The pressure of word counts

NaNoWriMo is now officially wrapped up; I closed out the month at just over 57,000 words, which is shy of my target but still well ahead of the NaNo goal of 50k. So I’m happy. I’m not done yet, though: still have at least a couple weeks more of writing to reach the end of the first draft, I expect. And then after that comes revision, which will probably take months.

Because of NaNo, and also because of discussions I’ve had with a critique partner who’s also in revisions, I’ve been thinking a lot about word counts. Word counts are a huge point of obsession in writers looking to get published. Much is made of a manuscript’s word count. Different genres have defined word counts which may cause some bias toward your manuscript should it fall outside of the prescribed limits, regardless of what you’ve actually written.

There is, of course, some reason for this: more words equals more pages, equals more expensive to print, which means, particularly for a debut author, publishers face a smaller profit margin on your book, especially if it doesn’t sell well. Therefore more words often means potentially bigger risk.  I understand that.

But it seems like way too much is made over word counts. For example, in NaNo the goal is to get to 50,000 words or bust. I’ve seen blog posts helpfully providing various ways to "cheat" to reach that target, including over-flowery descriptions, addition of entire song lyrics, adverbs hanging off of every dialogue tag, etc. The thing is, all of that crap is going to need to be edited out of your draft once you reach revisions, so what purpose does it serve to deliberately put it in – except to pad your word count? You’re just making more work for yourself. Isn’t it better to wrap up NaNo at 40,000 words but know that there’s no deliberately-inserted crap that’s going to need picking out?

And on the flip side, cutting words. There seems to be a lot of obsession over this, too. And while it’s true that extra dialogue tags or over-wordy descriptions or rambling introspection can certainly (and often should) be trimmed, I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary to cut words just for the sake of cutting words and bringing down your word count. I’ve seen blog posts on this, too, advocating how easy it is to lose 10 words on this page, 20 on that! At the time I thought, yes, this is great advice! I’m totally motivated to go back to mine and start trimming!

But I didn’t do it right away, and the more I thought about it, as I read through during revisions, the more I started to feel it was unnecessary, and perhaps even counterproductive. So what if there’s a bit of stage direction, so what if there’s an extra bit of introspection or backstory, or an embellishing word here or there? I think these things add voice to the writing. If Robin McKinley cut all the superfluous stuff out of her novels, they’d be 3/4 the length – but they also wouldn’t read like Robin McKinley books.

It reminds me a little of eating disorders, or at the very least of society’s pressure for women to have thin, shapely bodies. Why can’t a woman be the way she is and be happy about it, even if she’s carrying what society deems a few extra pounds? And why can’t an author’s writing be the way it is, even if it means the manuscript is five thousand words more than what’s targeted as "ideal"?

I think that, just like with weight, there’s such a thing as going too far with cutting from your manuscript. To get so caught up in the word count that you forget what the story experience is like. The novel isn’t just about the plot, it’s about the way it reads, too. Cut too much and you start to lose the voice, the flavour of the story. If there’s no seasonings in your soup because you want to save on money, yes, it’s still soup, but it’s a pretty dull meal.

So I won’t be cutting words from my MS, even though it wraps up over the "target" word count. I’ve read through it and carefully removed anything that I felt was becoming rambly or unnecessary; fixed up sentences or passages that read awkwardly or were confusing, deleted or rewrote scenes that were boring or superfluous. But I didn’t cut words just for the sake of cutting words. I’d risk losing my writing voice if I did, and I think it reads fine just the way it is.


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