Solutions for Common Writing Mistakes: Runaway Word Counts

Writer Sulutions: Word Counts
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“A lot of first-time children’s novels are too long.” Charlie Sheppard, editor of Bone Jack by Sara Crowe

Recently I read a post in the Guardian. They interviewed some of the top editors in children’s fiction to discover the most common mistakes made by new writers.

{I’ve included a few of the Guardian quotes here, but I recommended reading the full piece.}

The article is illuminating, and it turns out almost every single issue they mentioned I’ve battled in my own writing.

Today, I’m starting a new series: Solutions to Common Writing Mistakes. I’ll be examining a common writing mistake and explaining why it’s a problem. Then I’ll lay out a step-by-step plan for dealing with the issue in your own work.

First Common Mistake: Word Counts

Although the Guardian interviewed children’s book editors, this one is for everyone! While book lengths are fluid in self publishing, they are fixed in all but the rarest of cases for those looking to break into traditional publishing.

Why are word counts such a big problem? The costs of printing and distributing longer books has just gotten too high, and most new writers can’t garner the necessary level of confidence from a publisher to gamble on a 150,000 word tome. Not when the publisher can increase their chances of turning a profit by printing two or three shorter books.

“First-time writers commonly mistrust their own writing…. First drafts are often too long and prone to repetition.” Kirsty Stansfield, editor of Cow Girl by GR Gemin

Since agents and small press editors know the score, they all expect to see your word counts in your query letters, right next to your genre and target age range. And they will reject your query without reading a word if the word counts are missing, or if they are unrealistic. This holds true for counts that are too low as well as too high.

If you don’t believe me spend some time reading any one of the many agent hashtags on Twitter, like #TenQueries, #500Queries, #1000Queries, #MillionQueries or #QueryLunch, and you’ll see just how common this complaint is.

Publishing pros (rightly so) feel the word count is one clue to a writer’s industry acumen. They don’t have the time or the interest in teaching new writers the basic skills anymore. Especially when there are thousands of writers in the slush pile who are meeting their word count expectations.

There is lots of information out there on ideal word counts; but here’s what Writer’s Digest has to say on the score.

If your project is too long, you can follow this step-by-step plan to revise your manuscript down to a realistic word count.

Step 1: Start by crafting a beat sheet outline.
This system of outlining is from Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, and it’s the perfect tool for any revision editing. Heather wrote directions for creating your own beat sheet here. This method helps you see exactly were your novel hits (or misses) all the plot point milestones. If any milestones are missing, stop worrying about your word count and start figuring out how to plug your plot holes. You can find some help for that problem here. However, if your plot checks out, this step should help you pinpoint if your novel is structurally too heavy in one of the acts.

Remember perfect novel structure is approximately:
First Act: 25%
Second Act: 50%
Third Act: 25%

Step 2: Chances are in step 1 you realized you front loaded your book. Don’t worry, this is a common mistake. Remember that second editor’s comment? New writers tend to include too much repetition, and it’s usually up front in the form of an info dump or an unnecessary prologue.  Excessive backstory and world building is not helpful to the pace of any story. Tips for revising your opening here. And revamping a prologue that’s not working for you here.

Hopefully, once you have your book’s beat sheet and the beginning in shape, your word count is in the normal range and you’re ready for a fresh beta reader or two. If not, it’s time to create a plan for clearing out any remaining dead wood.

Step 3: Any scene that’s not included in your beat sheet outline is a prime prospect for cutting. Heather recently taught all of us how to test scenes for their value to the story. Turns out, there are some pretty simple litmus test for if a scene works to advance the plot or if it’s extra and it needs to go. Every scene should move your story forward in two different ways, find out more here and here.

Step 4: Create a new beat sheet for your revised novel and use it for any final edits. If you followed this plan, you should be well on your way to a trimmed, healthier novel.

Trimming your story is not easy. You worked hard to craft every sentence and each one feels important to you. I do understand. The longest historical novel I’ve written was over 140,000 words and I needed to cut it down to around 90,000 to pitch it to agents. It can be done.

What about you? Do you have a great tip for reducing your word count? Or are word counts something you never lose sleep over?

Author: Robin Rivera

Robin trained as a professional historian and worked as a museum curator, an educator and historical consultant. She writes dark young adult fiction, with diverse characters. She's currently querying a novel, and working on two new manuscripts that started off as NaNoWriMo projects. You can follow her on Facebook(https://www.facebook.com/robin.rivera.90813) or on Twitter @robinrwrites. However, Pinterest (https://www.pinterest.com/RRWrites/) is where her inner magpie is happiest of all.

