manuscript and notebook She Who Comes Forth work in progress

Word Count Anxiety

Many of you have been concerned with word counts the past few weeks. I didn’t officially do NaNoWriMo, but I have been cranking out a fresh piece of writing. And as always, I’m haunted by the conviction that it’s too short.

Thing is, I’m not usually short of words. My first four novels are all well over 100,000 words. In fact, the second and third were once a 235,000-word monster that I clove into two smaller monsters.

And yet, when I set out to write something more ambitious than a blog post or flash fiction piece, there’s an imp on my shoulder whispering, “It’s too short! It won’t have enough depth. Come on, flesh out that paragraph a bit. How about some dialogue? They can talk about alchemy again, can’t they?”

I write my first drafts by hand, with pen on paper, so at that stage I never have an exact word count. But I know that 15 pages of my scribble adds up to about 7,500 words, so I’m always counting pages. When I hit ten and still have several key scenes to complete the story or a chapter, I smile and relax. Once the manuscript plumps up, I know I’ll have enough material to work with.

Because when it comes to editing and rewriting, I like having too many words. Cutting stuff is easier than crafting new material from scratch and figuring out where to wedge it in. In my finished scenes, however imperfect, sentences and paragraphs fit tightly to those preceding and following. Writing is sort of like making a piece of furniture or a garment, where skimpiness is bad news. Adding new material means having to disassemble the work, unpicking the seams or prying apart tightly-fitted joints — a painful process.

Strangely enough, though, I don’t have a problem moving things around. Words, sentences, paragraphs, even entire scenes. Once they’re finished, they acquire an integrity that helps them survive my whims.

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What about you, fellow word-crafters (and NaNoWriMo survivors) — do you agonize over word counts? Do you end up with too many words or too few?

51 comments

  1. Word count isn’t what matters to me – only the story. If it can be told in 10k words, that’s done. If it takes 100k, well, that’s what it takes to get to get deep emotional connection. It is what it is, and every story will be what it needs to be.
    However, I generally write short and then build in the bits that ‘shine’ at me when I do the first review. There will be something that has a meaning beyond the word or symbol or motif, and I’ll build that into the places where it can bind to the context. Should this be the moment I say, ‘touch wood’?

    Liked by 6 people

    1. It makes sense to start lean and build on. I’ll have to try that method and tell myself not to worry about whatever I’m writing ending up short and impoverished. Your method obviously works well; I’ve read some of your works!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you. I think I need the story ‘complete’ before I can easily see what it all means. Once I reach ‘the end’ the first time, that’s the start of digging to get the best pieces in the right places, showing the emotional points to their best advantage. Hopefully. It’s no easier than finishing the first draft, but at least there is a line in the sand that’s visible and characters who feel real *grin*

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  2. I never considered it before I started writing, but I think all novels, especially the great ones, should include their word count. I like to think a story should be as long as it takes to tell. Mine have ranged from 6 words to 235,000. As long as the reader knows what to expect. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens is a novella and just as popular as his long novels.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Words of wisdom there, Janet. I think many writers, especially when starting out, are intimidated by the whole word count thing. Like much other advice about writing, it’s another thing we have to put in context as we create our works.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I prefer shorter posts too, both writing and reading. 500 to 1,000 words is about right. Recently I read something to the effect that longer pieces are more likely to be picked up by search engines, but I prefer to write human-friendly stuff.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I can relate, Priscilla! My dialogue scenes (often over meals) tend to go on and on, but when it comes to action, I just want to get it over and probably fall short. On the other hand, as a reader, I find endless action (combat especially) tiring and even boring.

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  3. Yes, I worry about word count. I know I shouldn’t…as someone else said, a piece should only contain enough words to tell the story. But all the “how-to” books I read 40 years ago must still be looking over my shoulder, saying, “That’s too short!” I think I spent too many years as an accountant, trying to make things balance!

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    1. That’s funny, Lea! I guess my 30+ years as a cataloguing librarian, where brevity and precision are virtues, didn’t spill over into my writing. I have notions that short stories must be at least 3K, but deep and meaningful stories have to be at least 5K. And it’s not a novel unless it’s 80K.

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  4. I’m exactly the opposite! When I’m inspired, the words gush from my fingers like Old Faithful! Once it’s written, then that’s the way it happened and cutting is almost impossible. That’s why I was never able to condense Parts 5 and 6 of The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars into one volume. When I was revising The Termite Queen, I knew I was being too repetitive in the final section and I actually did cut out a whole chapter, but otherwise, it stayed the way I originally wrote it. The style of my books is narrative and I don’t hop around in time much, so it seems essential to get everything said as it goes along. And as soon as you cut something, you realize you referred to that moment later on. It’s like the game of pick-up sticks – you move one stick and everything changes.
    I wrote by hand for years, but after I got my computer, I never looked back. My fingers link my brain to the keyboard.
    Anyway, however you do it, it sure works! I’m completely caught up in “She Who Comes Forth”!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The best writing state to be in is one of inspired obsession. I wrote the 4 Herbert West Series books like that. Since then, I’ve often had to make myself crank out the words. Still, I did end up cutting SWCF down to 100K from about 110K. (Glad you’re enjoying it, btw.) 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I don’t rush my writing, Audrey, I just plot along with my 500 words a day goal and I am happy if I make or exceed that. I wrote 850 words today. My writing involves a lot of research so it takes a while to get the preparation done before I even pick up a pen [figuratively, of course).

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    1. That sounds like a practical approach, Robbie. It works well for you, since you seem quite productive. Right now, I’m still wielding the pen, but as soon as I finish what I consider the “proto-draft,” I’ll transcribe it on the computer and start shaping the story’s final form.

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        1. It can be messy, but I’ve developed ways of marking up the handwritten draft so I don’t lose my way. Every now and then I hit a word I can’t decipher and have to guess. Writing by hand seems so much safer than rendering the tentative beginnings of a story in the clear black on white of a computer screen.

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  6. I’d say it’s all about intent.
    Sitting down to explore a theme through words, when a scene concludes, I often do check the word count, if for no other reason than to gauge my ability; and to judge the impact on any readers (Ugh! Must I read this 2500 word blog post?)

    Sitting down to intentionally write scenes for a novel? I suppose there’s a sense of completeness which involves word count, but only overtly if the writing comes as a struggling stutter. If the scene is a heartfelt unloading, then when I do check the count, I’m often astounded (shocked?).

    I used to read all the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s sci-fi and would grab a foot long chunk of a library shelf and get 15-20 novels in the mix. Today? I doubt I’d get more than seven or eight. I find it odd now that I have little patience to read epics that that’s what is being offered in modern fiction.

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    1. Hyper-awareness of word count while first drafting is a sign that the writing isn’t really flowing on the waters of inspiration; “struggling stutter” is a good description. When it is, one only thinks about word count at the editing stage. I do prefer an abundance of material to work with at that stage.
      I used to like really long books, even if they weren’t totally wonderful reads. Even now, a good long book is a luxury. It becomes a pal, to be missed when it’s back on the shelf.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Here’s a question for you Audrey, since becoming a writer, has your reading bar become extraordinarily high? These days, I find I can’t read two pages of most novels before I shut them down. I’ve become hyper-discerning. I once posted here that writing ruined reading. What are your thoughts?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I had to think about this while washing up the dishes. If a writer’s use of language is too clunky to ignore, and their story and characters are insufficiently engaging, I quit reading (unless I’m committed to do it, in which case it becomes an ordeal). If the writer can make me want to know what happens next, or to find out more about their characters, I can ignore a few bumps and rough spots. But yes, in general I notice things now that I wouldn’t have when I was just a reader. And since I usually write some sort of review of books I read, especially self-published ones, reading can seem like a job rather than entertainment. But there are many writers who have created places where I’m happy to spend time.

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  7. For me word count is a writing tool; what counts is that the output (which is what I sell to make a living) is fit for purpose. That includes being the correct length – usually, one specified by the publisher – but for me that is only the first parameter: the more crucial issue is that it is the correct structure and content to meet the intended purpose of the material. Word count, again, becomes a tool to help guide that. I don’t have a ‘word target’ on any given day, but I do have a ‘results target’ – meaning progress towards the correct shape and form of what I am writing. I find that having ‘too many words’ in an initial draft is a benefit, because it enables better shaping of the final result. I guess it’s like building the block of stone before then sculpting something out of it: words can be trimmed, moved, abandoned or re-constructed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’ve provided a different perspective on the word count issue, Matthew. Writing to specifics isn’t like doing NaNoWriMo or racing along in the heat of inspiration. Writing can be compared to so many other creative activities — sculpting, working with clay, building a house or furniture, cooking, pruning, etc.

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  8. I agree with you that cutting is much easier than inserting new material. I actually prefer editing my work to writing it. I often wish I could magically pull out a first rough draft and then edit. I don’t even write that much fiction. This applies as much to my non-fiction (business) writing.

    Plus: Bonus points for using “clove!” I knew what it meant from the context of the sentence but I’ve never seen the word used that way before. (dictionary.com “a simple past tense of cleave.”)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I actually enjoy editing a complete draft more than the initial process of turning ideas and intentions into words. It would be great to do a “brain dump.”
      And “cleave” is an interesting word. Someone in my critique group pointed out that it has two opposite meanings — to cut into two parts OR to cling together. English is a great language for writers, even though messy.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. When the writing’s going well, I don’t worry about wordcount at all. When it’s not…-sigh-
    I can’t believe you write the first draft in longhand! Doesn’t your hand get a cramp?
    I’ve reached the point where I don’t even like writing shopping lists longhand any more. :/

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    1. No cramp, strangely enough. Somehow writing in longhand feels like less of a risk when a work is at the idea stage. Some of the stuff I do in the garden — that’s what gives me some aches and pains.

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  10. Audrey, I love how you write with pen and paper. My first drafts are like that too and I find it so useful when typing up to do a rough edit at that stage! I had to smile as I read how once written ‘they acquire an integrity that helps them survive my whims.’ 😀 The word count gremlin tries to interfere with my writing and I send him away … trying to not become diverted from the story!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Exactly! Typing the handwritten stuff into Word is the first opportunity to shape it. By that point the work of turning raw imaginings into words — which for me is the toughest part — is done. Shaping and refining is almost fun by comparison.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I like words, I like playing about with meanings and inferences. I do not care about word counts.
    And probably would never get on with anyone but the most saintly of editors.
    On 163,000 on the latest book and should make 200,0000 without too much trouble (then comes the re-write so who knows?).
    The ‘thing’ about ‘word counts’ they can be a bit misleading ‘a’, ‘the’, ‘so’ ‘and’ are words so are ‘impossibility’ ‘practicality’ ‘inconsequential’ ‘exceptionally’ and in my case ‘Whaaaaaat!’ or ‘Owwwwwhhw!’
    Much depends on your personal style and intention as to the images and atmosphere you wish to convey. I enjoy changing the style to reflect a character’s perspective which means some passages can be longer than other.
    In the final analysis.
    Depends on you.
    (Which is why I will never be anything but a self-published guy)

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I used to worry when I was under contract with a publisher, but self-publishing has taken the anxiety away. I’m still mindful of my word count, but I don’t stress over it. For me, the story is as long, or as short, as it needs to be, in order to tell the story the best way possible.

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  13. Kudos for writing the first draft by hand, Audrey – and with such a high word count! I usually have to beef up my count. With the first draft, I tend to leave out a lot of description, so I go back and add it later.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sometimes I think the start lean and add if needed approach is better, but my inner writing demon insists on “More, more more! You can cut it down later.” One problem with that is it can result in stuff that seems too good to cut even though it doesn’t add much to the story — the infamous “darlings,” I suppose.

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