Literary agents on issues of word count

Quotes from literary agents about a query red-flag: problematic manuscript length

 

In our ongoing Book Broker series, we interview literary agents about the query process, problematic submissions, and advice for querying authors. 

One issue we've seen mentioned several times is word count. Manuscript length, if not in line with industry standards per genre, can stand out as a structural red flag. Too short? Plot and characters may be underdeveloped. Too long? You might have unneeded preamble or backstory, or there may be secondary characters, POV or otherwise, who need to be cut or merged.

Here's a collection of related quotes from our interviews, all in response to the question:

What's a typical warning sign that a manuscript isn't ready for representation?  

"The manuscript is over 90,000 words. Books are getting shorter like peoples' attention spans, and even if your book is going to inspire multiple sequels, one must act as if this is your only shot because it might be; self awareness is key. Watch for too much repetition and cut accordingly. If you're sure of your novel's potential, but it's too long, when approaching an agent, send the first 50 pages and say that you have a full draft to share if they connect with the first few chapters. If the agent is interested, they'll ask for the full draft. If it's over 100,000 words, say that you're open to editorial work and cutting if necessary. I'm most drawn to working with writers who are open to editorial advice and guidance. You have to be willing to collaborate." Erin Hosier

"A quick sign that can tell me a manuscript isn’t ready before even looking at the query is a word count that is far over or under the genre standard. Almost every book I see that is far over their allotted word count needs to be cut back due to poor pacing and a rambling plot in general. Books that come in under their genre word count usually have underdeveloped plots and characters."  Katelyn Uplinger

"The two biggies are word counts wildly out of line with your genre and choosing only iconic, hugely successful books as your comps. Both suggest that you aren’t doing the research into the query process, into category standards, and what’s working in the market right now. And from a craft standpoint, word count issues indicate that you haven’t rigorously and thoughtfully edited your work..." Sharon Pelletier

"If the manuscript is over a certain word count (for me, personally, 120k is a lot, but anything over 130k can surely be cut down… at least in your debut novel) it means that it most likely hasn’t been edited. You want to make it as tight and concise as possible." Jess Dallow

"An excessive word count, a long prologue, or an opening that starts with a cliché such as a dream." Dana Newman

 "A woolly pitch, a giant word count (over 150k words) and typos/grammatical errors from the start." Juliet Mushens


David Griffin Brown (Septimus Brown) is the founder and senior editor at Darling Axe Editing

David Griffin Brown is an award-winning short fiction writer and co-author of Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. He holds a BA in anthropology from UVic and an MFA in creative writing from UBC, and his writing has been published in literary magazines such as the Malahat Review and Grain. In 2022, he was the recipient of a New Artist grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. David founded Darling Axe Editing in 2018, and as part of his Book Broker interview series, he has compiled querying advice from over 100 literary agents. He lives in Victoria, Canada, on the traditional territory of the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations.

Immersion & Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling

About the Darling Axe

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1 comment

  • Word count is a 20th century artifact left-over from typewriter days. A computer count of total characters plus spaces (C+S) divided by 70 (C+S(per line) divided by 32 lines per page will give a raw page count. Most hardcover fiction designers will bloat the actual required page count by 20 or 30 (or more) with quarter-page, half-page, full page blanks. Don’t worry so much about page count. Worry about content.

    Novotny Ingersol

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