Sawn Book

Length matters but story matters more.

Every writers that is serious about publishing, particularly those attempting the traditional publication path, will know that agents and editors put a lot of weight on word counts. The acceptable limits vary depending on the age category and genre of the book.

(By the way, Young Adult is NOT a genre. It’s an age category. And Fiction is NOT a genre either. You can find more information about the various age categories here. More information about the main genre classifications can be found here.)

It’s incredibly important to have a good understanding of the average word counts for the type of story that you are writing, but it’s just as important to understand word counts are not an excuse for poor story telling.

For those writing stories intended for adults, most will be working toward a word count goal of 80,000 to 90,000 words. (For those writing fantasy or science fiction, you might be working toward 120,000. Some subsets of romance have a word count goal of 50,000.) For a publisher, these word counts translate into the cost of printing; the longer the manuscript, the more pages in a book and the more it costs to print it. Seems logical enough. However, what many writers don’t understand is that these word counts also give an indication as to the nature of the writing employed in the story.

Agents and editors will use the word count as a first-level indication of the maturity of the writing. They might believe that 100,000 words is a respectable word count, but you might have written something that is 200,000 words. Alarm bells have just gone off.

How much of that 200,000 words is unnecessary backstory and exposition that can be removed? Have you taken the concept of show too far and wrote a scene for that uneventful ride through the countryside? How much world building was added in because you thought a reader should know but really had no relevance to the current story?

How tight is the language? Are you using a large number of adverbs? Have you used a large number of was statements that could benefit from the Was edit?

It’s not uncommon for writers to believe that every word in that manuscript is vital, but when industry professionals see that giant word count from a debut writer, they do question the quality of the writing.

It does go the other way too. Take thrillers, for example. The sweet spot for a thriller is approximately 85,000 words. However, if you wrote something that is only 60,000 words, the question as to what story elements are missing comes to mind. Is the story all tell and no show? Is there vital backstory missing? Does the action jump around?

These are all things that a writer should have sitting in the back of their minds as they’re editing their manuscripts. However, there is one methodology of dealing with the word count issue that I want to highlight now. In my mind, it’s better characterised as laziness.

Say that you have written an epic fantasy drama and it clocked in at 200,000 words. Let’s say that you have edited the manuscript to death and have removed ALL extraneous words and scenes. Let’s for a moment say that your narrative is as tight as it could possibly get and that every single word is vital to that story. Regardless, you still have high word counts.

The most common advice that other writers are so quick to give is to split that 200,000-word manuscript into two, then fly with it. I, myself, have been told this on numerous occasions. In fact, I have seen many recent blog posts on book marketing that actually advocate doing exactly this for the sake of sales. However, splitting a novel for the sake of word counts is the LAST thing that anyone should do. In fact, it should never enter into your mind. The decision to split a novel should have nothing to do with word count.

This mentality of splitting a manuscript into smaller chunks can actually damage one’s career before it has even begun.

Think back to the days when novel serialisation was incredibly common, when novelists would release a novel chapter by chapter in the local newspaper. Many of Charles Dickens’ stories were released this way. People would read the chapter, which would often end on a cliffhanger, then be forced to wait until the next installment in the next issue of the newspaper. However, readers only needed to wait for a week, a month tops.

If you were to split your 200,000-word novel into two, unless you intend to release both parts within quick succession of one another, if that first part is not a complete arc, you’ll only irritate and anger your readers.

Here’s another way to think about this situation. Consider the number of novel series turned into movies where the last book was split into two. We all know that movie studios do this for money — milking that cow for all it’s worth. In some cases, the split is logical. The split of Breaking Dawn at the birth of the baby was ideal; the book itself divided the story at this point, where the themes and plot completely shifted. However, books like Mocking Jay were not meant to be taken in chunks with a year between scenes. For the greatest impact, it was meant to be appreciated in a single chunk.

How many people grumbled about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows? I remember quite clearly all the complaints about turning the Hobbit into three movies and the added scenes and plot points that were needed as a consequence.

If people hate it when a movie producer splits a book in half, imagine how readers would feel with that incomplete story you published, split in half because word counts were high. I’m not suggesting that it wasn’t a good idea to split a book, but the writer who doesn’t take the time to round out the story, making it complete, is just being lazy.

Never split a book because of word count. Instead a split should be the result of a completed story arc.

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© Copyright, Judy L Mohr 2017

Posted in General Advice, Writing and Editing and tagged , , , .

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