What’s the Word…Count?
‘To be, or not to be, that is the question’ (William Shakespeare, Hamlet). Well, at least for us writers it is. I possess an infinite love of the written word, reading it, writing it, quoting it. As a writer, I’ve been known to go on endlessly about any given topic—especially my favorite topics. But though I have a tendency to wax poetically, sometimes long-windedly, not everyone shares my penchant for long, passionate outpourings. In fact, a couple of my own family members has repeatedly stated, “I hate reading”. Imagine! As a lover of all things literary, I can’t fathom such a thing exists.
As I approach the long-awaited publishing date of my novel, one of the most frequent questions throughout that process—as well as one I’ve frequently heard from fellow writers, has been, how long should a novel be? How many words, pages, chapters? How much is too much or too little? The easy answer? There is no easy answer. I’ve done my research–searching publishing sites, author blogs, editor blogs, writing blogs, manuals, and other literary websites. Alas, there seems to be no consensus.
When is it enough?
Traditionally, a full-length novel has been between 80,000 and 100,000 words. The standard for general fiction is closer to 80,000 words, while sci-fi/fantasy tends to be a bit lengthier, at 100,000 words. Both standards seem a LOT of words when put in those terms. In accordance with those standards, when I first started writing my novel, I feared I wouldn’t be able to come up with enough words to even constitute a “Book”. Up until that point, I hadn’t written more than short stories. I had read about authors struggling to crank out their works; to come up with enough material to substantiate a workable plot. I admit to having been somewhat intimidated by the prospect. But fear not; turns out I suffered from no such affliction. In fact, three-quarters of the way through, I had reached 140,000 words!
Problem was, I had surpassed the traditional standard, and I wasn’t yet finished. Naturally, I panicked, believing I would have to do some MAJOR re-drafting. A daunting and discouraging task to say the least. I went back to do more research on word count—as my previous search had been a couple of years prior, and came across a lot of conflicting information. The traditional standard was still there, though with exceptions. As an avid reader, I have read novels of varying length—in fact, for me, the thicker the book, the better. I knew that some of my previous reads from one of my favorite authors, James Patterson, was well over the standard. So does word count really matter? The good news is, with self-publishing being on the rise, the industry standards have changed.
Here is what I learned in my renewed search:
- If you’re going to a traditional publishing house, word count matters. Publishers operate on risk assessment—depending on the market, they have a standard for how a novel should look, what length it should be, etc.
- Word count varies by genre, with general fiction and adult romance novels averaging 120,000 – 150,000
- Mystery & Thriller: 80,000 — 130,000
- Sci-fi/Fantasy: 130,000 –180,000 (though George R.R. Martin’s novel, A Dance With Dragons, was an astounding 420,000 words)
- Young Adult: 60,000 – 80,000 (though J.K. Rowling’s book, The Order of the Phoenix, has a whopping word count of 257,000)
- Memoir: 70,000 – 100,000 (unless of course, you are a former president or celebrity 🙂
Keep in mind, the referenced word counts are guidelines, not requirements. But remember, those words translate into pages. Personally, I enjoy a longer novel—so long as the plot is fast-paced, and not just pages full of non-qualitative meanderings. Bottom line, it’s important to keep your audience in mind when deciding word count–also, to be mindful of length if you are writing a series. Those books tend to be shorter. No one wants to read three four hundred page books just to get to the end of a long, harrowing tale. Got it?
Why word count vs. length? Semantics really. Factors such as font, format, graphics, etc. can take up space adding to the total page count but not necessarily to the length of the story itself.
Publishers are sticklers for word counts—but if you intend to self-publish, like many new first authors nowadays, you have a little more leeway. Try to stick to the guidelines, but the most important thing to remember is, JUST WRITE. Worry about word count later. In my experience, once you’ve gotten to the final draft, you will have trimmed off 20,000 to 30,000 words anyway.
I hope this guideline was helpful 🙂
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