anne: I'm still picking my jaw up off the floor at "342,000." Gosh! That's long even for a sweeping Russian novel. (Side-note: Is there any other kind of Russian novel? :) ) I didn't realize one could leave word count out of queries. How is that process going for you?

    I think we all agree that not every story can be told in 100,000 words or less. And many novels are published that exceed that limit. I think, however, that the chances of us breaking in with novels well over that limit are slim. It's worth sticking to one's principles if one believes a high word count is necessary, but it's also good to recognize the challenges this poses.

    Did you see the post I linked from the Guardian on long books? It's hyperlinked, with "this guy" being the words to click on. I thought it was fascinating because it's so totally different from everything else I'm hearing about book length.

    Momslife: I am so jealous of your opportunity to go back and add description and dialogue, because I love those two elements. If you need any inspiration, check out Flannery O' Connor's short stories. She's a master at both (and yet remains a concise writer).

    Tirzah: I think your final comment says it all: when we love an author, we'll forgive wordiness. Rowling definitely benefited from the editing she received early on, as did Diana Gabaldon. But fans will read almost whatever a beloved author writes! (I love both those authors, myself.)

  24. interesting point about page count with sorcerer's stone and deathly hallows.

  25. Carrie-Anne,
    I'm just curious as to whether you are published or not? If so, kudos to you for finding an agent who will take on such a lengthy project! I know a few of my writing colleagues have been rejected on much lower word counts, but still ones that exceeded the 100,000 word mark. If you aren't published, best of luck in your search and I truly hope you are able to stick to what you want for your novels. It's tough out in the publishing world!

  26. I just started querying recently, after working for awhile on the perfect query and getting some professional consulting so I could emphasize the right things and thus make it clear the massive length is justified. My earlier query versions, which I didn't submit, made it seem more like I'd written a historical romance as opposed to a historical that happens to include a love story. Right now it's somewhat shorter than Anna Karenina, which I think would put it in the 800-page range when double spacing is taken out and normal-sized book pages are used.

    The book I was querying for in the spring came in around 397,000 words before I shaved off all the extra "that"s, made contractions, and other tricks to slightly lower word count without taking away anything from the actual story. (That's somewhat in the vicinity of the length of The Brothers Karamazov, for comparison purposes.) For awhile I'd mistakenly tried to pretend Parts I and II combined were the first book of a completed trilogy, but eventually I realized the story only makes sense and flows well when taken the way I intended it, as one full, uninterrupted story of a girl going from age five to twenty. I'll get back to querying that after I get done (for the moment, anyway) with my Russian family saga, and this time I'll pitch it as contemporary historical women's fiction, not YA. I'm guessing it's around 390,000 words now.

    I have found a few agents who have said or indicated they're open to very long books and would like to see more supersized books, and as I was advised, it's important to select agents very carefully when you've already got such a long manuscript. I'm also open to small and medium publishing houses, and the possibility of e-books.

    My YA books set in Atlantic City starting in 1938 are far shorter and would probably be picked up easier and more quickly, but I really feel the Russian novel is my strongest manuscript for a debut published writer. The shorter books can come out later.

  27. GAH! I love to read. LOVE LOVE LOVE. And to write, of course. I have a hard time with the minimums myself!

  28. I'm Regis, posting as anonymous. i expounded recently on what it is like to write a novel in one's late 80s. I wanted to show the development of a lad from the age of ten to eighteen, the characters who influenced him. It's not a saga, but the main characters have to be developed, and minor ones given sufficient space to seem real, while filling in with sufficient details of the 1930s era, and locale. Writing in the first person has not allowed long discussions of secondary character's mental processes, but I have inserted (too many?) italicized 'mini-soliloquies' of the protagonist. Some people hate that, I'm told. First draft was around 400K, even after discarding (saving for another book) about 100K. Further paring, editing and emending brought it down to 325K. My aim is to let the reader see and feel what went on in the mind of an intelligent and somewhat erratic, pubescent boy in the great depression.
    It takes a lot of words, there's no way around it!

  29. Thanks for this. I've found all the flash fiction I write has made me much more succinct. I see superflous words in mine and other's writing. But I love huge books, tomes I call them. When I find a riveting read I find myself slowing down towards the end as I don't want to finish. You too?


  30. Regis: You've probably heard this, but your work reminds me of Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine. That's set a bit earlier, I think, but he manages to capture (fairly concisely, actually) the feel of that time and space through careful use of imagery. Long italicized sections are indeed frowned on, for the simple reason that they're difficult to read. If you can find some other way to offset his monologues, such as giving them their own chapters, that's preferable.

    Denise: I know what you mean, but haven't read a book like that in a while. :( I have a feeling it's my choice of subject matter. I haven't tried writing flash fiction, but it makes sense that it would train you to pack a lot of story into very few words. You've probably heard of Hemingway's famous six-word short story: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn."

  31. Love this post. My mother and I wrote a coming of age story with two different voices, with each of us writing a part. Our novel came in at 176,000 words, but to us it was two stories. Still, it scared off a lot of people. We self-published, and have won several awards, but the traditional publishers can be so strict. We are having fun, and don't regret self-publishing (just wish we had known more about it before we did it!).

    I came by to say hi from your Women's Fiction/Chick Lit group. I look forward to connecting!

  32. Thanks for stopping by, Tia. How wonderful that you and your mom wrote a book together!


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