Counting Words

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When I write freelance, I usually have to work to a word count, especially for printed material. Copy is usually the last thing to be added to the page – the design and layout are already set before my words are added, so it can’t be re-worked if I decide I need to write fifty extra words.

Writing too many words has never been a problem for me – to be honest, I’m usually the opposite, writing well over what I’m supposed to and then paring it back, line by line, until it fits the required space. The key is to reduce word count while still retaining content, which can be tricky at times.

When I started writing books for myself, I realised very quickly that writing fiction is quite different than writing copy – for one thing, there’s a whole lot more showing in fiction. Emotion, dialogue and actions tend to drive the narrative, rather than information and references, and it’s something I still have to pull myself up on from time to time. The other thing I had to contend with was the idea of word count. Instead of a 500 or 1000 word article, I was free to write in the thousands, something that was a little daunting at first. But once again my propensity to over-write came to the fore, with the result that the first draft of Oak and Mist was a whopping 165,000 words (once again, apologies to those I asked to read it at that point!). I did an edit, taking it down to about 145,000 words, then blithely sent it out to a handful of agents, not realising they would most likely discard it unread after seeing the cover letter, where I stated word count in the first paragraph.

What I hadn’t realised was that there is a recognised set of word counts for different genres of literature, and I had exceeded all of them. YA fantasy, which I was writing, usually comes in at about 70,000 to 90,000 words, though some imprints, such as Bloomsbury Spark, cap that at 60,000 words. Other genres have their own average word counts and the recommendation is to stick to them as closely as possible, so as not to give a prospective agent or publisher any reason to discount your work before reading it. Of course there are exceptions to the rule, just as there are with most things, but they are few and far between. These word counts have not been arrived at arbitrarily – they are based on sales records, readers surveys and translation costs, as well as production costs – the more words you have, the more costly your book is to produce, a major consideration at a time when print books and bookstores are fighting to retain their market against e-tailers and digital books.

Of course, when you self-publish, the world is your oyster. You can write as much as you want. But once again I believe you need to look at what your market will support – more pages does not always mean better value for money, especially if the story rambles on for twice as long as it needs to. And, while there is no cost difference to produce e-books of different lengths (other than editing), if you choose to have a print version, more pages means your production cost will go up, potentially affecting your royalty payments.

I’ve just spent the past few weeks working through a structural edit on No Quarter, the second book in my Ambeth series. It was a bit of a struggle at times, but I think I managed to sort everything out, covering all the plot holes and making sure everyone ends up where I want them to be at the end of the book. But when I finished, I realised the story was a little longer than I wanted it to be. I couldn’t (didn’t want) to cut any scenes, but I needed to reduce the word count somehow. So I went back to my old freelance method and, though it took me the best part of a day, I went through the book line by line, seeing if I could cut 12 words per page. I didn’t think about plot or structure or pace or character development – I simply looked at each sentence to see if I could say it in fewer words. At the end of the process, I’d cut almost 2000 words from the story without sacrificing any scenes, plus I’d tightened up the prose in quite a few areas.

So if you are going through an edit and need to reduce word count, consider looking at the words, rather than the story. You might be surprised!

 

9 thoughts on “Counting Words

  1. Great point! I am the same way, often writing much more than I need and then returning to pare it down to size. But I guess I’d rather have too much than not enough… but it does make editing tricky sometimes!

  2. I’ve read about how something as simple as this can reduce your word count—looking for unnecessary words and redundant phrases. I imagine it would tighten your story considerably, and I suspect all books (including mine!) would benefit. Thanks for reminding me of this tip!

    1. You’re welcome Louise – and it really is a different way of editing, as all other considerations go out the window. It certainly tightened up my story, without me even trying really. It’s sort of the opposite of doing NaNoWriMo, I guess!

  3. That’s exactly what I do… Although I am probably less structured in that I don’t have a pre-determined number of words to cut per page. But I think I’ll try it that way next time…

    1. I must admit, I had a goal of twelve words per page but on some pages I removed thirty words, while on others only three or four. However, I averaged it out over the length of the book and it worked out quite well.

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