1. Tenderiser

    Tenderiser Not a man or BayView Supporter

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    Traditional FAQs on Word Count

    Discussion in 'Publishing' started by Tenderiser, May 5, 2017.

    Many writers join WF and have questions about word counts. This guide answers the following 12 questions:

    1. Why does word count matter?
    2. What are the word count thresholds for flash fiction, short stories, novellas, and novels?

    3. What are standard novel lengths for middle-grade (children's), young adult, and adult books?
    4. What are standard adult novel lengths for different genres?
    5. Why should debut authors aim for <100,000 words?
    6. What about non-fiction?
    7. My book is way outside standard lengths for the age group and genre. Is there any hope of being published?
    8. If my book is too long, can I split it and make it a series?
    9. I can't split my long book. How can I reduce its length?
    10. My book is too short. How can I increase its length?

    11. How long should chapters be?
    12. Does every chapter need to be the same length?


    I've attempted to collate information from as many reputable sources as possible and try to answer these questions. At the end you'll find links to the most comprehensive sources but, as always, there's nothing better than doing your own research.

    This FAQ is focused on traditional publishing. Self-publishers will hopefully still find it useful, especially 1b) on reader expectations.

    If you're looking for a quick and dirty guide, I like this from Writer's Digest:

    For advice more tailored to your particular audience, read on.

    1. Why does word count matter?

    a) Cost. Longer books cost more to produce.

    What about eBooks? They don't have printing costs, so why does length matter?

    Print costs are a tiny fraction of what it takes to produce a printed book - I've seen figures suggesting 2%. The majority of the publisher's investment is in editing time, and a 500-page book takes twice as long--and so costs twice as much--to edit as a 250-page book.

    Other costs such as marketing are fixed no matter the length of the book, but books of non-standard lengths are harder to sell. This makes standard-length books a better investment pound for pound (or dollar for dollar, or insert other currency).

    Digital and digital-first* imprints are sometimes more flexible with word counts than print publishers, but it tends to be flexibility at the lower end.​

    So you may be able to sell a short book to a digital line, but probably not an overly long one.

    *A digital-first imprint releases books electronically at first. If a title reaches a certain sales threshold it may then be sold in print as well.

    b) Reader expectations. eBooks are a relatively new thing. For decades, readers have become accustomed to a certain length of novel in their chosen genre/s. Books much longer than we're used to can feel like they're dragging. Ones shorter than we're used to can feel rushed and abrupt.

    Think of films. We're accustomed to films around 120 minutes long. Watch a 30-minute film, or a 300-minute film, and it will feel short or long. Even if you enjoy the 30-minute film, you might not feel you got value for money from it.

    There's a difference here between print books and eBooks, because a digital book feels the same on your device no matter how long it is. Not so when you're standing in a book store and can see a one-inch thick book next to one two-inches thick. Which one looks like better value for money? This may be why eBook readers are more open to shorter novel lengths.

    2. What are the word count thresholds for flash fiction, short stories, novellas, and novels?

    There is no definitive answer to this. Definitions vary among magazines and publishers. I can only give you the most commonly agreed thresholds based on my research - check the requirements of the publishers you're targeting!
    • Flash fiction: Up to 1,000 words.
    Some publications want as few as 50 words, some no more than 500, and I've even seen one that takes up to 1,500.​
    • Short stories: 1,000 - 10,000 words.
    Again, this varies widely, with some anthologies accepting up to 15k. There is crossover between long short stories and short novellas.

    2,000-5,000 is the most common, in my experience.​
    • Novella: 10,000 - 40,000 words.
    40k seems to be the upper limit almost everywhere, with most markets requiring a minimum of 20,000.​
    • Novel: 40k+ words, with different minimum and maximum lengths for different age groups and genres - please read the next question.
    Many publishers will require a minimum of 50k. Theoretically, there is no upper limit. The Guinness World Records states that A la recherche du temps perdu is the longest novel ever published at just over 1.25m words.
    3. What are standard novel lengths for middle-grade (children's), young adult, and adult books?
    • Middle grade (ages 8-12ish): 20,000 - 60,000 words.
    Adjust these parameters based on your target age group: lower for eight-year-olds, higher for twelve-year-olds. Fantasy and sci-fi are usually longer than other genres.​
    • Young adult (ages 13-18ish): 40,000 - 100,000 words.
    The trend has been creeping upwards for the past few years, though 100k is still rare. 40-70k is average for most genres, with sci-fi and fantasy going up to 80k or 90k.​
    • Adult (18+ish): 50,000 - 120,000 words.
    Varies widely based on genre; see the next question.
    4. What are standard adult novel lengths for different genres?

    Again, this varies between publishers so check their requirements! For a guide:
    • Historical: 80,000 - 120,000 words. Debut authors should aim for fewer than 100,000 words.
    • Fantasy: 80,000 - 120,000 words. Debut authors should aim for fewer than 100,000 words.
    • Sci-fi: 80,000 - 120,000 words. Debut authors should aim for fewer than 100,000 words.
    • Literary: 80,000 - 100,000 words.
    • Romance: 50,000 - 100,000 words.
    • Thriller: 70,000 - 90,000 words.
    • Crime: 70,000 - 90,000 words.
    • Horror: 70,000 - 90,000 words.
    • Other: 80,000 words is probably a good aim, but please research books in your genre (not the outliers from huge bestsellers, but midlist books).
    5. Why should debut authors aim for <100,000 words?

    Six figures is an arbitrary threshold that probably comes from print costs, where 100,000 tips production into the next level of expense. Or maybe it's a psychological thing of 100,000 looking so much bigger than 99,999. Publishers want to find new authors but, from a business perspective, they need to manage risk, and not invest too much until they know the author's books will sell.

    Keeping your debut under 100,000 words means publishers are more able to take a chance on you.

    6. What about non-fiction?

    This is too varied to give any kind of useful ballpark. You'll have to research in your particular area (self-help, cookbooks, memoir, etc).

    Non-fiction books are mostly sold on proposal, where the publisher will give you a word count to aim for when they accept the proposal.

    7. My book is way outside standard lengths for the age group and genre. Is there any hope of being published?

    Yes. There are plenty of examples of authors, including debut authors, getting deals for books way outside of normal lengths.

    But they are the outliers, and it's not logical to bank your hopes on being an outlier. If you have an 'awkward' book length, your wisest move would be to put it aside and write something non-awkward for your debut. Once you're successful you're less of a risk to a publisher, and they will be more able to invest in producing a non-standard book with you.

    On the other hand, all you have to lose from pitching a non-standard book is time. Who knows--you might become an outlier. :)

    8. If my book is too long, can I split it and make it a series?

    Maybe. The crucial thing is that each book in your series will need to be complete - no cliffhangers that compel the reader to buy the next one to finish the story. There can be an overarching plot that isn't tied up until the end, but each book needs its own completed plot.

    Think of Harry Potter - in the first book, Professor Quirrel is defeated, Harry is accepted by his peers, Gryffindor wins the house cup, and the Dursleys have failed in their attempts to stop him becoming a wizard. It's a satisfying ending. But other threads aren't tied up until much later: Voldemort's final defeat, the animosity between the Dursleys and Harry, the feud between Harry and Draco Malfoy.

    This, again, is because of the risk of publishing a first-time author. If the first book in a series has poor sales then the second may not be published, and readers will be angry if they're left hanging forever - this is bad for the publisher's and the author's reputations. It's safer to publish a book that stands alone but can be expanded into a series if it finds an audience.

    9. I can't split my long book. How can I reduce its length?

    There is no single answer. I strongly recommend finding multiple beta readers (people who read in your genre, who agree to read your manuscript and give you feedback on everything from plot to characters) and gauging what you can cut.

    Posting a short section for critique in our workshop here at WF is a good way to gauge whether your wording itself could be adjusted. By tightening your writing you could reduce your word count by a significant percentage without losing anything in characterisation or plot. Your style may be lost, however, or you may naturally write tightly, so this won't work for everybody

    Removing one or more subplots is a possibility.

    Removing one or more points of view.

    Summarising events rather than showing them in real time.

    Removing events that aren't necessary for the overall plot arc.

    Reducing back story and/or exposition. You'd be surprised how little information readers need to understand characters and plot developments.

    Using txt spk instead of proper English. (I'm joking. For the love of the flying spaghetti monster, don't do this.)

    10. My book is too short. How can I increase its length?

    Again, there is no one answer. I strongly recommend finding multiple beta readers (people who read in your genre, who agree to read your manuscript and give you feedback on everything from plot to characters) and gauging what you could expand.

    Posting a short section for critique in our workshop here at WF is a good way to gauge whether your wording itself could be adjusted. Your style may be lost, however, so this won't work for everybody.

    In my experience, going deeper into the character's head can increase words without being boring.

    'Showing' can use more words than 'telling' without getting boring. If you don't know those definitions... good luck, because there's less consensus there than over Coke or Pepsi being superior.

    Adding one or more subplots.

    Adding one or more characters, e.g. another sidekick.

    Adding one or more points of view.

    Turning dialogue into narrative, as narrative usually takes more words to get something across than speech.

    11. How long should chapters be?

    This is much less important than overall word count. In a nutshell, make chapters as long as you want but avoid a string of very short chapters unless you're writing for lower MG or younger. For a longer answer...

    Chapter lengths vary so much that it's meaningless to say how long an average chapter is in any type of novel (e.g. adult or YA). My unsubstantiated guess is that most chapters will fall between 2,000 and 5,000 words.

    It may be easier to think of chapters in reading time. Adults read about 250 words a minute on average. A chapter which only takes a few minutes to read will feel short to most readers. A chapter which takes 40 minutes to read might test the patience of readers who feel compelled to wait for a chapter break before putting a book down.

    There is no upper limit: some books don't have chapters at all and are, in effect, one long chapter. This is no impediment to getting published. Just bear in mind that, as I've said, some readers might not like it.

    In books for young readers--up to lower MG age--very short chapters are also not a problem.

    Very short chapters are a problem for fiction aimed at older readers. It's fine to use one every now and then in a YA/adult book, but a book consisting entirely of chapters which take only a few minutes to read might feel choppy and disjointed.

    12. Does every chapter need to be the same length?

    No. Not at all.

    Sources and Further Information

    These are all several years old but standards change slowly in publishing, so they are still mostly accurate.

    Writer's Digest

    Jennifer Laughran - a literary agent when she published the post, which only covers children's and young adult books.

    Manuscript Appraisal Agency - adult and young adult [Please note this is not an endorsement of the agency or its services by me or WritingForums.org! I have no idea how good they are at manuscript appraisal.]

    Manuscript Appraisal Agency - children's [Please note this is not an endorsement of the agency or its services by me or WritingForums.org! I have no idea how good they are at manuscript appraisal.]
     
    Last edited: Jul 24, 2017
  2. Mckk

    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    stickied :D thanks for compiling this post!
     
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  3. Pinkymcfiddle

    Pinkymcfiddle Banned

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    This is interesting, because I have often wondered if the standard mainstream novel length (circa 90k) still holds true, or with all the distractions of modern life and the growth of YA (circa 60k), even amongst adult readers, perhaps something shorter and sharper is more to people's tastes? Much like the reduction in the number of TV episodes in the US, and with it, the removal of filler.
     
    Last edited: May 6, 2017
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  4. Partridge

    Partridge Active Member

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    Very helpful, thank you!
     
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  5. Thundair

    Thundair Contributor Contributor

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    Dang! I just removed 1000 words from my first chapter to move the story along to an event.
    I need to learn how to describe the environment my pov is in, and how he feels about it.
    As always I'm grateful for the info. Now I just have to man up to the task. I've never written anything over 66000
     
    Last edited: Jun 28, 2017
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  6. Cave Troll

    Cave Troll "It's a messy business." :P Supporter Contributor

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    I have contest with #8.
    Most series I have read have a cliff hanger, not all mind you.
    So to insinuate that it is just to get the readers to the next installment
    is a bit trite.
    Though I don't plan on writing a 3rd installment to my story line, just
    to milk the story for what it is worth. It was a time management, and
    length decision. Not one to draw out a story for 15 books just to sit and
    watch the continuity fall apart, and build a cult following.
    Besides there are plenty of books that are standalone that end on
    cliffhangers, that do not have any follow up to them. So the notion
    that a cliffhanger is considered bad, is a bit of a subjective one.

    How many shows have you seen that keep you on the edge, and leave
    you open ended wanting to find out what happens the next episode?
     
  7. Tenderiser

    Tenderiser Not a man or BayView Supporter

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    66k is close! If you write YA, you're fine.

    You misread - "no cliffhangers that compel the reader to buy the next one" isn't a value judgement on the author, but a factual statement. If there's a cliffhanger, a reader has to buy the next book to find out what happens next. Publishers don't go for that for first-time authors. Agents don't take queries for series, but only for single books. As with most things, once an author is successful there's more leeway.
     
    Last edited: Jun 29, 2017
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  8. Cave Troll

    Cave Troll "It's a messy business." :P Supporter Contributor

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    I have no plans of trying to go traditional with this, so it does not matter so much. :)
     
  9. jannert

    jannert Who? Whooo? Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I especially like the advice about increasing and/or decreasing story length. Even if you're going for self-publishing and aren't as concerned as others about actual word count, these tips are useful to consider.

    Are you including WAY too much background info that keeps the story from moving forward? Are you telling the story too quickly, using so much dialogue-as-exposition that readers struggle to follow what's happening and lose interest?

    Paying attention to these tips should result in a story that achieves just the right balance—whether you plan to traditionally publish or not.
     
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  10. Vianca

    Vianca Active Member

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    Does this apply to word count per chapter? I mean how many words should the chapter have? And does all the chapter have to have the same word count?
     
  11. Tenderiser

    Tenderiser Not a man or BayView Supporter

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    There are no guidelines for chapter length - you'll see a massive range of chapter lengths in published books.

    The only thing you don't really see is books with only very short chapters. As a rough guide, under 1,000 words would likely feel short to most readers. If all of your chapters are sub-1k, it will probably be a choppy reader experience.

    Very long chapters, on the other hand, don't seem to be a problem. Some books don't even have chapters and are continuous, with only scene breaks.

    Chapters don't have to be the same length as each other.
     
  12. Homer Potvin

    Homer Potvin The bastards hung me in the spring of '25.... Contributor

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    Nope, no real standard for chapter length or consistency between chapters required. So long as everything flows and nothing you should be fine.

    Having said all that I prefer manageable chapters or breaks within chapters so I can put the book down within a reasonable amount of time if I need to do something else. Some of those old 19th century books that go 20-30 pages without a break drive me bonkers.
     
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  13. Vianca

    Vianca Active Member

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    I have a novel started, and each chapter is 5k word count. Is that considered acceptable?





    Yeah, I know. I like to at least read a couple chapters and then put the book aside, and pick up where I left it at the beginning of the chapter. if I close the book in the middle of the chapter I have to read the whole page. it annoys me.
     
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  14. Tenderiser

    Tenderiser Not a man or BayView Supporter

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    Sure.
     
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  15. TWErvin2

    TWErvin2 Contributor Contributor

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    Echoing what Tenderiser indicated, 5000 words is a reasonable chapter length.


    Often chapters within a novel have scene breaks, which can be useful places to end reading a novel until it can be picked up again next time.
     
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  16. Laurin Kelly

    Laurin Kelly Contributor Contributor

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    My chapters are anywhere between 4000 and 8000 words, generally speaking.
     
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  17. Tenderiser

    Tenderiser Not a man or BayView Supporter

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    I've added some information on chapter lengths (questions 11 and 12).
     
  18. Rosacrvx

    Rosacrvx Contributor Contributor

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    Help me here, I'm not used to the Ks and Ms. Does this mean 1 Million words?....
     
  19. Tenderiser

    Tenderiser Not a man or BayView Supporter

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    Yep! 1,250,000 :eek:
     
  20. Rosacrvx

    Rosacrvx Contributor Contributor

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    Indeed:

    :eek::eek::eek:

    Those were the days when writers published in volumes. A completely different approach to publishing.

    Still, wow! That's just too much. And I like long books, really long books and sagas.
    But one million words is a stretch. And from a writer's perspective I can't even imagine the nightmare of editing one million words.
    It's a classic, though, and I've heard of it before. I think I'll give it a peek just to check if it's worth it.
     
  21. Jrax16

    Jrax16 New Member

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  22. Lew

    Lew Contributor Contributor

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    @Vianca, 5K is a good target length, that is about 12 to 15 double-spaced pages per chapter. But feel free to shorten and lengthen it to go with the pace... one of my chapters, probably a few, got wrapped up in three pages. They were off-scene, made their point and moved on. Others took a while longer. Think of each chapter as a substory.

    Having said all that, my book broke many of the rules at 240K words. Predictably, I didn't get picked up the traditional route, but I self-published and it is doing very well. I considered breaking it up, but for all the reasons @Tenderiser gave, it wouldn't have been complete without major surgery. In fact, my editor recommended against it. I am now into the sequel, and targeting about the same length.

    So thanks, @Tenderiser, very good information, even though I didn't follow it!
     
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  23. big soft moose

    big soft moose The Moderating Moose Staff Supporter Contributor Community Volunteer

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    I'm not sure it matters that much if you are self pubbed - all of Joanna Penn's books (adult thriller/fantasy - Dan brown ish) are in the region of 60K and its never been a problem for her ....

    My lengths are all over the place , one at 105k one a novella at 25k and the one I'm working on is 58k ... i'm not convinced the reader cares , and freedom from that kind of gate keeper expectation was one reason why I chose to go self pub
     
  24. Sergeant Mirror

    Sergeant Mirror New Member

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    very informative, thanks
     

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