re: Word Count Intimidation

posted 4/14/15

Dear Editor…

As I understand it, a young adult novel needs to have a word count of between 40,000 and 60,000 words. The thought of having to write that much paralyses me at word one. I don’t know how I’ll be able to write that much, how I’ll be able to stretch my story and whether I may be wasting my time. What should I do?



Dear JC…

Well, at least you know your freak-out trigger. Now let’s take aim at it. I’ve got two assignments for you. First, be done with numbers. Pledge not to count words until you type THE END on the final scene. Do not set word count goals for your writing sessions. Do not set a word count goal for your finished manuscript. Word count means nothing to you if you haven’t even written the story, so you don’t care about it anyway. Second, stop thinking about “completing the manuscript.” Shift your entire concept of writing this book to scene-writing rather than manuscript completion, then make each writing session goal be about working on a specific scene. “Today I’m going to write that fight between Max and Bob… today I’m going to see how Jane reacts to Joan’s news.” Scene are conversations, and conflicts, and action. Scenes are story, not stats. You can outline your story by viewing it as a sequence of scenes; you can revise your story by attacking scenes and scene sequences. None of that requires counting. Trigger eliminated, and story unleashed.

Happy writing!
The Editor

P.S. For more on this topic, read Creative Process, General fiction
posted by: The Editor
under: Creative Process, General fiction
Comments to "re: Word Count Intimidation" | Add a Comment
    1. Christine Kohler wrote (on 04/14/15 at 8:25 am) :

      Great answer! Love the explanation of scene and sequence. I used to tell my writing students, “How do you eat an elephant?” A: “One bite as a time.” It’s like the blind men and the elephant, concentrate on just the trunk or just the foot. One day you’ll be at the tail at the end of the tale.

    2. The Editor wrote (on 04/14/15 at 8:58 am) :

      Ha! That’s a good one, Christine. Definitely easy to remember when you’re feeling overwhelmed by a big task.

    3. Verlie wrote (on 04/14/15 at 10:16 am) :

      This was great! So spot on, and so great to have your voice to remind me if/when I do get freaked out by word counts. I’m already fond of the scene writing concept. It helps a LOT. Thank you! 🙂

    4. The Editor wrote (on 04/14/15 at 11:27 am) :

      Glad this is helpful to you, Verlie.

    5. JC wrote (on 04/14/15 at 12:01 pm) :

      Thank you for your reply. This is just something I’ve been thinking about for a while and it’s something I know I have to address if I’m going to attempt to write the stories I’ve got in my head.

      I think a lot of my problems stem from a lack of confidence. In that case, I’ll just have to learn to get out of my own way.

    6. Kurt Chambers wrote (on 04/14/15 at 12:08 pm) :

      You may find that you will be cutting words by the time you reach the end 🙂 Very sound advice, Deborah! Nothing else matters until the story is written.

    7. Steve wrote (on 04/17/15 at 3:48 pm) :

      My problem is getting DOWN to 60,000 words. So far it’s just not happening.

    8. christie wrote (on 04/17/15 at 3:52 pm) :

      Love this! I agree that word count means nothing. Ultimately, it matters a bit to editors as they help shape it into perfection. But, yeah, I don’t like to dwell on word count either, especially in the beginning. And I write picture books!

    9. Laurie Warchol wrote (on 04/18/15 at 3:31 am) :

      Great answer and such helpful suggestions. I am transitioning from picture books to middlegrade and understand the freak out and lack of confidence. Thanks !

    10. Bill wrote (on 04/26/15 at 1:57 am) :

      I agree with Dear Editor. Just write the scenes and don’t worry about word length. I’m a marathon runner (at times). If I kept thinking about that last kilometer from the very first, I’d freak. It’s soooo much. so I purposely avoid thoughts of the finish line until I see it. Same with my book. Remember, your goal is to write a story, not write 40K words. Word count sorts itself out. That’s something to think about on the 15th draft! 🙂

    11. My Interview On WordMothers blog | Lupe Ruiz-Flores wrote (on 05/16/15 at 8:22 pm) :

      […] American Novel and are overwhelmed by the word count? Try reading this very brief article on the Dear Editor blog that addresses this topic. Some of the advice: “Pledge not to count words until you type THE […]