Word Counts in Fiction: How Much is Too Much?

I recently surpassed 99,000 words in my work-in-progress, which to the outside observer might be cause for celebration. For me, it was cause for worrying. My target for this novel was 80,000 and, clearly, I’ve blown past that goal. And I’m not finished. I could end up with 105,000 words. Yikes!

Why does the word count matter in a novel? It matters a great deal for unpublished authors looking for a publishing deal. Here’s a good primer on word counts from a Writer’s Digest article by Chuck Sambuchino.

The piece concludes that, as a general rule, writer’s should shoot for between 80,000 and 99,000 words. “Almost always, high word count means that the writer simply did not edit their work down enough. Or—it means they have two or more books combined into one,” the article states.

There’s another reason for writers, especially unpublished authors, to avoid high word counts. It comes down to economics. It’s more expensive for publishers to publish a 150,000-word book than it is to publish an 80,000-word novel. And publishers are often unwilling to invest heavily in an unproven author.

Like many businesses, publishing industry decision makers can be risk averse, as Joe Bunting explains in this excellent post on The Write Practice blog. “Sure, there are caveats,” Bunting writes. “Sometimes, publishers are so taken with a book that they’re willing to risk a book that’s too long or too short. However, with the way the market is going right now, the number of risks they’re willing to take is shrinking more and more.”

My work-in-progress began as a National Novel Writing Month entry. The first draft weighed in at a skimpy 51,000 words, but I hadn’t fully developed the story. The first full draft was 72,000 words. The polished draft I submitted to my editor was about 70,000 words. Based on my editor’s comments and those of some early readers, I made the painful decision to reboot the story, discarding the original story arc, which cut down the piece to about 35,000 words. The story is infinitely better now, but the word count has galloped well past my goal.

I’m confident I will cut the length to between 85,000 and 90,000 words. There are some scenes I might trim or cut entirely. Having too many words is a better problem than to have too few words.

What about you? Do you set any goals for word counts when you sit down to write a novel?


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2 responses to “Word Counts in Fiction: How Much is Too Much?

  1. Great guidelines to keep in mind. As I have been editing my novel, I’ve found entire chapters I could (and ultimately did) take out. A fellow writer encouraged me in this by reminding me that not everything which goes into a book should be in the final product. Often it’s background information that helps us to create for life-like characters.

  2. I like to keep it lean, but only in the final draft. I’ll let you know when I get there!

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