Word Counts: Then vs. Now

I know that I've touched on word counts in a previous blog called How Important Are Word Counts, but today I want to discuss my theories on the changing importance of word counts.

Looking back at some of my favorite classic books like The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, I am blown away by the word counts in each book. The shortest of the four books, The Hobbit, has just over 95,000 words in it. The others all have over 100,000 words with the entire series containing a combined total of 576,459 words.

Let that sink in a moment.

Four books have over half a million words among them. That is a lot of words. That means that on average each book is worth 144,115 words each. Now, today's standards say that the average book length should be around 80,000 words, nearly half of each book Tolkien released in that series.

So if these classic works have such a high word count, why are today's books measured to a lower standard?

I've never found a good reason on why publishers and agents have set this seemingly random target number but I do have a theory.

In essence, a changed society.

Back in the days when Tolkien, Shelly, Well, Melville, and many of the other writers of today's classics were first being printed society was very different from today. When you read books by those authors you can feel like you spend hours getting lost in the abundance of details around a single leaf in a tree in a forest or the quality masonry used for a block of stone in a city wall. Many of these classic writers shared this level of descriptive quality that is largely gone from most modern works.

As a child reading those books, there were times that the level of description was too great for me and it left me feeling bored. For a number of years, I equated reading to sleeping because I would often read these great works while laying in bed at night and the languished pace from the ongoing mundane descriptions seemed to lull me to sleep.

That actually turned me off from reading for a great while. Now that I have started writing my own books, I look back at those days of reading endless paragraphs detailing the world of the book with so many adjectives that I strive to be different. I remember that as I kid reading felt boring because the books I chose to read were not only lengthy but the slow pace of the story due to the overwhelming amount of descriptive passages made each books feel even longer than it was.

If that's the case, why would authors back then write like that?

Frankly, many of these books were written and published before television was invented, movies were popular or had sound, and even before radio was a thing. Today, we as a society are inundated with all kinds of media to depict things from the real world or fantasy. Not only do we have the typical TV shows and movies but we have the Internet, You Tube, billboards, video games, posters, costumes, and countless others. Back when the classics were created with their extreme word counts, society didn't have all of these other forms of media to showcase what something looked like.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was published in 1818. What other means were available to depict how Dr. Frankenstein looked, what his castle was like, or what the monster looked like? It wasn't like she could take out a billboard on the side of the road to show people what her imagination had concocted. The only place she could try to impress upon her readers the details of the world she had created was within the pages of her book.

Authors back then were forced to write with extreme detail because there were so few other frames of reference for the worlds they were creating and because information about similar works were far less known than today. Each books was a self-contained world, some of them creating things for the first time that we now think of as commonplace. This forced the writers of that time to be super descriptive with everything they created because their readers likely had no previous concepts for the things being written about.

If you tell someone today that you are writing about an elf, almost everybody will know immediately what you are talking about and be able to picture an elf in their mind that will share many attributes with what the person next to them envisioned. Because of these classics that have turned these once new concepts and creatures into common knowledge, authors today no longer need to delve into such detail to get the same point across. Authors don't need to create elaborate descriptions for a werewolf, a vampire, a troll, an orc, an elf, a dwarf, etc., because we've already been introduced to them whereas before they were entirely new.

Many of today's authors that write in these genres are simply standing on the shoulders of the authors that have come before and our works are built upon the foundations of the classics. We can leverage the existing knowledge of society to streamline our works, to make the words more efficient and books shorter while still portraying the worlds in a way that readers can imagine.

Does that play a part into why so many publishers weigh word counts they way they do? I can't say. But it does provide an interesting concept on why many modern books have lower word counts in these popular genres compared to many of the classics. Of course, there are still modern books being released that exceed the new "standard" limits on words but these "standards" are subjective to each publisher and probably each author. If I'm a publisher with a popular author, I'm probably not going to be as picky about word count with their works compared to assessing the work or a new, unproven author.

In short, thanks to the efforts of the authors that have come before us and the many forms of media that help spread the ideas and concepts in popular books and genres, authors today can do more with less. And while less may not equal better, the fact that it can mean more means that we can focus our writing on the action, plot, and emotional aspects of storytelling while spending less time painting every detail of the world through words. We can write less because those who came before us wrote more.

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