Last updated on October 26, 2016
Word count isn’t something to worry about while you’re writing your first draft. I’m a big advocate of “it takes a long as it takes” to get the story out. Word count is something to consider later, after you get it out of your head.
While I don’t think about word count myself while I’m creating a new piece, I do still know the typical genre lengths. For myself, yeah, it’s a by-product of my editing for others and myself for so long, but beyond that, it’s part of the industry I work in. As a component of the business, if you’re in it, you should know them, too. Are you serious about making a career out of your writing? Then if you’re in it for the long haul, you should make it your business to know everything about your business including standard word counts.
Once you’ve been writing for any length of time and focussed on being economical with your prose, your technique will keep your word count from spiralling out of control. If you tend to write in the same genre, you’ll develop a natural rhythm to your reveal through your beginning, middle and end. Once you do a few manuscripts, you’ll notice you tend to hit the same word count ballpark without trying. That’s what you want. That means, you’ve learned to be lean, that you restrain yourself from going off on tangents and keep your stories tight. A tight story means more movement within it which translates into more interest for the reader and much less editing for you.
Here’s the nitty gritty…
A super high word count like 200,000 or 300,000 words or more… Is this an appropriate length for a book? And can you get that published?
Honestly? A super high word count is most often an indication that the writer hasn’t edited their work enough. Unless you’re Tolstoy, you’ll likely still needs to tighten it up. If you find yourself in this situation, give your work a couple more passes.
On the flipside, the story might already be so tight it squeaks, but the word count is still that long. What does this mean? This may mean nothing more serious than you have too much story for one book and you’re looking at two books combined. Take a critical look at what you have and see if you can find the natural break in the story to split them. The two halves will be more in line with the word count for your genre or will give you the ability to bulk out the two halves for better storytelling.
And don’t be stubborn. Remember, if you’ve chosen to make this your livelihood, play by the rules. Learn how to support yourself through your art before you start being a rule breaker. If you’re not famous yet and haven’t established yourself as a guaranteed bankroll, no one is going to give you gobs of cash for bucking the system. Sorry to burst your bubble.
There are few exceptions to the word count rule – as in, there are very few success stories from people who write tomes of 300,000 words right out of the gate. Could it happen with a commercial publisher? Nowadays..? Chances are slim to nonexistent. Could you do it through a vanity publisher or indie pub platform? Sure, you could publish it yourself. But you won’t make money off it, because no one will buy a book with a word count that high from someone they don’t know. People don’t like spending their money on anything they don’t yet trust. If you haven’t established you can deliver to your fanbase, they’re not going to trust you and aren’t going to give you their money. Learn to grown-up first, okay, Pumpkin? Okie dokie.
Where did word count come from?
Quick history lesson to those of you who grew up in the electronic age.
Back in the day? It was expensive to set-up printing presses, pay pressmen and maintenance crews and to switch out the entire mechanical nightmare that could, in some cases, consist of a hard-to-imagine roughly fifteen-thousand moving parts. Some publishing houses didn’t even have their own presses and contracted with a local commercial printer. That meant, if they used them all the time, they could only print books of particular lengths due to limitations of what their contracted printer could do.
Even if a publisher had their own presses and crews, the cost and print time lost in changing out the presses was a huge factor. Over time and due to that cost factor, each house eventually settled into setting up their machines a specific way, so they could run them more often with less downtime. That meant, writers had to conform to the restrictions of each publishing house who would most often be the only publisher to print books in a particular genre.
Nowadays, online indie platforms have made this less of an issue along with print publishers moving forward with the times and using technology in their printing. This has made these numbers more fluid, though the general word count guidelines still exist within the industry.
By The Numbers – Word Count By Genre and Classification
General classification word count lengths look something like this:
Short story (short) – 1001 – 4000 words
Short story (long) – 4001-8000 words
Novelette – 8001-17,500 words What the heck is a “novelette”? This is a story shorter than a novella and longer than a short story.
Children’s chapter books – 16,000+ Generally speaking, a children’s book that contains chapters will start around the 16,000-word mark and go up. Depending on the target age range, the older the audience the story is geared toward, the longer the book is, so this is a tough one to ballpark. Go with the publisher guidelines to be safe.
Novella – 17,500 to 60,000 words Traditional novella lengths begin around 30,000 words, but that’s been trending downward the last decade. By definition, this is a “short book”. That means, longer than a short story, but not as long as a novel. The word count for these is a bit fluid and could be anywhere from 17,500 to 40,000 words and sometimes even up to 60,000 words at the top end. Keeping in that range should allow you to get published in mainstream markets including through traditional print publishers. Be sure to check publisher guidelines, though, because each will have different specs. And remember, a novella isn’t taking chapters from a long story to publish separately. Not unless you were going to develop each of those chapters into a stand-alone story. If you want to publish by chapter, you may be interested in a genre called serial fiction.
Non-fiction trade – 35,000 – 90,000 Non-fiction trade books include things like cook books, how-to books, research books, travel destination books and other subjects outside general or genre fiction. They’re most often shorter than a regular trade-length novel, so under the 90,000-word mark. Since the length of these can vary widely depending on the subject matter and the publisher, always best to check the specific publisher guidelines.
Novel – 60,000 – 120,000 This is an all-purpose word count range. Depending on your chosen genre, print publishers have very specific guidelines for word count due to the traditional cost involved in setting up press runs. If you’re writing fiction and want a target to aim for, you can’t go wrong aiming for the 80,000-110,000-word range. Outside of genre fiction, general fiction is usually in the 80,000 to 90,000-word range.
Genre fiction word count guidelines:
- westerns – 50,000 – 80,000 words
- YA – 55,000 – 69,999 words – these can be very flexible, but aiming for this range will keep you out of trouble
- women’s fiction (“chick lit”) – 70,000 -75,000 words traditionally. Can be up to about 120,000 words, though overall, these commercial novels tend to be a bit shorter.
- science fiction – 65,000-85,000 and up (approx 260-340+pgs) with most often between 100,000-115,000 words
- thrillers – 85,000-100,000 (apprx 340-400pgs)
- fantasy fiction – 80,000-120,000 up to 180,000 or even 200+. On the high end, the fantasy novel must be really good and must fully justify that heftier word count.