Miscellaneous · Writing Tips

Editing Tips: Word Count

Word count matters. As writers,we’ve all heard this. Although there are exceptions, this rule is especially true for beginning writers applying to publishers. Because of this, I thought I’d talk about it today since I know many of my readers are looking at publications opportunities.

1. Target Audience: This is a big one, because it often decides what the word count will be in a publisher. The numbers are decided based on average reading ability and popular novels. These numbers are considered the target range for that specific audience. I’ll get in more detail later on, but here are the main three I’ve come across in discussion with publishers:

  • Children: Chapter Books: under 20,000
  • Young-Adult: under 80,000
  • Adult: 80,000+ (This genre is interesting, because it differs extremely within publishers and the genre you’re writing. A lot of publishers still encourage under 80,000 for first time, but they are often more willing to expand, especially for science-fiction and mystery.)

2. Publisher: Every publisher is different. That being said, you can search among publishers that are willing to publish new authors with larger and/or shorter novels, including series. If you haven’t started writing a novel yet, I’d highly encourage checking out numerous publishers in your genre and looking up their word count preference. This is an easy way to set a clear goal for your novel, and it will help move you forward to the next steps. I once attended a writing conference with Rosemary Clement Moore, author of Prom Dates from Hell, and she hosted a word count workshop. She talked about figuring out your word count before using math to split up the basic plot line graph to figure out where you should be on your word count during certain events. For example: if your novel is 80,000 words, your climax should be anywhere between 60,000 and 70,000 words (depending on how quickly you’d like the resolution to happen.)

3. Consider Cutting and/or Adding: This is a big one. Once you finish a novel, you’re attached to it.

Correction: once you’ve retained an idea or seriously began it, you’re attached to it. Changing it, especially after the product is completed, is a scary thought. It’s tedious work–often more tedious than actually writing it. But I like to think of editing as another writing process, because editing seems to be a “dirty” word; it holds negativity–like everything before wasn’t good enough. That’s why I think of it as writing. It’s still creating. It’s fun, and things that change are often wonderful.

Click here to check out Minutes Before Sunset's Facebook page!
Click here to check out Minutes Before Sunset’s Facebook page!

To be perfectly honest, I write really large novels. Minutes Before Sunset was originally 136,000+ words. The final product, however, is right below 80,000. All three novels of my trilogy have gone this way, and I love it. Minutes Before Sunset is more fast-paced, and I even added more information than the first. I did lose a few scenes, but I’m not saddened by this. I’ve kept all of them, and maybe one day I can share them as an extra! In fact, many authors are doing this now, especially young-adult authors. Examples include Cassandra Clare and Lauren Oliver. Side stories have even been mass produced. (Stories that aren’t even told from main characters.) I think this is a great sign, because it shows how much readers want MORE, even after the books have been completed. However, it’s often safer–as a beginning writer–to keep in mind that keeping these stories and scenes can be risky when applying to publishers who are looking for smaller books. Look at Lauren Oliver. Her first novel, Before I Fall, was much shorter than her Delirium trilogy. This happens a lot in the publishing industry. They want a “first” book that’s smaller and not as risky. They can see if your work is good in the industry, and then they can release longer books or even series (which is another risky move when applying.)

One last piece: this advice is advice. What I mean is this: I am not saying to give up on your longer novels or series. I’m only clarifying what many publishers have deemed risky when considering first-time authors. But I would suggest, which most artists do already, to keep an open mind. If a publisher loves your long novel but wants it shortened, you might be surprised by how much you enjoy condensing the art. You might even like the final series being one book.

I am planning on writing about series in general or I would expand further on that topic.

I’ve also created a list of questions to consider about word count:

How long are your novel/s? Is there an average length? Consider trying to write something outside of your range. Ex/ write a short story if you write novels.

Did you have a word count goal set out when you started? Did you go over or under your goal?

What about your chapters? Are some longer than others? Considering splitting the sizes. This creates a shift in rhythm readers often enjoy. Ex/ one short chapter among numerous long ones can be a bit of a breather and speed things up.

Feel free to answer below. Sharing your experiences within our community can help other authors and writers. 

I am excited to announce Minutes Before Sunset climbed 150,000 ranks in two days. AEC Stellar Publishing is still giving away free ebooks, and it’s also available for $3.89 to celebrate being awarded Goodreads Book of the Month! Comment, message, or send me an email to shannonathompson@aol.com if you’re interested 


27 thoughts on “Editing Tips: Word Count

  1. My current WIP was supposed to be 80k words when I set a goal for myself, after looking up publishers’ requirements and assuming my book fell into the YA genre (magical realism setting though, which falls into fantasy and some publishers are okay with longer word counts for that). It ended up being 124k and it still doesn’t feel like it’s covered enough ground! Although I was writing stream-of-consciousness, so there’s almost certainly a few thousand words floating around that I could do without …

    1. I’m glad you shared the genre information! I think that’s very important, because a lot of publishers change their expectations based on genre. Do you have a publisher for your novel?

