Word Count: Importance & How to Adhere to It
No writer likes to think about word count. It can destroy the creativity process, force you to cut out your favorite parts of your story, and make you realize what you thought was a completed novel is nowhere near done. Word count is important, though, because readers like predictability (in format, not in topic!) and so do publishers.
The average debut novel has about 80,000 words, but the informal cutoff for something to be considered a novel is 50,000 words. Anything below that is considered a novella or a short story (depending on how short it is).
The word count you should shoot for in your novel varies based on your audience and genre. Generally, younger audiences read shorter books than older audiences. This is relative to attention span. Picture books can obviously have as little as 0 words (although that’s typically an illustrator’s realm of work). As for genre, the more you have to describe, the longer your book has to be. This is why fantasy and science fiction novels, which require worldbuilding, can reach 120,000 words.
Underwriters are authors who tend to write less than the standard word count, resulting in stories that are missing parts.
If you discover that your novel is far shorter than industry standard, you may not have added enough description. Taking a short break from the plot to explain where the characters are can help the reader better visualize the scene. Not only can you prevent white room syndrome, but you can also use the setting to foreshadow.
Describing characters is also important. Of course, this shouldn’t come in the form of infodumping (giving the reader a bunch of information at once), but small pieces of description should rather be weaved throughout the story.
If you are drastically below industry standard for your word count, you might have to add more than description. This can come in the form of an additional subplot. Whether you are delving deeper into a relationship or adding another conflict, an additional subplot can give your reader a better understanding of your characters and add depth to your story. You do want to make sure your subplots contribute to the main plot in some way.
Overwriters are authors who typically write more than the standard word count, resulting in heavily loaded stories.
This may be a result of infodumping. Have you added details about the world or your characters that don’t affect the storyline? While it can be annoying to have to cut out details you worked so hard to determine, it will improve your novel. Just like you don’t need to explain the setting in full detail, you don’t need to explain why a joke is funny or why a plan will work. Readers can make inferences.
Another way extra words might creep in is introductory dialogue. Characters in a conversation are expected to greet each other and say farewells, but you don’t have to show this.
If your novel is way over the expected word count for your genre and audience, you may have to get rid of a subplot or two. Think about which subplot doesn’t contribute to the main one.
You may notice that I didn’t mention any category of perfect writers, because those don’t exist. If they do, please introduce me to one. There is always something you can add or take out from your first draft. The key is finding it and fixing it. By the time you are finished, your work can be in the standard word count range for your genre.
One thing to remember is word count isn’t everything. There are many amazing novels way outside the word count, such as Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix at a whopping 250,000 words. While adhering to the word counts of your genre can make it easier to get consistent readers or a publishing deal, it shouldn’t come at the cost of the story.
I am an underwriter because I usually underdescribe during my first drafts, but I fix it up while revising. Are you an underwriter or an overwriter? Let me know in the comments!