Word count doesn’t count

23 Mar 2021 | The Writing Process

Unsolicited advice raises my hackles. But when writing Locust Summer, I struggled with many questions that I wish someone had simply told me the answer to unprompted. So here is some unsolicited advice from my experience, which I hope doesn’t grate.

Aside from “is what I’m writing any good?” one of the most vexed questions to answer for writers is “what should my word count be?”

Google it – you’ll get 3,660,000,000 search results for that exact phrase (I’ve looked a fair few times myself).

Is it too long? Too short? Will agents or publishers reject it for being too long or too short?

A traditional thatched roof I saw at a temple in Japan – strength in numbers, strength in layers, all done till it was just right.

Word count was something I fretted about constantly as I wrote Locust Summer, which started out as a novella of 40,000 words – far too short for submission to publishers unless they were published into novellas (few are, unfortunately).

But after some hard knocks and many detours, I learned something very valuable about word count: the people who will genuinely back your work don’t give a sh%t.

Your word count is as long as it has to be

‘Flashbacks are for cowards,’ the writer Toni Jordan told me in the library at Varuna. 

She’s very accomplished, and quite convincing. So I cut them from the new version of Locust Summer I was working on. That meant cutting about 30k from a 100k manuscript, but it emerged better after surgery.

And when the long revision process came to an end I had a book that was a lean and mean 72k, which sounds terrifyingly short when measured to most contemporary literary works, which come in closer to 80k, or exceed that benchmark.

Moss has been encouraged to grow under these trees at a temple I visited in Japan. Sometimes less is more.

Yet it was the best work I could do. If I really wanted to hit 80k, I could have added some more stuff, but being very honest with myself, it would have been filler. 

So I submitted the work. Endured some stinging rejections. And then found a home at Fremantle Press.

When I sat down with the press’ Editor Georgia Richter at our first meeting, I asked her if she thought it was too short.

‘Not at all,’ she said, and moved swiftly on.

Respect the rules; break the rules

Writers Digest has a great post on the expectations publishers and agents have with word counts for different genres. At a glance, it says for general fiction aim for 80k, and for sci-fi and fantasy go big (110k plus) or go home.

These are great guidelines to aim for, and will certainly help shape your work into something that can hopefully be published and shared with an audience. After all the book industry and readers have certain expectations that need to be met, all of them based on what’s been successful and satisfactory before. 

But while the rules are to be respected, sometimes they are also to be broken.

Here I am on a weekend story retreat at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre in the Perth hills, learning the rules so I could try to break them.

Playing it safe with word count and delivering what’s expected of you in the genre is a fine strategy, but I believe the work must be the best you can make it, and that will determine your word count far better than any arbitrary number or category.

There’s plenty of excellent short sci-fi. Plenty of epic literary fiction. There are always exceptions. And shouldn’t we aim to be exceptional?!

Writing the final lean and mean version of Locust Summer, I remembered that a great many of my favourite books are short, especially those by Ian McEwan like Amsterdam and On Chesil Beach.

Can you imagine adding extra chapters to those modern classics just to satisfy a vague industry benchmark?

And if they tell you it’s too short, or too long, maybe trim or lengthen. But also consider if they are the right fit for your work.

For me, all Freo Press cared about was the content. The word count didn’t count.

Write pages, not words

Word count also messes with me in the drafting stage, pushing the story ahead one sentence at a time and wondering if you’re driving off a cliff. Have I written enough words today? Is the story developing as it should?

Then a few years ago I saw Markus Zusak discuss writing while promoting his latest novel Bridge of Clay. 

He said “I count pages, not words. Words are misleading – pages count. Because I write reams of stuff just to get at one sentence that I keep.”

That set me free from the word count demon – that liar of progress, the false god of competency. 

It’s something I’m keeping in mind as I slog away at a new book, measuring my progress in pages, shunning word count as the yardstick.

Is it long enough? Dunno. Is it any good? Dunno. But I’m going to keep going till both answers reveal themselves.

A standing desk space I bunged together in Thailand for an early draft of the new book. It worked!

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