13 thoughts on “Solutions for Common Writing Mistakes: Runaway Word Counts”

    1. Thanks, Diane! That’s good news. I never know how a series will be received until I do the first post. It’s a relief to know you’re excited. : )

  1. What a fantastic and helpful post. I find almost any manuscript can be improved by cutting down on some of the words – it forces you to think carefully about what you are trying to say, and helps you avoid saying more than you need to. And the expense of a book with a longer word-count is significant – the editing alone can be quite costly!

    1. That is a important point! The rate of editing is always word count based. Who wants to pay for good money to fix pointless filer chapters. Thanks, Sue. : )

  2. I once had a thriller that was 65K words, and no agent would touch it until I brought it up to 82K. Let me tell you, adding is SO much harder than cutting. Oddly enough, I have a dear writing friend who never writes thrillers longer than 60K words and yet, his publisher, Oceanview, has no problem with that. So, here’s another piece of advice. You cannot go by what others are doing. Depending on “when” an author first scored his/her publishing deal the rules may be different for them. Today, the optimal range for a debut thriller is 80K-95K, but it’s best to stick to the lower part of that range.

    1. So true! Most of the golden age mystery writers wrote tiny books, under 200 pages. And just as you point out, every publisher has their own ideas about what they like to see in a WC. This is often based on a imprints guidelines, they want the whole line to have a certain look and feel. You just need to know your genre inside and out, and stay within the target range.

  3. Word counts are one of the banes of my existence as a writer. I’ve got the structure down for my WIP (YA fantasy), but I’m aware that overwriting is one of my weaknesses. So that’s one of the things I’m looking for as I work on Draft #2. I’m hoping to get the new final count close to 110K (I started with 132K at the end of Draft #1), but I’m not sure I’ll get there… I’m planning more drafts after this one, of course, but at this point I know I’m going to need beta-readers to help me finish the cutting and shaving. :/

    1. Fantasy is always hard to keep under control. All that world building packs on the pages. Keep at it, Sara.
      Snip, snip, snip! You can do it.

  4. Brilliant stuff, as always.

    Here’s the thing, writers: it’s better to have too much than too little, so when you use the analysis (does this advance the plot or develop a character, etc) you can also pull a section out and just say it in fewer words.

    A 500 word passage about the metaphor of the old barn and the MC’s marriage, while possibly one of your darlings, can easily get boiled down to a few lines – and if you can do that a few times, you’re home free. Just copy paste it into another document, sum it up, and paste it back in.

    Simple.

    Painful, but simple.

    Use the bigger passage for your blog or as a bonus section on your fan page.

    You can also have your beta readers be on the lookout for places to cut (and there are always places to cut if you went over 100,000 words). Cut what they tell you to cut. Again, simple but painful.

    Usually there’s a long passage in the overworded tome that can go, and sometimes a whole chapter can. We don’t want to cut it because we worked hard to create it – but that doesn’t mean it should stay. Sometimes WE need that information as writers, but the reader doesn’t. Write it, refer to it when needing guidance about your character, but don’t leave it in the book.

    Most of the time when you’re done cutting, readers say the pace is better. That’s a nice way of saying it was too wordy and dragged before, and besides, if it’s too long, readers won’t read it. Publishers don’t make rules to be mean, they make rule to help sell books. Help them help you. Follow their guidelines.

    1. Thanks, Dan! I saw the ping back, it was so nice of you to give us a shout out on your blog today. : )

      Great tips! As a reader too many metaphors make me nuts. I want to pull out my red pen and slash them!

      I agree, the writer should always know more than the reader. We do the research and writing so we can better climb inside the characters head, but the reader doesn’t need (or want) to know every detail.

      Love your idea about throwing the cut bits up onto your author site as a reader bonus section.
      Thanks for sharing some of your tricks.

  5. My first draft was 124.000. I cut 50.000+ words out and added 10.000. It’s at a more conventional length now, but I’m about to start another round of editing so your tipsa are timely

    1. Cool! I’m always happy to hear one of our posts was well timed to help a writer friend. I feel your pain, cutting 50,000 is no fun. Try being a new writer who took a finished novel to a pitch conference 30,000 words over the norm. I felt so stupid. At least you realized your count was creeping up too high during the first draft. Good luck with the next round of edits.

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