      1. Not yet, I hear you’re supposed to have the manuscript really polished before you start submitting and I haven’t even started the second draft yet lol. But from what I’ve seen the YA word-limit is about 80k whereas fantasy can go up to 150k, so I’m not sure where that puts me!

  2. Perhaps I should, but personally, I couldn’t care less about word count. The story is what it is, and I don’t agree with changing it just because publishers disapprove. It’s not about how long or short it is, it’s about the STORY, and as long as it’s interesting and emotive and what have you, why does it matter? But as I said, that’s just me. My last novel had a word count of 215k! (although, it is a very deep fantasy, so maybe that’s excusable). I admire people who are able to be ruthless with cutting their work, however; I just can’t bring myself to do it!

  3. My WIP is still in its early days, but I can already tell that I’m going to need to cut out a lot on the second draft. My first “big” scene starts at around the 4k mark; in contrast, I was originally hoping to reach the end of this scene by about 3k.

    Glad to see that I’m not the only one having this sort of issue.

  4. Thanks for the valuable insights here! I especially appreciate the whole first book vs. series to start, as my idea keeps growing by epic leaps and bounds, but looses steam (and passion) when I sit to write. I’ve decided to seriously NARROW my focus for now because it feels right – and your post helps confirm that 🙂

  5. When Stars Die is actually 86,000 words. I don’t know how much that’s going to change between now and when it’s published, but with YA, if you’re not beyond 90,000, you’re apparently safe. I also read that fantasy can be 70k+ since fantasy includes a lot more world building. But it really does differ.

    For WSD, the average chapter length is like 8 pages.

    But, oh gosh, the sequel to WSD was 180k. I parced it down to 90k, but I’m going to have to re-do the entire book anyway since WSD is much more different than it was when I first began it.

    1. It’s interesting to think that word count may have gone up 10,000 words (or, like you said, it simply varies.)
      I’m excited to read When Stars Die! It sounds great. And thank you for sharing your story and personal experiences with word count.

  6. I enjoyed your post. This word count thing is exactly what I’m struggling with now. My historical novel had been in the 120K range, when I met an agent who told me it was underwritten. He told me to write 2 sentences for every one. I suspect he may have had his tongue in his cheek, but I forged ahead and added another 20K. Now I’m in the reverse mode and down to 124K. You’re right that once you’ve written a scene or even conceived a scene, it’s tough to purge it, but I’m trying. Goal: 100,000. Deadline: end of summer.

  7. I just encountered this very issue. I’ve been submitting my work to an agent. The first book I submitted wasn’t long enough;(80k words) she said I hadn’t fully developed the characters enough that she fell in love with them. I felt like I’d exhausted that work and moved onto another project which ended up being 134k. When I submitted that, she said the novel sounded good but she wouldn’t read it unless I took it down to below 100k. Now, this was, what seemed to be, a daunting task. I lopped 20k off just in tightening up my language which was a good thing, but to get it down to 100k, I needed to take out an entire character (well, the character still exists, but, now , as more of a phantom character which actually works better). At the beginning of a project like this, you think the task before you is insurmountable, but it truly does make for a better book.
    In a conversation I had w/ an agent, he told me that these days publishers need novels that are nearly ready to go to print. Gone are the days of deep editing because of E-books, self publishing and the like. Prior to submitting my second novel, I had no idea there were word CAPS for genres; I’d only thought there were minimums. Not so. Said agent told me that had I been an already published offer, the word count wouldn’t be as stringent. However, for an unpublished author, agents and publishers can’t afford to take on projects that are too risky for them. So, YES, word count matters. But I’ve learned in having the ability to re-see a piece, it makes it stronger.
    Thanks for you post. It was very interesting 🙂 Donna

  8. Oooh I like your tip about cutting chapters to make them more bit-sized and speedy. I was reading a book (can’t remember which one), in which the first chapter was something ridiculous, like 70 pages long. It didn’t even occur to me until I had been reading for a while and said, “Okay, I’ll stop reading at the end of the chapter”. And then I kept reading, and reading, and reading … and eventually I flipped ahead to figure out just why the heck I hadn’t hit a chapter break yet! Sheesh.

  9. Thanks for advice on climax and word count. You’ve provided me with a great idea. I’m writing my synopsis first this time time around , and I’m planning to add word count at crucial points within it. Lot’s of folks probably do this, but it’s new to me:)

  10. That was very interesting…I seem to spend half my writing time editing and cutting out and finding ways to make things more concise…I’m not very good at it! It’s not my strong point…lol however I do find I end up with lots of juicy and exciting (in my opinion anyway 😉 ) extras that could easily end up becoming an even better piece of writing when all lumped together etc than the original was! I won’t test that theory posting them here on W.P though 🙂 Don’t want to go shattering my illusions now do I?!!!

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