Monday 3 October 2016

Word Counts: A Practical guide to Trimming, Tightening and Telling Your Tale by Kathryn Evans

By Kathryn Evans

Word counts matter. Less for some things than  for others - in picture books,  a low word count is generally considered essential, in YA, you can get away with a few thousand words above or below the average, in job applications and personal statements, they are critical. So how do you know your targets and how do you keep within the guidelines?

The Numbers

If you're writing a personal statement or a job application, you will be given a number of words in which to complete your statement. Stick to it . Do not go over. They will know. Advice on how to trim and tighten comes in a bit.

If you're writing a book, the numbers are a little more flexible - here's a handy table for you!

 Picture books 0-700 You can go to 1000 but it better be brilliant, Maverick will not entertain anything over 650 words.
Non Fiction Picture books 1000-2000
Easy Readers 5-7 500-2500 Depends on imprint Egmont's Green Bananas are around 500, Colour Young Puffin are around 2500
Early Readers 6-9


Again, imprints vary,  at the lower end are Egmont's Red Bananas, at the top end Orchard Book's Super Crunchies

Middle Grade 7-10


As above: Bottom end are Orchard Book's Super Crunchies ( bit of overlap with the early readers)  , higher end are A & C Black's Black Cats ( they also have Flashbacks for 8+ 12-14,000)
Middle Grade 9-12 20000-25000
Teen ( 12+) and YA

30,000 +

Anything goes - depends on your content, Sarah Crossan's The Weight of Water is a shade under 16,000 while Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is almost 200,000

So there are your numbers. If you want to check out the number of words a book has, there's a handy website called AR BookFinder that will tell you. Just search for the book you want and click on the details. Here are some I prepared earlier:

Louis Sachar’s ‘Holes’ – 47079
Candy Gourlay’s ‘Tall Story’ – 47405
Meg Rosoff’s ‘How I live now’ – 46920
Maurice Sendak’s  ‘Where the wild things are’ – 336 ( the film had more words)
Philip Ardagh’s  Eddie Dickens ‘Dreadful Acts’ – 25104
Alice Sebold’s  ‘The Lovely Bones’ – 97914
David Almond’s ‘Skellig’ –  31202
Michael Morpurgo’s  ‘Private Peaceful’ 46316
Francesca Simon’s ‘Horrid Henry’ between 5,000 and 7,500 ( but you have to read them over and over again to persistent small children)
Sally Gardner’s  ‘I, Coriander’ 66497
J.K. Rowling’s  ‘Harry Potter and The Philosophers Stone’ –  77325 
Interesting isn't it? But knowing your numbers and sticking to them are two very different animals. So how do you trim and tighten your writing to fit the word count? 

The Execution

That is a very apt title. Very. Get ready to kill your darlings. Here are my tips for trimming and tightening your work to stick within word count guidelines.

  • Contract: Is not, can become isn't, there is can become there's - Boom, you dropped a couple of words - this is most helpful in personal statements, in literature, it may muck up your prose so be careful with it.
  • Get rid: "I consider myself an excellent applicant" becomes " I'm an excellent applicant" - cut out words you don't need. In fiction, this might mean whole paragraphs of description - question question question - do I need this word here? Will this make sense if I cut this?
  • Focus: Don't waffle. Ever. In fiction every word should be driving your story forward or your prose better be so beautiful people want to rad it for the sheer pleasure of the words pouring into their brain ( to be honest, that's unlikely). Actually the same is true for your personal statement - what matters? That will vary depending on your audience but make it count. Don't pad. Padding is boring. 
  • Cut repetition - are you repeating scenes or points needlessly? I did this in More of Me - I knew it but I lacked the courage to do anythign about it. My editor and the lovely Mary Hoffman gave me the guts to cut. I chopped 3000 words right before it went to the type setter because they just weren't needed, it was the same tone, the same action - I thought it was needed to show the monotony of my main characters life but you know what? It was monotonous. Boring. I cut it and I didn't miss it.
When you edit: Be brave. Be fierce. Be focussed.

Finally,  Read examples. If you want to write for a certain audience, read as much as you can that's already been written. You'll get a feel for pace, you really will.  My young adult books come out at around 70,000 words and as I navigate my way through, I have a feel for where the highs and lows should come - I am convinced I've just absorbed that from reading, reading, reading.

Happy snipping!

Kathryn Evans is the author of More of Me: A gripping thriller with a sinister sci-fi edge, exploring family, identity and sacrifice. She loves faffing about on social media: find her between Time Chicken pings on Facebook and Instagram @kathrynevansauthor and tweeting @mrsbung.  She also blogs on My Life Under Paper. She has been nominated for  The Edinburgh Festival First Book award, you can vote for her book here (please).


  1. Great advice, and many thanks for the genre/wood count breakdown - it makes it very simple to follow.

  2. A hangover from my journalism days is the inability to write more than necessary. One of the things I had to learn was to unfold a story, to write more rather than get to the point at once. Because what's the fun in that? But both my books so far fall below the 50k mark! Very useful to see all the word counts.

  3. Thank you for the valuable tips. Happy to apply it on my words snipping.

  4. I thought this was really useful and I would love to see tips on what books to read in each category. Thanks Kathryn.


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