What Your Word Count Tells Me before I Read Your Manuscript

With no knowledge other than your manuscript’s word count and whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, I can with a high degree of accuracy predict three things:

  • your skill as a writer (and, therefore, readiness to publish)

  • your knowledge of the book market and publishing industry

  • your understanding of and empathy with your ideal reader

What Word Count Says about Your Writing Skills

Good writing is tight writing.

So what? and Who cares? are likely the first questions you’ll learn to ask of your written content when you take a college or master level writing course.

Good writers know how to recognize and remove extraneous information and scenes that do not advance the story.

What Word Count Says about Your Knowledge of the Book Market and Publishing Industry

Nonfiction books typically contain between 40,000 and 75,000 words.

The average novel contains 100,000 words. There are a few genres (fantasy for example) where longer books are acceptable, but even those top out at about 140,000 words.

Memoir falls somewhere in the middle, between 60,000 and 80,000 words.

Readers typically do not buy books in excess of these numbers, and publishing costs increase with word count.

What Word Count Says about Your Authority

Authority is a nice way of saying credibility. When it comes to nonfiction, credibility is everything.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but high word count in a nonfiction manuscript does not indicate depth of knowledge and experience.* Your professional resume or CV establishes your level of expertise before a reader ever opens the cover of your book.

Authors who lack credibility must use the research and experience of others as the framework of their argument or worse, they simply write about what they think about a subject. This adds to the word count.

Without credibility readers won’t buy your book. They’ll buy an established expert’s book, making your word count irrelevant.

What Word Count Says about Your Understanding of Your Ideal Reader

For fiction, this most often correlates to genre and sub-genre and reader expectations. (See book market and publishing industry notes above.)

High word count in general nonfiction often indicates that the writer is trying to speak to too many people and must, therefore, cover too much ground. Readers buy nonfiction books to solve specific problems and fill specific knowledge gaps. A shotgun approach is counterproductive.

Many self-described memoirists are actually writing autobiographies. They use too many words to talk about things the average reader has no interest in. Or their manuscripts lack focus and consist of story after story after story.

Keep in mind that your ideal reader dictates the scope, content, arch, and length of your book.

What Word Count Says about Your Empathy

High word count assumes that your reader has a lot of disposable time to read (or listen to) your book and that they are interested in every facet of your perspective.

Readers value their time. They want solutions, and they want them as quickly as possible. If you won’t give it to them, someone else will.

More words can diminish the reader’s experience by slowing them down and confusing them with too many story lines, characters, and extraneous details.

We’re all busy and overstimulated. Lower word count indicates respect for your reader’s time and attention.

My Recommendations

Nonfiction

  • Ask yourself if you’re writing a book or a research paper. A book adds to the conversation by introducing new information or a unique perspective. Research papers gather and repackage what others have done and said.

  • Identify exactly who you’re writing to and what they want.

  • Remove anything that doesn’t support your thesis or that could make it harder for your reader to understand and implement your solution.

  • Use active voice.

  • Aim for 50,000 words for general nonfiction and no more than 65,000 for memoir.

Fiction

  • Aim for the low end of your genre’s word count.

  • Cut all scenes that do not advance the story and ancillary characters that could distract your reader.

  • Remove backstory. Show, don’t tell.

As you write, remember that value and entertainment are measured by what your reader takes away from your book, not by what you put into it.

*I am not talking about journalism or academic writing in this post.

photo by Nathaniel Shuman, Unsplash

Cristen Iris

CI Communication Strategies

2019