Word Count Blues

One question I’m often asked is how many words are in the book? The flippant answer is enough to tell the story…

The real answer is more is much, much more complicated. In one of the many writing workshops I attended a long time ago, the “experts” emphatically stated 80,000 words was the max a publisher would accept. So, believing them, I stuck with the number and the results weren’t very satisfying because the electronic trash was full of historical details to give the story context; tidbits about each major and supporting character to make him or her interesting; scene setting to say nothing of the number of passages.

The reason behind this limitation is cost. The longer the book, the more pages in the published version, the higher the cost to print it and the longer it takes the editor and proofreader to go through it. And, to some people in this Internet age, thick books like War and Peace, Hawaii and Taipan are intimidating.

For the record, the shortest of my novels – Cherubs 2 – is about 120,000 words and at 197,000, the national award winning Forgotten is the longest. Big Mother 40 and Inner Look are in the 150,000 range and Render Harmless is about 174,000.

To me, word count is determined by how many are needed to tell the story to my satisfaction. What’s interesting is the word count fluctuates during my first edit of the manuscript all the way to the point the book is ready to be published. As I flesh out, edit, add and delete passages, the word count goes up and down despite my efforts to drive the number down.

Here’s an example. I’m in the final throes of getting Moscow Airlift ready to go to a publisher. When I started editing and re-writing the manuscript, it was north of 157,000 words and was, even to me, too long. In a hard look at the plot, one of the plot threads went into the trash and whole passages were deleted and others trimmed. The word count dropped to around 152,000.

The changes drove more editing, adding some character development and historical context and so now I am back in the 154 – 155,000 range which is where I think Moscow Airlift will finish.

Am I obsessing about the word count? No. Am I cognizant of it? Yes. It will be what it will be and that is the end of the word count story.

Marc Liebman

July 2017

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