Word Count Woe: What Should You Do With Your Very Long Manuscript?

Word Count Woe: What Should You Do With Your Very Long Manuscript?

Sometimes being the author of a really long novel is no fun at all.

It’s not something we talk about a lot, but it’s true, isn’t it? Your friend with the 70,000-word novel (fairly typical) has a relatively easy time getting feedback from friends and family, while you have to beg and plead for someone to give your 140,000-word tome a chance.

Your friend gets replies from agents who actually read her book. You get replies from agents who dismissed yours as unmarketable.

The Pitfalls of Writing a Long Manuscript

The other thing that kind of sucks when you’ve written a very long manuscript is that finding an editor is a lot harder. You know you need a developmental editor and a copyeditor, because every novel does, but most editors charge by the word or page. And that makes sense—the more words, the more work—but that doesn’t help when your friend is paying possibly thousands less for the very same process.

It’s a simple truth: When you’ve written a long manuscript, the feedback you want and need is more difficult to afford. So you try to make do with affordable amateurs, and your work, every bit as worthy as your friend’s, inevitably suffers.

3 Ways to Manage Your Very Long Manuscript

So what do you do? Well, you can’t change the reality of the work that goes into editing a long manuscript, but there are definitely a few things you can do to make the road ahead less costly.

1. Break It Down Into Multiple Novels

Have you considered the possibility that you’ve written more than one book?

It happens. When I began my transition from traditional publishing to freelance developmental editing, the first novel I worked on was massive: 164,000 words. What became clear during the editing process—and what the author himself already suspected—is that his manuscript was actually at least three novels.

While these three or more stories weren’t yet fully formed as individual novels, they had enough distinct characters and storylines to indicate they would eventually function that way. And that’s how he published the books: as a trilogy.

In fiction, it’s not uncommon for a densely plotted, long manuscript to actually be two or more novels. With two novels, you can spread out the work—and the investments. Your editor might even give you a discount on Book Two.

More recently I worked with an author who divided his book into two novels before I edited them. When he published, he decided they worked better as one after all. Sometimes that happens too, but by opening himself up to the possibility of two novels, he got a lot more feedback and saved some money.

2. Evaluate Whether or Not You’re Overwriting

A long manuscript shouldn’t be always multiple books. Sometimes a big word count comes not from excess of story, but simply excess of words.

Last year, I edited a compelling science-fiction novel that had exactly that problem. Pages and pages were devoted to detailing anxieties and questions already clear in the surrounding narrative. The result was a manuscript easily twice as long as necessary.

Overwriting is one of the most frequent issues to be found in early drafts, even for manuscripts that aren’t very long. You, as the author, generally know your intent, but you can never be certain when you’ve provided enough information to engage the reader. Some authors write too little as a result, assuming readers will get it, but many go the opposite direction, making the same points repeatedly.

If you think this could be an issue with your writing, then read through your manuscript with that in mind. If you can spot overwriting before hiring an editor, you can save yourself time and money.

This is also a great way to use beta readers. A beta reader can’t provide you the detail a professional editor can, but she can certainly tell you where your novel feels repetitive. And you, in turn, can whittle your novel down into a tighter, more efficient story that will be far easier to handle when it comes to editing.

3. Be Patient

Of course, it is absolutely possible the reason your novel is 140,000 words is because you’ve crafted a story that genuinely requires 140,000 words. That’s great, but it also leaves you with the same problems you started with.

It can be frustrating to watch your friend with the shorter manuscript make her way through the editorial process, but don’t forget: This isn’t a race.

Rather than forge ahead right now with an inexperienced editor or leap right into publishing without ever attaining feedback, take a step back. And start saving.

That’s easier said than done, but chances are this is not the only novel you’re ever going to want to publish. This is your opportunity to learn. The notes you receive from a skilled developmental editor will help not only this novel, but also the next—which means that, in the future, you may not need quite that same level of feedback.

Having to save your dollars may not make the disparity less frustrating, but if the end result is both a better novel and a better writer, then it’s well worth the time.

Are You the Author of a Long Manuscript?

Check out this special offer from the Writer’s Ally! For a limited time only, you can receive line-by-line suggestions and a detailed editorial letter covering the first 50,000 words of your manuscript.

This special service is designed to provide the intensive, specific feedback you need without the costly investment of a full developmental edit. Instead, we’re focusing on a hefty portion of your manuscript to help you better identify, understand, and resolve the same issues where they appear throughout the rest of the work.

The offer only runs through June 30th, and summer is our busiest season, so if you think you might benefit from professional feedback on your manuscript without breaking your budget, get the details now!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Is it your tendency to write a long manuscript? Or do you err on the short side? Tell me in the comments!

Word Count Woe: What Should You Do With Your Very Long Manuscript

 

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About Harrison Demchick | @HDemchick

Harrison Demchick came up in the world of small press publishing, working along the way on more than two dozen published novels and memoirs, several of which have been optioned for film. He is an award-winning, twice-optioned screenwriter, and the author of literary horror novel The Listeners. He’s currently accepting new clients in fiction and memoir at The Writer's Ally.

Comments

  1. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

    Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Harrison!

  2. Thanks for the awesome post! I was wondering if you had any insight for a book that is long due to multiple POVs?

    • Hi L,

      You know, I actually just wrapped up an edit on a novel just like that. The underlying issue was focus. With so many points of view, the author wound up with a lot of redundancies, and the arc for his central character was basically swept away. That’s not to say, of course, that multiple points of view are bad, but I think of it as sort of an all you can eat buffet. The options are great, and you want to try all of them, but in doing so you only manage a few pieces of chicken teriyaki, which is what you really wanted. So the meal is diverse, but not satisfying.

      So consider what each point of view adds to the story, and consider what each point of view takes as well–because there’s always a give and take. Maybe revealing something from one character’s perspective early in the story removes the impact of revealing this same thing to another character later. If you have a point of view that isn’t contributing substantially to the story, and one perhaps that takes an important plot point or turning point from a more prominent character, then you can probably cut that point of view.

      I hope that helps!

      • Thanks! All my characters are necessary due to how I’ve built my world, character arcs , and etc. I think I worked it out so things were not too redundant, and I did a pretty good job on making sure the characters didn’t break each other’s tension.
        Looking through my chapters, I’ve noticed one of my characters has chapters that can go up to twice as long as the other POVs. His mind is host to another person as well as himself. I format their conversations somewhat like dialogue, but this gives me a lot of white space which makes the chapters super long. Do you have any advice?

        • Hmm. Well, if it turns out that you’re *not* overwriting and that each point of view *is* necessary, then it could well not be a problem at all. That just might be the story’s natural length. Obviously, I can’t know for sure either way from my vantage point, not having read the manuscript, but if you don’t see a problem, and if your early readers and editors don’t see a problem, then there’s probably not a problem–save, of course, finding that editor when word count makes it more of an expense. (Which brings us back to the start!)

          As for the extended dialogue and white space, that’s not necessarily an issue either, as word count is more indicative of length than page count. But a lot of writers tend to forget about physical action, body language, etc. when writing conversations, and if you’re seeing a lot of white space, it’s possible that that’s an area in which you can improve. (Although, again, obviously I’ve not seen the manuscript. And in your case the dialogue is all in one mind, which is an unusual circumstance for which less action might make more sense.)

          I hope this helps as well! And if at any point you’d like me to look over the manuscript so that I can give more specific feedback, just let me know.

  3. Steve Mathisen says:

    Thank you for such an insightful post. This provides some real world examples and solutions that I can use with my editing clients.

  4. Great article!
    I’m an amateur writer, and I’m finished the first draft of my first book. It’s a young adult fiction, but only 20,000 words. I can’t seem to find anything that would make it longer without making it too packed with information or sound forced.
    I do have ideas for sequels though, so should I try and add one of them on to this book?
    Thanks,
    Rachel

    • Hi Rachel,

      A lot of the time, short manuscripts emerge as a result of too much telling and not enough showing. So the basic events are there, but not the scenes or the specific and sensory details–sight, sound, taste, touch, smell–that bring the world of your novel to life.

      Of course, that’s not always the case! It may simply be that you’ve written a short story or novelette and not a novel. And that’s okay–not all stories are destined to be novels, and your instinct not to force additional words upon a narrative that doesn’t require them is a good one.

      That in mind, I wouldn’t necessarily add another story onto this one. Combining two stories into one isn’t just a matter of putting one after the other. You also need to consider the overall structure. Can the individual stories be reimagined in a way so that rising action between both of them builds to one individual climax?

      I know that’s a lot to think about. Probably the first step is to get some feedback on this first manuscript, whether from a professional like me or from people you know. Take that feedback, read more about writing fiction, and hone your craft. We’re all amateur writers at first!

    • I’ve run into this problem before, and I got a valuable tip from a Beta Reader. She asked me who all these other people were. I hadn’t thought about it, but my focus had been so driven by my Main Character, I forgot my supporting cast.

      Think about your supporting characters. What do they want out of this? How are they contributing to the plot? Why? Is there something they want that they can work towards during the novel? Subplots can really increase your word count and provide those extra snippets of world-building/character-building goodness that your readers will snatch up and love to read.

      I haven’t read your novel, but also look at the story structure? Does your character have any major setbacks? (So close to reaching their goal, but stumble before the finish line.) This can also increase your word count and add even more suspense to a novel.

      I wish you the best of luck! Happy Writing.

      • Thank-you Mirica. Yes I think I will do that, I’m writing from a third person perspective but following two characters, maybe I should just work on following more than them. I’m also thinking I should be telling the story of the antagonist too, because she’s a really important part of the story. Do you think it would be too much to follow so many characters though?

        • It could be, Rachel–or it could not be. Providing more points of view can definitely allow you to develop more subplots, but it can also cause you to lose focus on your intended protagonist. Mirica is dead-on, though, relative to developing supporting characters–which, to be clear, doesn’t mean writing from their perspective. It doesn’t mean *don’t* do that either, but whatever perspectives you utilize, you, as author, need to know what drives your characters, because that informs how you write them.

          The one thing I would definitely not do is provide more points of view from more characters purely to increase your word count. Before anything else, it has to serve the story you’re trying to tell.

    • I have exactly the same problem with my first novel of 25,000 words.
      I’ll try more ‘showing’ and also use the delete button more cautiously.

  5. Some great info here. I write very long novels. And I critique a lot of them (I do more than 200 manuscript critiques a year, almost all novels). So here are my thoughts. First, as agent Donald Maass says, a novel should be as long as it needs to be. Breaking up a long novel is not a catch-all solution. There are plenty of great, long novels. However, it takes some experience and skill to understand and determine just how long a novel needs to be. An expert writing coach or critiquer can go through some chapters and tell right away if the scenes and writing are too long and wordy.

    I usually find with first novels that are long that the problem is the writer does not understand novel and/or scene structure. There is usually excessive narration and backstory, and more telling than showing.

    Again, beginners just can’t spot the problems. And that’s where hiring a pro comes in. I have a lot of my clients create scene outlines of their entire novel, using my scene checklist and scene structure template. This is a whole lot easier and cheaper than paying an editor to go through a huge manuscript. It’s easy to see where the novel is not working, has too many irrelevant scenes, is not building steadily and correctly to a climax and resolution by tackling all this at the outline stage. This can also work well with novels that are too short.

    Those PDFs, BTW, are free and on my website Live Write Thrive, so if any of you wants to use them and get working on that scene outline to present to an editor (one who really knows novel structure), go grab them and use them. As Maass says, if a scene has no point to it, out it goes. That is often the case with long novels.

  6. My name is Carrie Lynn Lewis and I am a writer of long manuscripts. In my world, 70,000 words is a good start.

    It’s interesting to me that we consider Lord of the Rings a trilogy and Tolkien did not. He wrote a single novel.

    Which confirms your suggestion that a long novel, especially one with a lot of subplots and character arcs, might be a series.

    Thanks for the article. It points out some of the disadvantage to a long manuscript that I hadn’t considered. Valuable information.

    Best wishes,

    Carrie

    • I’m happy to help, Carrie! I didn’t know that about The Lord of the Rings. I wonder: Did the idea of breaking up that novel into three come from Tolkien, or from an editor or publisher?

      Either way, of course, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a long manuscript, because every story has its natural length. But it’s always good to have an eye out for the possible problems with which long manuscripts are often associated.

      • As I understand it, Tolkien’s publisher decided to break the story into three books so to make it possible to print. Print just one volume woudl have been too expensive.
        Can you imagine? Now all the fantasy genre produces trilogies because of a chancy, economical choise of a publisher, not an author.
        Weird.

      • So far as I know, Tolkien was always of the opinion that he wrote one book. Whether an editor suggested it be broken up into three or the publisher (or maybe the reading public), I have no idea.

  7. My MS is 130.000 and I’m working at shorting it. I’ve already gone through a part of the beta reader process and I know there aren’t parts I can cut. But words! You always think you really can’t cut more words, then you let the MS sleep, you pick it up again, and you see words everywhere that you don’t actually need.

    My first three chapters became 2 pages shorter after the last revision, but I can already see they are going to become even shorter witht he current revision.
    So, let’s get down to it 😉

    • JazzFeathers, that’s a great attitude to have! And given how much care you’re putting into this process, when you reach the point where you genuinely can’t see less text improving the story, there’s a good chance you’ll be right.

  8. I write short. I have a business background and began writing “just the facts”
    I struggle to include sensory and emotional content. I am editing to cut text in my memoir to add more emotion and description and still stay about 80.000 words. But adding “showing” with dialog eats up a lot of space.

    • It definitely can, Judy. Sometimes that’s one of the trickiest messages to convey in the editorial process. “This manuscript is substantially overwritten . . . but can you add some more setting here? And maybe more physical action? And, you know, wouldn’t the narrative be a lot stronger with a prologue?”

      What can make this complicated is that, a lot of the time, we don’t just overwrite or underwrite. Sometimes we overwrite one element–spending ten pages describing the beauty of a sunrise, for example–while underwriting another, like establishing conflict and tension. So really, it’s not so much a matter of cutting words as writing the *right* words.

  9. How much of this ‘long word count’ problem might be traced to the idea that short books don’t sell anymore?

    In some indie and other publishing communities, people are urged to write long because that’s what readers buy (or so it is said). Certain genres certainly DO sell well or even better when somewhat shorter, but there are authors out there wishing for the olden days when a sci fi or fantasy book was 40-50k.

    I was at a used book store yesterday, and some of our older and more favorite books were often 120 page books with big type. 😉

    I think some people overwrite because their first book or two came in at 40-50k and they read somewhere that they needed to go longer; they just tend to do longer wrong. More words, more words.

    My first fiction book was 43k, and I and I really thought it needed editing down, not up. I just moved on to something else because damn, too short. 🙂

    • This is interesting, Roland, because I’d suggest one of the benefits of the self-publishing revolution is that it’s *easier* to get short works out there. A lot of shorter books, though mainly ebooks, do very well in that world. But definitely sci-fi and fantasy often skew long.

      Is that why some people write long? Maybe! But I think overwriting has always been a struggle for a lot of authors, largely because it’s difficult to know, as the author who already knows everything, when you’ve conveyed enough to a reader who knows nothing.

      My general stance is that you should never write *to* a word count. You should write to craft the best version of your story, and some stories simply take more time to tell than others. And that’s okay. If you add or subtract words just for the sake of adding or subtracting, it’s probably not helpful to the story.

  10. BTW, I primarily write non-fiction, and I definitely overwrite compared to my coauthor. I like a funny story or anecdote to get the reader interested, but she keeps telling me ‘Blah blah blah. Too many words. We got it already!’

    😉

  11. Harrison,

    I’m very much interested in the free project review you mentioned above, but I checked the word count on my manuscript and it’s only 95,000. A little bit less actually.

    Does it qualify? I couldn’t find a word count range for the total manuscript.

    Thanks!

  12. My first novel is long (190K) and many times readers have told me they LOVE long books. That makes me feel better, but there are definitely disadvantages from a marketing/publishing standpoint. I did consider dividing the story, but it works much better as one book. The second book will land around 140K. In both cases, I told the story as it needed to be told and let the word count fall where it may. I’d love to write shorter novels, but I also love the stories I’m writing and want to tell them, even though the publisher side of me finds the whole situation maddening. 😉

    • Donna, if the natural length of your novel is 190,000 words, then that’s what it should be. And it’s definitely risky in some ways, but to me what’s riskier is making creative decisions based entirely on commercial considerations. The first priority should almost always be what works best for the story.

      The problems faced by long manuscripts, not only on the publishing side but on the editing side as well, have been on my mind for some time now, which is why I wrote this article and thought up this service. But I’m always trying to figure out new ways to be helpful to the authors of long manuscripts, so if you or anyone else has an idea, please let me know!

      • Really, one of the best things an author can do with a very long manuscript (if she isn’t a seasoned, published author who really has experience crafting strong long novels) is to get a critique. I encourage first-time authors to first just get a fifty-page critique before they have me do a full. I critique 200+ manuscripts a year, and I’d say about less than ten are structured well enough to move into line editing. Most writers don’t have a strong grasp on novel structure.

        So having a professional go through your manuscript and assess the story structure will show you where your story needs cutting, trimming, and tightening (if not complete revamping). More often than not, a long manuscript is a sign of wandering, lack of clear goal for the protagonist, and wordiness. It’s so helpful to have a professional point out what is not working and why, for these are things that will help you on all future projects.

  13. Samantha Price says:

    I always seem to err on the short side. I think it’s because the world is fast-paced, and I’m afraid no one will want to take time to read my stories. So I make them as concise as possible.
    A beta-reader friend told me she loves the action in my stories, but I don’t provide enough description. She kept getting lost and confused.
    It’s something I’m working on.
    (Now watch and see, I’ll probably hit the other extreme! It’s hard to find a balance…)

    • That’s very true, Samantha! I sometimes call that calibrating. We bounce around between too much and too little en route to determining how much information is exactly right.

      When it comes to action scenes, you definitely want them to feel fast-paced, but you don’t want them to feel rushed. So the thing to do is be precise–show every move and every punch. Keep in mind the environment–specific detail is key–but let the clear, defined action, with a minimum of character thought and explanation, guide the scene. If the action is active and direct, you should be able to maintain the sense of a fast pace without falling short of the amount of text needed to convey the scene effectively.

    • This is a huge problem with beginning writers: “underwriting.” They don’t take the time to show the natural process of action and reaction, or give enough detail of all the settings and characters to help immerse the reader in the story in a rich, sensory way.

      I doubt you’ll overdo it, but having a professional critiquer assess what you’re doing will help you know where to add more detail and what kind. And will note where you have too much.

  14. Harrison, for the edit-review offer, do you want the whole manuscript? My project is 160K (three protagonists in a secondary-world fantasy, first in a trilogy). Believe it or not, I actually chopped it down from 171K to 150, but I found I needed to add a few scenes for a character’s arc.

    I was thinking I’d just slice off the first 50K and send it to you, but Carrie’s question is throwing me off. I want to make sure I’m following procedure.

    Thanks for this opportunity, by the way. I’ve been pricing editors — I’ve been waiting to finish the entire trilogy before hiring one — and the pricing is sobering 🙂

    • Hi Jamie,

      No worries! It doesn’t really matter on my end whether you submit the whole manuscript or just the first 50,000 words, so if the former is easier that’s fine by me. Either way, thanks for passing it along! I’m looking forward to talking.

      I do understand the rationale behind finishing the trilogy before bringing in an editor, but the risk of that, on the developmental side, is that you may find yourself feeling locked into story elements that, for one reason or another, should probably be changed. So I definitely think seeking some level of editorial feedback at this stage is a smart move.

  15. And speaking of word counts — I’ve noticed my longest scenes tend to be “Council of Elrond” type scenes, where I’ve got a group of people strategizing. This is also the most dialogue-heavy scene, with limited action beats — imagine knights-sitting-at-the-round-table. In that case, my default is to use a POV character who’s experiencing the greatest emotional turmoil WRT to the strategy session.

    I’m not sure if you’ve covered writing this type of scene before, KM. I’m honestly not sure what search terms to use. I’m guessing everyone does not refer to this type of scene as “Council of Elrond”. If you have, I’d love a link 🙂

    • Those scenes can be tricky, especially if the dialogue is largely exposition. One of the ways to approach a scene like that is to consider story structure–which we usually apply to whole manuscripts, but also works for subplots, and sequences, and scenes, all the way down to individual conversations. That is, the scene may be a bunch of people talking around a table, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t still rising action, a climax, and maybe some falling action.

  16. I might be interested in the offer; my manuscript is borderline 130K. Perhaps I missed it, but is there any fee at all for the Limited Developmental Edit?

    • Hi Lydia,

      Good to hear from you!

      There definitely is a fee for the Limited Developmental Edit. I don’t know that any experienced editor could provide some four weeks of work for free. But the idea of the Limited Developmental Edit is to provide in-depth feedback for a long novel for substantially less than a complete Developmental Edit.

      Why not fill out the form here: http://thewritersally.com/limited-developmental-edit-form/

      It doesn’t obligate you to anything, but it provides a chance for us to talk more about your project and see what might be best and most effective for you moving forward.

  17. I expected that there was, but I couldn’t tell from what information was provided. 🙂 Thanks so much!

  18. Very interesting, and it’s good to the focus strongly on development, structure, and content rather than only copy editing.

    One point in particular made me sit up and pay attention : “detailing anxieties and questions already clear in the surrounding narrative.”

    As you said, it’s not easy to know if you are detailing too much or too little, especially if you have an intricate plot. I do. *Sighs*

    At the moment, after many long months on a writers’ critique site and then two rounds of beta-readers, I’m still in the self-editing rewrite throes, tackling the ‘flabby’ middle. Beta-readers haven’t complained about repetitiveness, but like one of the previous commenters, I have that sort of “Council of Elrond” section (love that term!) where my own flabby gut tells me cut, cut, cut 🙂 It’s also where beta-readers say things get slow.

    Part of the structural problem there is that I’ve already cut the book in two at a logical break point, based on word-count advice, so now I’m rewriting to make what has become the ‘middle’ tighter, and for the third and final acts ramp up properly in this new shape.

    I think it’s something for us writers to bear in mind if we suddenly chop a book up – parts suddenly end up in the wrong place to hit the right rythm, and restructuring is a big task.

    I am on the look-out for a professional editor, preferably experienced with epic fantasy, but based on feedback I’m not sure the first 50k is where my biggest problem lies. There are definitely parts there to be tightened and trimmed – but those I’m (mostly) already aware of and I’m saving them as the ‘easy’ edits.

    Glad I found the post, though!

    • Hi Piper,

      How much to say, and when to say it, really is one of the perpetual challenges of writing. And you’ve well observed the complexity of breaking one book into two: Each story then needs to stand on its own. It’s the same reason you can’t just add that new character moment wherever, and why you can’t add and add only to the last act if the last act seems rushed. There’s a particular structure underneath all of it, and it needs to function effectively if the entire manuscript (or manuscripts) is going to work.

      In any case, Piper, if an edit of the first 50,000 words isn’t helpful for you, I’d love to help you figure out what would be! Just fill out this form: http://thewritersally.com/contact/

      And then we can get on the phone and brainstorm some possibilities. I think I mentioned this somewhere above, but I’ve been very focused recently on figuring out smart editorial approaches to very long manuscripts (hence the blog post, of course), and if there’s something to be done that I’ve not yet thought of, I’m eager to figure out what it is.

  19. EchoQueen says:

    Well, I’ve lost all hope with my long arduously written horrid manuscript. That’s five years of my life wasted. Heaven take me soon, I don’t think I can stand being a burger flipper at a fast food restaurant for long.
    >__<

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  1. […] It’s a simple truth: When you’ve written a long manuscript, the feedback you want and need is more difficult to afford. So you try to make do with affordable amateurs, and your work, every bit as worthy as …read more […]

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  4. […] that need tightening or may need cutting altogether. Harrison Demchick’s article, “Word Count Woe,” provides some additional thoughts on how to decide whether your manuscript is too long and […]

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