Making Word Counts Count

Blogger: Cynthia Ruchti

Word counts. They ramp the tension for writers on deadlines. They confound new writers who discover too late that the average contemporary romance is not 400,000 words, as are their debut unpublished epics. Word counts are exacting in devotionals and magazine articles and inexact in almost everything else. But inexact doesn’t mean “not even close.”

Agents often receive queries or proposals for adult books that list a word count as (example) 23,591 words.

Cue Deep Agent-Sigh.

word count abacusI used to cause those sighs. As an author, before I understood that studying the industry and its requirements formed part of my assignment as a writer, I wrote stories that were neither full-length novels or novellas. I peppered queries and proposals and conversations with editors and agents at conferences with words like, “My novel is currently 82,377 words long.” Or, I would add the word approximately in front of the 82,377 number–approximately 82,377 words–in case I decided to change the name of the town from Liberty to Liberty Square (an extra word every time the town’s name appeared in the book. My count would be off by dozens!).

Cue the sigh of whoever was sitting across the desk/table from me.

I don’t remember when I first learned this tidbit of information, but it removed an entire layer of writer anxiety.

A book length word count is already an approximation.

“No, I got it from my computer. I calculates it for me. To the word.”

It’s an approximation because the manuscript you wrote is your best effort. Its word count will change–at least slightly, and maybe radically–before it appears in book form.

Useful skill we learned in school: rounding up or down.

Writers aren’t all math whizzes, but most of us remember how to round a number up or down. We have permission to implement that skill when listing word counts of our manuscripts (at least for the Books & Such Literary Management team).

Especially in the query or proposal stage, the best word count is basically an indicator of how well you know the genre in which you’re writing and if you can tell a story within that prescribe word count. Does a prospective agent or editor care if your contemporary novel manuscript is 85,000 or 84,499? If it’s 85,302? No. Why not?

  • The rounded off number indicates that you know the typical length of a contemporary novel and yours is close to that.
  • Your 84,499 word count will change instantly when a title page is added.
  • For EVERY book, the word count changes when the editing process begins. You may be asked to delete whole chapters, delete characters and their side stories, add a subplot, remove two subplots, eliminate the word just, change the phrase “in order to” to the phrase “to”… The word count number on the proposal is–as said earlier–already an approximation.
  • Depending on the publisher, you may be asked to increase or decrease your word count by another 5,000 words to fit that house’s standards. (And that doesn’t mean that you have to find a subplot, scene, or two additional chapters that will increase the word count by exactly 5,000 new words.)
  • The design team may decide to use a font that makes it important to trim a sentence or two from every chapter so they have no pages with one lonely line and lots of white space for doodling. The word count could change again at that stage.
  • Giving an exact-to-the-decimal-point number usually is a sign of an inexperienced writer.

What does matter is that every word of your word count counts.

(How many words would a word count count if a word count could count counts?)word counts counting

Authors can fill pages with their words. Can they fill minds and hearts? They can key in characters until they’ve reached a magic number that makes a whole book. But is it a collection of words or a story?

As the new year dawns, let’s focus on making sure every word in our rounded-off word count communicates, impacts, motivates, instructs, or comforts.


word counts hope




Rounding off word counts may be old news to you. Do a new writer a favor and share the information. Or invite that writer to follow the Books & Such blog. They’ll be glad you did.

For fun, list one word you habitually use that is unnecessary and if removed would radically change your word count?

32 Responses

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  1. On my to-do list for next year–a THAT search of all my chapters. A new critique partner read just one and commented, “You have more THATs than you really need.” Let me get THAT out of the way before she reads the next chapter.

  2. Ha ha, if only it were one word. I keep a running list of words to check for as I read through my own manuscript and as others read through it and point things out. I never realized how often I use just even in my own speech until a critique partner pointed it out. Now I am super critical of using words too often.

    • Cynthia Ruchti says:

      A friend of mine once wrote a novel in which almost every bit of body language was accomplished with hands. He clasped his hands. He lifted his hands above his head. He folded his hands. He clenched his hands into fists. During critique stage, I asked, “Did he never express himself with his feet?” 🙂 So even a gesture or action can be overdone. (Note: She’s a great writer. It happens to the best of us!)

  3. You’ve made a visceral challenge clear;
    probably in cahoots with Barb you planned
    for me to set aside (big sigh!) my beer
    in hunting my multitudes of ‘and’.
    In the pale sky of the nascent day there is a long salmon contrail reaching for Tucson, that glittering place of magic and mystery that turned a year of days into a lifetime of longing. (Totally off-topic, but I did not want to forget the sky-picture, somehow.)

  4. Carol Ashby says:

    For many years, I wrote scholarly articles for technical journals. The majority of readers probably know English as a second language, and that influences usage and style. In formal tech writing, the implied “that” is written, not implied. I had to train myself to purge it from my fiction. It still slips into the first draft more than I’d like.
    *Contractions are another verboten usage in tech writing, but they made my novels feel stilted. It took quite a while to make using them feel natural. They do have the added advantage of reducing word count. I will occasionally have a character not use them as part of that character’s voice. I have to turn using contractions off again when I write the articles for my Roman history site.
    *Three questions, Cynthia. What are the currently acceptable word-count ranges for novels, novellas, and short stories? If 400K is too large, what is the acceptable upper limit? How does genre and publication history affect the upper limit?
    *Also, what does it say to an agent or publisher about an author when the word count is listed as 90K instead of 90,000? (OK, I realize that’s 4 questions, not 3, and I just used numerals instead of words for the numbers. Curious and techie are synonymous.)

