Is it too long? Too short? Just right? Who’s to say? Maybe it’s the analytical side of me that takes over when the creative side has had its run of the place for a while. Eventually, while I am writing, I begin to worry about that little thing that’s surely crossed all writers’ minds at one point or another: word count.
Sometimes it can feel like a needless worry, but then you hear horror stories about publishers and editors degrading a piece because of its word count. Is there a sweet spot? What if my work is deemed too short? What if it’s too long? My answer to those questions, and I find this a very practical answer, is not to worry.
Sure, editors have the final say. If they have reservations about word count then your work is scrapped. But in my experience, the importance of the writing should always come first. If you need to include more detail, include more detail. If a scene needs more (or less) dialogue, then make it so.
The reason for writing is not to get rich and famous (but if that is your motivation, you may want to find a different hobby). There needs to be a purpose to the writing. You need to feel compelled that your story needs to be told. When thinking about this, also remember that writing is an art, a craft. Publishing, on the other hand, is a business. If an editor critiques your work and wants to make changes, listen. Editing is an extremely important part of the writing process. However, do not add words or remove words simply to hit a word count mark. Writing is qualitative. Do not make it quantifiable.
Still, the question of word count lingers. It’s happened to me. When I was writing my first novel, I thought about it far too often. I was constantly checking the word-counter on Microsoft Word, watching the tally increase slowly. That’s when I began researching word counts of famous novels. I found that, in large part, my 60,000-word manuscript was shorter than many novels. It discouraged me, if only briefly. Should I add a few chapters? Should I extend a few scenes? How do I make it longer? And then I had the realization: It doesn’t need to be any longer. I’ve written the story in full.
The issue of word count remains a large part of the writing world. Submission guidelines will list word count requirements. Publishers will make note of word counts. Industry experts will categorize books based on their word counts.
Generally speaking, there are defined word counts that distinguish one type of work from another. Under 7,500 words is considered a short story. Between 7,500 and 17,500 is considered a novelette. A novella is 17,500 to 40,000. And the novel is anything longer than 40,000 words. These, of course, are still only guidelines. Many people consider Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (~27,000 words) to be a novel. Many people also consider John Steinbeck‘s Of Mice and Men (~30,000 words) to be a novel.
So what is the significance of word count? Whatever you let it be.
Don’t let it be a distraction from the work. Don’t let word count write the story. It should be, for all intents and purposes, an after thought.