Sunday, September 19, 2010

All new & revised: On word counts and novel length

DISCLAIMER: This post was written in 2008, and revised in 2010. The publishing industry has changed drastically in that time, and word counts aren't nearly as rigid nor as important as they once were, especially for writers who are now producing e-original content. Additionally, novellas are now routinely being published by larger publishers, whereas in 2008 they were not. So if you are using this very old post, please bear in mind that at best, these are suggestions only, and suggestions from 2008 at that.

Also, I am no longer an agent and haven't been for many years. Please do not write to me asking me for guidance or suggestions on your writing.

Something I saw a lot in queries as an agent were word counts that exceeded 100k. Often, a manuscript exceeded this by a considerable amount: I've seen word counts of 140k, 160k and one writer actually told me about a YA manuscript he'd written that was 188k.

Somewhere out there a myth developed - especially amongst science fiction and fantasy writers - that a higher word count was better. Writers see big fat fantasies on the shelf and think that they have to write a book just as hefty to get published. And sometimes a writer just writes a long book because they aren't yet a very good writer. Good writers learn how to pare a manuscript down to its most essential elements, carving away the word count fat that marks so many beginning writers. And the fact of the matter is, most of those "big fat fantasy" books you see on the shelf actually only have a word count of about 100k to 120k.

The exceptions are usually authors who've already had an established track record of sales with previous - shorter - books, like George R.R. Martin. And, yes, once in a great while you will see an incredibly long debut novel. But the writing has to be absolutely stellar; knock-down, drag-out, kick-you-in-the-teeth amazing. (A good example is Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian, which clocks in at just about 240,000 words.)

And I should also point out here that the longer a successful writer has been with a publishing house and the more actual dollars that author brings to the house (and the bigger that author's advances get), the more clout that author may have regarding being able to keep his or her novel intact, without taking advantage of the editorial guidance being offered. And that is never a good thing for the book. Editors exist for a damned good reason, and no author is ever such a fabulous writer that a good editor can't find things to make better in his or her manuscript.

There was a time about ten or so years ago when bigger word counts were the norm and not the exception. Like everything, the book industry goes through trends. But these days, editors of adult fiction - even editors of epic fantasy - squirm a little when presented with a manuscript that runs over 110k words. Books with a higher page count cost more to physically produce, resulting in a higher per-book manufacturing cost, meaning even more copies will need to be sold to make the estimated P&L work.

Publishers want to make money; bookstores want to make money. Do the math.

When you search around the Internet for information on word counts, you get a lot of conflicting information, some of it just plain wrong, and often this information is coming from sources that would appear reputable to a writer who didn't know any better. One article I read last week that was posted online at a major writing magazine actually insists that the average novel (non-genre) is 150,000 words. I have no idea where the writer of the article got his or her information, but that's simply untrue. An average novel length is between 80k and 100k, again, depending upon the genre.

Word counts for different kinds of novels vary, but there is are general rules of thumb for fiction that a writer can use when trying to figure out just how long is too long. For the purposes of this post, I'm only talking about YA, middle-grade and adult fiction here. And bear in mind that there are always exceptions, but good general rules of thumb would be as follows:

middle grade fiction = Anywhere from 25k to 40k, with the average at 35k

YA fiction = For mainstream YA, anywhere from about 45k to 80k; paranormal YA or YA fantasy can occasionally run as high as 120k but editors would prefer to see them stay below 100k. The second or third in a particularly bestselling series can go even higher. But it shouldn't be word count for the sake of word count.

paranormal romance = 85k to 100k

romance = 85k to 100k

category romance = 55k to 75k

cozy mysteries = 65k to 90k

= 80k to 100k

= 80k to 100k (Keep in mind that almost no editors are buying Westerns these days.)

mysteries, thrillers and crime fiction
= A newer category of light paranormal mysteries and hobby mysteries clock in at about 75k to 90k. Historical mysteries and noir can be a bit shorter, at 80k to 100k. Most other mystery/thriller/crime fiction falls right around the 90k to 100k mark.

mainstream/commercial fiction/thrillers = Depending upon the kind of fiction, this can vary: chick lit runs anywhere from 80k word to 100k words; literary fiction can run as high as 120k but lately there's been a trend toward more spare and elegant literary novels as short as 65k. Anything under 50k is usually considered a novella, which isn't something agents or editors ever want to see unless the editor has commissioned a short story collection. (Agent Kristin Nelson has a good post about writers querying about manuscripts that are too short.)

science fiction & fantasy = Here's where most writers seem to have problems. Most editors I've spoken to recently at major SF/F houses want books that fall into the higher end of the adult fiction you see above; a few of them told me that 100k words is the ideal manuscript size for good space opera or fantasy. For a truly spectacular epic fantasy, some editors will consider manuscripts over 120k but it would have to be something extraordinary. I know at least one editor I know likes his fantasy big and fat and around 180k. But he doesn't buy a lot at that size; it has to be astounding. (Read: Doesn't need much editing.) And regardless of the size, an editor will expect the author to to be able to pare it down even further before publication. To make this all a little easier, I broke it down even further below:

---> hard sf = 90k to 110k
---> space opera = 90k to 120k
---> epic/high/traditional/historical fantasy = 90k to 120k
---> contemporary fantasy = 90k to 100k
---> romantic SF = 85k to 100k
---> urban fantasy = 90k to 100k
---> new weird = 85k to 110k
---> slipstream = 80k to 100k
---> comic fantasy = 80k to 100k
---> everything else = 90k to 100k
Editors will often make exceptions for sequels, by the way. Notice that the page count in both J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series and George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series gets progressively higher. But even authors who have been published for years and should know better will routinely turn in manuscripts that exceed the editor's requested length by 30k to 50k words, which inevitably means more work for that author because editors don't back down. If a contract calls for a book that is 100k words and you turn in one that is 130k, expect to go back and find a way to shave 30k words off that puppy before your manuscript is accepted.

Remember that part of the payout schedule of an author's advance often dangles on that one important word: acceptance.

I cannot stress highly enough that there are always exceptions to every rule, especially in SF/F. Jacqueline Carey and Peter F. Hamilton, among others, have proven this quite successfully. If an agent finds a truly outstanding book that runs in the 200k range (yes, it happens!), he or she may advise your cutting the manuscript into two books to make life easier for everyone. But for a debut novelist who is trying to catch the eye of an agent or editor for the first time? Err on the side of caution with your word count.


Sushi said...

About how long ago did editors start shunning longer novels? I know that they were in vogue for a while; I read an interview with a pro author a while ago in which she bragged that she had just sold a 500K novel. I've noticed books getting shorter for a couple of years now, but a lot of bookstore shelves are still pretty packed with longer books (more F than SF) and, well, it takes a good three years or so for editorial trends to filter down to us lowly readers. :)

That said, thank Elvis for leeway on sequels. ;)

clindsay said...

Well, the editors I know well at a couple of different houses have always sort of discouraged them, except from the folks who'd already published several novels and had an extremely good sell-through with them. But I'd say that at at the very least, the 100k ideal has been around for at the past five or six years.

One very sound reason is that the buyers in charge of populating sections at major chain bookstores will buy far less of a big fat book with a higher page count than they will of a book with a shorter page count (again, unless it if from a known entity).

And as I mentioned, the books may seem really long, but sometimes that is deceptive. Depending upon the typeface and words-per-page that a publisher's interior designer sets for a book, the same word count can fit anywhere from 500 pages to 700.

If you've ever picked up a mass market novel and squinted your way through what seems ridiculously small type on ridiculously jam-packed pages, well, that's because the publisher is trying to reduce the page count of a novel with an overly-long word count so that they are able to get more copies out the door.

Generally, the shorter a book is, the more will fit on a shelf. It's just a byproduct of economics.

Sarah Prineas said...

Great explanatory post! I bet a lot of people will link to it.

Lately I've been reading a lot of YA, and am astonished at how short some of them are. Really slim books, maybe 40K. Sometimes weighty enough in subject matter, but some of them are slight. I wonder what the publishers are thinking, putting out a hardcover 40K girl-must-choose-between-two boys plot and charging $16.95 for it. Doom!

clindsay said...

Thanks, Sarah!

Yes, Kristin Nelson's post about books that are too short touches on that topic.

Are the YA books you're seeing under 40k mostly franchised product (akin to things like The Gossip Girls)? Just curious.

Christopher M. Park said...

I think one point of confusion with aspiring writers is how word count is calculated. As I understand it, most professionals are referring to estimated word count (250 words x the number of pages), while a vast number of aspiring writers are just using the word count from their word processor -- this often produces a number that is way higher.

There isn't any absolute conversion factor between the two counting methods, but in my own works I've seen the word processor count be 20,000 words higher than the proper one. At least some of those 120,000-word fantasies you see from aspiring writers are really closer to 100,000 words, I would bet. (Not to say they don't still need trimming!)

clindsay said...

Christopher -

That's absolutely true. This is one of the reasons that both editors and copyeditors often prefer that a writer uses a monospace typeface such as Courier at a 12-point size when preparing a final manuscript for submission.

My colleague Deanna Hoak, one of the best copyeditors in the business, has several good posts about the Courier vs. Times New Roman thing, by the way, and the difficulty is causes in production and editing.

Read here, here and especially here.

Anonymous said...

As someone with one of those bippin' "door-stoppers"... (On your doorstep, so you're probably either talkin' bout me or rejecting me already, heh.)

Anyway, I used the Word Count tool, not the "250 word x pages" count. Do agents/editors really expect to see the second number instead, even if loading the manuscript into Word will give 115K words instead of... 128K? (12-point Courier, double-spaced, 512 pages according to Word, and it's coming out "bigger" than the true word-count. ...Aw, *crud*. Too fat either way, and a blighted trilogy to boot. Just tell me it's too big when you send it back; I'm working on a second project anyway that *will* be smaller.)

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this -- I've been looking for a good up-to-date opinion on real novel lengths for a while. This matches what I've been thinking and makes me feel good about my instincts! :)

(BTW, came across your blog a couple of months ago and have been enjoying it ever since! Thanks!)


Christopher M. Park said...

Colleen - Thanks for the links, those are very interesting.

archangelbeth - As far as I know, if you're coming out with a higher estimated word count than your actual word count, then something isn't right. Do you have 1" margins on all sides, and is your font 12 point Times or Courier? Anne Mini has a great category on her blog called "Formatting Manuscripts," which shows you all the ins and outs on that.

Anonymous said...


I think that you're the one who's doing something wrong. In my experience, the ms-page wordcount is always higher than the wordcount reported by your word processor.

Looking at my own mss (which are the only ones I have handy to do comparison), the project I'm currently shopping has 358 pages, which is 89,500 words. I write 90,000 in my query. But the word-processor count is 79,596. That's a 10K difference. And I'm quite sure that my ms conforms to standards.

I have a short story that's 750 words by the word processor, and 1500 by manuscript---twice as large! That's because it's mostly dialogue, which means lots of short paragraphs that up the page count without adding as much to the "word" count.

Amie Stuart said...

I'm wondering if it's mostly newbie writers or obviously more experienced writers turning out such large books? I just got done judging a contest (where noting word count is optional) and had a few that were reported very large but also obviously by writer who um needed to hone their writing skills.

clindsay said...

Archangel Beth -

The most important thing is that your book is long enough to tell the whole story and that the writing is strong enough in the first place.

And I think that a lot of editors these days understand that the word count you're using is rough and based on what a program like Word or Scriven or OpenOffice will give you. As long as you're using the correct typeface and manuscript formatting, you're going to be in the ballpark, plus or minus 10k words.

Amie -

Almost without exception the higher word count queries come from new writers without any writing credits behind them and without any affiliation with a professional writer's organization. Queries from members of SFWA and RWA are almost always within the rule of thumb word counts listed above, and when they aren't, they don't exceed it by more than about 15k.

Pamala Knight said...

Thank you for shedding light on this issue because I too, saw an article recently where that 150K figure was quoted.

It makes me feel better about the 80,000 words I'm working on paring down just a bit more before I launch myself heedlessly into the scary world of query writing, or as I like to call it 'will the agent like my dress at first glance.'

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this! It reinforces what I've heard before, but on occasion I hear a different viewpoint, so it's nice to know for certain.

Anonymous said...

P.S. Which word count formula: Actual, computer word count, or the whole 1 page of 12 pt. Courier New, double spaced, 1-inch margins = 250 words? It can vary so much, especially in dialogue-heavy books.

