How long is too long? What's the average length of a YA book? A romance novel? A thriller? Can you go over (or under) and still sell your book? What if you have to cut words?
First, let's look at some of the basics:
Word count for a typical novel runs between 80,000 and 100,000 words. If your novel falls in that range, chances are you're fine for most adult fiction genres/markets. Children's fiction runs 30,000 to 50,000 for middle grade, and 50,000 to 80,000 for young adult. Chapter books run 5,000 to 25,000 words. Picture books come in under 500. Mysteries often go as low as 60,000 and historical fiction and epic fantasy rise as high as 140,000.
These are very general ranges, but if your book falls outside these ranges, don't panic. Agent Rachelle Gardner has an excellent post on word count that shows what the ranges are and where you can fudge them. There is wiggle room, but be smart about it. If the average size of the genre and market you're aiming for it 55,000 words, your 110,000-word novel is going to be too long. That's like trying to pitch a movie for a 60-second commercial slot.
And yes, I know that for every person who says you'll never get published with a 145,000 word book, another says BestsellerBob's book was 145,000 words. Yes, it does happen, but those books succeeded in spite of the word count, not because of it. You stand a much better chance at success if you fall in the norms, but if the story absolutely without a doubt has to be that size, then, go for it. But understand that you're starting out with a strike against you. You'll have to be that much better to overcome that strike. Because ultimately...
It's not about how many words you have, but what those words do, that counts.
This, folks, is the holy grail of word counts.
The goal of any story is to grab the reader from the start, offer them a story they just can't put down, and hold that attention until the end. The trick is to make sure every word you use does exactly that. You can have 75,000 words that don't grab a reader and the book will fail. You can have 140,000 words that grab a reader and don't let go and the book will succeed. It's the story that matters. A great book is a great book.
That said, a published novel is a product, and as a product, certain rules apply. These rules exist to cover things like cost of making the book vs. what they can sell it for, and if a book will cost twice as much, it's not economical to sell it. Readers won't pay $16 for a 2500-page paperback. (forget how they'd even hold the thing)
Word count guidelines provide a framework in which to plan a novel, and can actually make it easier for a writer, because you have a structure within which to work. But ultimately, you need to tell the story to the best of your ability, however many words that is. If a word isn't pulling its weight, cut it. If it's a star performer, let it shine. Take the general ranges of your chosen genre into account, as they will guide to to what readers--and publishers--expect and are willing to pay for, but don't freak out if you go over or under. Just make sure the extra words are there to help your story, and not because you don't feel like editing any tighter. It's not about cutting it down to reach a certain limit, it's about tightening to make the story better.
But if you have to cut your manuscript down?
Cutting down a novel doesn't have to be a huge hack and slash deal. You don't have to rip your baby to shreds. In fact, hacking away whole scenes often hurts the novel more than helps, because you're killing the story, not the extra words. What you want to do, is get rid of the stuff that isn't helping your story. Or the stuff that you can live without, even if it's good writing.
It can be daunting though. Hearing "cut 10,000 words out of your novel" can make you want to curl up in a ball. But let's look at what that really means...
"Long" novels are most often ones that are 120,000+ words. A 120,000 word novel is roughly 480 pages (based on the traditional 250 words per page format). You can cut 4800 words out if you cut just ten words per page. That's one sentence in most cases. Cut twenty words per page at you've practically hit you 10K mark. Twenty words is nothing. A 150,000 word novel? 600 pages, and 6000 or 12,000 words gone. Cut thirty words -- 18,000 words down.
If you need to cut words, decide how many you need to cut, then divide that by the number of pages. That'll give you a goal of what to cut per page, and in most cases, it's a lot less than you'd expect. A sentence, a paragraph, a few dialog tags. Some duplicate bit of description of backstory you didn't need anyway.
Don't think of word count as your enemy. It can be your friend, and help you position your book so it has the best chance of selling.