How many words are too many? How important is word count? Do the rules change when you’re an established writer compared to when you’re just starting out? These are some of the questions I tackled completing the 7th draft of my manuscript, Misplaced. It was daunting – I reduced my word count from 130,000 words to 80,000. Is it possible to cut so many words without losing your story? Should we be bringing the razor to our work just because publishers want us to?

A year ago, a writer friend of mine advised me to cut down – I scoffed at her. Cut down? Why? This is my story. After all, the debut novel of one of my favourite writers, Paulina Simmons, is 500 pages and about 200,000 words. If she can do it why can’t I?

The talk at the moment in publishing is that the optimum length for a debut novel is 70,000 words. Publishers have limited budgets for first time writers and producing larger books is too expensive. In a way, it almost doesn’t seem fair. Take Paulina’s ‘Bronze Horseman’ trilogy. The first book was brilliant, around 500 pages. The second was a laborious read – the first half was a rehash of the first book, the second half was entertaining enough. The third book was 900 pages – I couldn’t finish it. Publishers would justify that she has a following and readers that love the first book will buy the others regardless of the wordiness. This is a classic example of the leadway publishers allow established writers.

Another example of a wordy book – Christos Tsiolkas’s ‘The Slap’. I wouldn’t take a single word out of that book even though it’s got to be around 170,000 words. It’s a pivotal book to Australian Literature. But what if that was Christos’s first book and he cut it down to 70,000 words because that was what publishers expected? How many Christos Tsiolkas writers are there out there chopping out words in the hope of being published? Anyone would agree cutting down ‘The Slap’ would be a disastrous mistake. Is this expectation on emerging writers moulding our literary space into something for the better or worse?

To me, the Paulina Simmons days where a debut novelist can publish a huge book are over. I still would have cut down my manuscript regardless but this expectation was definitely an influencing factor. Anything that increases your chances of getting published can’t be ignored. Surprisingly I had more happening in this draft than my previous draft. Less is more. But I think emerging writers need to remind themselves that it’s okay to have wordy drafts when you start out. Redrafting isn’t about adding and removing commas or changing a word here or there, it’s an experimentation of ideas, themes and characters. It’s about allowing your creativity to take you where it wants to take you. Then one day you’ll get to a draft and the characters will be so alive that they’ll tell YOU their story. That’s when the true writing begins.

Any thoughts from all those emerging writers out there, or even more experienced writers and publishers?

Koraly Dimitriadis

Koraly is a widely published Cypriot-Australian writer and performer. She is the author of the controversial Love and F**k Poems. Koraly received an Australia Council ArtStart grant. She presents on 3CR radio and has a residency at Brunswick Street Bookstore. Her 2013 La Mama show is Exonerating The Body. She is mentored by Christos Tsiolkas.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. In some instances I can enjoy a bit of wordiness so long as there is substance to those words. The major danger behind overwordingosity (don’t ask, I just made it up) would be woffling.
    I tend to woffle a lot because I have way too many words and absolutely nothing to say with them, and so when I’m not getting the standard “hey you get the hell out of my fridge” I get the good old “Shut up Tetls!”

  2. Thanks Marc. I did some major waffling in my last draft. I am happy I cut out the words – the novel is punchier and I didn’t have to sacrifice any of my story. I am just thinking more about novels that need those extra words and how this expectation by publishers may be changing novels that otherwise would have been perfect just the way they were.

  3. So I said the complete opposite to your point … story of my life :D.
    I think the major problem would be the publishers looking at the manuscript in “monetary terms” rather than in regards to the story itself.
    All they truly want to do is achieve that “bottom line”. Author’s are not “people”, novels are not “stories”; they are “revenue”.
    And of course when dealing with emerging “revenue”, being unproven, the publisher does not know if the it will actually pay for itself and so they take a “minimise loss” aproach, which means that the absolute bare minimum is to spent on them so that if there is a loss it doesn’t hurt them too much and can recover easily afterwards.
    And so the changing of a story is meaningless, the shareholders need to pay for that new mercedes.

    Apologies for my cynicism and sarcasm. I’m just a glass half empty kinda guy.

  4. Carpentaria is an interesting example. The published version is huge, and I think the original MS was something like 200 000 words. But it only saw the light of day because Giramondo took it on, after just about every other publisher passed. I don’t think the length was the only issue but it was probably a factor in it not seeming a commercial proposition.
    Of course, it then went on to win every prize and sell hugely.

  5. I couldn’t agree more. I’m a glass is half empty kind of girl. 🙂
    It’s just a real shame I guess because being true to a story and having more words may actually prove to be more profitable for the publisher. This kind of expectation is really changing the kind of stories we’re seeing from emerging writers and consequently changing the face of Australian Literature.

  6. It probably would be more profitable for them to give a higher word limit. There was once a time when publishers and producers and what have you took risks, and these risks turned into beautiful things.
    Unfortunately, I think a lot of larger publishing companies have grown stagnant in success. They can afford not to take risks so to speak. They’re no longer looking for that amazing and obscure peice that will make their a company household name.
    What they are looking for it seems is consistensy and reliability, which is unfortunate because those two things are among the most boring things in the world.

    When will people start taking risks again? Bring some excitment and big waves back into this still, mouldy and slowly drying lake.

  7. I couldn’t agree more! I’ve been writing a lot of flash fiction (under 1000w stories) – it’s a very demanding discipline. When I feel that I’ve mastered that discipline, I’ll ‘move up’ to short stories up to 7k. When I feel that I’m doing them well I’ll tackle my first novel. Given that I have two kids, work fulltime and am doing a research degree parttime, that might be a few years off yet. No doubt by then times will have changed again!

  8. personally i try and write without thinking too much about what publishers are looking for. i found a publisher that was looking for my kind of book. so did alexis wright. if the work is good it will find a home that fits. if your book isn’t mainstream, a mainstream publisher probably won’t take it whatever the word count. there are plenty of small houses in australia putting out much more interesting work.

    with the first one out of the way i can now think about readers, not commissioning editors. it is great to be able to drop that anxiety of second-guessing what publishers want. that anxiety can really gnaw at the integrity of your story if you let it.

  9. As a publisher, all I can say is, I don’t care how damn long the work is as long as all those words are justified and absolutely, positively, need to be there. If it really is too long (say, 300,000 words!), heck, I say cut the thing into three and publish a trilogy (not just reserved for sci-fi). Readers love those. Word count is misleading. Editors may cut novels from 130,000 words to fewer not necessarily because of the bottom line, but because it can make the work a lot stronger. I’ve never heard of an editor cutting a work because of the cost-saving. Hell, publishing’s margin is tight enough as it is, I really don’t think an extra 20,000 words makes that much of a difference. Well, not for me anyway.

  10. Zoe’s on the money. If it’s finely crafted writing, what does word length matter?

    I can relate to the first-big-work desire to over-indulge. My first three act play went for 2.5hrs. I guess you could say that’s the theatre equivalent of writing a 250000 word novel. I was lucky nobody walked out. We even had return audience members, miracle of miracles – I assume I confused them so thoroughly they had to come back to work out what I was on about.

  11. I don’t know – I don’t think you can deny that the norm these days is to produce shorter first-time novels. Well, that’s what they teach us at school anyway, and the lack of longer books in the Australian literary space by first time writers proves that. I’m not saying publishers will reject a longer novel just because of word count, but I think the word count is just another obstacle in the way of getting published. I haven’t abandoned my story to cut words just because that’s what publishers prefer, but nobody needs to tell me the stats on getting published, I know how tough it is out there. I know how expensive books are to make and distribute in this country. And you can’t ignore that publishing is becoming less about producing great literature and more about the bottom line, more so in mainstream publishing than smaller press. But it’s understandable – they are a business after all.

  12. Zoe:
    If it really is too long (say, 300,000 words!), heck, I say cut the thing into three and publish a trilogy (not just reserved for sci-fi). Readers love those.

    Speaking as a reader, I really bloody hate trilogies. I wonder if they work on the principle that, if a reader gets one book in a trilogy and is vaguely interested, they’ll buy the other two just to see how it all fits together (though they may end up desperately bored at the end of it). Bit disappointed that readers keep on buying them though, guess that means we’re stuck with them for the time being.

    And you can’t ignore that publishing is becoming less about producing great literature and more about the bottom line, more so in mainstream publishing than smaller press.

    I suspect the argument ‘…X is becoming more about the bottom line…’, or variations thereof – ‘Y is being corrupted by economic rationalism’, etc – is one of the great left-wing ideological cliches. It’s akin to the right-wing cliche, ‘things are worse than they used to be’ or ‘we just don’t have the standards they had 50/100 years ago’.

    A small point, I know.

  13. I rarely stick to, or consider wordcount, though some cases I’ve withdrawn and re – placed accepted articles because I didn’t want to cut them…but that’s mainly because I fucking hate rules and couldn’t be bothered reading submission guidelines.

    Writers are not as powerless as we sometimes lament. I believe if your writing is good and they want to publish it, a publisher will not reject you because of the wordcount (though they may end up asking you to cut), and may even surprise you by publishing the book/piece as is. It is you who makes the ultimate decision on whether to keep the book /piece as is and keep looking for another publisher or go with the one who might want to to cut.

    I don’t want to sound like a Publisher’s Advocate, but in my (perhaps limited) experience, and from speaking to editors, the word count rules are sometimes designed to keep the novels of ultrakeen creative typists under their beds. That sounds nasty but you need to think about how every second person thinks they have a book in them, and imagine exactly what lands on the desks of editors each day, and how bloody much of it there is to wade through. Every person who is sending in their manuscript is doing so because they believe their book is good enough to be published, because they want, probably desperately, to be a ‘writer’…I’m as guilty as the next person for lamenting the lack of publishers and publishing opportunities without considering the unthinkable: maybe there are just too many people who desperately want to write. Maybe the problem is not the lack of publishing outlets but the plentiful ranks of would-be writers and publishers lethargy from wading neck-deep in manuscripts.

    I was talking about ‘submission rules’ (such as word count) to two editors at a launch recently. It might be unfair but the secret (maybe not such a secret now…) is that in many cases, and particularly unless there is a very strict submission policy (eg they will not even begin to read something that goes over the wordcount) a good writer can flaunt the rules and regulations as much as they darn well like.

    As for the bottom line, of course publishers want to make money. Is that such a bad thing? The more they make, the more books they can produce and the more books they can produce the more writers they can publish. Profit must be some kind of consideration if we want publishers to stay afloat.

  14. That was well said Maxine.
    I have to admit what I said should be taken with a pinch of salt due to my overbearing cynicism and ability to only see the negatives.

  15. I think I need a brain transplant. ‘Flaunt’ the rules and regulations doesn’t even make sense. It should read ‘ignore’. My literary bad.

  16. What I like about small business owners is that they are not afraid to take huge risks and lay it all on the line. But, I agree they do need a lot of help with their marketing. I think having them go the social media and email route is not only the least expensive but its also the most effective. Thanks for the stats!
    With Facebook and Twitter being among the leaders of the Social networks, marketing as a small business is being transformed..
    Respondents according to the Vertical Response survey appear to need some differentiation with the use of SE marketing and Social media Marketing


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *