Guest Post

When Size Matters: Word Count with The Writing Lodge

One of my Twitter peeps, Gregory Austin, has is taken on the formative task of sharing the tribal knowledge of our great writing community with the world. As the founder of The Writing Lodge, he’s gathering helpful tips, industry pointers, and inspiring articles.

He could use likes, shares, and retweets while he finds his way on this admirable journey. Check out my article “When Size Matters: Word Count” to help him kick this off.

Here is something for you to ponder. Does size matter? Before you trip and fall into the gutter, let me continue. We aren’t discussing shoe size or whether you’re buying the family-size package of Oreos. We’re talking about your manuscript’s word count, and the answer is, “Yes, the word count matters.”

While working as an intern for a card-carrying Literary Agent from the old guard, she gave me a cheat sheet on day one. When I say “old guard,” I mean she’s been doing this for twenty-plus years, she founded her own agencies (plural), represented multiple NY Times bestsellers, and her authors won nearly every award available (at least the good ones).

Here is the knowledge she passed down to me:

  1. The average page contains 250 words.
  2. Most Fiction, particularly General and Commercial, comes in right around 90,000 to 100,000 words. It can be a little more or a little less, but that’s the sweet spot.
  3. Literary Fiction is often shorter (or longer) with 60,000 to 80,000 words, unless it’s historical (that’s the longer part).
  4. Romances can vary. If they are historical, they can be 90,000 to 110,000 words. If they’re contemporary, they can be 80,000 to 105,000 words. If they are serials or subscription novels (such as Harlequin), they will each have their own set of standards depending on the line. You should check those out (Dare, Desire, Heartwarming, Historical, etc.).
  5. Mysteries and Thrillers also vary. Cozy Mysteries, like Agatha Christie’s amateur sleuth novels, come in around 60,000 to 80,000 words. Bigger Mysteries are closer to 85,000 to 105,000 words. Juicy Thrillers can be 90,000 to 105,000.
  6. Sci-Fi and Fantasy are often longer with 90,000 to 150,000 words. (Yikes!)
  7. Young Adult Fiction is shorter with 50,000 to 70,000 words.
  8. Middle Grade is acceptable within a 30,000 to 50,000 word range, but max 60,000 words, even for Sci-Fi and Fantasy.
  9. Nonfiction is all over the place, but settles within 60,000 to 90,000 words.

These were the structured guidelines she expected me to follow. While interning, I reviewed over 2,000 queries. Often, she included a note that said the submission had more, or less, than the standard accepted word count. You may ask, “What does this mean?”

The simple answer is “look at this closely.” When the query included a note, it was a gentle reminder that yes, word counts are important. That being said, unless you have grossly exceeded or undershot, the average word count goal, it is unlikely that an agent would turn away your work for not meeting the standards. They will, however, judge it more closely.

If you’re not meeting the accepted industry standard, many agents will assume that you have: 1) not done your research, 2) disregarded the norms, or 3) you cannot properly edit your own writing. These things create more labor for them.

Editors at the major publishing houses maintain these same expectations. So, for the agent to sell your story, they will need to guide you through the editing process; because they don’t make money until they sell your work, anything that makes the process more difficult will be a hurdle.

Here is a simple example. If you were a car dealer/mechanic and you had a choice between buying a Mercedes with a few missing spark plugs and a Porsche with a full engine rebuild, which would you choose? Both are good cars, they have a high market value, but one will require a lot more time (and likely money) to fix. Any good dealer would go with the easy choice: fix the spark plugs, sell the car, and make the highest profit.

If they love your premise, your voice, and your writing style, an agent will often look past the word count. Many agents have passion projects that make collaborating with an author worth their time. However, your failure to meet word count expectations will go in that column titled “things to do before we can sell this book,” and if it requires too much effort, they are likely to give you a gentle pass.

So, here are a few things you can do to be sure you meet your word count goals:

  1. Know the accepted word count for your genre.
  2. Be willing to remove whatever may not be pertinent to the plot line. Running a developmental edit, being aware of the standard three act structure, or having an outline will help you decide what is necessary and what is not.
  3. Remove filler words. Anything that can condense the text and make it more readable helps you.
  4. When adding text, make sure your characters have a conflict. Try adding relationships with secondary characters, obstacles your character has to overcome, and the emotional maturation of your character through their story arc. Those are all great ways to add more words. Also, try adding description and scene detail. Be careful, though, that you are showing and not telling.

Ultimately, there is no way to claim that you were turned away because of your word count. Nothing is ever that cut and dry. There are a lot of factors that go into an agent deciding to represent a particular work. This could include the time necessary to polish it, how the author and agent’s personalities mix, their love of your plot line, the busyness of their schedule, or whether you caught them when the full moon was rising during the third-quarter of a Mars’ retrograde. That last one was a joke, but I guess it could be someone’s reason for making whatever decision they make.

Anything you can do to weigh the odds in your favor increases your chances of hearing an affirmative response. Word count is just a good place to start.

When Size Matters: Word Count

Anything you can do to weigh the odds in your favor increases your chances of hearing an affirmative response. Word count is just a good place to start.

1 thought on “When Size Matters: Word Count with The Writing Lodge”

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