Christopher M. Park said...

archangelbeth -

I figured out what our discrepancy is. Looking back at your first post, I see you are using Courier. I'm using Times New Roman. With Times, the word-processor word count is (seemingly) always higher, while with Courier the reverse is always true.

Stats with my current novel:
-Word processor word count: 87,915
-Courier estimated: 103,000
-Times estimated: 77,500

So, clearly the font and the counting method can cause a huge variance in the word count.

K J Gillenwater said...

Two things, I tend to write my books using Courier New. I set it so that I have exactly 25 lines per page. I tend to end up with slightly less words over all using Word counter vs. counting the pages 250X1. I think it's because I tend to write short paragraphs...some with just one sentence. And I do a good amount of dialogue. I have been using the 250Xnumber of pages forever. Hopefully, that is cool.

Because the actual space the words take up is more important, I would think, than 'true' word count. Right?

Second, I subbed my current MS to an agent about 6 months ago. It is an 80K paranormal. I got a rejection telling me that paranormals tend to be 'longer' than 80K! I thought that was odd. This was the only agent to make such a comment.

Unknown said...

I feel so much better about my too-short fantasy novel now. I thought that 106,000 was far too short for anything that was supposed to be taking seriously. (And for this conversation, that's the MS-Word wordcount.)

Mags said...

Harry Potter has ruined my summer every other year for, well, a span now.

My husband is the manager in charge of coordinating all depts for the braille publishing house that has brought the last three Potter books to blind kids the very same day the print volumes were released in the US.

Awesome, yes!

Still, Order of the Phoenix was 13 volumes in braille (each volume is 12"x12" and 4" thick) and Deathly Hallows was 10 volumes.

I have spent many an unreasonable moment muttering "Oh, come on, Rowling--YA is supposed to be SHORT!"

Phoenix is over a quarter of the size of the Bible.

I love the kid, but he's squeezing me out of my den.

*That said, what those books have done for braille literacy is something that reaches FAR beyond a wife's tantrum. This comment, however, is about my tantrum. Nod*

Anonymous said...

christopher m. park:
12-point Courier, 1-inch margins, double-spaced. (Header at the .5 inch mark with last name, email, title, and page number. Should probably add phone number, but am concerned that the header-clutter is evil.) Perhaps I use too many long words, artificially lowering my word-count? [reads later] Ahh, yes, that would do it. Mono-spaced fonts do take up more room than fonts like times. (But the copy-editors prefer the clearer mono-spaced ones, I'm given to understand.)

Lady la gringa:
Thank you for the reassurance! I hope my writing is strong enough to suck you in despite the length. (I, naturally, am at the stage where I'm sure that the thing is entirely awful and weak as a limp noodle, but I recognize my bias.) And if not, such is life and I'll just hope that it wasn't an unpleasant chore to skim.

ssas said...

...without taking advantage of the editorial guidance being offered. And that is never a good thing for the book. Editors exist for a damned good reason...

Thank you for saying this out loud. It's painfully noticeable in so many series nowadays. I pray I always have an editor who will tell me what they think. (I also pray to always edit writers who listen to me, too, but that's another issue...)

Mike Harris-Stone said...

As one working on a 190,000 word plus monster, (there will be surgery and blood), this issue hounds me. Thanks for the very clear info!

FWIW, Here are some famous novels, old and recent and their word counts.

Philosopher’s Stone....77,325
Chamber of Secrets.....84,799
Prisoner of Azkaban...106,821
Goblet of Fire........190,858
Order of the Phoenix..257,154
Half Blood Prince.....169,441
Deathly Hallows.......198,227

Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe...36,363
Anna Karenina...349,736
War and Peace...587,287
Gone with the Wind...418,053
The English Patient...82,370
A Prayer for Owen Meany...236,061
Crime and Punishment...211,591
The Brothers Karamazov...364,153
Sense and Sensibility...119,394
Great Expectations...183,349
Ender’s Game...100,609
Moby Dick...206,052
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory...30,644
The Hours...54,243
The Golden Compass...112,815
The Fellowship of the Ring...177,227
The Two Towers...143,436
The Return of the King...134,462
The Lord of the Rings...455,125
The Tenth Circle...114,779
My Sister’s Keeper...119,529
A Tale of Two Cities...135,420
White Teeth...169,389
The Mouse and the Motorcycle...22,416
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn...109,571
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer...69,066
One Hundred Years of Solitude...144,523
Memoirs of a Geisha...186,418
Snow Falling on Cedars...138,098
Cold Mountain...161,511
Midnight’s Children...208,773
A House for Mr. Biswas...198,901
All the Pretty Horses...99,277
A Suitable Boy...591,554(est.)

(Most of these come from Find a title. Included in the info on the title is the word count.)

clindsay said...

Mike -

These are interesting, but some of them seem to be off.

COLD MOUNTAIN just isn't a very long novel; I have difficulty believing that is is 160k-plus words. It is less than 470 pages long.

Likewise ATONEMENT and ENGLISH PATIENT in trade paperback have virtually the same page count; I don't see how one could be double the word count of the other.

I think these numbers are off.

Mike Harris-Stone said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Great post. Thanks a lot for the information. Just this weekend I've been pondering about how insanely long my novel is already. I put the mark for the first draft on 200,000 words, well-aware of the fact that I'd probably have to scratch half of it. Right now 150,000 sounds much more reasonable and will give me a lot less to tweak. It's urban fantasy so I don't want to make it too long anyway, but right now I've to admit that I'm just kind of letting it go. I'll heed your post though, thanks!

Mike Harris-Stone said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mike Harris-Stone said...

I'm a little surprised at some of the word counts as well. I do remember COLD MOUNTAIN being a longish read. The print in the trade paperback of THIRTEEN MOONS is VERY small.

The Ren Learn site the word counts come from is aimed at educators. It has ISBNs, editions, publishers, etc. with each title, so I'm inclined to accept the word counts as being accurate, a way for a school librarian to know how long a book actually is, vs number of pages.

The upshot for me is that a publishable book is very, very tightly written and that a richly imagined, memorable story doesn't take thousands and thousands of words to tell.

My own word count is embarassing! But I'm working on it. :-)

Thanks again for the best explanation of the issue I've read to date!

Joe Abercrombie said...

