Tuesday Topic: Reaching the Right Word Count

So Amy Trueblood and I just finished Sun versus Snow and I made two picks that could be considered controversial because of their word count. They didn’t come out in the sweet spot promoted all over the internet. One was too high and the other two low. Yet they were both really strong entries, except for the count. One got a requests and the other didn’t. Though to be fair, my adult picks didn’t get much attention at all, so that could be part of the reason.

My question is do you pay heed to word count when doing a first draft? Do you add or subtract to make sure you’re in the right zone for your genre? Or are you one of the lucky ones who tends to come out with the right number of words without trying?

Also do you stick to the recommended word counts religiously or do you believe these are only guidelines and not to be taken so seriously. Do you feel word counts shouldn’t matter that much?

Here’s what our members say on the topic:

Laura: I tend to draft low and add, add, add. I’ve never been in a position to do anything but laugh at upper word count requirements. Usually, though, once I get the book into the right shape, it falls above the minimum.

The book I’m working on now is a little low for the genre. It’s almost done, and I don’t want to pad it. So, I’m going to get it as good as I can, send to my agent, and see if she has any suggestions. But I think she’d rather read something tight with good pacing than something that drags because it’s clogged.

Word counts do need to matter some. No publisher is going to want to spend money to publish a 30,000 word adult novel. Similarly, not many parents are going to buy 200,000 word MG novels for their kids. That shouldn’t necessarily be the #1 thing you’re focused on, but you don’t want the book so far out of bounds that no one will read it.

I added 22,124 words between the first draft of my last MS and the version I sent my agent. (Yes, I checked.)
Amy Pine: I am with Laura. I draft low and add in edits. I’m happy if I’m within 5-10K of where the genre should be because I almost always add that much in revision. I do think it’s important to pay attention to word count expectations because what that means is what is selling is within that realm. Publishers have WC expectations. They are in the contracts. That being said, I’d rather send my editor a manuscript that still needs additions than one that will need to be cut apart because I tried to fill where it wasn’t needed. So yes, I’m conscious of word count while I write, but I don’t beat myself up if I don’t hit a certain number on the first draft. I know I’ll hit it when I revise.

Kelly: I feel the word count issue is more significant for writers seeking an agent or publishing deal. For an unrepresented or unpublished writer, I think respecting established genre word counts is very important. As Michelle mentioned, word counts that are too high or too low can cause agents, slush readers or contest judges to pause for all the wrong reasons. And with all the competition in the marketplace, we want our story to pique interest not our publishing issues.

Once a writer is agented, I think she or he has more room to be flexible with word counts, because there is now an advocate and expert in the writers corner who can advise on current market conditions.

Catherine: I agree with Kelly. I think if you are seeking an agent you should definitely stay within the word count guidelines. Why give them a reason to say no before they’ve even read your work? I also agree with Laura–a 200,000 middle grade novel is going to be a tough sell. I do think there is room to deviate though. You just need to be established enough to do so.

My first drafts are generally lower in word count. I add a lot in revisions and in the end I’m usually within the range. Word count ranges are fairly representative of what it takes to tell a story well so if you find yourself well below the range after revision, go back to your beat sheets and plot lines to see what might be missing. I’ve heard it’s much easier to cut words than to add in, but I’ve never been in that situation!

S.K.: I definitely draft low and add in the necessary extras during revisions. I usually wait for descriptions and such for after I’ve tackled the general and intertwining storylines. As far as sticking to the guidelines, yes I do. I think it’s there for a reason and it’s worked for many years so I’m not messing with it. I like the restriction or the goal of the word count, depending on which side I’m looking at it. It’s a good way to keep myself in check.

Vicki: As someone who’s been on the publisher side of the table, I can tell you that word counts are important. As Laura said: no publisher will print a 200,000 word MG novel. It’s just not going to happen. Sorry. Kids’ attention spans won’t stick around that longand THAT’S why there are word count guidelines because, yes, you need to write what you love, but you also need to keep your intended audience in mind.

Now, let’s say you’re writing a YA contemporary, and you hit 85k (which is outside the recommended guidelines). Odds are, you might find a publisher who’s willing to print thatif the story is stellar. So there IS some flex room. But if you write a YA contemporary that’s 115,000…that’s gonna be a tough sell. So it is important to keep word count guidelines in mind when you revise if you intend to go the traditional route. (Word count guidelines are much more flexible when you write for adults, but do note that there does come a point where publishers will still say no to adult books that are way too long/way too short.)
As far as me personally, I don’t think about word count when I first draftbut I do think about it when I revise. And typically, I’m adding words during revisions because I’m such a plot-first writer that often need to beef up my characters/emotions. My longest MS to date, though, is only 74k. We’ll see how that changes when I write my epic fantasy. 🙂

Amy Trueblood: So glad to see I’m not the only one who drafts low. For me, I jokingly call it the Journalism effect.

When I was in college and taking classes toward my journalism degree, flowery sentences were frowned upon. In fact, I had a professor who prided himself on slashing a red pen through every word he thought was unnecessary. So that’s how I generally tend to write: succinct and to the point – which doesn’t lend itself to writing fiction.

Now, I start with a draft and hope I can go over 50k. Then in revisions, when I start to focus on setting, characterization, and conflict, my numbers tend to go really up.

The current New Adult manuscript I’m working on is sitting at 62K. I still have five chapters to revise. By the time I’m done, I’ll probably be in the low 70s. Still a little low I think for NA, but I’m sure my notes from my CPs will have me adding more (LOL!)

When people ask me about word count, I like literary agent, Jennifer Laughran’s post, which Vicki shared above. I think this post from Writer’s Digest is helpful too:Vikki: I do stick to word counts or aim to! While I am outlining if I had too few or too many chapters, based on an average length of chapter for me, I would try and work out why. It may mean I have too thin a plot or too much for one book. I do think the guidelines are there to help and especially for starting out authors should be adhered to. Don’t give people a reason to turn you down before they have read a word!

I too add in later drafts and gratified to see from all the comments above that I am not the only one!
Michelle: I tend to write so slowly that my first draft is a nearly finished copy. My first manuscript when I was totally green went way over the limits, like 264,000. Since then, I seem to have an inner voice about these things. My manuscripts tend to come out straight in the sweet spot for word count, though after editing they might be a little on the high side.

I agree with everyone that word count is more of a worry when you are looking for an agent or a publisher. Now I don’t really think about it anymore as I write and yet my manuscripts still come in within the guidelines. I think that’s because if you read enough in your genre, you get a good sense of the flow and pace used. When I write I tend to match recently published books and that brings me in line with expectations.