If you’re writing a novel manuscript, chances are word count is something you’re very conscious of. Some writers use word count metrics to set goals for what they need to write to “complete” the novel. While this tends to work well for a first draft, in subsequent drafts, it can actually be overwhelming to feel under pressure to stay under a certain word count for your genre. This happened to me the last time I was editing one of my manuscripts. I wanted to tell the story correctly, but as I kept seeing the word count rising higher and higher, it started to feel like I needed to cut corners.
My response? Turn the word counter off. Without that constant visual clue that I was over-writing, I felt much more at ease to write the scenes I felt were necessary. Of course, when I turned the counter back on again at the end of the draft, I had a problem—I’d overwritten by about 40k words.
Reasons for Limiting Word Count
Within the traditional world of publishing, there are pretty tight rules for word counts in genres, especially for debut novelists. Even though self-publishing or indie publishing allows for more leniency in these word counts, it’s still a good idea to keep word count averages in mind while writing. Why?
1. Reader Expectation
While readers can be and often are more forgiving of longer tomes from their favorite novelists, a really long novel can be a turn-off from an author they’ve never read before. This is true even if the novel comes highly recommended. Readers tend to have a certain idea of how much time and energy they’re going to put into a book and if they notice the page count of your novel over-shoots their typical read by a hundred (or several hundred) pages, they might not be as apt to pick it up.
2. Tight writing is frequently good writing.
While novelists can argue over whether or not they enjoy Hemingway’s works, there’s a reason that Hemingway is considered to have had one of the most profound impacts on modern writing (and also lots of imitators). The writing is tight, sparse, and each word is carefully selected. Sure, you can use six words. But if one word would be more impactful, chances are, you should go with that one word.
3. Longer works take more money to produce.
This ties into traditional publishing in some ways, but it’s also something indie writers may gloss over with the dawn of e-publishing. Don’t make that mistake! Even if you’re self-publishing, you’re likely going to need to hire an editor. Each additional page you submit is going to cost more to edit. Longer works could also cost more money for you to produce an audio-book version of, a valuable market that shouldn’t be ignored.
So How to Chop Words?
If you’re like me and suffer from chronic-over-writing-syndrome, then you may find yourself needing to make some significant chops to your manuscript when you finish drafting. There are lots of ways to do this that would need expanding in further posts (eliminating filter words, attributions, plot and scene analysis, for example) but in my experience, there’s one way that really stands out to help make this overwhelming task more digestible:
Set a per-page-elimination goal.
How does this work? First, figure out how many words you need to get rid of. Let’s say it’s about 10k. Now, the typical 100k book has about 250 words per page or about 400 pages. If you want to get your 110k book down to 100k, you’re going to eliminate at least 23 words per page.
23 words per page doesn’t sound as overwhelming does it? For this task, I suggest printing your novel and using good old fashioned pen-and-paper. Go through, see what can obviously be eliminated (extraneous gestures, perhaps? Maybe complicated phrasing?). Then count the words you’ve gotten rid of on that page. If it’s 23, congrats! You met your goal, move on. Or, if you’re really ambitious, maybe you’ll start to see places where you have whole paragraphs you don’t need. Extra words chopped! (This may help in subsequent pages when you’re having a hard time making it to 23 words.)
You’ll be amazed at how much you can eliminate by using this method. And, chances are, your writing will be better for it, too.