Hum. I certainly wouldn't argue for longer word counts making better books, or necessarily deny that agents or publishers are looking for shorter ones, and there's no argument against editing as tight as possible. But - at least in epic fantasy - long debuts seem to be pretty successful, still. Gollancz published three debuts in 2006, all of which seem to have done well - The Blade Itself is about 190,000 words, Tom Lloyd's Stormcaller I reckon to be about the same, and Scott Lynch's Lies of Locke Lamora is probably a bit longer than either. The most successful fantasy debut of last year, Pat Rothfuss' Name of the Wind, is longer yet. I'd guess it's pushing quarter of a million. David Anthony Durham's Acacia I haven't a copy of, but Amazon says it's near 600 pages. In trade. Looking on the sci-fi side, David Louis Edelman's Infoquake is over 400 pages in trade - I'd be surprised if that makes it much under 150,000 words. That's a lot of successful debut authors, including 4 nominees out of 6 for the Campbell award, writing pretty whacking big books.

Just sayin'.

Anonymous said...


I'm wondering about the estimated word count. Everyone seems to accept that a manuscript with 12-point Courier text and 1" margins should be estimated at pages x 250. However, Anne Mini states that while 250 words per page is correct for Times New Roman, writers who use Courier should calculate their word count as pages x 200. Is this correct?


R.W. Ridley said...

Maybe I'm missing something. I just did a word count of my YA novel in Courier New - 60,705. I then did a word count after switching to Times New Roman - 60,705. No difference. Now, the page count was dramatically higher using the Courier font, but word count didn't change.

BTW - in 5.25x8 tim size the total page count is 216 pages.

R.W. Ridley said...

BTW - I should clarify that I used the word count tool in Word.

R.W. Ridley said...

Scrath that. I figured it out. Me smart.

Christie said...

this is really helpful first off!

I find it so strange that beginning writers are writing too much. I'm a beginning writer (in university currently) and I have trouble getting to the minimum. The novel I'm working on (just for my own amusement and to see if I can actually finish one) is sitting at about 26k according to WP word count (courier method around 35k I'd say) and I feel like I'm about to wrap it up. (It's in the crime/hard boiled type genre by the way.) I've always been a fan of saying in one word what takes other people ten words and I think I do this reasonably effectively (I seem to get As on essays when they just barely meet the page requirements) but something must be going on here! I guess I have to learn patience or something.

Jeff Bowles said...

PLEASE SOMEONE HELP ME! I'm having some difficulty with my own MS in this regard. I set it to one inch margins, Courier New, 12 point, and double spaced. But not one of my pages has 25 lines. They alternate between 23 and 24. Does this mean that I multiply the page count by 240, or do I still go with 250. If I do 240, I get about 122,000. If 240, I get 128,000. I'm using Word 2007, if that makes a difference. HELP!

Christopher M. Park said...

To get the right number of lines, you probably just need to turn off "widows and orphans" (google it). But it's not worth freaking out over to that degree!

Jeff Bowles said...

Yeah, I guess I did freak out a bit. You know how it is. The life of an aspiring novelist. Anyway, I did as you suggested, and though my manuscript is shorter, I still only get 24 lines. Is this a problem? Do agents and editors really want it formated this way (with widows and orphans turned off)? Are they still going to estimate 250/page? Okay, I just need to breathe...

Unknown said...

One question: If word counts are so all-fired important, why doesn't FinePrint Literary Management mention anything about them in either their submission guidelines or in the individual agent bios? For that matter, why has only *one* lit agency web site out of about 50 I've perused mentioned them? Isn't this an extremely important point if you all don't want to see 100k+ word counts?

Joseph John said...

Actually, Nicole, I found three posts on reputable agent's blogs dedicated to this same topic. All of them said you should shoot for a word count in the 80k-100k range. I consolidated those comments here.

Catherine Haines said...

Thank you for this handy guide. I'm working on my first novel, a YA urban fantasy, and was unsure as to what my word count should be. Thankfully you have come to my rescue!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post!

A while back my writing partner and I read online that because kids are growing up reading fat Harry Potter books it has become more acceptable for writers to produce longer word count manuscripts. However, your blog set us straight. Now we realize our cowritten novel THE GOLDEN GRIP is much too long at 140K. We haven’t received a query rejection from you yet, so we are hopeful that this update on our word count revision will encourage you about our dedication to this project. Though we’ve been paring the novel down and polishing it over the past two years, we want you to know we are committed to editing another 40K from the manuscript. Many thanks for elucidating on this most nebulous zone of ms word count, especially for new novelists! You are so right — there really is conflicting info online.

A.N. Timms

Sushi said...

If an agent or editor finds a truly outstanding book that runs in the 200k range (yes, it happens!)

Heh, I came back and re-read this after a rough day, complete with joints too sore to let me knit much, and this made it a little better. As annoying and difficult as my edits are, it's nice to be reminded that the book is something special. If it weren't, I'd still be looking for an agent. :)

Unknown said...

I am currently reading a fanfiction novel that clocks in at a stunning finished length of, get this, 865,100 words! And this isn't even a series; it's one story. It seems an irony that things read on the internet can be tremendously long without you realizing at the beginning, thanks to the medium. When I started reading I didn't think to check the word count or I might never have begun. I feel a bit like I thought I'd go swimming and found myself trying to cross the English Channel. Perhaps the scary thing is that I'm about halfway through and still haven't given up. It's a good thing I'm a fast reader! An editor would be greatly helpful, indeed.

Anonymous said...

Ah. As one of the authors of what a friend of mine refers to as "the tome" (and which clocked in at just over 200,000 words), I can see we have much work to do in revisions.

Hopefully, we can end up with two strong novels instead of one ungainly one.

Now, if someone *sent* a query for a novel that large, would you read it, or send it back and tell them to pare it down?

Jewel Allen said...

Very helpful post, thanks.

My kids (ages 8, 11 and 13) are all reading Harry Potter (later books) right now. They are doorstoppers, but my kids cannot get enough of them. I am constantly amazed to see my 8 year old devour 700 plus pages in a matter of days. As my oldest said, JK Rowling is a brilliant storyteller.

As a writer who has clocked in at 65k tops, I am impressed with those who can carry a storyline to higher word counts.

M. said...

A friend directed me to this article, and it has given me some perspective on how long any book I want to get published needs to be.
Thanks for posting this!

trav said...

