Doing Battle with your Book: Word Count Wars

Word Count Wars

Let’s start with some statistics.

According to Writer’s Digest, the following is a list of ‘good’ ranges for your novels.


  • COMMERCIAL AND LITERARY: 80,000 – 89,999
  • SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY: 100,000 – 115,000


  • YA (YOUNG ADULT): 55,000 – 69,999
  • MIDDLE GRADE (9-12): 20,000 – 55,000

Well… I’m in trouble.

There is a belief that manuscripts exceeding the recommended word count for their genre are almost immediately homed in a slush pile. This belief is founded on experience, literary agent testimonials and plain business sense.

  1. Paperbacks cost money to make.
  2. The longer the book, the higher the printing costs.
  3. If the book is not a commercial success, the financial loss is therefore greater.

Basically: “unusually long” books are a risk. 

Of course, word count recommendations are just that: recommendations. So don’t unduly panic, you still have a bit of wriggle-room. Also, there are exceptions to the rule… Sci-Fi and Fantasy books, for example – of all ages – are given a bit more freedom when it comes to word count. This is because they have an allowance for world-building. Other genres tend to be a bit stricter but you can always find examples of someone who broke the mould.

I’m crossing my fingers for the ‘Fantasy genre’ lee-way when it comes to The Elder Throne. Currently, it stands stubbornly at 73,000 words, despite being a middle-grade novel. I’ve been over and over it with a fine-toothed comb, weeding out all the superfluous sections and words. Julie Hutchings, Editor at Undeaditing, has made herself hoarse by repeatedly bellowing ‘CRUTCH WORDS‘ at me. I’m still going for gold, but I’m fairly certain I’ve done all I can do. Yet, my manuscript is too fat to fit on a bookstore shelf.


  1. Make your story as concise as feasibly possible.
  2. Hope.

My consolation in these troubled times comes from people like JK Rowling, whose debut novel Philospher’s Stone bounded into the ring weighing 76,944 words. That’s more than Elder Throne, but I don’t pretend to myself that my novel is the next Harry Potter. Even if it was, JK was rejected a dozen times – I face that same fate with certainty.

But the simple fact is… I can’t make my book shorter. Not without sacrificing character development, world-building or plot pace, anyway. So I’m hoping this is where common sense and creative licence come into play, because if a story isn’t told in 55,000 words but can be in 65,000… who’s to say the shorter book would be the more successful?


A lot of querying is holding your breath and hoping, but if you’d like to remove some of the risk involved by hitting your word count, here are a few check points to make trimming the fat easier:

  • Imagine your book will get published if only you whittle it down to -2k less than your genre’s recommended count. If aiming for a smaller count, you are more inclined to be ruthless when it comes to superfluous words.
  • Get rid of words like ‘very’ and ‘nearly’ and ‘almost’ and ‘quite’ unless they’re ABSOLUTELY necessary. They rarely are.
  • Scene breaks are wonderful things. How much of your chapter is truly necessary to the story?
  • Unless this is Lord of the Rings, no one should be walking anywhere. If you’ve got sentences describing something ‘started to go to…’ – these are all sentences that can be cleaned up and shortened.
  • Apply the above logic for every action. Unless someone has been interrupted during an action, or the action itself is integral to the plot and/or scene, the description of it is likely unnecessary.
  • He said, she said… Not every piece of dialogue needs to be defined by the speaker. Get rid of these identifiers as much as possible. Of course, if the conversation gets too confusing, you can look into dialogue styles to achieve clarity.

If that doesn’t work, you can join me in a desperate finger-crossing marathon, knowing you’ve done all you can possibly do to solve the problem.

But as always, I’m open to suggestions. Maybe I’ve missed something…

How would you solve a word count problem?

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