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I took a wrong turn and I just kept going

Hi. I’m a book doctor (a.k.a. freelance editor) in the Pacific Northwest. A client of mine is working on a memoir, and I’m trying to give her some wordcount guidance. Folks on Twitter said I should ask you: For a first-time memoirist, what’s the sweet spot on length?

The client’s memoir is presently pushing 150,000 words, and she’s not done with it yet. My gut says “ooh, too long,” as in, most publishers will pass given that it’s from a first-time author. However, my gut is trained on novels, not memoirs, so I’m dis-inclined to rely on my intestinal authority in this case.

Care to educate my gut a little?

Not really. The intestinal metaphor is just awful and using the word “gut” three times is unforgivable. That said, no one has asked about word count and it’s a good topic — so thank you on that score.

I love to tell writers to cut their books in half and see if they are missing anything (especially those coming in at 150,000 words or more). I would bet you five bucks that most books would be improved if they lost anywhere between 10-40 % of their body weight. That said, the correct word length is the number of words it takes to tell your story. The reason I love poetry, well one reason, is that every word counts. The best works of fiction and non-fiction hold themselves to that standard.

I also counsel beginning writers to write in long hand and to use a typewriter. I guarantee you will be more careful and precise. The length isn’t what makes editors groan, it’s overly long sloppy writing that gives you a stomach ache.

Is your manuscript too long? Does every word count?

24 Responses

  1. Keen and funny, as per usual.

  2. I couldn’t agree more about this — the benefit of holding one’s self, even in prose, to the poet’s standard. I often catch myself comparing paintings to prose. I admire the work of the realists, which is usually vivid, crisp and precise. It strives for photograph quality. It strives to capture everything. And sometimes, it feels gargantuan in that effort, like Thomas Wolfe or R. Penn Warren in All the King’s Men — exhaustive, excessively sensory, encyclopedic [novels I love, though]. Then there are novels like Gatsby, which capture a southern night in a few words — the “full bellows” of the night — or Disgrace by Coetzee, which is so tight and sinewy, it never seems to waste a word, it works in pencil but produces its vision and communicates with incredible accuracy.

    I guess what I’m saying in my long-winded way is that the artistry of a sketch in capturing motion/feeling is sometimes greater, to my mind, than the artistry of a full-pallete oil painting, and when I write I try to remember that less is more [which wouldn’t be obvious from this comment … ] … and that if I need 500 words to nail an image or a moment, I’m probably not “nailing it” at all … I’m probably throwing myself manically around it.

  3. I’m for brevity. I was trained as a daily newspaper reporter, so speed was important, as well as word count. I don’t write as much as I rewrite and trim, it seems. That said, I am working with an editor who, in going over a recent piece of mine, wanted to see more in certain places where I was determined to use restraint. I agree with Betsy: the ultimate question is, “What do you need to tell your story?” No hard and fast rules here.

  4. Yeah! Economy of words is the one thing I am confident about in my manuscript. It seems to be my natural writing style. However, everything else is in question.

  5. I wouldn’t hire a guy who uses presently instead of currently. But I’m a poet. I have no trouble with precision and economy.

    • “Presently” is a fine synonym for “currently,” though it sounds a bit dated — he’s/she’s struggling for a professional tone maybe. I can’t believe the heart of your comment is your weird need to express your imagined superiority to this person you don’t even know. “I have no trouble with precision and economy.” Aha. But you have inflated-ego trouble. Incidentally — if you were looking for an agent, and if you were a young writer seeking representation, yes, you would hire this person, you’d hire the milkman if he had the right connections and could get your stuff into print. AND you wouldn’t get all hung up on the word “presently” in some random email in a blog just because Betsy Lerner decided to pick apart this guys [admittedly miserable] diction and you want to align yourself with her and set yourself in opposition to him and world full of sad wannabe agents and authors who oh my goodness use the word PRESENTLY. I will presently dismiss you.

  6. I have the opposite problem. My mss are too short and I’m not sure why. Too bad novellas aren’t in fashion.

  7. I had a personal trainer who said tummy instead of stomach or abs or whatever. “Come on, really tighten those tummy muscles.” Huh? I told him to stop, that it was creepy and weird, but he couldn’t let it go. Fortunately, he got fired from the gym before I had to clip him myself.

    Gut is kinda like that. Nobody wants to educate your gut. Ever. Unless you’re at the doctor’s office.

  8. I read aloud to edit. Passages not up to pair stand out and are Xed out. Nothing gut wrenching about it.

  9. I love to go as long as I please on my first draft because it gives me a feeling of security when I go back in to slice and dice. There is a perverse pleasure in looking back at your own work and cutting out things that you hate; I like to make nasty little notes to myself in the margins like ‘UGH, no!’ and ‘Jesus. What is this line?” and “Seriously SpringChicken?”, really go at it guns blazing like I’m my own evil twin. Anyone else enjoy this part as much as I do? No? I know I can’t be the only masochist in the room here!

    Anyway, I can’t get in evil twin mode until I have a certain number of pages to work with. 300 is a good number for me.

    • Starting out I take any side trip that occurs to me, then I hone in on the most meaningful conflicts discovered.

      • Yes. That meandering is what makes first drafts so enjoyable. This is why I’ve never understood writing fiction from an outline, though I know they are an absolute life raft for some…

      • “Hone in on” — there are three words to cut. And for me, right next to gut , “pick your brains” is a dealbreaker.

        A really useful revision strategy is to challenge just about everything on every page with the question “Why are you telling me this?”

  10. My word count tends to run toward the too-short end. Maybe it’s because I cut my teeth as a newspaper reporter, because I write long-hand, or because I’m a machete-wielding maniac. Or, perhaps, it’s because I did a half-ass job of telling the story… *sigh*

  11. Great topic. Perfect timing we are currently working on cutting down our first novel from 189k to 120k.

    We thought we had the finished version ready to go, but decided to sacrifice the words to increase our chances of selling it.

    In the past 6 days 35k worth of words have met their demise. I hope it only takes another 6 days to meet our goal. It is a demented exercise, and yet, it is a great lesson for us on not indulging every character whim in the future.

    • Dude, if you’re not working with a partner, that’s creepy. Um, unless you’re the Queen of England, in which case, cheerio, Your Highness.

  12. I’m trying to cut the fluff while keeping the voice, and the pattern on my current revision is to cut a lot of the old but replace with a little of the new, and hopefully better writing.

  13. I’ve been doing a hard copy edit on my ms (just in time for Betsy’s April Fool’s challenge) and I’m glad I read this today. I kept thinking the material I had written just needed to be moved around and put in the right place but maybe sometimes you just have to say goodbye to some of it.

  14. 150k is too long, especially for memoirs. I would definitely go with quality over quantity.

  15. Look at Elizabeth McCracken’s memoir, A Perfect Replica of a Figment of My Imagination–it’s a model of brevity, and it’s wonderful. Some people have chattier styles…but 150K is crazy long for a memoir. I kind of struggle between the chatty and the beautifully contained. Certainly, in a first draft, it’s chatty all the way.

  16. Am I the only one who struggles to think in number of words? I only think in page count, and can never even remember how to convert.

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