Writing Craft

Excessive First Draft Word Count? Don’t

Avoiding large word counts in first drafts

Everyone’s drafting process is different. So why is drafting too large a problem?

It doubles your workload

I had a friend recently tell me she had just crossed the 160K mark on a novel (still unfinished) in a genre that tops out at 85-90K. She had already written double what she needed, and the novel wasn’t finished yet? That means during the editing process she will have to cut 50% to even make it publishable.

What if she’s self-publishing?

While self-publishing does give the author more flexibility, going that far against the norm as an unknown writer is taking a big risk. Almost no one gets away with breaking the rules on their first time out.

And if she’s trying to publish traditionally, a word count this large will stop a debut author at the gate.

Why does it matter so much?

There is a reader expectation in genre fiction for word counts. Readers in genre fiction are accustomed to certain tropes. While readers will allow some violation of these tropes for the sake of the story, arbitrary changes (like an excessive word count) will turn readers off.

It’s more than just a rule

Enormous word counts usually result in slow action. Either there’s too much filler, empty scenes that don’t move the action forward, or there are separate scenes for character moments and plot points that could be combined to create more impact.

The other problem large word counts create is a plotline that wanders or is filled with irrelevant subplots.

When you draft too large, you will have to go back through to remove these. When you do, you run the risk of making mistakes, like leaving out a piece of information or creating a plot hole. You will essentially need to edit the enormous manuscript and then rewrite another draft to make sure the new story works. While some people may use this method, it isn’t the most efficient.

How to avoid drafting too large

Have an outline

A detailed outline is your best friend if you want to write a draft that will need the least amount of structural editing. When you know where your plot and your characters are going, you will know what to put in each scene, and you will know the dots on your map create a logical journey.

Write backwards

To avoid writing useless filler scenes, start with the goal and work your way back to the beginning. This also works when you get stuck plotting your outline.

Skip to the next scene

Writers who draft too large are often the victim of trying to capture every moment of their character’s day. If you feel the energy of a scene starting to fade, the scene is finished. Transition to the next one.

What about pansters/discovery writers?

As a fellow pantser, I often draft far too large for my genre. A few things to keep you on track:

  • Know what your character’s goal is for each scene
  • Watch out for filler (waking up, brushing teeth) anything that isn’t moving your character closer to her goal
  • Make sure your characters are doing something
  • Have a separate notebook/scrivener folder for flash inspiration. Save them. Those chapter-long backstories could be your future publicity novella.
  • Use action to show world building (Save those long setting descriptions for your inspiration file.)

In a market where many working writers strive to turn out a novel a year, don’t sabotage yourself by doubling your workload. Write with a plan, even if it’s just for the current scene. Keep your word count reasonable, and your story will be more focused and easier to edit, leaving you more time to write.

M.L. Keller is a freelance writer and editor. Her blog "The Manuscript Shredder" is focused on helping emerging writers hone their craft.


Now it's your turn

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: