Does your work-in-progress have too many words? Or too few?
hard question to answer. Over the last decade of my writing I've run
into a lot of "too long"/"too short" situations, and after I saw this interesting little piece for copywriters
about how cutting more words might not be such a good idea, I thought I
should write a bit about it. I'm going to try to put this in terms of
different examples I've seen and/or experienced myself.
What you might find yourself saying: "I have this novel, and yeah, it's 350 thousand words long..."
one is hard to diagnose. Chances are there's more than one thing going
on (see "Long Experiment" below). When I wrote my mega-work, I was
astonished to find that my first thorough revision cut out thousands of
words, and put thousands more back. The total word count barely changed,
because I was figuring out where the words really needed to go. An
agent gave me great advice: "This is probably three books." It had other
problems that needed editing, but guess what? It's three books.
The Short Experiment
you might hear critiquers saying: "I have a hard time accepting your
premise"/"You're doing too much telling"/"You're gesturing at the story"
one is probably too short. I'm not saying that pieces like this don't
sell (I've seen at least one in Analog!). However, if the premise isn't
sticking, you may not have used enough words to flesh it out and give it
a strong foundation. If you're being accused of "telling" or
"gesturing" you may want to get closer to the story and dramatize more
of it. Make sure you're not just talking out the message of your story,
but enacting it by placing readers in scenes that demonstrate the truths
you want to capture.
The Voice Piece
What you might hear critiquers saying: "I love the voice in this one"/"The thing that really worked for me was the texture..."
very careful about cutting words out of this one. Yes, there may be
words you can cut (I just took a piece like this down from 8300 to 8000
words), but make sure that you're keeping a close eye on which words
are contributing to voice and texture at the same time they contribute
to plot and character. Those are going to be the ones you'll want to
keep. Of course, there are more stripped-down voices out there - in the
case of a stripped-down voice, the process of going through and
identifying which words contribute to the voice might be a really good
way of figuring out which words can be cut.
The Long ExperimentWhat
you might hear critiquers saying: "I'm hearing refrains (repetitions)
in your work"/"You're always saying the same thing more than once"
I'll use words to feel my way into a piece. I used to do this a lot
more when I was first writing and exercising my storytelling muscles,
seeing how beautifully, dramatically, etc. I could describe something.
One indicator of refrains is when you find yourself using
comma-delimited phrases like "Her hair was soft as summer, as
all-encompassing as the sea." There's nothing wrong with that,
necessarily, but you've just described her hair twice. Which one works
better for the story context? You should probably keep that one and
leave the other one out. The same thing can also happen across sentences
or even paragraphs - you might find that you're both telling and
showing, like saying, "He was shocked. His face went white, and his
hands shook." In this case, if his face is white and his hands are
shaking, it's evident that he's shocked and you don't need to state it
What about publishers/agents and their word count guidelines?
is a tricky one. What I've found is that ideas typically come in
different sizes. There's the idea that's naturally flash (<1000), or
short (<7500), because if you look at it for too long things will
start poking out that detract from the effectiveness of the idea.
There's the idea that wants to be a novelette (<10K), because just
talking about events isn't enough. There's the idea that wants to be a
fast-paced novel (60-75K, common for YA); there's the idea that wants to
be epic (100-120K). Within that, however, there is a lot of room for
wordcount-wiggling. A lot of words can be cut if you just go through
saying "I need to take out 30 words per page" (you'd be surprised)!
Those are word cuts on the sentence level. If you're 30 thousand words
over your target count, though, then it's best to consider the story
structure as a whole, and see if you're putting a lot of words on
tangents or subplots instead of sticking to the backbone conflict of the
In the end, it's all very dependent on the individual
story. Listen to your audience to get clues about where and how you're
hitting them. And it may turn out that you need to cut words and add words, because you needed those words; they were just the wrong ones.
You just have to try it and see.