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How Many Words in a Novel?

A common worry when nearing the finale of your debut novel is whether you have a) enough words to qualify as a publishable, full-length novel or b) too many words packed into those pages – which will put off both publishers and readers, for different reasons.

But how do you know when you’re toeing the line between an enticing publishing proposition and a hard sell?

In truth, guidelines for the number of words in a novel are just that – guidelines. There are few hard and fast rules, but from an overall industry perspective, the following are mainly accepted as true:

Short Story – 1,500 to 20,000 words

Novella – 30,000 to 50,000 words

Novel – 55,000 – 125,000 words

Again, these are just basic guidelines and actual word count can vary. For example, while 55,000 words could technically constitute a novel, it would be rare to find one that comes in below 60,000 – which could even be considered too short by modern standards.

In fact, the ideal average for a first-time novelist is between 80,000 and 100,000 words.

Just like the creative process itself, word counts can be fluid depending on the content. This is especially true in the realm of self publishing, where shorter, cheaper novels are more commonly accepted.

The Publisher Perspective

Once the number of words in a novel exceeds the 100,000 word mark, printing costs begin to climb exponentially. Unless your book is eminently involving and uses its extended count perfectly to craft living, breathing worlds where every word adds texture, sound and smell, chances are that those holding the purse strings at publishing houses won’t want to touch it before some heavy editing.

Larger manuscripts are more of a commercial gamble for the publisher – one which most will be reluctant to take unless you’re already a literary heavyweight.

As you can probably guess, the exceptions to this upper count generally appear within the Fantasy and Sci-Fi genres, where world-building, and the rules of science and magic, require stronger groundwork to support the story.

The Reader Perspective

You should always have your reader in mind – and if there’s one thing people just don’t want when they’re sinking into a new book, it’s being bored. When your book’s word count begins soaring into the 6-figures, chances are there’s a heady amount of waffle in there that you could trim.

All the fancy turns of phrase and minutely detailed description in the world won’t help your novel if it bogs down the pacing and makes it a slog to get through.

Conversely – publish a book that’s too short and readers might feel ripped off if you’ve priced it similarly to your more beefy competition.

What to do About Word Count

In the first instance, it isn’t particularly productive to sit down with your story and begin writing with “How many words in a novel?” floating over your head. That’s more likely to lead to you shoving in a load of fluff.

So just write.

Get your story out there – let it breathe, let it talk and do what you need to do to get that first draft down. Nothing ever comes out perfect first time.

Once you’ve reached the finish line, you can check your count and adjust as necessary. For example, if it’s too short:

  • Are there any additional scenes you could add that would flesh out the story without getting in the way of progression?
  • Would the work be better off as a novella or repurposed as a short story (or series of short stories)?

And if it’s too long:

  • Look to shortening your sentences and dialogue, and removing unnecessary exposition.
  • Are there any scenes that solely exist to highlight a certain part of a character’s personality or motivation, without actually moving the plot forward? If so, how could you inject this character beat into a different, existing scene?
  • Are you running away with too many subplots that don’t have meaningful impact on the main story or characters? You might want to nix some.
  • Be completely honest with yourself – if something isn’t crucial to keeping your story moving, chop it. It can be easy to trim 30,000 words from a manuscript when you’re ruthless about efficiency.

So there you have it. How many words in a novel? Shoot for 80,000 to 100,000 – but don’t be too scared if you’re floating around on either side. Naturally, the range does vary between audience and genre (children’s books and those for teen audiences will be much shorter), but for most fiction it pays to play it safe.

Now go forth and write!

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    Join the Discussion on “How Many Words in a Novel?”

    1. Chris Graham says:

      I have two short prequels published (as e-books only). The first is billed as a ‘short story’ at 10k words, the second at 16k is billed as a ‘novella’. (Both are available heavily discounted from the publisher’s website – the short is free.)

      These are series crime mysteries… the first full length (e-book and paperback) is 155k, followed by books in the 100k to 120k range.

      My publisher says that, particularly for e-books, even short word counts of 30k – 40k are acceptable as novels. Many of today’s readers don’t want long books anymore, while others still prefer something to get their teeth into.

      1. AutoCrit says:

        Hi Chris,
        This is true. In today’s fast-paced world, there are many readers who enjoy shorter books while others still enjoy longer novels. Thank you for sharing.

        April
        http://www.autocrit.com

    2. Jim Gillaspy says:

      35,968 – Old Yeller – Fred Gipson
      36,363 – Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe – C.S. Lewis
      42,715 – The Tequila Worm – Canales, Viola
      46,118 – Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
      47,094 – The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
      47,180 – The Red Badge of Courage – Stephen Crane
      48,523 – The Outsiders – S.E. Hinton
      49,459 – Slaughterhouse-Five – Kurt Vonnegut

      1. AutoCrit says:

        Hi Jim,

        Great list. Thanks for sharing

        April
        http://www.autocrit.com

    3. Bill Zahren says:

      My target is 85,000 to 90,000. My most recent novel was just under 88,000. I’ve been fortunate that first drafts are always about 90,000. I’m a plotter who shoots for about 2500 words per chapter, so figure 33 chapters and you’re about there. I think a lot of popular mystery/thriller novels today — massive 400 to 450-pagers — could lose 50 pages and never miss them.

      1. AutoCrit says:

        Hi Bill, you’re absolutely right. 50 pages probably could be cut from some of the popular mystery/thriller novels today. Sounds like you have a great strategy! Thanks for sharing.

        April
        http://www.autocrit.com

    4. Concerning the list of classics and their word counts, I have to add that the listed catalog are not modern books. By today’s standards, they aren’t novel length. They were all printed prior to the advent and availability of first-run mass market paperbacks. Hardcovers were the norm (and for a long while, the only option). They cost more to produce so publishers preferred fewer words per product.

      Another issue that comes into play in the old style of novel production is the typewriter. It was *physically* more difficult to write a novel for publication 50-75 years ago. If you made more than a single error per sheet of paper, you ripped that sucker out and started over. Typing was harder on your hands than operating a keyboard. Lighting wasn’t nearly as proficient as it is today, so authors wrote in dim, yellow light with manual typewriters compared to today’s author who has a backlit screen and the ease of a modern keyboard, complete with backspace key.

      Today’s norm is that a novel needs about 80-100K words to satisfy avid readers. I work in the book distribution marketplace. I stock books in big-box book sections for a national distributor and *those* mass market paperbacks come in with those numbers. Fifty-thousand-word novels/novellas simply don’t make the cut without the name “James Patterson” and “Bookshots” on the cover. Most of those? I rip the covers off after a few weeks and send them all back.

      1. AutoCrit says:

        Hi Marjorie,
        Thank you for your input. When you talked about more than one error per sheet of paper and the author ripped it out and started over, that made me appreciate modern tools.

        Best Wishes
        April

    5. Han Gibson says:

      “When your book’s word count begins soaring into the 6-figures, chances are there’s a heady amount of waffle in there that you could trim”
      Trimmed to the bone, to the dismay of readers, the first book of Chronicles of Han still came to 287,447 words (777 A5 pages small print).
      Publishers did not want to touch it so the only route was self-publishing.
      Thick books are complicated, take time to complete, and my readers now expect nothing less than at least 200k words.
      Thus subsequent books are:
      287,447 Preserving Creata
      225,265 Reclaiming Duback
      300,464 Taming Encha
      280,319 Leilaka
      297,195 Saving Leilaka
      290,000 Negotiating Limier (Editing Stage)
      288,000 Engaging Chlophilia (Complete, waiting for editing)
      The other challenge is printing as books this size needs specialist attention, especially when printing digital. Price is obviously excruciating and although I sell out of hand at $23 per paperback, if I should sell through a bookshop the price escalates (without extras) to $43 per book!

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