I wish everybody in the industry would include numbers and data when they post. This has been enormously helpful. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Hey Colleen -

As a YA author (whose contracts estimate 75k word manuscripts), can I just point out to your readers that if they have a novel that's 150k words long, they could, with some creative thinking and good editing, turn that into TWO novels?

Just saying, while some people are wailing and gnashing teeth over the editors' insistence on shorter books hurting their magnum opus, some of us are over here getting paid for two books by putting in the same amount of effort.


Barbara said...

I realize I'm coming along with this late in the day, but I am really glad I found this. As a small press publisher, I've explained to a writer why he needs to tighten his words, but your blog said it best. It also reminds me to "kill off my darlings" in my own work.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad I found this post, but I am stunned. Lost for words. Jaw on the floor. Was the first Harry Potter novel only 77,000 words? Was Fellowship of the Ring really only 177,000 words? I could have sworn they were really really long. I'm working on the first draft of my first fantasy novel and it's hit 85,000 words, and I'm only about a third of the way through the story, if that. I had envisaged it as a trilogy of sorts but I cannot believe I've written as many words as the Chamber of Secrets - because I feel like not all that much has happened in book. Yes I will cut and pare but my goodness I need to tighten things up. Shudder.

chris said...

Wow, thanks so much for this discussion. This is EXACTLY the information I was looking for!

Heath said...

This is good information, but one thing's always bothered me.

Why do they say it costs more to print longer novels when typeface can be so easily reduced? A smaller font results in fewer pages, and books do not all share the same font size anyway.

I don't think cost is or should be an issue; good editing and storytelling should be. I would think they're more concerned about excessive verbosity when there are more words.

Rabid Fox said...

A very helpful post. Information like this is always great for an aspiring author. With my first attempt at writing a novel, I had no clue about preferred word counts--I wasn't even sure of the formula for calculating the word count. My rough draft ended up in the neighborhood of 120,000 words. Then, the second draft ballooned up to 140,000 words, as I had the naive notion the novel (supernatural horror) was too short. Now, it's getting boiled down to 100,000 in the fourth draft. Always helps to know ahead of time, what I should be aiming at in story length. Live and learn.

Artemis Grey said...

So being a Johnny-come-lately to this post, you might never see my comment and subsequent question, but I'll comment anyhow.
This was a very informative post. As an aspiring writer, it's the sort of thing I ought to know, but research can be trifling, since everyone seems to have a different opinion on matters.
I've written an epic fantasy, which one day I'd love to see in print. It's long. Like 160,000 words long. When I first finished, it was more like 180,000 words long. I've carved and hacked, and I'm willing to keep sculpting. The problem is, duh, I'm an ASPIRING writer. I look at the book and think 'can't cut that, no, need that scene because it sets this scene up' etc. I HAVE been working on taking a paragraph, and putting the information within it into one or two sentences and that sort of thing, but I'm not an editor, obviously. Should I look into sending my manuscript to a professional editor? I'd be happy to take direction, if I could find someone who wanted to give it without taking a kidney for payment...

Unknown said...

Dear A -

AT this point I'll tell you what I would tell any writer: you need to cut a good 40,000 words off this book or you won't get an agent, much less a publisher.

You can hire a professional editor to help you. Do bear in mind that professional editorial services aren't cheap: a good editor runs about $100 to $120 per hour; your manuscript would take her about eighteen to twenty hours of work. Do the math.



Artemis Grey said...

Thank you for responding so quickly to my comment. Determined to attack my millstone of a manuscript I immediately went and started at the beginning. It's been several weeks since my last go at editing and I've already knocked almost a thousand words out of the way. Wonder of wonders, I didn't need any of them to start with. It's like beer goggles without the alcohol! Years from now, I'll probably be laughing my ass off at the unwarranted junk I put in the book the first go round...

starryeyed.kid said...

As a reader, I loathe short novels. Rarely is there any decent character development, much less a substantial story.
When looking for books, I rarely pick up a novel that's less than 350 pages because it's just not enough story.

As a writer, I have been told by more of my friends that the novel I wrote with no intention of publishing is way too short (it's 60,000 words) and needs more to be a book they'd buy.

The trend needs to go back to long novels, and soon.

Falling Leaves said...

This is getting a bit off-track (sorry), but I'd love to be a professional editor, and do jobs such as the one A. Grey is thinking of hiring out. (And by the way, I'm not offering to take on the job, either. I'm sixteen and I have exams.) People often ask me to edit their work, and I've recently begun to edit fanfiction. I love doing it. Plus I get to be nitpicky and make good writing a whole lot better. It absolutely kills me when a badly-written book gets published.

/ egotistic rant.

So after that little diatribe, my question is, how do you get recognition as a copyeditor? Could I use before-and-after examples of when I've worked with awesome writers and approach a publishing house saying, "This is what I can do for you; please hire me, pretty please"?

As for the post, while shorter books are great, I prefer longer books. They make me feel like I've gotten more for my money.

Matthew J. Beier said...

In regards to the above comment, I completely agree, and other than the cost factors of producing long novels, I don't see how agents and editors are not seeing the obvious: we "masses" LIKE novels that are long enough for complicated plots, character development, and general "breatheability."

An agent was recently reading my 89,000-word (word processor count) upper middle grade/YA, which I've purposefully written to be a book about a 13 year old that any age of reader could enjoy -- much like HP, His Dark Materials, etc. This agent said it would need to lose 20,000 words for him to look at it again, because it's just too long. The problem is -- he wanted me to hack out all the character development, the parts that let the reader get close to the protagonist. There, then, would go the soul of my book, and all that would remain would be plot devices and action -- which is what makes a BAD book, in my opinion.

Look at some of the ragingly successful novels out there: HP, His Dark Materials, Twilight -- these are LONG BOOKS. These are all crazy bestsellers that adults are reading just as much (if not more) than kids, and they break the Publishingland might the rules now need changing?

Anonymous said...

Hi, Thanks for the excellent article on word counts. I recently cut both my novels down from 94,000 words to 87,000. It's good to know that these upper limits are acceptable.

Lance said...

thank you.

good to see a voice of reason.


Falling Leaves said...

@ MJB:

Perhaps you should get your foot in the door with a shorter novel first? And then once you're better-known, you can try again with your longer books.

After all, J.K. Rowling started with a slim novel, and look where she ended up. Added to which, Twilight is relatively short compared to The Host.

