How Many Words, How Many Drafts

A note to a Perelandra College student:

About word count etc, let me give an example of what I go through with pretty much every novel I have written (17.5 if I counted correctly).

In the first draft I aim low, say 200 pages or about 60,000 words. Then I go through it and always find stuff that needs expanding.

My current work in progress is the tenth and final book of the Tom Hickey crime series. The first draft was around 63,000 words, the second draft slightly over 79,000 words. I will now read through, clean it up a bit, then turn it over it to a friend who can give me some advice about the legal stuff, as it’s something of a legal thriller. By the time I work with her suggestions and other concerns that come along, it will perhaps grow by a few thousand more words, about which I’ll be pleased since legal thrillers are generally long. Still, at this point I’m not aiming for a certain number of words but rather to do justice to what the story has become during the first two drafts.

Most writers I know, especially in the early years of their careers, attend classes or writers groups and in those venues get their novels critiqued. Then they revise and ask for a critique from at least one fellow writer with whom they trade editing, or if that’s not available they pay an editor. Then they revise again, maybe several times before they submit to a publisher. If the publisher accepts the book, another editor will work on it.

A famous writer, whose identity escapes me, commented: “Writing isn’t writing, it’s revising.”

Ernest Hemingway claimed to have revised the ending to A Farewell to Arms 47 times. (I find it strange to think anyone would bother to count.)

The more and longer you write, the less you probably need outside editors, because you get better at self editing. Still, I doubt anyone becomes so objective that a good editor can’t help, at any stage of the process.