Making your story as long as it needs to be

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It feels like writing has always been tied with numbers. The dreaded word count. It starts at school when you have to write an essay or answer an exam question to a particular word count and then application forms with their fixed boxes to fit your words into. Then if you start writing fiction the word count anxiety comes back, how long should a short story be or a novella or a novel??

There is, of course, a benefit to knowing the average word counts for fiction if you’re trying to get published but it can be easy to become too fixed on those numbers at the bottom of your computer screen. Plus there are also exceptions – novels that are much longer or shorter on the bookshop shelves.

I tend to write concisely. The idea of producing 100,000 words plus is really daunting to me. When I edit, I tend to add words not cut them whereas there are lots of writers who are the opposite.

But I try to remind myself of that old cliche – quality not quantity. I’ve seen people say online that a story should be as long as it needs to be. This can be difficult to know, of course, and often I’ll wonder if I need more characters or subplots or a page of description rather than a paragraph. I think it’s about finding your writing style though and that will affect your word count. What works for another writer won’t for you.

I’m learning not to beat myself up for not writing epic novels. I’ve had some fun lately writing shorter stories just to experiment and it’s definitely true that some stories just work as shorter or longer fiction, you just have to go with it.

Do you ever get anxious about word counts?

Victoria

xoxo

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19 Comments

  1. Word counts are tricky. I’ve worked at news publications where they were both encouraged and admonished. With a count, it forced me to be creative in meeting that magic number (especially if the content was a bit short). So, I included some of the finer details that would have likely been left out. At another publication, not having the word count allowed me to focus specifically on the content and just put in what was needed for a good story.

    Reply
    • Hmm that’s interesting, pros and cons for both. It can be good to have a guide but I like what you say about putting in what was needed for a good story, of course, it’s not always easy to work that out :)

      Reply
  2. Even though I edit for a living, when I do my own writing, it’s hard for me to shake the old university habit of “flowering up the text” to make it longer. In the end, it truly is about the quality of the story. Regardless of length, if it’s good, people will want to read it.

    Reply
    • That’s funny that editing your own work you make different decisions than when editing other people’s! That’s a good point, there’s quote about if you love a book it can never be long enough!

      Reply
  3. p.s. Your blog posts always seem to be the perfect length :)

    Reply
  4. I always keep word count in mind, although lately, I’ve been trying to forget about it and just write whatever I want without worrying how long it ends up.

    Reply
  5. I think I am more concerned with word counts for shorter fiction than I am with longer, because (on those rare occasions when I actually have submit anything) they tend to be more specific and will not accept anything longer then whatever they proscribe. However, I’m a firm believer in quality over quantity, and would rather read a short and beautiful book then a protracted and word-filled story written to achieve a certain word count.

    Reply
  6. I don’t worry about word counts for the most part. The only time they come into play is during something like NaNoWriMo, or when I’m done and want to know if it fits for the genre (because there are standards). I don’t worry about daily or weekly word counts or anything like that though. I’m more concerned with making sure I sit down and put time into writing. My goals are time-based, not linked to a particular word count I need to hit. I am definitely a quality-over-quantity person too. I want to write it as near to perfect the first time as possible.

    Reply
    • I agree, I tend to just write when I want to and for how long and not have a set number of words to hit, I think that would make me panic and I’d end up not writing anything ha! Ah yes I wish mine could be perfect first time :)

      Reply
  7. I do get anxious about word counts, and for some stupid reason, I start to breath more easily once I’ve passed 70,000 words, because I then feel safely in novel land. How silly is that?

    Reply
  8. I have recognised I will never write a novel, anything past about 1500 words and I get a nosebleed. Most of my editing consists of getting rid of words, to compress and make the words stand up for themselves. The balance, probably the hardest part, I like a short tight image. Not everyone does. So there you go. My story is on another blog and has sat there for twelve months, without finishing. Now I may or may not ever finish it, but bits may get added as time goes on, it is fun to pop in on it now and then.

    Jim

    Reply
  9. I only started to think about word counts recently, mostly because everybody else seemed to be very concerned with them. I went back and checked, and it turned out that my first novel was about 42,000 words (so, technically, not even a novel), and my second was 170,000+ words (I made a resolution not to do _that_ again :-) ).

    I decided to really work on concision with my last project. I was aiming for 42,000 words again and I ended up at 30,000. I was quite chuffed. So, I decided to allow myself to meander a bit more with my current story. It’s going to some interesting places.

    Reply
  1. Are word counts killing your writing? | James Eik

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