Environmental concerns are also taken into account--if you shave a couple of pages off your books, you can save a couple hundred trees, something like that.

(On a side note, it makes me so annoyed when you see the "Left Behind" series that has ACRES of unneeded white space.)

Not that this really affects me in any way. I'm still very new to the whole writing game, but I don't think I have a gift for writing long books. I'd have no idea what to put in them!

Pageturners said...

As a reviewer, I find that a lot of very long novels have sagging longeurs in the middle, where I'm flipping through the pages, speed-reading and mumbling "Oh, get on with it, get on with it" - which isn't what I'd want my readers to be doing.

Crewel Treatment said...

I was wondering what your thoughts on young adult science fiction is? I have a manuscript which is about 45,000 words long. I could pad it out, but I would rather keep it clean and well paced. Do you think a publisher would still be interested?
Also, do you have any advice for which publishers might be interested in a manuscript of this genre?

Unknown said...

Nicola -

45k should be fine if the story is polished as much as it can be. But I'm guessing that an editor will make you flesh out some characters more during the revision process.

And as for publishers? Do your homework. Google is your friend.


Scott Driza said...

Thanks, Colleen--I think this is an excellent guideline. I totally agree that most YA novels fall in this range, with 55-70k seeming to be the norm for a lot of the ones I read.

That said, I think you need to stay true to your novel when thinking about word count. I mean, if you've had it beta'd a ton by other writers and they don't think there's anything that can be cut, then maybe for you that 100k word count is what's needed. Not ideal, but they obviously get pubbed sometimes--my friend just sold her debut YA and it was over 100k. And we all know about the example with sparkly vamps. :)

Same goes for short--you don't want to pad a story that's finished at 35k just to make it longer. Short YAs that totally worked for me include Break and Wake.

So I think that definitely, we should shoot for that range you mentioned when writing our YA novels. But we also shouldn't freak if ours doesn't exactly hit the sweet spot. :)


Lisa Desrochers said...

I accidentally lied when I queried Suzie. With revisions, my YA paranormal had grown from 80 to 84K and I forgot to change it on my query. With her revisions before submission it grew again to 88K. It was still picked up at auction by a major house, but I expect revisions will probably include paring it down.

Happy New Year, Colleen!

Sara Crewe said...

Having considered myself more of a reader than a writer for most of my life, I can say that a) needlessly wordy descriptions and random junk in a novel are super obnoxious BUT b) generally speaking, if the writing is well thought-out and strong, I enjoy the depth that a novel of greater length lends itself to.
Besides, I think space on store shelves is a crappy reason not to publish a story. It's not about the shelves (or at least, I don't think it should be). It should be about the readers.
And more power to the author who can tell a longer story in an engaging way-I think that sometimes takes more strength and finesse than hacking out another piece of predictable literary pop candy.
Just my opinion. :)

Sophia Chang said...

Thank you Roisin and Tacohead.

I'm also completely confounded by the "staggering works of genius" floating around. (Did we not all come from the school of brevity as good writing?)

I can barely get my word count over 50,000 for my novels, YA or otherwise. I really wasn't intending on my books being mid-grade word count, and I'm hoping agents aren't going to deem my work too short.

I so rarely hear anyone blogging or talking about having this problem of short books and, as advised, I don't want to "pad" my work just to make WC.

Maybe it's because I work as an essay editor, but I just adore cutting words.

Anonymous said...

I hope this isn't a repeat of a question, but where would "Tween" fall? Is it considered MG when it comes to word count or somewhere in between MG and YA? I'm trying to change my 60K YA ms into Tween so should I chop the word count down too?

Unknown said...

I came over here from M.L. and found lots of good information, and hope you don't mind me asking a question so long after the original post.

Assuming (hypothetically, of course) that someone's written a SF/F novel that's too long and has already been pared down about as much as it can be, are they in general better off trying to sell it as is despite its length, or to cut it in half and try to sell it as a two-book series?

Thanks so much for all the good information and entertaining food-for-thought here (-:

Unknown said...

Back in the late eighties/early nineties, editors complained that they were seeing manuscripts from established authors that were anything up to half as long again as their previous work.
Of course it was the word processor that did it.
I think your rough guide to book length is spot-on. If anything of mine creeps over 90,000 I know I've been waffling (they're historical crime mysteries).

Anonymous said...

Many thanks for some concrete, current figures. It's good to know where I should be aiming for.

Fantasy*girl said...

Ok this information was really helpful. except im not entirely sure what my novel fits into, its a YA urban fantasy, so how long should it be?
At the moment its up to 42,000 on microsoft word count tool, and its almost 3 quarters finished so im aiming for 70,000 words. Would that be ok?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for some genuinely useful advice on word count - I've seen many posts on this topic and all with vastly different information and usually nothing to back up the numbers. This however was genuinely useful.

To get a realistic feel on target word length awhile back - I went estimated word lengths of a selection of novels on my book shelf and the figure I came up with was 140k. Looking back my sample set wasn't ideal - His Dark Materials, Lord of the Rings and Stephen King.

Anonymous said...

I wish people would stop posting articles like this. Just because a novel is actually of novel length and not a novella passing itself off as a novel doesn't mean it's full of excess. In publishing's zeal to make money and the advent of the e-reader the attention span of the average adult is becoming greatly shortened. This is without good reason as the cost to produce 10,000 word e-book is pretty much the same as producing a 250,000 word e-book. (We're all aware print is on its way out and most us mourn that fact heavily.)
In today's 'market' "War & Peace" would never be published and neither would a great percentage of Stephen King's best works. You never would have heard of Tolkien or Harold Robins, Jacqueline Susan, and a whole host of others. Kowtow to the 'trend' if you want to but I am not a seamstress and, as such, I do not tailor stories to suit others tastes.

none said...

I agree; when you're trying to avoid the truth, it's annoying of people to insist on telling it to you.

Anonymous said...

Great advice and great blog!


Unknown said...

lbdarling -

Clearly you didn't read my article closely enough, as I did in fact mention that for an author pursuing ebook-only publishing, word counts don't matter. And I also mention quite clearly that successful authors can break the rules.

But for a debut author looking to break into traditional publishing, with all that that entails, you damned well better pay attention to manuscript length.



Brent Taylor said...

"But for a debut author looking to break into traditional publishing, with all that that entails, you damned well better pay attention to manuscript length."

