How Important is Word Count?

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In a word? Very.

While I don’t think it’s something you need to stress over while first drafting—you can always refine during your revisions—after the first draft, you may want to take a good, hard look at your word count and make sure it’s within what’s expected for your genre and category. Particularly if you’re pursuing traditional publishing.

The truth is, if you’re way over or under the expected word count for your genre, it’s often a sign of a wide-scale problem in your WIP. That 200k-word YA tells agents that you need some major cutting: maybe your plot is unfocused, or you’ve got too many lengthy descriptions, or your pacing is way off, or the writing itself is rambling and unpolished. By the same token, that 25k YA tells publishing professionals that the story isn’t fleshed out. Maybe it’s true (which is likely), and maybe it’s not, but those are some of the assumptions that you’ll be facing.

If you’re not sure what the right word count is for your genre/category, here’s a great breakdown by agent Jennifer Laughran, which covers just about every fiction category except for New Adult and Adult.

Are there exceptions to the rule? Sure. There are always outliers, both successful and not on both sides of the scale, but the fact of the matter is, if you’re a debut novelist trying to get published, you don’t want to give publishing professionals a reason to automatically reject you. And a word count way over or under what is expected is one of those reasons.

In case you don’t read that fantastic post I linked to above, here’s a short snippet that I think is really important:
“* It is really not advisable to go over 100,000 words as a debut author, unless you already have a following. Consider yourself warned - 100k is often the magic number that makes editors and agents curse, cry, and possibly delete. Not that you CAN'T be published over 100k, it definitely happens for select super-awesome YA fantasy in particular... just that it really will be yet another hurdle for you.” 
(Read the rest of the post here. No really. Go read it). 
Getting published is difficult enough—the last thing you want is to make it more difficult for yourself by trying to be an exception to the rule.

Do you think word count is important? Why or why not?

Twitter-sized bites: 
Getting your manuscript's word count right is more important than you might think—and this is why. (Click to tweet)  
Don't try to be an exception to the rule—here's why getting your word count right is so important. (Click to tweet)


David Fuller said...

Yes, I do think word count is important. And it's not just publishers worried about print costs that are a factor here -- it's readers. Those book lengths for different genres are in part what readers expect, so to write something of a wildly different length will mean on some level a quite different reading experience for the reader. This isn't in itself a bad thing -- readers may like to seek out the new, and different, and so forth; but when you are starting out, I think it's better not to exhaust your potential audience with a work that is far too long, nor disappoint them with one that's far to brief.

Ava Jae said...

That's such a great point about reader expectations, David. You're absolutely right that potential audiences have expectations for word count per genre and category, and when you're first starting out, it definitely helps to meet expectations (or at least not totally defy them, as far as book length goes).

RoweMatthew said...

Thanks for that! I've often wondered about word count. I didn't think my 113,000 word novel was very long as it is quite fast paced, but seeing it in printed form the book was really big so I started to panic! I'll definitely aim for lower with future books

Ava Jae said...

Printing manuscripts out can really put things in perspective. :)

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