The Long and Short Of It

Let me ask you a question: how long is a book?

I’m asking this as a writer. Most readers think of books in terms of pages, but most writers think of books in terms of word count. So, how long is a book? How many words?

Of course, the answer is based on various factors: the genre of the book, if the book is in a series, if so which number, and even who the author is, as some authors are known for the length of their books. On top of that, publishers set their own guidelines for how long they want their books to be. As a romance author, most romances are between 70,000-90,000 words, BUT some romance publishers want works much shorter than that and specify so.

Once you figure out how many words make up a book in the genre you’re writing in, for the publisher you want to be published with, then comes the hard part–you have to write that many words.

I’ve recently seen a big shift in how I make my word count. This is why I never say never, because as I grow and evolve as a writer, I try new things (and sometimes I like them). Here’s my before and after:

(BEFORE) OVER-WRITING

I used to write too much. If I was plotting an 80,000 word book, I’d write 100,000 to 120,000 words. Then, in editing and rewriting, I’d chop, chop, chop until I slimmed it down to that mark. I’ve been doing this for a LONG time, I can’t specifically say how long, but for as long as I can remember. I thought of my work as a sculptor thinks of their work–you heave out a huge block of marble, then you get to work chiseling and cutting until it’s a beautiful work of art. Here are some pros and cons of writing this way:

PROS:

  • You have a lot of material to play with. You start with a big basket of apples and gradually pluck out all the rotten ones, or the ones that are about to go bad. There’s a nice fat body of work you can shape and mold.
  • It’s easier sometimes to get rid of stuff than to try to find something to add.
  • There’s a huge sense of accomplishment that comes with writing this much–and it keeps your writer brain occupied so you don’t spend so much time looking at yourself in the mirror yelling “I’m a hack!”

CONS:

  • Sometimes it’s very hard to cut out stuff you love, even if it’s a really bad apple. It might look shiny and sweet on the outside, but you know, deep inside, it’s black and mushy.
  • It takes longer to over-write.
  • When you write something that’s too long, you might do a lot of rambling and going off plot.

This was the way I’d always written. I never thought I’d change. However, this past year, I’ve seen a shift in my writing style. Now I’m doing this…

(AFTER) UNDER-WRITING

I’ve started hammering out books in a more basic format. I under-write, and then go back and fill things in and fatten up the story. By this, I don’t mean I write 5,000 words when I’m aiming for 70,000, but more like I write 50,000, bringing myself up short in the same amount I used to overshoot. In editing, I flesh out the characters more, expand plot points, and generally decorate things and liven it up. Since this is still new and exciting to me, I enjoy it. In this case, I’m more like an artist painting–I get the contour and colors down first, then go back and add in fine details. The pros and cons of this are:

PROS:

  • You’ve already written the story, so you know what it’s about, what you want to convey, and what the tone is. Adding to that enhances those things.
  • It takes less time to write the first draft.
  • Sometimes having the bones down first makes you a lot more creative when it comes to building the flesh–you can also manipulate the story to go in a different direction if you don’t like what you wrote the first time around.

CONS:

  • Adding things can be more difficult than taking them away. What you have might already be so clean that adding to it just makes it bulky (in this case, there’s a huge market for novellas out there, embrace it).
  • Editing and rewriting isn’t as simple as when you’re plucking bad apples: you have to go find more good apples.
  • It’s much harder to write succinctly than to over-write. You have to start with a clean, simple plot in mind, and not be afraid to move from point to point without filling in all the pomp and circumstance–remind yourself that comes later.

However you write, over, under, or somewhere in the middle, you figure out eventually how to reach your desired word count. The more I write, the more I’m willing to experiment. Funny enough, editing used to be the bane of my existence, but now I love it. Maybe that’s why I’ve started under-writing, because I get to spend more time in the editing phase.

How do you get your words?

13 comments

  1. I under write everything. All of my books are between 70,000 and 80,000 words, but they weren’t that much when I finished. Only for one short story with a specific word count did I have to cut. So I think it’s easier to add. I write bare bones anyway, so there is a lot of description and depth that needs adding. And I’ve left plenty of room…

    Like

  2. You raise some interesting points about under-writing. I tend to add a lot of interesting details after I write my first draft, and then I have to find other ways to cut the word count down. Maybe deliberately under-writing y first draft would be a good option for me.

    Like

  3. This is great! I like the way you’ve lined up the pros and cons (so tidy!) of each. I guess I never thought of underwriting as a thing, because so many people always talk about what they have to cut from their manuscript. Editing can go both ways.

    Like

    1. To be honest I hadn’t thought about it much either until I started doing it. I haven’t been doing it that long either, so we’ll see if it works for me in the long run. Either way, it’s fun to switch things up and try new ways of writing!

      Like

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s