As an aspiring author before I published my first novel in 2018, word count was my archenemy. I can’t tell you how many times I googled:
- What is the maximum word count an agent will accept for a debut author?
- Average word count range for fantasy novels
- How long should a YA book be?
- How many words in the biggest fantasy book?
- Word count for The Deathly Hallows
…and many variations of those online searches.
It was stressful. I’d already divided my large manuscript in half, and I didn’t want to lose important worldbuilding details or character development by paring back too much just to fit a quota.
In all likeliness, word count was probably one of the biggest factors contributing to rejection letters or crickets from literary agents when I was querying five years ago.
My first novel, A Fallen Hero, ended up at about 154,000 words. Based on many, many Google searches, I knew that the industry average for a YA fantasy book was 125k-150k. Realistically, I wasn’t that far off.
But I was a debut author, and that meant I needed to have lower word count expectations. I didn’t have an established fan base, nor did I have a strong platform or marketing plan. Agents are less likely to take a chance on a brand-new author with a hefty book because they don’t know how well the novel will do. Therefore, it’s safer to start with a smaller novel to test the waters.
When I decided to self-publish my book, the word count pressure fell off my shoulders. No more trying to squeeze my extensive fantasy series into a small, agent-approved box for a mass-market rollout. I was free to write big books!
Well… sort of.
I’m not saying to throw word count out the window and publish a thousand-page book for your debut novel. Word count is still important… just not in the way it used to be for me when I was querying.
“Cut the Fluff” Is Still Valid
If you’re a serious writer, you’ve probably heard the phrase “cut the fluff.” Basically, it means “be strategic with your word choice.”
For example, instead of saying, “He ran as fast as he could,” simply say, “He sprinted.” Same action, but more concise.
Too much “fluffy” (extraneous) language can bog down a manuscript until reading becomes tedious.
If you’re reducing your word count by tightening your prose, that’s a good practice. In fact, it should be a natural part of the editing process.
As with almost everything, I recommend balance. Creative writing isn’t the same as producing a technical manual—which is pretty much what you get when you cut ALL of the fluff and leave the absolute bare bones.
In addition to being an award-winning fantasy author, I’m also a poet with several poems available in the Indiana Poetry Archives. I like playing with words and finding poetic ways to describe scenes. I strive to find a balance between being concise and being creative. Pretty language is great in moderation. It makes your writing unique.
I remember having a conversation with a fellow author who was working with a small publishing house. Her editor wanted her to cut 30,000 words from her 90k manuscript. THAT’S A THIRD OF HER BOOK!
I was stunned to hear that. I couldn’t fathom taking a knife to such a large chunk of my own manuscript. Removing that much would have eliminated so much character development and worldbuilding. Every scene I had written (and chosen to keep during the editing phases) was intentional, and even if it didn’t necessarily advance the plot, it established critical details about the fictional setting and/or the character(s).
Now, to be fair, I hadn’t read the other author’s manuscript. There may have been a lot of scenes that didn’t advance the story. Still… the thought of cutting 30,000 words from a completed, edited draft makes my head spin!
Word Count DOES Matter for Print Cost
I would passionately argue that a story should be as many words as it needs to be.
Call me stubborn, but I think it’s a disservice to make massive cuts simply for the sake of word count.
Some authors are obsessed with word count. They keep track of how many words they produce each day, sometimes even hourly. They have an exact target in mind and know how close they are to finishing the book based on how many words they’ve typed. That’s fine, if that’s what works for them.
Me… I really don’t pay any attention to word count as I go. The story is what’s important to me. Just as I let my characters speak to me and work through the problems I throw at them in their own way, I also let the story speak to me with its own flow and rhythm. Sometimes, it will twist in an unplanned way based on the most logical reactions of the characters. Sometimes, it takes me in a direction I hadn’t anticipated. I’ll know I’ve reached the end of the story when I get to the natural end, not when I hit a certain word count.
Once I’ve finished the first draft, I dive into the editing phase. My goal is always to tighten up lengthy sentences and cut unnecessary fluff, which inevitably reduces my word count. Your total word count should decrease as you’re editing. That’s normal.
But in reality, the only reason I pay any attention to word count at all anymore is the print cost.
As an indie author, I have my books printed on demand. That means no bulk-order discounts for a 10,000-book print run. It also means that a lot of pages can drastically increase printing cost (based on materials) and shipping cost (based on weight).
It would be much more accurate to say that page count is more important to me now than word count.
I love big books. But big books are expensive to print.
If the story is well developed but too big, I would rather divide it into multiple books than take a hacksaw to the manuscript and eliminate entire chapters just for the sake of hitting a word count goal.
In the end, you have to decide what’s best for your work. Splitting your manuscript into multiple books would mean more revenue from your series… but only if all of those scenes you want to keep are relevant and deserve to be in the manuscript.
Don’t cut out your voice when cutting the fluff.
Don’t delete critical pieces just to slash your word count.
If you’re stressing about word count, my recommendation is to focus on the story, not the number. Trust your intuition. Be strategic with your words and make sure every scene contributes.
If you listen, your story will let you know how short or long it needs to be.