Writing on a Budget

My wife has me on a budget. I get so much a month to spend on whatever I want and usually it goes towards renting movies & video games, and buying music. Lately some of my allotment has been devoted to writing tools like how-to books and magazines. I understand the budget is a necessary evil, but it’s one that I constantly butt my head against.

I have the same feeling about writing on a word count. It's one of those aspects of writing for publication that's so much different than writing for pure enjoyment. When I'm writing with no goal in mind, the number of words I'm using is irrelevant. I type until I'm finished. And I know I'm finished when I feel there's nothing left to say. The same can't be said when you’re writing for somebody else's expectations.

When I got it in my head to tackle my first book, I wondered how long it needed to be. To find out I delved into my home library and took a sampling. On average, I saw books with just over 300 pages, 10 pages per chapter. No problem. I set to work and when my novel was finished it came in 335 pages. Cool beans! However, what most first time novelist (of mainstream adult fiction) aren’t aware of is that they only have 90K to 100K words to tell their story with. You see, most publishers consider anything beyond that a serious risk to recouping their investment. After I finally did my research and discovered these guidelines, I looked at the word count for my novel. 145K! Crap!

That kind of limitation definitely narrows the scope you can work with, dramatically impacting your narrative. I was going to have to slash 1/3 of my story just to get it within acceptable standards for submission. I knew there were tons of that’s and then’s needing trimming, but 45K? Large chunks of content were in jeopardy.

It gets even more difficult when you target short story publications. Can you tell a story that’s interesting, compelling, and engaging, in 5000 words or less? How about 2500? It’s not uncommon to find yourself trying to shoehorn a story into a word limit, knowing full well it deserves more. Composing short stories are an excellent way to practice word economy, since there’s so little room for extravagance.

I'm discovering that most writing, be it for a book or short story, is a lot like movie making. A director will film a lot more of a script than what actually finds its way to the screen, most of it ending up on the editing room floor. The same process happens with novels. An author will cut out words, paragraphs, scenes, even whole chapters to foster a better reading experience (or make it more marketable). Every deletion can feel like your hollowing out your work. Finding one word that can take the place of three is the Holy Grail. Unfortunately for writers, they don't have the opportunity to see their deleted sections end up on a DVD.

But there’s another dimension to the world of word regulation. A good many of the bloggers I follow seem to be obsessed with daily or weekly writing output. How many words did I add to my manuscript today? 500? A 1000? Nicholas Sparks generates 2000 words a day, surely I can do half that. I assume they utilize these goals as a way to stay motivated or accountable for their time, but how many of these words end up being edited out of the book? Myself…the only edict I follow is that I must write every day…and I do. Most of the time I don’t know how many words I use (glancing at the counter at the bottom of this document I see I’m at 730), and I could care less. I am disciplined enough to work on my novels or practice my craft without benchmarks, but at the same time my quest for publication has no pre-determined pace. It’ll happen…when it happens. But if daily targets work for you…then I’m all for it!

Of this I am certain, disregarding the publishing industry’s guidelines, or ignoring my wife's budget, either one will see me end up in the same place.

Stuck on the couch at home, broke, reading the lone copy of my unprinted manuscript.

39 comments

  1. I agree, I consider it a win as long as I work on writing in some capacity every day.

    I'm afraid you didn't win the books :( but you did get something, so you may want to check out my blog when you get a chance. I hope you like it.

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  2. I tried word count goals, but they just didn't work for me. I am a procrastinator who thrives on deadlines, though, so I do force myself to write a chapter a day when I'm working on a first draft. If I didn't do that, I'd never finish.

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  3. I guess I do not have a dog in this fight...yet. I just blog, or now.

    I totally understand the on the couch, broke part though. :D
    Trying To Get Over The Rainbow

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  4. When I wrote YA, I had to have some kind of a goal (like writing every day or reaching a word count). But I've found with writing children's books that my process changed. Maybe it's because they are shorter, but I edit more as I go, rather than waiting until I've finished the rough draft. This makes my process a lot slower, but hey, it's working :)

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  5. NaNo kind of disciplined me in a daily target, but more importantly I think it put things into perspective. I usually take a similar approach to the way I did college papers: I decide on the gist of what I am going to write about. I focus on a strong opening and conclusion to help me focus on where I'm going. Then I fill in the middle with the main points, and flesh it out with the embellishments until I've gotten to the target word count.

    And those darn writer's books I buy and magazines I subscribe to look kind of cool on my bookshelf and my desk, but someday I should read some of them to recoup my investment.

    Lee
    Tossing It Out

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  6. ugh! DL, I HATE thinking about word count. Almost as much as budgets! ;p

    I have the opposite problem since I started as a flowery-writing English major then worked as a journalist where I got all that pounded out of me.

    Now when I write books, I have to concentrate on *slowing down,* burying the lede... More explanation, build-up, setting development...

    It's a process! :o)

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  7. I don't set daily goals or anything. I write when and what I feel like writing.
    Ironically I had the opposite problem. My first complete work was over 75,000, but test readers had me slashing dialogue and scenes and I watched the word count drop even lower. Fortuantely, I as encouraged to add a few things, and once my publisher's editor got a hold of it, a prologue was requested.
    Needless to say, I'm aiming for a slightly longer book for the sequel.

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  8. I know the Man will put me on a budget one we are living together so I'm splurging now!! LOL!

    I don't write everyday but I do something towards my learning and craft every day.

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  9. I have tried a chapter every two weeks in the past. That has worked. Right now it's write as much as I can, count it but don't sweat it (for now).

    And FREE is often present on my writing budget. Two writing groups I attend (FREE, aside from coffee at B&N or for print outs or a snack I make for a group) FREE On-line Conferences. FREE Blogger account. FREE advice I find on net or at library.

    I have also been lucky to receive technology type tools as gifts from understanding loved ones (i.e. this computer, etc) and a standing deal with family and friends that B&N or craft store gift card are my holiday or B-Day wish.

    The only big expense on my budget at this time would be....my time.

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  10. i actually set word goals. but they vary from day to day depending on what is happening in my life. sometimes it might be 500 words, but if i've only got a half hour to write, that's a great goal. and usually i exceed it.

    i'm even ok with words being deleted because if they weren't there in the first place, how much progress was i really making?

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  11. aww you can do it! sometimes we just have to be fearless when we draft. we can't care if it's good or bad or worthless. we just have to WRITE for the sake of writing. you'll be surprised how much it helps :D

    HANG IN THERE! :D

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  12. I hate word count rules. They seem so arbitrary!

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  13. I have this problem even with essays in college. You have to make it a page count instead of word count though, and I'd rather have a word count. I write short stories and honestly I have a harder time getting up to the higher word count then I do narrowing it down to the word count. Its one of those things that I don't think about it unless I'm told to be thinking about it, then the options seem so limited.

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  14. I WISH I could write obscene amounts everyday, but it just doesn't happen that way for me.

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  15. I agree too. I don't do daily word count goals either - I tend to write by scenes when I'm first drafting. When I'm editing I just do what I do. :)

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  16. I keep track of my word count and gave myself a goal of 500 words a day, just to get me to write.

    It's worked, too. I tend to write more than that at a sitting, though (unless I'm struggling - then it's because I took the wrong route and need to rethink things).

    But I think that if you want to be published, you'll be working with deadlines. What better way to get ready for that than to set yourself daily goals (or at least weekly goals)?

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  17. I put my hubby on a budget, but he never follows it. :(

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  18. Interesting. Word counts are a pain, right? Right now I'm worried I won't have ENOUGH words. It's much easier to comb out the extras than try to add extras in. And how nice for Mr. Sparks to churn out 2k words a day. Psh. Even though they may be the same 2k words every day (did I just say that out loud?), he still somehow ended up with a demanding audience. (I liked the first couple of his I read... I'm not trying to completely knock his work. It's just.. if you read more than a couple.. you already know everything that's going to happen. ;)

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  19. great post! i can kinda do word count goals when rough drafting, but editing and rewriting take much more time... because i have to be so CAREFUL!

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  20. I'm like you, I don't use daily targets, just try to write.

    I don't write with a specific word count in mind either, but I'm usually pretty good at staying within reasonable bounds. Also, I live for editing, so things will undoubtedly always get trimmed.

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  21. Daily word count goals don't work for me either - I just try to write whenever I get the chance. I'm learning to accept that that's just the way it is.

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  22. Not to be mean, but let's consider the quality of those 2,000 words a day that Nicholas Sparks turns out. Is that really what you want to be doing. He uses a lot of the words twice. Even more, sometimes. He uses whole plots over and over, too. So, 2k words/day -- not that hard.

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  23. I have the opposite problem - my novels are always too short. I have to look at the minimum word count for my genre and make sure I add enough to reach it. I do enjoy cutting a short story to meet the word requirement though, I think that teaches a lot about making every word count.

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  24. I'm with you, DL: I don't have any sort of writing target to meet in a day. I just do it, and hey, it works for me! And If I were to write 5k a day or something crazy like that, I'd write sheer crap. I can't help but edit as I write.

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  25. Too true dude.

    I only check my word count when I feel my story is going too long, or too short. Sometimes, I'm lucky to get 45 words a day in - and someone told me I can't count blogging in my word count. Spoil-sport :)

    I do chalk up revision/editing in my "I've written something today" talley.

    ......dhole

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  26. Sounds like you hvae a very smart wife! :)

    I need to have goal to work towards otherwise I faff around too much. I try not to worry too much about quality in the beginning stages. I just need to sit down and write!

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  27. Most times, I have to wrestle myself to finish things.

    I'm pretty good with starting stuff, and achieving word counts on writing exercises is not a problem.

    It is days like today when I'm trying to make sure I finish a short story I started in February, that are tough.

    I wrote about a 1000 words yesterday, and maybe will hit an 800 today..but this is the first draft, and there's no guarantee what will go out and what will stay in....

    I don't stress word counts usually, but today it is about the only thing that has my bottom glued to the chair!

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  28. Goals help keep me on task. I'm a wanderer! but i hate word counts.I hate that my novel got cut by half b/c of what people think is 'acceptable' for a debut YA novel. However, I do intend to have a 'deleted scenes' tab on my website!

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  29. Lisa ~ Amen! And thanks for the mention!! :)

    Amie ~ Whatever works for you! I'm fine deleted a word here or there, but a whole scene or chapter? Ouch!!

    Tahereh ~ By my fingernails!!!!

    Summer R ~ Addding words is soooo much easier on the psyche!!

    Kelly ~ You live for editing??? Do you want to do mine?? :)

    Damyanti ~ If a word goal gets you in front of the keyboard...then it serves a worthy purpose!! :)

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  30. One of books originally clocked in close to 200,000 words. I cut out A LOT, but it was still well over 100,000. Of my six books, only two fell under that number.

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  31. That's the perfect comparison -- sticking to a budget and sticking to a word count. Both kind of suck. If I want to pay my mortgage and make my car payment, a budget is a must. As for word count, my first draft clocked in at 135k. Yikes. I got it down to 106k for querying. Agent made me cut it 95k for subbing. It was definitely painful. (But it worked.)

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  32. Word count goals ended up stressing me out. Right now I'm working on getting back to writing when I have a moment.

    I tried writing short stories, but the word count drove me crazy, especially in the children's market. I enjoyed it if it was just for me. But I prefer having more freedome to develop my main characters.

    And budgets are no fun either. But I guess both are important. I suppose creative souls often struggle with being confined by such things. We'll get there!

    Good luck to you!

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  33. This is valid issue. Some times to express the whole scenario in a beautiful way, we need lot of words. But restrictions can take sting out of the plot. However, if a story is written with a target of certain number of words, the writer will find challanged to bring the best possible sequences crunched into a format that will be able to convey alot but with less words. Some writers do motivate themselves with the targets of words per day. Nice article.

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  34. Word count goals work at first, but then I get bored with them or life gets in the way and I feel guilty when I don't have a chance to meet them.

    As long as I keep moving forward, I suppose the rest doesn't matter.

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  35. My goals are to do something "writing" five days a week. Whether it is writing, researching, blogging, querying, or reading I consider it all part of my writing time. I am more productive if I feel successful. As long as I accomplish something "writing" I feel fairly good about where I am heading. Today I finished edits and sent in a pb ms of a SCBWI conference next month. (A good day...)

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  36. I know your feeling about word counts. My first draft of my MS came out 17k longer than expected, the second draft -- meant to make it shorter -- weighed in at 25K above goal length. It took a while to come to terms with the length of this story, but after cutting almost a chapters worth of stuff on my last revision, I slimmed off the 5k that were really bugging me, and I think I've got it down to an almost marketable size.

    Professional word counts can be a pain, but they do exist for a reason. There are many benefits to streamlining a book. It just hurts to do it sometimes.

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  37. I hear your pain. My first novel was around 130k. The whoel thing is sitting on the cutting room floor at the mo.

    Personally I like my word counts, but it's what works for me. Everyone is different :)

    Lyn
    W.I.P. It: A Writer's Journey

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  38. I targeted 80,000 and got 80,750 after trimming. NaNoWriMo is a new challenge for me, this will discipline me in Nov to write 2,000 words a day...*smiles then laughs loudly*

    Do I ooze confidence or what? LOL

    Stick to the wife's budget, it is less scary. I know, I am a wife. *grin*

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  39. Great post and I loved finding someone else who doesn't use the word count motivator. I'm glad it works for other people, but I actually wrote less when I added math to my words. I just want to enjoy the words I write. I, too, write daily and believe things will happen when they happen and that has allowed me to breathe again. :)

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