Let Your Story Decide Its Own Length

Should you worry about word count? If so, when?

Earlier this week, I started writing a new story. I didn’t do it on purpose. It just sort of … happened.

I don’t know if it’s science fiction or fantasy or some dystopian something or other — it could be a little bit of everything at this point for all I care.

But I found myself stumbling a little bit when I realized I didn’t know what kind of story this was — as in, I didn’t know what I was actually getting myself into. Is it a book? A novella? A short story? I have no clue.

Which isn’t a HUGE problem — I’ve been doing this long enough that the story tends to break through all my related and unrelated anxiety and still gets written no matter how many things might be wrong with it.

Not everyone can headbutt their way through big concerns in their writing though. Something as simple as “how long is this story supposed to be?” can turn a would have been productive writing session into a solid hour of YouTube rabbit holes and no real answers.

So let’s talk about length — specifically, what to do when you’re not quite sure if you should be worrying about your word count or not.

Does word count matter?

Yes. And … no? It depends. It’s complicated.

We’re looking at story length in the context of “I’m just sitting here on my couch typing a bunch of words that might become a book, or not, who knows.” That’s what I assume you come to this blog for, anyway. So keep in mind that the answer to this question will be different depending on what stage of the writing/publishing process you’re at.

I am not a publishing expert — especially when it comes to books. I can’t speak for publishers or how the selection/publishing process works. However, it’s common knowledge that when you’re trying to get a book published, word count does make a difference. Word count determines whether or not a publisher can accept your manuscript based on its target audience and the typical book length that audience prefers.

If you write a young adult novel that’s over 100,000 words, for example, a publisher probably isn’t going to be able to accept it. Young adult readers tend to prefer shorter books, so in cases like this, you will eventually have to pay attention to how long your story is and whether or not that length matches up with the genre it would potentially be marketed under.

But I say “eventually” for a reason.

Also note that if submission guidelines mention word count, it definitely matters. Pay attention to instructions. Please. I’m not even going to try counting how many emails I received at my magazine editing job from people who clearly hadn’t read the submission directions. If you can’t read, how can I trust you to write?

If you’re just grinding away on a personal work in progress, though, word count is the least of your many concerns.

What’s the most important thing to focus on when writing a story?

One of the most overwhelming things about being a writer — no matter how long you have been doing it — is all the steps that come between starting a book (or any kind of story or project) and having that book published for all the world to see.

With all of us so addicted to instant gratification (yes, I’m included in this wave and so are you), it’s very easy to get not only distracted but discouraged by the journey ahead. Oh — someday you’re going to have to come up with an elevator pitch for your book? That seems hard … you haven’t started writing it yet, but maybe you should try to come up with something now so you don’t have to think about it. Instead of, you know … actually writing the book.

Do you see the problem here? It’s not that we shouldn’t be concerned about doing everything well or right or, at a minimum, to the best of our ability. It’s that many times we end up focusing on the wrong things at the wrong time, and this interferes with our productivity in the worst way possible.

So if focusing is your issue, but there’s so much to think about — what should be your first priority when you’re about to sit down to write the first version of your story?

When writing a first draft, the most important thing is getting the story out.

Writers of all experience levels have argued with me on this point — as you’re always welcome to do, as long as you’re respectful about it of course. And I get it. Some people prefer to write and edit as they go. Some people don’t want to leave mistakes and inconsistencies unresolved — or can’t focus on writing what’s next until they fix other things.

At the end of the day, whatever works for you as a writer works for you, and you’re free to get your story written in whatever way suits you best.

But I do see and hear from many writers who just can’t get past the first chapter or even the first page because they’re so concerned about every little thing — whether or not their idea is “original” or how long the final edit of their story should be based on the book’s intended genre.

This is why I typically give “just get the story out” advice when people are trying to learn how to focus and write their story from beginning to end. Sometimes, in order to “solve” all the problems with your story, you first have to provide yourself with a full story to work with. In many cases, only when the entire thing is laid out in front of you do you figure out how it can all come together to become something magical.

How to worry less and write (a lot) more

I’m not judging you for worrying about your story. Having concerns about something means you care about it, and caring about what you’re writing is a good sign. If you care enough to think about whether or not it will be short or long enough to get published, you’re much more likely to maintain the level of determination necessary to finish writing what you started.

But there’s worrying … and then there’s obsessing. In my experience (I can’t and won’t try to speak for everyone), when it comes to writing, worry crosses over into obsession when whatever’s on your mind becomes distracting enough to keep you from writing as much as you could … or at all.

Let’s go back to my weird sci-fi/fantasy/dystopian action whatever-the-what. I don’t know what it is, don’t ask me to describe it yet. Anyway, I’m sitting here just letting the story go wherever it wants, and I have no idea how long this thing is going to be. I could be almost done for all I know. This is the way of the pantser, and definitely a downside to not having a plan in place when you start writing something.

I’m very worried about this. I’d really like to know if I’m in for another full-length novel or if this is just a quick 15,000-word adventure. But I’ve been trying my best to just keep writing and let the worry form its dreary cloud around me. I don’t want to worry so much that I stop working on it, or distract myself by researching typical word count ranges … again. I really just want to write the dang story, you know?

Worry. Don’t obsess. If it’s really bothering you, maybe going outline-free for this particular story just isn’t for you. But if you can let the story unfold and figure out the rest later, do that. To the best of your ability.

Hey — writing is hard. Being a writer is hard. We may have (mostly) chosen this life, but that doesn’t make it easy. There are roadblocks all over the place. There isn’t always someone around to help us navigate them.

Hopefully, at least a little bit, I can be your someone. Your support system, at the very least. Let me know how I can help. I’m always happy to share what I know from experience, provided resources from people who know about certain things more in depth than I do, and/or learn right along with you.

Thanks for all you do. Please, if nothing else — keep writing.

Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.

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