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Advice on Word Count

While it's important that every story find its natural length, it takes time to develop an instinct as to what that length is. In the meantime, overwriting to the point that your draft exceeds typical word count ranges is a common issue — and those widely-accepted ranges aren't completely arbitrary. Overwriting drags down a narrative, turns off prospective agents/publishers/readers, and can cause professional services to become prohibitively expensive. To start resolving this issue, let's discuss in terms of excess of story vs. excess of words. The former is a structural problem; the latter, a technical and stylistic problem.

There are several possible causes for an uncommonly long or overwritten manuscript. Maybe you’re repeating the same points over and over again to try and create emphasis. Maybe you’re revealing too much information, and doing so from too many perspectives. It’s even possible that you’ve written more than one book. To figure out what's causing your overwriting, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What story or principle do I most want to convey in this book? (If you're struggling between choices, or to define even one main idea, you're likely tackling too much in your draft! Try narrowing the field.)
  • Can this be divided into a book and a sequel? Or further, into a trilogy, or series? (Many overlong books, especially in certain genres, adapt nicely to series.)
  • Am I repeating points or information between narrative and dialogue? (Go line by line to determine the contribution of each sentence. If a sentence doesn’t provide anything new, you can cut it.)
  • Am I revealing the same information from multiple characters' points of view? (Multiple POVs doesn't mean we need each character's take on every incident. Use your POV more strategically for better effect.)
  • Are there multiple scenes that serve the same purpose for my character or story arcs? (Every scene should advance your story. Any scene that doesn't accomplish or reveal something new can probably be deleted.)

Ally Machate, publishing consultant and founder of The Writer's Ally

Don't forget to check out Ally's series of articles on overwriting and how to address its various forms! And if you need help whipping your draft into shape, check out Ally's professional book editing services and expert book editors today.

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