Should writers watch word count?

Blog 58 ImageA recent Microsoft study concludes that the average human attention span has fallen from twelve seconds to eight since 2000. Apparently that’s less than the attention span of a goldfish. I’ll try to keep this post short.

I’m not a fan of proclaiming rules that writers need to follow in order to write a book and get some readers. But I have been wondering if, in a digital age with falling attention span, fiction writers should try to keep their books within a word count range. For example, I often read that thrillers should be 80,000–120,000 words. Here are some things to consider.

Readers are busy and have enormous content choice. These realities are obvious but they account for the declining human attention span. And I think writers ignore them at their peril. For example, a thriller writer should ensure that his book has a strong opening, good pacing and crisp writing.

A writer needs to keep his genre in mind. Readers of genres like mysteries, thrillers and romance have expectations about the length of the books they read. They can be convinced to read longer books but writers should be sure they have the goods to do it.

What is the writer trying to give the readers? The main goal of my books, The Case for Killing and False Guilt, is to entertain readers for a weekend. I hope the books offer the occasional human insight as well, but they’re thrillers, not literary fiction. A weekend is a precious amount of time these days, so I look to keep my books around 95,000 words.

What does your publisher want? For books of traditionally published authors, the publishing house will have ideas what word count the market prefers.

Books should be ruthlessly edited. Using fewer words for the same effect often leads to better writing and pace. In later edits of my books, I get cruel satisfaction from pulling out words. Especially adverbs.

Word count isn’t the be all and end all, of course. A really engaging book, especially with extraordinary writing, will hook readers regardless of length. But I do think that modern realities should drive a writer to keep an eye on how many words he’s written. And the added benefit is that he’ll likely produce a better book. Watching word count compels a writer to ensure that every word counts.

P.S. I thought about reading the Microsoft report, but it’s fifty-four pages long.

Copyright © 2015 Peter Fritze

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