    • Cynthia Ruchti says:

      Click on the link embedded in the blog post and it will take you to an article Wendy Lawton wrote some time ago about word counts. In addition to her list, each publishing house has their own limits. Typically, an historical will have its best chance of selling (and being read) if it is no more than 120K at the very most. There are exceptions, but the exceptions are–in the way of exceptions–rare. Genre affects word count, to a degree. Keep in mind that a longer book is far more expensive for a publisher to create. It affects printing costs, shipping costs, editing time, and reduces, frankly, shelf space for that tome. An excessively large book–compared to others of its genre and readership–may not appeal to the retailers who pay a higher price to stock the book on their shelves, too. If it sells wildly, they’ll make room. Publication history sometimes can affect that upper limit. Stephen King, for instance, may get away with an excessively long book, but you’ll note he usually doesn’t, because he knows his audience and their endurance level. I don’t believe any editor or agent would gripe about 90K rather than 90,000. Book publishing has standards. Other than children’s books, size and shape of books vary in primarily three arenas–gift books, textbooks, and coffee table books. The rest have a standard “trim size.” For research (novelists), check online in the stats part of novel descriptions. You’ll find a fairly uniform trim size and even page count. Many novels are about 320 pages long. Why? It’s divisible by 16. And the “signature” sheet printers use is 16 pages of the book. Add four more pages and it will mean another signature sheet with 12 blank pages. Multiple 320 pages by 250 words per page (the average)–ta da! 80,000 words.

  5. Angie Arndt says:

    “That” is a word that I use far too much. If I could just remove that word … well, that would be the greatest thing. I use that word almost as much as I use “just.” I just need to focus on making better word choices. Don’tcha think that’d be great?

    And Happy New Year, Cynthia!

  6. Yes, “that” is a biggie for me. And then those lovely “-ly” words. I love ’em. Lol

  7. Ah, Cynthia. It gives me great pleasure to put the exact word count in my proposals. I cannot tell you how much happiness it brings to my heart. I’ve been writing with a goal of publication for 16 years, and yet I doggedly continue to do this, because of the pure joy that defying the rounding rule elicits. I found out the hard way that my boss did not want to know exactly how many minutes I had worked on a day. Four hours and twenty three minutes on my time card did not go over well. But where I learned to make my boss happy by rounding (although it did make me feel dishonest, despite the mandate to do so) I so deeply enjoy precision in my book proposals that I will risk enraging the pros by continuing to do so. Ha ha ha! Cue maniacal laughter. I’ll just have to count on the magazine credits in my bio to help show that I am not a newbie but a determined thwarter of the most basic and sensible rule of proposal writing for pure pleasure’s sake. More maniacal laughter … hmmm … perhaps the word maniacal is one that I overuse. It’s worth looking into.

  8. We’ve all been there … the things we did. And still do. Yikes. It’s embarrassing, but it’s just part of the learning and growing process, I suppose. And thank you, Cynthia, for sharing your mistakes … sure helps to know we aren’t alone. I appreciate seasoned writers who help those like me avoid mistakes and don’t make fun when they see us heading the wrong direction … *I’m bad about writing “make sure” instead of simply “ensure” … or “have to” instead of “must” … 🙂

    • Cynthia Ruchti says:

      You may have heard me tease before with my answer to the question, “What do I need to get published?” What I want to say is, “Do you have twelve years?” There’s so much to learn. And yes, some of it we continue to learn after publication. But I like the idea of collecting tips “here a little, there a little” to form a fuller education about the process.

  9. Lori Benton says:

    For me it’s two words. “to him” or “for him” or “to her” or “for her.” So often those two words are implied in the sentence and they are totally redundant for me (him, her, us, them) to have written!

    And then there’s “just.”

    • Cynthia Ruchti says:

      Lori, coming from you, this is encouraging. Great example, too.

      Lance scratched his bald spot. “It seems to me you’ve bitten off more than you can chew.”


      Lance scratched his bald spot. “It seems you’ve bitten off more than you can chew.”

      Even though the character MIGHT have said it the more cumbersome way, readers won’t miss “to me” or “to him” or “to her.” They “hear” it their minds.

      Thanks for that, Lori.

  10. What a great post, Cynthia! Helps us refocus on what matters with word count. 🙂

    For me, I know I tend to overuse “just”–both in dialogue and narrative. I think I’ve done a search-and-destroy just for that word before…there, see I did it again. 😉

  11. Michelle Ule says:

    You might consider this post as well:

  12. Word counts can be tough, but usually I write my little heart out to the end and trim later. It’s easier for me to axe than add. My overused word is “some.” It’s so overused in my writing that it’s often the first thing I search for at the editing phase.

  13. Sue Harrison says:

    The word? SO!

  14. Clella Camp says:

    Just. And. Rather 😍

  15. Mary Kay Moody says:

    I’m guilty of “just” also. “Look” and “walk” used to be biggies ~ getting better with those.

    Thanks for this, Cynthia.

  16. Janet Ann Collins says:

    When my first book was accepted for publication I was amazed at how many “just”s the editor had me remove. I had no idea I’d used that word so frequently.