Obsessing Over Your Manuscript’s Size

Daniel Torday

There are few things more obsessed over by writers than word count: required word count, in-progress word count, goal word count per day/week/month, words that were cut, words in the final version.

So I love Daniel Torday’s essay in the newest Glimmer Train bulletin, “The Secret Lives of Novellas.” It begins like this:

The Great Gatsby received some truly awful reviews when it was published. HL Menken called it “no more than a glorified anecdote” and felt its characters were “not quite alive.” Edmund Wilson said much the same. Fitzgerald spent a good deal of time writing letters apologizing for having written an incomplete book, and the main source of his contrition was this: he felt the book was too short to be accepted as truly great. Years after its publication he wrote to legendary Random House editor Bennett Cerf that the book “was a light little volume barely touching 50,000 words,” and as a result “it was a rank commercial failure.”

Torday goes on to discuss an Amazon feature called Text Stats, which—if you haven’t heard of it before—may well distract you for the rest of the day.

Check out the full essay by Torday, or view the entire Glimmer Train bulletin.


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Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (March 2018).

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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16 Comments on "Obsessing Over Your Manuscript’s Size"

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Marianne Wheelaghan

Hi Jane, 
great fun and a good point – quantity has nothing to do with quality!

Will Entrekin
I’ve read a lot about The Great Gatsby and had never once heard that. Fascinating. I still think it’s terrific. Independent publishing allows for great experimentation in terms of lengths. A lot of people debate whether 99c is too inexpensive for a novel, but at Exciting Press, we’ve published multiple individual short stories, nano-collections of four or five essays, and novellas all for $2.99 or less (we publish novels at $4.99). Which is to say: one need no longer obsess much over word count and manuscript size. Readers enjoy a variety of different lengths, sizes, and stories, and, as always,… Read more »
Cynthia Morris

Writers are only obsessed about word count because publishers are. Writers don’t even care or know to care until they enter the publishing arena. Then it’s all about size – platform and manuscript.

Dane Zeller

Paraphrasing Elmore Leonard: It’s done when I say it’s done.

Dtorday
Thanks for reading, all!  I couldn’t agree with these comments more. One ebook thing I’d have liked to have touched on in the piece: I’ve begun reading my _own_ manuscripts on my Kindle, and in a weird way, length issues have been mitigated.  I recently showed a copy of a new, short-ish novel manuscript to a novelist friend. He read it, and didn’t mention length at all. When I asked if its relatively small size seemed a stumbling block, he said, “Well, I read it on my Kindle. And it was exactly 100% long.”  So maybe ebook technology will allow us… Read more »
Adrienne LaCava

It’s all about words =)

Richard Gilbert
Since I am obsessing about the overly long length of my memoir ms., and having just -re-read and reviewed Gatsby as a “memoir” (in Nick’s POV and setup) on my blog, this post sure is timely. Per Fitzgerald’s comment: I think it reflects how shattered his confidence and spirit were late in his life and career. And by late, keep in mind that he died at only 44.  He was at the height of his powers when he wrote Gatsby and slaved over its revision. It is a short novel, but as close to perfect as we may see in… Read more »
Marcy Kennedy

I love the idea that ebooks could change the way we view word count. There’s something very satisfying about a short story, and not all great stories will take 75,000+ words to tell.  Plus, I think there will be a growing audience for shorter works in our ever more frenetic world. For people who don’t read as much or don’t have as much time to read, a shorter story allows them to finish before they forgot where the story started.

PublishEd Adelaide
Jane, I just read Daniel’s article and it’s fantastic: thought-provoking stuff. Thanks so much for bringing it to everyone’s attention. I come to this as a publisher/editor and it can be a hugely divisive issue between publisher and author. It seems to me that a publisher’s view of length is a fairly complex mix of commercial and aesthetic or content-driven considerations – with the publisher mediating between the author’s creative wishes and the market. By the time a book is complete, if it’s under contract, the publisher will already have set the production budget, tailored to meet a price point.… Read more »
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Lena

Think why Shakespeare  said ”men of few words are the best men”! Loved Daniel’s article. 
Word count is a big problem. 

Dtorday
Great points all around! I love this editorial view, Jane and PublishEd Adelaide. I wouldn’t tie what I’m about to observe to ebooks in any causal way, but I will point to, from this wonderful year in literary publishing:  Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic Justin Torres’s We the Animals Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending  While none are Text Statable, they are listed as 144pp, 144pp and 176pp, respectively. And the first and last were a National Book Award finalist and a Booker Prize winner. And Torres was mentioned in a NYT piece on the Pulitzer debacle as a… Read more »
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CarrieAnne79
I didn’t know till last year that writers nowadays are supposed to obsessively count words and that books over a certain length are looked on by certain people with shock or derision.  I still don’t see what the big deal is with counting words, and don’t stress myself out about it.  My adult historical sagas are all doorstoppers, and I planned them that way.  I’m so tired of this fad of glorified novellas being passed off as serious adult novels.  I want a book I can climb into and live in for a few weeks, not something that’s all of… Read more »
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