The optimal word count for novels is no more than 100,000 words, so knowing how to cut words from a too-long manuscript is an important skill for authors to develop. If you can cut back your word count to around 100,000 words, you’ll save yourself a lot of money in editing, and publishers won’t automatically reject your book because it’s too long.
Preferred word counts
Most mainstream publishers wouldn’t accept a book over 100,000 words unless it was part of a very successful series. Mainstream publishers have preferred word counts for a reason. One of the reasons has to do with the economics of producing a print book against the amount you could reasonably charge readers, but the other, more important reason for digital publishers (where the word count can be anything), is that it’s extremely rare for authors to be able to hold readers for more than the recommended word count. In other words, unless you’re a really talented author with a riveting story, if your book is over 100,000 words, it’s likely to be in need of a jolly good cut. Books over 120,000 words submitted to me for appraisal or editing are almost always rambling and overwritten, the story lost in the verbosity. Any book over 100,000 words is improved by cutting it back.
When I got an agent for my first book, she insisted that I cut from 120,000 words down to 100,000 words, and the book was a lot better for it.
The freedom of self-publishing can be counterproductive
One of the wonderful things about publishing your own books is that you can publish whatever length you want. This is great for short books that were previously a financially nonviable proposition, but it’s a very bad thing for authors whose story wanders and includes all kinds of irrelevant scenes and extraneous words. If they don’t have a good bunch of beta readers or a savvy structural editor who tells them the truth, they then foist their woolly mammoths on the poor unsuspecting reading public and then wonder why their weighty darling doesn’t get good reviews.
The golden number
Even after I decided to publish my own books, I still tried to keep them under 100,000 words – the recommended maximum for mainstream publishers. If you really have to go over that, you can, but you aim for no more than 100,000 words and never let yourself publish more than 110,000 in one book. It’s simply too long and it most likely means that you’ve been rather long winded. Some readers will still read and enjoy it, but a book in need of a good prune will never do as well as a slim, nicely shaped product.
100,000 is just a guide, of course; going over it a little isn’t a problem if the book is well written and tightly edited. Books one and two of my fantasy series came in at just under 100,000. I tried to get books three and four down that far, too, but they ended up being more, and that’s okay for a third and fourth book in an established fantasy series. No reviewer ever said they were bored or couldn’t finish.
I’ve read a few longer books that kept my interest, but most of them I never finished because they were overwritten in one or more ways.
Extraneous words have no place in any book
Even books under 100,000 words will benefit from cutting. Some authors do write too sparsely and need to fill our their stories by adding descriptions and filling out scenes with more showing and less telling, but the main issue I find with books I appraise are too many extraneous words. Beginner writers often give the reader far too much information, neglecting the fact that readers like to use their imagination, and don’t need every detail written out. Extraneous words makes it hard to find the story, let alone follow it. They slow the pace and make the reading a hard slog rather than a pleasure.
What to cut
- Too much or unnecessary description, backstory or information;
- Too much detail. We don’t need to know every snort, flinch and ankle roll for every character in the room. Nor do we need to know how Joe got from the kitchen to the bathroom and whether or not he rubbed his nose on the way. You don’t need to tell us how he picked the vase off the floor, just that he did so. We can imagine the action for ourselves;
- Repetition. You say the same thing in different ways. Once is usually enough;
- You have scenes that go on too long, or scenes that are simply unnecessary – cut any scene that doesn’t move the story forward;
- Your dialogue rambles;
- The plot flags in certain places. It spends too long on things that could be covered as well in half the number of words.
- You might even have excessive adverbs and adjectives;
- You may have a whole story thread that is irrelevant to the main theme.
The classic self-editing tip: kill your darlings
You may have heard the term ‘kill your darlings’ used in author circles. It’s an often-repeated self-editing tip because it refers to something familiar to all authors – a reticent to cut parts that need cutting because they’re our favourite parts. That reticence sabotages our self-editing efforts.
We love how we’ve written something. There’s so much mood and feeling in that scene or section. It the best/most elegant/evocative prose/description/dialogue we’ve ever written. Those are our darlings … but if they don’t move the story forward, then they have to go. If we’re to be effective self-editors, we need to be prepared to kill our darlings.
If you’re wondering if something should be cut, but you’re resisting, because you really like that section, it probably does need cutting. Cutting it may be painful, but once the cut has been made, you’ll not miss it.
Less is more
Your book is really interesting to you. It may also be quite interesting to your friends and family, but it isn’t interesting to anyone else useless you make it interesting, and if it has any of the above faults, it will not be interesting, especially if it does it for more than 100,000 words.
Excess words is the mark of amateur writing, no matter what the word count. If you can’t see where your story wanders, then send the manuscript to someone who can.
“A writer who writes more words than he needs, makes reading a chore for the reader who reads.”Dr Seuss
More self-editing tips coming soon!
This is part of a series of blog posts on how to write a novel. It doesn’t just cover the technical details, but also the emotional journey we take and the personal challenges we meet on the road from potential author to author. Join the journey now, and don’t miss a post, sign up to my Novel Revision Checklist and I’ll send the articles to your inbox.
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