One of the most frequently asked questions is: how long should my book be? This week, we’ll look at length (keep the jokes to yourself!).
The simple answer is: as long as it needs to be!
(Unless, of course, you are a student and have a defined word count or entering a competition. Then, you really do need to stick to a word count!)
In your first draft, concentrate on telling the story. Don’t focus on the word count at this point. Get a strong beginning, middle and end, have good characters and a well-developed plot. Then it’s time to listen.
Beta readers and a developmental editor (if you are using one), will help you to hone your manuscript and help you to work out which sections need further work and which need trimming. As a general guide, here’s what I look for when editing for length.
Beginnings are important: they hook your reader in and set up lots of important details. But too much detail can kill the pace: there’s a fine line between giving all the information the reader is going to need and boring them!
You can always hold things back. And you can always drop unnecessary detail: do we need to know eye colour, hair colour, the size of the backpack? Unless it’s really important, why not save those details for later (or leave it completely to the reader’s imagination).
Keep your beginnings bouncy. Keep them moving along but still give all the descriptive detail that is vital.
The length of your middle is down to your plot and subplots. Now that you’ve set up your characters and your settings, middles are a chance to explore, going deeper and twisting and turning through the plot lines.
Allow your middle the space it needs. Don’t concern yourself too much with word counts. If your plot demands it, write it. That doesn’t mean you don’t need to concern yourself with pace. Overly wordy sections that don’t “move the story along” can be tiresome for the reader. If you find the story is sticking or evening staying still, it might be a sign you need to cull some words.
Not enough at an ending can leave the reader unsatisfied. Here is one area that I would suggest you spend enough time and enough words to get it right. If your story is unresolved for the reader (it could be unresolved for your characters but that’s different) how are you going to persuade them that you have finished?
How long should my manuscript be?
Without repeating myself: it really should be as long as it needs to be. If you are writing engaging prose, with well-rounded characters in an exciting plot, readers won’t care about the length. Setting daily or weekly word count targets can be motivational but your story needs to be the priority.
When you are redrafting, really think about your story. Are you telling it succinctly? Are you giving the reader the detail they need but crediting them with having imaginations?
Write the story. The length will sort itself out!
Nick (he/him) is an editor and proofreader, specialising in LGBTQ+ writing. He is an Intermediate Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and a member of PEN, the Professional Editors Network.
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