Word Count Panic

Every genre has its rules about word count. I write thrillers and domestic suspense, which the publishing gods deem should be between 80,000 – 90,000 words long.

I used to sweat the word count. Like, it was an all-consuming obsession.

My first drafts typically came in around 40,000 words, and later revisions came in around 65,000 words. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with that until I attended my first workshop a few years back. There were 15 people and everyone’s works in progress were longer than mine. Some were way longer. Like ten times longer. We all learned about the word count thing and everyone but me bemoaned the fact that they’d need to cut their masterpieces down. There were loads of discussion about effective trimming during revisions. I was the only person in the room who had the opposite issue. And no one but me wanted to talk about strategies for increasing word count without killing the momentum. One person, trying to be helpful during a break, suggested I pad the manuscript with lots of exposition.

“Hate” may be a strong word but, well, suffice it to say I’m not a fan of exposition. As a reader, I don’t care how the setting sun glistens off damp leaves after a rain storm unless a wind comes up and bounces droplets of water off the open eye on a dead body. Therefore, as a writer, I tend to steer clear of unnecessary descriptions. Settings that ground the reader in place and time are necessary. Foreshadowing escape routes or unusual weapons are definitely necessary. A character noting that the clouds look like Snoopy? Not necessary, unless Snoopy turns out to be the killer.

So, in the days before I had an agent, I turned to a development editor for help. I worked with the wonderful and talented Blake Leyers to find opportunities to clarify and explore themes and character without hurting the pace. The lessons I learned from working with her were invaluable. The panic of too few words has abated to such an extent that I wrote my last book without paying attention to the word count at all. Instead, I just focused on writing a gripping tale. For the first time, I actually had to make a few merciless cuts.

Not gonna lie, I enjoyed it.

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3 thoughts on “Word Count Panic

  1. Robin, I think it’s a great idea to ignore word count while the story is flowing. Editing is often about clarifying, explaining, adding, that it’s likely to increase. Although, we do cut when we edit. I know publishers care about word count, but I honestly don’t think readers do. It’s all about a good story about a character they care about.

  2. Yes!! My last book I finally shut off ALL markers of word and page counts. It had become a major obstacle. I didn’t even number the chapters. Just “CHAPTER” at the top. It worked so well. I was released from the hold it had on me. Well-said!

  3. Robin, we are polar opposites in the word count department. I am always way too long at first. But then I love the process of cutting unnecessary stuff. My favorite mantra comes from Hank Phillippi Ryan, who said, “Eliminate everything that isn’t the book.” Can’t tell you how many times that piece of advice has worked for me.

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