5 Reasons to Cut Your Work Count
1. There’s an Ideal Length
Whether you’re writing for independent publishing or polishing that baby off to send it to an agent and traditional publisher, there’s such thing as an ideal length for a novel, especially for novice writers. It’s 80,000 – 90,000 words. Period. Shorter manuscripts tend to end suddenly without proper resolution and readers can’t get no satisfaction (read: cliff hanger or lack of falling action). Longer manuscripts begin to drag, slowing the pacing down. In the hands of a master, unwieldy word counts can comprise true art, but we all need to start somewhere. Those masters start out by drafting unwieldy lengths as they find their voice, their story, their themes and their flaws — and then they trim to remove all the unnecessary faults.
“Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.” —attributed to Ricky Gervais, cartoonist Scott Adams, Douglas Adams.
110,000 words is where your novel becomes defined as “epic” or “saga.” Not ideal for a first time writer. Don’t let it happen to you.
2. Be Left With Only the Best
It’s easy to fall in love with every word you ever write. But unless you’re some kind of superhuman, some sentences are going to be superior to others. Trim the worst ones. Trim the useless ones. Trim the purposeless ones. And then trim some of the mediocre ones and the decent ones, too, because there’s only so many hours in a day and I’ve got a Goodreads challenge to complete for the year!
3. Drafting Takes Discovery
Every writer “discovers” the story as they’re writing it. While we say there are writers who outline and writers who discover, an outline is not a novel, it’s a list of bullet points, and you still need to fill in the spaces and connect the dots to find out where the scene goes. Even outliners or planners (as opposed to pantsters, as we call them in NaNoWriMo) have described the phenomenon of the characters taking over the story, the plot taking on a life of its own, the journey veering in an unexpected direction. It happens to the best of us, and it ends up taking more words to figure out the kinks, to get the story on track, to wade through the muck to what’s really important to the core of your story. But sometimes it takes significantly more words to discover the story than it does to tell it. Unfortunately, readers don’t like to be spoon fed, they don’t like too much repetition or over-narration. Fluffy, nonessential or extraneous words, sentences, paragraphs, scenes and chapters fail to engage readers to keep reading. They may have been necessary to you as the writer to get to the bottom of what the heck is going on here, to solve the mystery, to uncover a tragic hero’s backstory, to figure out why this crazy character is acting the way she is, but that doesn’t make each of those words necessary to the reader understanding it.
4. Something Better Might Come Along
To make the story as engaging and interesting as possible, constantly providing the reader with new scenes, settings, facts, interactions, actions, surprises and so on, you may need to replace “fluffy” scenes or paragraphs, and you might find that what you’re inspired to write as a replacement might even be longer than what you had in the first place. To keep the pacing stable, you need to make sacrifices. Start with the low hanging fruit to make cuts, and leave room for future inspiration booms.
5. Agents look for any reason to say no.
Sad though it is, literary agents have a hundred manuscripts in the slush pile, and a hundred queries in the good old email inbox. They are looking for any excuse to cut their stack down, to delete as many of those emails while reading as little of them as they can. I don’t want to end on this note, because fear is not a good motivator. Don’t do it because you’re afraid every agent who sees “complete at 139,000 words” in your query is going to hit delete and read no further to get to your excellently crafted query hook and embedded examples of your writing and the fantastic twist you snuck in there. Do it because cutting your word count by 30% will leave you with the best novel possible every time. In my creative editing work, I strive to be honest about this in response to every chapter in every manuscript, simply because every writer loves his or her writing, loves every part of it, every word and sentence, but entertaining ourselves isn’t the goal here. Let’s make it as entertaining as possible for your audience.