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Ten tips for hitting the word count on your non-fiction book

Ten tips for hitting the word count on your non-fiction book

By Caroline McArthur |

Caroline has been an editor for fifteen years, with previous roles at Vintage, Ebury and Duckworth Publishing. She has worked across fiction and non-fiction, including history, cookery, humour and popular culture, with authors and brands that include The Great British Bake Off, Top Gear, Primrose Bakery, Alan Titchmarsh and Nigella Lawson. Caroline specialises in illustrated non-fiction and cookery in particular.

Here Caroline offers ten tips for non-fiction writers struggling to hit their word count.

Writing a book is a labour of love. You spend months, if not years, researching your subject, honing your argument, interviewing, transcribing, trawling reams of notes to select just the right quotes or the most precious memories to relay to your readers. You toil over perfect sentences and agonise over painful edits. Finally, you have a manuscript you’re happy with, that conveys exactly what you want to say, written fluidly yet concisely, with just the right balance of fact and anecdote, humour and grit. You hit save, check the word count and you’re xx thousand words under. Oh.

Fear not. You are not the first and you will not be the last.

Non-fiction is a broad term that covers many genres, all of which traditionally require different word counts. But whatever the style of your book, there are steps you can take to help you think about your manuscript differently. Some will need to be adapted to fit your subject, but try to think outside the box and you will soon find your manuscript is getting longer and your argument is getting stronger.

1. Whatever you add, make every word count.

More of a rule than a step, but essential. Don’t pad for the sake of it. Good editing is largely about getting rid of superfluous content, so don’t ruin all the hard work you’ve put in honing your manuscript by adding flab back in. Think: does the new content enhance your argument or dilute it?

2. Go back to your original outline.

Read each chapter one by one, referring back to your outline. Have you included everything you intended to? Does each chapter convey what it needs to?

3. Honestly assess your manuscript’s strengths and weaknesses.

Are there weaker arguments that could be made more convincing? See points 4 – 6 for ideas about how you might do this.

4. Are there arguments or scenarios that could be explored from different angles?

Can you present alternative viewpoints and either dismiss them, or show how they complement your own ideas?

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5. Are there areas that would benefit from additional supporting materials?

Can you add (relevant) quotes or references?

6. Can you further clarify any of your arguments?

‘In other words’ or ‘that is to say’ can be helpfully, if not liberally, utilised. Can you sum up any of your (fully explored and explained) ideas as elevator pitches? Have you pinned down your arguments with dates, names and places?

7. Are there anecdotes that could be fleshed out?

Can you add more detail and colour without going off on too many tangents (see point 1)?

8. Review transcripts and other quoted material.

If you’ve interviewed people, go back to your transcripts and look for anything usable you might have missed first time around. Are there additional quotes or any that you’ve cut short? Angles you haven’t followed up? Is there anyone else you could usefully interview?

9. Think about context.

Are there scenarios, people or arguments that would benefit from background information or scene setting? If real people feature in your book, a little context can go a long way to create empathy or interest in their viewpoint or story. Just because you’re writing non-fiction doesn’t mean your characters and situations can’t be fully described.

10. Let someone else read your manuscript.

When you’re close to a piece of work it’s hard to maintain perspective. A fresh pair of eyes might help you identify your manuscript’s weaknesses and locate appropriate places to address the points above.

While it’s unwise to submit a manuscript that is drastically short, if you’ve been through all the steps above and you’re still below your word count, it might be that your manuscript has reached its natural length. If it is already commissioned, speak to your editor and explain the situation. If you’re at pitch stage, address the length in your proposal in a positive way (e.g. ‘A concise history of…’). While there are industry norms, there are also exceptions, and I’m willing to bet that most editors would prefer to read a strong manuscript that can be lengthened under their guidance, than a wordy, overwritten one.

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