Skip to content

IWSG: Every Word Counts

September 5, 2012

Hello Insecure Writers,                       

It’s time for more rants about my writing insecurities, courtesy of the inimitable Alex J. Cavanaugh. If you’re not already part of the horde of Insecure Writers that is taking the literary world by storm, click this here linky, where you’ll find some of the nicest writers on the world-wide web.

Now for this month’s rant.

I’m determined to keep this post under five hundred words, and I give you permission to stop reading at word five hundred and one. Why would I do that?

I’m a writer, dammit. I have a lot to say. Is that bad?

Actually, yes. Because I’ve discovered that in my quest to fill the screen with words I’ve  gone a little overboard. I’m wordy, otherwise known as verbose, loquacious, long-winded, flowery, garrulous, chatty, and overwrought. I’m the most talkative person at the novel-writing party. I’m the windbag that talks your ear off, eats the last of the crudités, and won’t go home, even after the party hosts have snuck off to bed.

That was okay for a while. I knew I wasn’t a short story writer, and because of that I even concluded I wasn’t a writer at all. But when I sat down to write the story that I always wanted to read, I ended up with a 126k first draft of a novel. I went on to win NaNoWriMo three years in a row, with a word count of 75k, 122k, and 107k each year. A hundred thousand words in a month doesn’t even make me break a sweat.

I used to think that was a good thing.

But now that I’m trying to revise my novel into something marketable, my hefty word count has come back to haunt me. As part of the process of rewriting, I did some calculations based on what I thought were my better developed scenes and estimated that my average scene length would be about 1400 words. Using that figure I went on to sketch out my scenes for revision and charted a course of sixty-nine scenes for a completed novel of about 97k.

Enter Ms. Wordy.

It turns out my scenes average closer to 2000 words, so if I’m not careful, my mainstream -with-elements-of-paranormal novel will clock in at a bloated 138k words.


Right now, I’m flirting with 115k, and really hoping some of my upcoming scenes lose some words and stay below their projected length.

I did some homework with Scrivener in Outliner mode to see where things went wrong. (And don’t you just love Scrivener? All those features … but I digress, and the clock is ticking on my five hundred word post—)

Here’s a sample of what this looked like: (click to make it bigger)

(The ‘target’ word count is the count for my first draft of the scenes.)

Does this mean my novel is doomed? Will my word count woes spell the ultimate collapse of my fragile publication dreams?

And, how do these bounteous word counts befall me, anyway?

Allow me, before this post’s word count kicks my prolific butt, to give an example.

Before revision:

“This is going to sound weird,” Nick said. Another wave rushed under Libra’s feet, and Nick pulled her away from the water. “Sure you don’t mind the water?”

“Not at all.” Libra smiled as the sand tickled her toes. “But tell me, what’s weird?”

“I saw you, twice before the night of the accident.”

(54 words)

Warning: My post crossed the 500 word mark in the middle of that excerpt. So, you can stop reading …

But, like the blabbermouth I am, I decided this was choppy and sounded somewhat unnatural. I revised it to this:

Another wave rushed under Libra’s feet, and Nick pulled her away from the surf. “Sure you don’t mind the water?”

“Not at all.” Libra smiled as the sand tickled her toes. She caught sight of Nick’s eyes in the moonlight before he turned to hide his face as if in shame.

“This is going to sound weird,” Nick said. “And I don’t know if I should even tell you this. You’ll think I’m nuts.”

“I would never think you’re nuts.”


“Cross my heart. So tell mewhat’s weird?”

“I saw you, twice, before the night of the accident.”

(99 words!!)

Oh, dear. My five hundred words came and went about two hundred words ago…

What do you think, insecure writers? How do you make every word count? Anybody got a weed wacker in their novel revision toolshed? I could really use one right now!

  1. September 5, 2012 2:32 am

    I seem to have the opposite problem during my first drafts, they are a little (dare I say it?) naked. I haven’t had the opposite problem yet so not sure what situation I would prefer to have (other than the perfect first draft). I also do not like to write endings until it is time for ‘THE ending.’ That’s probably why my drafts are a little bare. Really love seeing other writers and their scrivener screen shots, always makes me excited. Never occurred to me to break things up into chapters AND scenes. Best of luck with the words! Always love, love, LOVE reading your posts.

    • September 5, 2012 9:22 am

      Aw, thanks Anushka!
      I love screen shots too because they inspire me to use Scrivener in new and exciting ways. I actually got this idea from Anne Lyle, who was in my work group at HTRYN and now writes for Angry Robot.
      Anyway, I think you are in good company with a spare first draft, as lots of writers (including Holly Lisle I believe) seem to start with fewer words and fill in details later.
      Let’s all hope that someday we all find our way to the Holy Grail of writer nirvana: A Perfect First Draft. 🙂

  2. September 5, 2012 4:12 am

    Save an original, then be utterly ruthless, deleting sentences or even finding only the best sentence in a paragraph and seeing if it still makes sense without the rest of the paragraph.

    I give this advice, but I am yet to take it myself 😛

    I think people would argue that it’s better to have more words then less of them – you have the option to find the best bits which work and the freedom to delete what does not work. Having more allows you to play with your novel and be creative with what you wrote.

    I honestly envy your output – anything over 50k is amazing! For me, it was a little exhausting at one point because I started to question the quality and direction of my novel. You should be somewhat proud of being wordy – I think it means your letting words go down freely without censoring yourself. Now you can afford to be ruthless. Hope this helps! Cheers!

    • September 5, 2012 9:26 am

      This is true. I don’t censor myself in the least, although it took some practice to get there. It will take some practice now to sift through what I have and throw out the weird bits.
      I think we all wish we could write from one end of the story the other in a nice linear path, but it turns out everyone has to find their own way. Turns out mine’s a little wordy!
      I’m going to try your suggestion. I’m curious what the effect would be.

  3. September 5, 2012 7:29 am

    Not enough words, too many words. It’s a crazy adventure writing a novel. I’ll have to check out Shrivener. I haven’t been motivated to learn new software, but maybe it’s time – based on your blog.

    • September 5, 2012 9:28 am

      So cool.
      Reading about your spreadsheet inspired me to incorporate some of your ideas into my Scrivener layout as well.
      I think you’ll be surprised by how quickly you’ll be up and running on Scrivener. There are a lot of features, but none of them stand between the writer and her words.

  4. September 5, 2012 7:30 am

    Are you on twitter? I tweeted your blog, but couldn’t find you.

    • September 5, 2012 9:30 am

      ‘Write a Book with Me’ was on twitter, but I haven’t done ‘A Scene Route’ yet. I will soon, and I’ll be sure to follow you when I do. 🙂

  5. September 5, 2012 10:08 am

    First: I see why people like Scrivener. Second: I like the second version of your scene better. Sometimes adding words is a good thing. The key is to cut words where you DON’T need them. And that is where crit partners come in. I guarantee you I could take a ‘red pen’ (pronounced: TrackChanges) to your manuscript and solve your problem. LOL

    Great post. I enjoyed it immensely, wordiness or no. 😉
    #IWSG #177 (Until Alex culls the list again. :P)

    • September 5, 2012 5:06 pm

      Thanks for stopping by, Melissa, and I’m glad you enjoyed the post. 🙂
      Crit partners have helped somewhat, but I might have to pull out more than an extra paragraph here and there to bring this word count back under control. Fortunately, I’m starting to get some ideas involving removal of a subplot.
      Thanks for your comments on my excerpt. I also feel the second excerpt benefitted from the edits, but is sure is nice to get some confirmation of that!

      I’m lovin’ the IWSG. 😀

  6. September 5, 2012 11:29 am

    Girl, I am the weed-wacker. I so understand the dilemma. With my word count at 115K, I realized my query letter won’t get past the first pair of eyes. So, go with length, run off agents, or go with brevity, end up with a very long short story and run off agents.

    I have been cutting, slashing, and burning. My husband asked me last night about the count, and I had to say it’s not low enough yet. I’m down to 108K. So much more to cut, so little time. I’m going with the – does this sentence, paragraph, or scene move the story along – plan. If it doesn’t, it goes. Sob!! Whatever it takes to arrive at 98K with a tight interesting book.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. As always, love your blog!! From you, 500+ words is a pleasure to read.

    • September 5, 2012 6:10 pm

      Hi Nancy,
      Seeing your progress in taking down this word count jungle is an inspiration to me.
      As I move forward into the second half of my story, I’m beginning to see plot points that I could, maybe, rearrange to be tighter to cut some scenes. We’ll see. Right now the plan is to get to the end, make notes and go back later to survey the wreckage.
      With all this learning we’re doing though, think of how much more organized our future stores will be!

  7. September 5, 2012 1:21 pm

    HA! I tend to wordiness, too. My first book first draft came in at 204,000. Erm. And my second drafts are ALWAYS even longer. Why? Because I have to get the WHOLE story down before I can start cutting the parts of the story that don’t MOVE the story. Somehow it helps with that continuity thing. My current first draft will run about 140K and my goal after revisions (it’s a thriller, I hope) is 100K…

    • September 5, 2012 6:17 pm

      Hi Hart,
      Welcome to A Scenic Route. 🙂
      Yay, another wordy writer!
      I appreciate your thoughts about getting the whole story down, because it does often feel that way in first draft for me, as a discovery writer, that I am exploring my story as much as I am writing it. Invariably that leads to a few dead ends and missing threads that add unnecessary words.
      How about I send you the weed-wacker when I’m through with it? 😉

  8. September 5, 2012 4:36 pm

    Somewhere between you and me is the perfect writer. I am the opposite. Bare bones on the first draft. I had to stretch to make my first one hit 70,000, and then even after editing, I only added another 5000. (Which is why I am stoked my third manuscript ended at 82,000 – new world record!)
    Just keep tightening. You’ll get there.

    • September 5, 2012 6:23 pm

      Good job on hitting that new record! 82k is such a nice length for a story. Sigh.
      I think in both cases, whether it’s sparse or copious wordage, it might be a matter of practice, practice, practice, and a bit of editing.
      Thanks for the encouragement, Alex. 🙂

  9. September 5, 2012 7:20 pm

    My weed wackers are called critique partners and editor, lol. And no worries, my post was over 700 words today–love your words:-)

    • September 6, 2012 6:54 am

      Thanks, Jamie!
      I hadn’t considered that, but I agree. Critiques have helped me weed out about a hundred or so words per scene so far, at least! Once we get to big picture items we might be able to consolidate even more!
      There is hope for me. 🙂

  10. September 5, 2012 7:39 pm

    Just remember, word count is based on the number of pages (250 words per page in TNR) NOT the actual number of words. As a new freelance editor underway with my first manuscript, I can tell you, it’s easy to kick those pesky extra words to the curb. Wordiness is NOT a good trait. It’s very tiring for the reader to read in 20 words what could be said in 10. You just have to get to point, and the point is not how pretty your words are, but rather to get you to the next sentence. The quicker you can do that, the better writer you are.

    • September 6, 2012 6:59 am

      Very good point, Nancy. It’s good to know that with experience, (and the help of a good editor 😉 ) I can learn to streamline my prose.
      Congrats on the editor gig! Sounds like a dream job. 🙂

  11. September 5, 2012 10:00 pm

    First of all, i love Scriver, but apparently, I am not using it to it’s full potential. Outline mode? Really. I need to do some readying. Any way, to you insecurity. I am a true believer that more words is better then less words in the first draft, but when it comes to revisions, you have to cut, cut, cut. There are more consise and still descriptives ways to say what you need to say. And you reader will appreciate it. Just keep at it and get other to read it.

    • September 6, 2012 7:03 am

      Hi Sydney!
      I’ve been using Scrivener for years, and only recently discovered Outline mode. (Yeah, the button is right up on top there, but I was doing fine without it …)
      Concise–now there’s a good word to describe where I need to be. I’m a sprawling kind of writer, but need to learn to focus!

      I’m glad you stopped by A Scenic Route! Welcome. 🙂

  12. September 6, 2012 2:42 am

    I tend to underwrite scenes in the first draft, making them sound a bit like telegrams. I leave my wordiness for my scolding of the children, obviously! Given your two examples above, I do prefer the first, less wordy version. I don’t think the additional descriptions add anything to the scene. In other cases, it might, but not in that particular one. But then, I would say that, wouldn’t I?
    I do envy your output – I barely managed 18000 on my last NaNoWriMo.
    And thanks for stopping by on my blog.

    • September 6, 2012 7:08 am

      Hi Marina,
      Welcome to A Scenic Route!
      Interesting that you prefer the first version. (Others prefer the second!) This helps me a lot because I’ve learned from critiques that I tend to control the scenery my reader sees too much. Perhaps by letting go a bit, I can cut words …
      The learning process I’m going through as I revise is tremendous!

      Thanks for your comments. 🙂

      • September 6, 2012 7:10 am

        I remember some writer saying that we should trust to our readers’ imagination. Make them do the work instead of doing it for them. There are some great examples in literature where we know next to nothing about how one or the other character look – and yet we all have a mental picture of these people in our heads.

        • September 8, 2012 8:59 am

          When I first started writing, I wrote so that I would remember what things looked like in my imagination. But now that I’m revising, I’m learning to let that go a little. The reader can now do what I did, and make the story fit what they have in their imagination.
          I think. This is new for me!

  13. September 6, 2012 7:25 am

    Hey Kirsten,

    *Love* your post and the only tip I can give you is to enter EVERY flash fiction contest you can find (Janet Reid does one or two a month) and there are many others out there.

    It’s not for you to win per se, but for you to be FORCED to cut and trim each and every sentence…. YIKES!!!

    It’s helped me a lot… watch… this comment is 70 words long (75 now :), but wait if you order my new “TrimWriter” now, I can reduce it to two words:

    Write. Less.

    Amazing! But wait, your “TrimWriter” comes with two free ShamWows! (just pay separate shipping, childcare and handling costs.)

    I hope I helped 🙂

    • September 6, 2012 7:44 pm

      Sold! One ‘Trim Writer’! 🙂
      Mahalo for the tip. Flash fiction is definitely out of my comfort zone, but I can see where I might find it useful to give a shot.
      Now, what shall I do with these ShamWows?

  14. September 6, 2012 2:05 pm

    To be completely honest, I prefer the first version. The revision sounds bloated and the original is smooth and more natural to my own ear. But then, I write short. Very short. My average scene length is 300 words. My revisions are always layering in more information and detail because it’s necessary material I forget to include on round one.

    • September 6, 2012 7:48 pm

      Aha! I’m seeing a trend. 🙂
      I don’t think I’ve EVER written a 300 word scene. I’m finding it fascinating to see how differently each writer arrives at the final product, some by pruning, some by planting …
      Thanks for the feedback, Liana,and welcome to A Scenic Route!

  15. September 6, 2012 6:26 pm

    I’m a wordy writer, too, and always seem to be more so at the beginning of my stories (and blog posts) when I’m feeling my way into the material.

    But for all that, my novels end up at a reasonable length.

    I like a little wordiness in the stories I read, anyhow. Too tight and it feels like the author isn’t giving me room to breathe or digest, just rushing me from scene to scene.

    • September 6, 2012 7:56 pm

      Hi Rabia,
      Yeah, you should have seen this post before I edited it!
      I like a slower paced read myself, as scenery is important to me. I’m just too green to see what works best for my own words.
      I’m glad you found your way to A Scenic Route!

      • September 6, 2012 8:08 pm

        Blogging is a good way to learn brevity,

        And I liked the original version of the snippet better, too, for what it’s worth!

        • September 8, 2012 9:02 am

          Thanks for the feedback! I’m coming around to that conclusion myself. 🙂
          Blogging, where pithy comments rule, is teaching me to sum up my thoughts in fewer words!

  16. T.F.Walsh permalink
    September 8, 2012 1:29 am

    Cutting back is hard…. In my mind all the scenes are important… best of luck. By the way, I love using scrivener too:)

    • September 8, 2012 8:52 am

      And the worst part is, I keep adding more scenes, which will make it even harder!
      But not impossible. I’m determined to learn what is important enough to make the cut.
      I don’t know how I would write without Scrivener. I use it for everything!

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: