Updated: Oct 9, 2022
Hello there my lovelies!!! It's Sunday which means you get to endure several more minutes of my musings. And today’s likely to be a doozy because I'm giving you My Two Cents on Word Count.
Just a little disclaimer, this may or may not end up being a passionate plea on why I disagree with pinpointing a specific word count, but I'm going to do my best to stay objective and give you the reasons why you should.
Because I'm also doing my best to provide my readers with credible definitions/industry expert information, before I go off on a tangent, I'm going to do the same today.
I've done A LOT of research on the topic of word count, but here is a high level summary of industry standards for word count by genre that I easily found using Uncle Google (from Self Publishing School):
Memoir – 45,000 to 80,000
Self-Help Book – 30,000 – 70,000
Fantasy Novel – 50,000 – 150,000
Sci-fi Novel – 50,000 – 150,000
Romance Novel – 50,000 – 90,000
Mystery Novel – 40,000 – 80,000
Horror Novel – 40,000 – 80,000
Dystopian Novel – 60,000 -120,000
Contemporary Novel – 60,000 – 90,000
Young Adult Book – 60,000 – 90,000
Middle-Grade Book – 20,000 – 55,000
Here’s another article on Writers Digest I found helpful for breaking down adult vs children word counts and why they’re important.
Ok, so what does this all mean? Well… The answer to that question isn't so simple. But most writers tend to be either OVER or UNDER writers. (not underwriters, don't get that confused 🤣😂 *ba-duh-bum* 🥁🙄🙄).
Just kidding. Obviously I'm talking about being over or under the amount of words that are typically acceptable for the genre you write in.
I guess the easiest thing to talk about here is my personal experience. I've said it before and I'm sure based on your observations of my blogs, you can tell I tend to be an OVER writer. Actually, usually my first drafts end up being right in the sweet spot of my genre, but then when I start editing it goes WAY over and I have to cut back a lot to make it kinda fit. This is an issue I'm currently facing with my first work in progress (WIP) that I'm querying. It started out near-ish 85K words. It's a romance so if you look at the list above that's perfect! Send it off, right? WRONG.
The problem was, there was no world-building, way too many ‘he said’ ‘she said’ and the story wasn't fully flushed out. I talk a lot about my process in my blog about Pantsers vs Plotters so I won't go into it here. But the point is, it NEEDED more words. And it got up to about 109-110K words at its highest point. Right now, after about 200-ish rounds of edits, it sits right at 97K (I’m obviously exaggerating, but I have read that book in its entirety probably 75 times). Anyway, according to the industry standards above, it’s still at least 7K words over and since the sweet spot for this type of romance is 85K words, it's more like 13K words over 😱😱😱
Fair Warning, here's where my personal biases will likely come in.
I know that the industry has standards for a reason. Theoretically I understand that these word counts are what the consumer expects, and publishing books that are WAY out of line with this would likely make an otherwise lovely book not well received. I can’t tell you how many reviews I’ve seen that say it could have been 5⭐️ but it was REALLY LONG. Let's face it, reading once you've passed school age is a luxury, so in a world where we're all trying to do more, finding space to read has to be efficient.
Also, I intellectually understand that if your word count is way out of bounds with these (i.e. It's way higher or lower) it likely means your book hasn't been edited enough. I can agree that when my book was at its wordiest, it had unnecessary scenes, extra dialogue/dialogue tags and too much information at points. Again, I talk about this a lot in my Pantser vs Plotter post, and I am going to do an editing post soon, so I won't get too deep, but the point is, there were cuts that needed to be made. And there likely still are.
My problem comes when industry professionals (agents/publishers) dismiss books out of hand because they don't fit into these standards. My book has been professionally edited, a couple times which is how I got a lot of the words out. And everyone who's read it in its current form agrees there are maybe TINY cuts that need to be made, but nothing mind blowing. Which means that the overall flow of the book will probably not change from where it is now, and nobody sees a place to easily cut 7K words.
But as I query, I've had at least one agent say they rejected because of word count and I'm sure others rejected for that reason, but just didn't say so. Some agents won’t consider a manuscript that doesn’t fit into their word count expectations, which aren’t always clearly defined and vary from person to person. Meaning they could be looking for 70-85K words, even though the industry standard is broader at 50-90K. And from my experience, the agent who told me mine was too long was looking for EXACTLY my story, but said they didn’t have time to commit to the editing process. Now, again, I know rejections are subjective. And ostensibly I appreciate that they didn't take on a project they didn't have time to commit to, but it still stings that the only reason it was rejected was because I barely missed an arbitrary word count cut off. Don’t get me wrong, this person was nice. They said they would be happy to revisit my manuscript if I got it down to a specific word count because they liked the premise, but still, it’s a blow.
Especially given that the process of querying begins when everyone knows there’s still work to be done to the project. I bet agents rarely take on a project that is 100% ready, needs zero edits and is ready to be published tomorrow (although, I'm sure that's what they hope for). Books can always get better, and more rounds of edits will likely always be necessary. In fact, I read a book by one of my favorite authors recently and she is WILDLY popular, so I won’t say who, but suffice to say, if you read romance, you’ve probably heard of her. Even though Amazon doesn’t list word count, I know her book was way over. And I saw throughout it places it could’ve been cut (i.e. long descriptions about clothes and rooms, overuse of certain words, etc) but I still thoroughly enjoyed it.
I’ve gotten a little off track but I guess I’m sharing this fruststing part of my process to prepare you. If you’re trying to get your book traditionally published, it should fall within these standards or you should be prepared to be rejected. If you’re sure it’s too long or short for a specific reason, you can be prepared to defend it. But most likely you won’t get the chance, because many agents just auto reject if the word count isn’t within their parameters.
And if you’re planning to self publish, be prepared to receive negative reviews or have people just skip over your book because it’s either too long or too short. I’ll admit, I don’t want to pay full price for a book that’s barely longer than a novella, and I will probably mention that in my review. As a reader, I’ll likely never mention if a book is too long, because it doesn’t bother me (unless the writing is bad). But the aforementioned author (who is self published, btw) received more than one lower star rating because her book was too long. (Though it doesn’t seem to matter the book stays on Amazon’s top rated books consistently).
The point is, word count does matter. Unfortunately. The standards are there for a reason, because that’s what consumers expect. There are always going to be exceptions to every rule, but Midnight Sun (200K-Fantasy), Harry Potter (+200K-Middle Grade), The Notebook (48K-Romance), are just that. The exceptions. And 98% of us are the rule. Our books probably aren’t going to take off in spite of the wordiness. Our books will languish in the slush pile or bargain bin.
So if you want to have your book published and widely appreciated, you have to try to conform to the rules. Unfortunately. Them's the breaks.
As I always say, I don't know everything, and it's quite possible I'm wrong and you are one of the exceptions. But more than likely you'll face a tough road trying to convince people that it's so. So if you want my advice, save yourself the trouble and keep editing until you make your manuscript fits the criteria above.
That’s it my friends, my personal Two Cents on Word Count, and also hopefully why it’s important to try to stay within them. Keep up the good work, and don’t forget to edit ruthlessly, because your manuscript will appreciate you for it.
Thanks for reading and have a great week!
-Rose Rayne Rivers
What are your thoughts on word count? Important? Not important? Does your WIP fall inside the parameters? Also, let me know if you have any topics you want me to cover in the upcoming weeks!
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