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Ten tips for hitting the word count

Ten tips for hitting the word count

By Caroline McArthur |

The average novel is around 90,000 words, but that number is by no means set in stone. Genre fiction can be much longer, for example, while YA novels can be closer to 60–70,000 words. If you’re submitting to agents it’s wise to aim for somewhere close to the average for your genre, otherwise your manuscript may be dismissed before it’s even been read.

Fortunately, there are lots of things you can do to extend your word count.

1. Review your original outline

In the long hours writing your novel you may have forgotten key things you had intended to include at the start. Try writing a new outline using your current manuscript and see if this inspires new ideas. It will also be a useful tool for deciding where to add new content.

2. Context and description

Have you described your scenes and characters fully? Can you add the sounds, smells and colours in a particular scene or in the set-up of a key location? Have you translated into words the most striking things you see when you visualise the story in your mind?

3. Think about pacing

Are there any parts of your novel that feel rushed? Perhaps an action scene or other dramatic moment would benefit from a more gradual build-up.

4. Conflicts and tension

Conflict is the key that will keep your reader reading. Is there sufficient tension in your story or could you find further struggle, internal or external? Is there a moment of conflict early on that could have unexpected consequences later?

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5. Connect loose threads

Are there themes or subplots in your story that are underdeveloped or unresolved? Do characters disappear without explanation? Could you do more to connect the dots?

6. Expand on your theme

This can be tricky as your theme should be a subtle presence in your novel and you don’t want to labour the point. However, if it is covered too lightly it could be missed by the reader altogether.

7. Add a subplot

If you’ve addressed points 1–6 and your novel is still too short you will need to think about adding substantial content. A subplot can add a layer of complexity but you must ensure that it brings something more to your story and isn’t shoehorned in. Look at your revised outline and think about where a subplot might comfortably sit. Try staggering the additional content so that it fits naturally into the manuscript.

8. Add a minor character (or two)

Minor characters can provide different viewpoints, be vehicles for conflict or further explain your themes. Give as much thought to new characters as you did to those already in your novel. Any new character must have a purpose.

9. Fresh eyes

Try putting your manuscript away for a few weeks, or even months, and then read it anew. Time away might give you the space you need to come up with new ideas.

10. A different opinion

Give your manuscript to a trusted reader or readers. You’re looking for positive but truthful feedback, so think carefully about who you choose and be prepared to hear things that might be difficult. Keep your mind open to suggestions and be grateful for others’ thoughts, even if you disagree with them.

You might find that it takes as long to build out your novel as it took to write your first draft. The hope is that with close analysis and careful revision you’ll end up with a stronger novel, whether it’s longer or not. You might write a few thousand words and then lose half of them during the editing process. Eventually you’ll find that you can’t justifiably add any more words. If you’re still below the standard word count then your novel is just going to be short. There are plenty of great novellas out there – perhaps yours is one of them.

Caroline McArthur works at whitefox as a Project Manager. She 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 and Alan Titchmarsh. Caroline specialises in illustrated non-fiction and cookery in particular. Caroline is also the author of Ten tips for hitting the word count on your non-fiction book

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