The perils of writing too many words
November 12, 2015 at 2:50 PM
Manuscript assessor Sue Reidy discusses what you can do if your novel is too long.
New novelists are often surprised to learn that the length of the average novel is just 80,000-90,000 words. A top literary novel might be only 70,000 words. But a surprising number of authors have approached me to assess manuscripts of up to 130,000 words and longer.
And why have they written novels that are too long? They didn’t know how and when to stop writing, they didn’t realise they shouldn’t exceed 100,000 words, or they believed that the quality of their work justified a longer novel.
To justify a word count substantially over the average novel length, your novel will need to demonstrate exceptional writing quality and embody a highly original idea. This is a big ask of any writer.
I appreciate that writing a debut novel is a huge challenge, one that is undertaken in solitary, in a feedback vacuum over many years. It can feel like a very steep learning curve. But it is a rare novel that isn’t improved by being tightened and reduced in word count.
The consequences of an excessive word count
- A more expensive manuscript assessment – The cost is determined by the word count and it increases proportionately every 10,000 words.
- Additional production costs for the publisher (or self-publisher) – The greater the word count the higher the production costs for copy editing, design, typesetting, proofreading and printing. If you self-publish, which most new authors find is their only option, then it will be you who pays a bill that is much higher than it needs to be. This fact alone should give you pause for thought, particularly as most local self-published authors are unlikely to cover their production costs through sales, let alone make a profit. Few new writers appreciate this reality.
- Publisher resistance – In a very tough local publishing climate with few fiction publishers, your chances as a new writer of finding a publisher willing to read a manuscript of over 100,000 words are low.
- Fewer readers and sales – If you’re not an exceptional and/or original writer, if your book is not accepted by a traditional publisher and you self-publish, even your nearest and dearest might struggle to read a manuscript of well over 100,000 words.
How to cut the flab
- Eliminate excess sub-plots – Remove any sub-plot that’s not essential to the story.
- Eliminate some superfluous secondary characters – Assess if your novel could do without some minor characters. Are you clear about whose story you’re telling?
- Tighten characters’ dialogue – Ensure that every line of dialogue is crisp and reveals character or progresses the narrative.
- Check if you are over-explaining – Give credit to your readers’ imaginations.
- Are your descriptive passages too long? – Again, write just enough to build atmosphere and establish backgrounds – and no more.
- Are your characters’ conversations too lengthy? – Include only what you’ll need to develop and reveal character or to progress the narrative.
- Is your plot too meandering? – Are you sufficiently clear about your focus for the novel? Each scene has to earn its place; it has to serve a purpose in the overall narrative.
- Have you written your one-page synopsis? – If not, write one, it will become your road map for writing. It will help you to clarify what your novel is about and why you’ve written it. A tight synopsis will also help you to see where to cut any unnecessary subplots.
- Show, not tell – Are you writing too much exposition?
- Read aloud – Adopt the habit of reading your work aloud. This will enable you to quickly identify any gaps, jarring notes or overwriting and to spot opportunities for cutting. It will also help you to judge the cadence of your sentences.
- Revise, revise, revise – New writers are often surprised when I inform them that what they have submitted for assessment falls into the category of a rough first draft. Numerous drafts of a novel are required to polish the text, nuance characters and refine the narrative structure.
- Learn how to edit your own work – You can become more proficient at this with practice, by studying other writers’ work and by reading your work aloud. Be ruthless. Check that there is variation in the structure and length of your sentences and paragraphs. Look for the rhythm in your writing.
If you have tried all of these approaches and your novel is still too long, consider enrolling in a creative writing class or commissioning an assessment. Check out the writing textbooks available at your local library. I particularly recommend: Self-editing for Fiction Writers: How to edit yourself into print, by Renni Browne & Dave King, second edition published by HarperCollins, NY, US, 2004.