Ahaha, Colleen! You tell 'em!

Martha Ramirez said...

Awesome info! Thanks!

Shah Wharton said...

I read somewhere that as a paranormal fantasy novel I should aim for no more than 65k? I panicked a little because I'm only a third through at 43k right now. Reading this I'm on track. Phew - thanks. This is a great blog - you're up on my blog roll! Shah .X

Shah Wharton said...

Wow - I feel like I've been introduced to you via a unknown party of some sort! You impress but your following is somewhat oppressive- Not your fault of course - but still - oppressive. Please perhaps if you can steer away from this deluge of interest- - move toward me - a tiny blog of interest - say hello - say hi!? Shah -

Shah Wharton said...

Wow - I feel like I've been introduced to you via a unknown party of some sort! You impress but your following is somewhat oppressive- Not your fault of course - but still - oppressive. Please perhaps if you can steer away from this deluge of interest- - move toward me - a tiny blog of interest - say hello - say hi!? Shah -

BiancaP said...

Hi Colleen

Thanks for this helpful post.

Can I ask why editors don't want to see novellas? I keep coming across this type of definitive statement without ever being given a reason.

I would appreciate knowing your opinion on why editors don't want to see novellas - if my proposals are being rejected because my finished works are just too short (they are 35k-40k each) then I would rather know now.

I also find this aversion to novellas rather bewildering given the success of so many other, shorter works (e.g. Of Mice And Men).

Many thanks :)

Christopher J M said...

This post was, at one point, relevant, but that ship has long sailed. Word Count? Page Count? E-books, for better or worse will render those quaint terms obsolete. We will all look back at these days with longing...Dad, you mean there were bookstores when you were a kid? Wow, you're old!

I wonder what established published authors think of this? becoming dinosaurs? Thank god were done with the draconian Publishing House of Ghouls, bring on the revolution! haha.

Miss Cole said...

Thanks so much for this post. It's been so helpful. I've linked back to it at my own blog.

Anonymous said...

Any agent/publishing house that views works in 'ks' is automatically off my list. Unless a writer is looking to be untrue to their story and just 'sell out', a story is as long as a story is and should be judged on its merits..not its length. This is only one reason why self-publishing has become so popular. Authors are tired of publishers and agents with no vision beyond 'the bottom line'. Stifling creativity and publishing solely for the those with the attention spans of gnats, does society no good in the long run.

Karl said...

I know this is an old (and long thread) but I wanted to highlight the 25 line rule of thumb for those who are getting 23-4 lines.

The 25 line rule is for Legal not A4 pages, or at least in my experience.

I was pulling what little hear I had left out, when I clicked that the 25 line 250 word thing was likely to be USA based.

Hope that helps some people from Metric countries.

Doug said...

I'm late to this discussion, but I appreciate the forum, and I love having that Renaissance Learning link. I keep comparing my YA novel-in-progress to other YA novels and wondering how mine compares in length. Now I have a great way to find out. My aim is to be as efficient as John Christopher (of the Tripods series). Yes, his books are somewhat short, but they're great stories, and their length just gives you more time to read them again.

The whole discussion, though, reminds me of something Joel and Ethan Coen once said (in the introduction to their print edition of "Raising Arizona," I think). They wrote that other filmmakers often asked them about their foot-to-minute ratio -- that is, the amount of actual film they shot versus the amount of film that made it past the editor into the actual movie.

They didn't give that much thought, they said. Instead they were much more concerned with their page-to-minute ratio -- the number of pages of script written, versus the actual amount of dialogue and action that appeared on screen. They figured that for them, this ratio was about 10 to 1.

As you go back once more to cut down your word count, think of that.

jvin248 said...

My debut swords & sorcery novel clocked in at 91,000 words (published), and the second in the series is currently 73,000 (with at least a final chapter to go, probably getting into mid-high 80s). Great to get some confirmation that I'm in the right range! (LibreOffice actual word count)

The first book had been at 103,000 words, but I cut out most of the first chapter so 'page one' started with the action and questions that propel the main characters through the remainder of the book. The part removed was mainly background information, key aspects of which were still needed, but were sprinkled in smaller doses and closer to the events later in the book.

So book two is tighter already and starts with action.

Cynthia Leavelle said...

My novel has a more dialogue than narrative. At 103,000 words, it still seemed long to my editor. Would the presence of more dialogue make shorter, better?

Dylan said...

Ever read anything out of "The Wheel of Time" series? 13 books are out, a 14th and final book on the way. The shortest book in the series is 227,000 words. With most of them being around 300,000 Words. the longest being 360,000 words. Its a long series, but considered the greatest fantasy world ever written. Easily my favorite Books.

Unknown said...

Two things forgive page count I think. Good writing and sales. If you have so many words that you are asking your reader to sit and read for hours on end (even if the reader is extraordinarily fast) then it better be a d*** good book. I think longer word counts mean more chances to lose the reader and therefore the sale. If you can write a massive book and keep the writer (or agent or editor) interested in the entire thing then you'll probably get published regardless of word count. I doubt you'll get the sales if your book has parts that are not necessary or if those parts are not written in a way that keeps interest and that's true if it's 30,000 or 200,000+ words.

Adonis Devereux said...

This post is gospel.

Can I get an "amen"?

MC Hunton said...

I wrote a blog article and referenced information I got off of this post. Thank you so much for clarifying some of this information. It is insanely useful.

Here's a link to my blog.

Erica said...

I am writing a teen fiction series, and the first novel is around 60,000 words. I was very nervous that it was too short...but all these posts have made me feel better! Wish me luck with the publishing process!

Unknown said...

I just recently finished my first fantasy novel and am about to start sending out queries. I have been using the word counter in Office Word, which, apparently, is not to be trusted. My manuscript is formated with 1" margins, double spaced in Times New Roman as is most widely suggested for my genre. With dialogue and paragraph breaks this seems to average about 20 to 22 lines per page. I turned off widow/orphan control. I have included a glossery of magical terms and an index of characters in the back of my manuscript. Do I include these in the word count? Do I include the title page, dedication, credits, and table of contents in the word count? Or should the word count be only the base story without any of the trimmings included? (which seems rediculous to me since they will all ultimately go in the book.) I am still confused about exactly what word count I use and just how I arrive at that number. Using the formula of number of pages multiplied by 250 words per page, even excluding all the trimmings it puts my word count at 91,250 words using that calculation but the office word counter greatly disagrees and says that the word count without the trimmings is 81,789 words and with the trimmins is still only 82,714. So, you see my dilemma. I prefer not to put a false word count in my queries so I really want to make sure that I am calculating it at the industry standard. Suggestions?

