How Long Should Your Novel

The rule of thumb is that you shouldn’t worry about word count when you’re writing your first draft — and it should be even less of a concern in the outlining phase. If you’d like to learn more about that topic, we write extensively about how to outline a novel here.

However, if you’re done with your first draft and you’re shocked by the amount of words in it, it might be time to cut down. Let the words of Truman Capote be your revising mantra: “I’m all for the scissors. I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.” Grab your scissors and take these tips into account.

“Extraneous movement of characters through space is something that beginning writers tend to be loyal to. It’s challenging to figure out how to move characters from one scene to the next. But readers don’t need to see every step a character makes. It’s good to leave some things to the imagination, and the reader in their own mind can fill in the blanks between scene cuts.”

“One bad habit that inflates word count in historical fiction especially is the tendency to info-dump historical facts into the narration. This is a tough habit to break. In order to create a world of verisimilitude, the writer has to research all of this information, and so it’s difficult for them to believe the reader doesn’t need to know it, too. I recommend curtailing historical information to those tidbits that further the plot or help to develop a main character. This can be applied to any genre, however: if a detail doesn’t serve a purpose, it’s extraneous and should be cut.

“Be aware of what characters would know about each other/themselves, and try to be creative when imparting this information to the reader. It is possible to explain all sorts of things without being obvious or writing it directly into dialogue. Some things can be inferred.” — Jackie Bates.

“Great writing creates a skillful balance between what the writer provides on the page and what the reader brings to the story with their own imagination. One lean but carefully chosen, perfect-for-the-context description is much more valuable than fluffier, or lengthy descriptions of character or scene. Knowing what to keep and what to cut should be driven by voice and tone — they will dictate the cadence of the language used in the story.”

We said it already, but it’s worth repeating: authors should not underestimate the value of staying within standard word counts. Editors in traditional publishing houses believe that it’s easier to market books that meet genre expectations, and if you’re hunting for a book deal or for an agent, you want to eliminate any reason for them to push your manuscript to the side.

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