Agent Jacqui Lipton sheds light on the mysterious word count guidelines for manuscripts—it's not just another hoop for writers to jump through!
Authors often ask about target word counts for the manuscripts, especially in the kidlit area. We’ve all heard the collective wisdom like:
- picture book has to be under 500 words unless it’s nonfiction;
- a middle grade shouldn’t be more than 40,000 words if it’s contemporary but can be longer if it’s speculative fiction; and,
- a YA shouldn’t be more than 70,000 words but can be longer if it’s speculative fiction as long as it’s under 100,000 words.
And then lots of people say “a book should be as long as it needs to be” which is probably as true as anything else!
It’s enough to make your head spin. But many of us don’t think enough about why agents and editors make these comments. It’s not just to create another set of hoops for writers to jump through. There are both pragmatic reasons for a book to fall within the norms of the genre and narrative/craft reasons.
In terms of pure pragmatics, longer books cost more to produce, which means the publisher would have to charge more to sell them. With so much competition in the market, decisions to publish a book that’s going to potentially cost more than other titles in the genre have to be made carefully. At the end of the day, this is a business and the publisher wants to recoup its investment.
Why Word Count?
The more significant question for the author is why the book is a certain word length. I often find myself giving feedback to writers along the lines of: “Most books in this genre are around [xxx] words. They can be longer if the story needs it, but there are some areas where I think you could tighten the structure, amp up the pacing, and reduce the word count.”
And that brings me to what I want to talk about in this blog post: the connection between word count and pacing.
How long does this story really need to be?
I hardly ever see a submission in my inbox with a word count high enough to raise my eyebrows where I don’t also see ways in which the writing could relatively easily be compressed and the prose focused more effectively. This goes back to the question of “how long does this story really need to be?” And it’s as much a revision question as anything else.
Lots of writers—I admit to being one of them—tend to draft long in their first drafts and cut back in revision. On the other hand, some authors are “skinny drafters” and struggle to build up the text in revision. I think most of us like to put more words than less on the page to begin with and then pare the story down to its essentials. Kind of like sculpting a statue out of whole marble.
What to Do Before Submitting
Before submitting to agents and editors, it’s always a good idea to look either at your word count and at your first chapters and ask yourself:
- How much of this really needs to be on the page to make the story work?
- Is there unnecessary exposition that could be sprinkled in bits and pieces later in the story?
- Is there a huge amount of explanatory dialogue that is being used to convey information to the reader rather than to develop character, conflict and narrative momentum?
Actually, a great exercise to compress dialogue is to take a lengthy section of dialogue from your manuscript and try to cut it in half; then try to cut it in half again (without losing the point of it). Then maybe even ask yourself if that passage of dialogue is needed at all or if you could achieve the same narrative purpose with a gesture or facial expression. This exercise is great for getting to the bottom of whether the dialogue is necessary to move the story forward or if you may have drafted it as a placeholder to figure out what you, as the author, were trying to say at that point in the story.
- Have you started the story in such a confusing place that you need to throw in a lot of qualifications and explanations so you don’t lose the reader? This can be a downside of starting in media res—in the middle of the action. You get the benefit of high paced action from the get-go, but then your pacing can stall out as you pause to explain everything.
- Is there a lot of repetition? Are you playing the same narrative notes over and over because you’re not trusting the reader to get the point you (or more accurately, your character) is making the first time around?
- Are you spending a lot of time on an aspect of writing craft that isn’t moving the story forward e.g. a lot of time on creative a beautiful immersive setting without the characters doing much or interacting much with the setting.
- Edit at the line level; consider your choices about sentence structure. Are you using lots of unnecessary adjectives and adverbs when you can use stronger nouns and verbs? (This happens a lot in dialogue tags. Often a line of dialogue can stand on its own without a dialogue tag; the dialogue should ideally be able to speak for itself.) Are you using lengthy passive sentence construction when you could use shorter, sharper more active sentences? Are you seeing repeated sentence structures e.g. “I + adjective + verb”? Could you streamline and vary those?
…next time someone says “Your story shouldn’t be more than [xxx] words” think about why they’re saying that.
Hone Your Craft
There are lots of places where early drafts can lose pace which also increase word count—because slow pacing often tends to be caused by writing that is repetitive, exposition-heavy, or meandering. I think that’s really the craft reason why a lot of us talk about word counts. It can be a shorthand way of saying: “Does this story really need to be this long? The pacing feels slow.” So next time someone says “Your story shouldn’t be more than [xxx] words” think about why they’re saying that. Is it just a market concern and another hoop you have to jump through or could there be a narrative reason for the comment?
Of course my usual disclaimer applies here. Some stories need to be longer. Some need to be meandering. A lot of lyrical literary pieces are longer. The above are general thoughts, not specific to any particular manuscript.