Unknown said...

So far I have (according to Word) 40k words under my belt and I barely feel I've started. I have six "main" characters whose narratives "we" follow, each of them will likely have at least 6 chapters, and each chapter tends to average out at about 4.5k...which brings me to 162k. Of course this is purely prediction and things may change dramatically in the writing (as they often do), but at the moment I see that as my bare minimum for the first in a trilogy, possibly a series.

Which brings to a question: can you provide any advice as to if agents need a definitive answer on how many books a series is planned to be before considering taking on a manuscript? Thanks for the very informative post and all the replies, particularly Joe Abercrombie who is awesome and an inspiration.

Unknown said...

So far I have (according to Word) 40k words under my belt and I barely feel I've started. I have six "main" characters whose narratives "we" follow, each of them will likely have at least 6 chapters, and each chapter tends to average out at about 4.5k...which brings me to 162k. Of course this is purely prediction and things may change dramatically in the writing (as they often do), but at the moment I see that as my bare minimum for the first in a trilogy, possibly a series.

Which brings to a question: can you provide any advice as to if agents need a definitive answer on how many books a series is planned to be before considering taking on a manuscript? Thanks for the very informative post and all the replies, particularly Joe Abercrombie who is awesome and an inspiration.

E.L. Wagner said...

I'm working on an epic style fantasy novel (about 150k words), and I was surprised by the lengths you proposed as the norm for the genre these days.

Most of the fantasy novels on my shelves are well over 400 pages long (many in the 500-600 page or longer range)and have way more than 250 words per page (over 350 in many cases). My favorite modern fantasy writers are Robin Hobbes, Lynn Flewelling, Patrick Rothfuss, Mercedes Lackey and others in that vein.

I haven't found as much in the genre that I like lately (I prefer traditional 'other world' fantasy and long, meaty stories with lots of plot twists). I guess if new writers who write in the length and style I prefer are being summarily turned down, that would explain it.

I'm trying to write the kind of stuff I like reading and am sad to hear that it won't be very marketable. Ah well, I've got to do the best I can and hope for the best, I guess.

One question I have is that since more and more novels are being sold and distributed via online retailers and ebook formats (nook, kindle etc), wouldn't a lot of the issues about length and shelf space in book stores be less important than they were back in the 1990s (when fantasy novels tended to be fatter)?

Rachel said...

Hi, there,
This is a great post. I'm from the UK and went to a writers evening last year. There was a very successful agent there and she said that the average novel is now 70k.
I think my novel might be better suited to try and get published in the US as its Urban Fantasy (I think!) Which is much more popular over there.
My MS is currently at 70k. I'm currently editing, so this could change. Should I try to bulk it out to get the word count, or do you think I shouldn't worry too much?
Thanks, Rachel

Unknown said...

Thank you for this. I hadn't realized that genre made a difference in YA wordcounts. I'm working on a YA fantasy and had been panicking trying to figure out how to cut it down to 60k or so, so this is Very Good News.

Tyler Carlson said...

I am a beginner writer as well. Currently, my novel is upwards of 123,000 words (using standard word count ... not sure how to do the courier thing most of you people are talking about), and I feel that I still have 15,000 more words to go before I feel "done." I know that after some editing, it will probably be pushed down to 130,00ish. After reading all of this, I feel like that's still too much. I've always been a fan of long fantasy; anything less than 500 pages almost seems like a waste of a book to me. Perhaps it's just my style, but I'm definitely a "more is better" type of guy, and I'm not ashamed of that. Still. I'm just afraid that people will not give me a chance because of the large word count.

Unknown said...

Here I thought my novel was too short...and when my editor recommended cutting 30K, I was like "I was prepared to add a whole new character to flesh things out more..."

This helps explain my editor's point of view. Cheers!

Unknown said...

Hello. I'm 17 and I plan to write a paranormal novel. After I'm done writing, do I print the story out or what?

Hope to get reply soon. Thank you :)

mathmason said...

I think the only exception to your horror length rule is Stephen kings it which i think is approximately 370,000 words and the stand which is even longer.

Liana said...

Hi! I hope it's not too late to ask a question - I understand that the fantasy standard is 90-120 K, and I have a 90 K manuscript. Sounds like I'm fine, right? But the problem is, my characters are 10, 12 and 14. The most important one is the youngest. I was told that means its MG, but it's pretty much epic fantasy, just with young characters (who will grow up if I continue it as a series).
Is 90 K still okay, or, as others told me, untouchable by agents since I'm a first time author and it's "considered middle grade"?

Unknown said...

Interesting thing to read here... I'm working on my second fiction manuscript now - a blend of cyberpunk and paranormal - and i'm about 12 chapters into a projected 40 - and so far each chapter is being estimated by ms word to be about 12-15k words. Using the low end of the average that puts the whole thing at about 480k.

I don't really think that I am being long winded - there's just a lot of story elements to include. Perhaps I should break it up into more than one book?

Is there still a market out there for books that aren't meant to be consumed in an hour or two? While I have been writing for some years now as a hobby I am of a mind to look into publishing this one.

Is there any chance of seeing a manuscript in the 300-400k range develop any interest from a publisher?

Phil said...

Prioritizing estimated word count over actual word count is incorrect and silly. Use the word processor and enjoy the 21st century.

Joseph Lewis said...

Excellent post. Very helpful. Seems a bit of editing is in my future.

Mark Vincent LaPolla said...

I always let the story dictate the length of the novel I write. And this means that the characters themselves decide how long the story is going to be. I wrote The Inn of the Star Crossed, a historical fantasy adventure set in Civil War Manhattan, expecting it to be 90-100K words but it clocked in at 75K. There was nothing I could do to extend it. I tried but wound up editing out a lot, too. No, the story decides length. My other novels are 80-100K words and are also fantasy adventures (with romantic leanings). I never know how long a novel is going to be before I write it. I do keep track of where I am wrt word count. It helps. But I never write to a word length. One day I'll write a 140K or a 200K monster but right now, all my stories are shorter.