Tuesday, June 30, 2009

How to Determine Your Word Count

Quote of the Day:
Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.
~Mae West

One thing I’ve noticed a lot of writers asking is “How long should my book be?” I am usually of the opinion that a book is as long as it needs to be (can you imagine Harry Potter condensed to 150 pages because MG and YA books tend to be shorter? Ack! The horror!) However, there are general guidelines for different genres, so I dug around a bit to come up with a list that may help.

Also note that I did not list each and every genre. In fact, I only mentioned a few that go outside the norm, because for the most part, when we are talking novels, they fall into one of two categories – YA novels, and adult novels. Middle grade books would be classified more as novellas and picture books are in a realm of their own.

So, after much searching, here is what I came up with:

Age Categories:

Children’s – age range – 0-12 (avg word count is 200 - 20k)
Middle Grade (Juvenile) – age range – 8-12 (avg. word count is 20k – 40k)
Young Adult – age range – 12-18 (avg word count is 50k – 70k)
Adult – age range – 18+ (avg word count is 80k – 100k)

Word Counts – I scoured the internet, agent blogs, writer forums, and helpful websites…and just about everyone had a different answer on exact word counts. However, there were some general trends. So, while there are exceptions to every rule, you should be safe if you follow these guidelines:

Novella – anything under 45,000 words
Novel – 45,000 – 110,000 words
Epic or Saga – 110,000+

Most adult mainstream fiction will fall between 80,000 – 100,000 words. In other words, if you have written a novel in any genre other than the four listed below, this range is a good one to shoot for.

Category Romance and YA/NA tends to be a bit shorter, around 60,000 – 80,000 words.

SciFi/Fantasy – traditionally these seem to be longer, but that is not always the case. In general, keeping them around 100,000 words is a good bet. However, because of the world building necessary for these books, longer lengths are generally more acceptable.

Historical Fiction – like SF/F, these generally run longer (with the necessary world building in these genres, longer word lengths are to be expected. In fact, I read a few places where editors were hesitant about shorter length novels in these genres because it does take time to get that setting established) but are usually between 90,000 – 100,000 (though sometimes as high as 150,000).

Every book is going to be different, and a longer word length isn’t necessarily going to get you rejected (though it might). For an average novel, try to keep the word count between 70,000– 100,000. For YAs, 50,000 – 80,000.

Please, PLEASE do not read these word counts and decide you need to chop up your novel. These are only average lengths. Some novels need the added length and work well with the wordage and some get the story across just fine with shorter word counts. These are just general guidelines; you must do what is best for your particular story.


B.J. Anderson said...

Thanks for the guidelines, Michelle! I'm always looking for information on word counts, although everywhere I look it's different. Sigh. Oh well!

Susan R. Mills said...

Thanks for this post. I have a complete YA ms that has been rejected, in part, because of the word count. I think it is especially important to follow the guidelines if you are an unpublished author. Published authors can probably get away with higher word counts.

Michelle McLean said...

very true - it's interesting to look at popular authors' books and see how long the first book in a series is compared to the last. Look at Twilight vs Breaking Dawn. The first Harry Potter book compared to the last. Those of us struggling to get that first book published probably have to toe the line a little more than established authors. But again, sometimes the story will support a longer word count. Sometimes it is just necessary to have that extra wordage.

And B.J. - yep...every place I looked the guidelines were different. But there were some general ranges. I think as long as you don't go too far out of range (like writing a 150,000 page YA (although I believe Twilight was 118,000 but again, there are always exceptions to the rule)) you should be fine.

Jackie said...

Thanks...I was just thinking about this today...this is really helpful.

Michelle D. Argyle said...

Great post and information! I already knew these numbers, and thought I had to follow them for the longest time. But alas, the more I write the more I'm beginning to see that I like shorter work. I'm aiming for 65-75k for my current adult novel that I'm rewriting. When *gasp* it was 102k before. Yes, I'm focusing a lot more. Not feeling like I have to chop chop, I'm just telling the story more efficiently.

Michelle McLean said...

Thanks for the comment, Lady Glamis :) You know, I think a lot of people (myself included) look at a few of the popular books today, see how long they are, and think they need to follow their example.

With my current WIP, I found myself doing that. I set my goal for 70k (for a YA) and found that around 50k the story was winding down. I panicked for a minute, nervous that my word count wasn't high enough until I remembered that as long as I was over 50k, it counted as a novel and would be fine, probably even better, for a YA than a longer book.

In the end I ended up with about 66k (and will probably have between 65 and 70k once the rewrites are done) but I learned a good lesson. Don't force a particular word length or your story may suffer.

These are good guidelines to go by if you need them. But you need to stay true to your story. It will be as long or short as it needs to be. It certainly shouldn't be something to stress over. :D

Eileen Astels Watson said...

A good thing to do is read in the genre you're writing. If you find a publisher whose books are close to yours or a length you love reading, then you can look up their requested word counts as well to go by.

For me, I tend to write in the 60,000 word count length. Good for the Steeple Hill LI line. Interestingly enough, those are the books I love reading the most. They're concise, quick reads with a bit of punch and HEA. For me, an HEA is a must.