Simply put, a word count is the total number of words used in a piece of writing.
It’s a simple concept, yet it’s something we writers stress over~and with good reason!
With so many manuscripts being submitted, there is a pressure to make sure our own work stands out in the best possible way while fitting in with the conventions of our genre, and one of those conventions is its length.
There’s a set of expectations in place from both readers and publishers when it comes to the size of your book. They want something they can sit down with for a good amount of time and enjoy, but not something to which they have to devote weeks or months of their life if they have any chance of finishing it. And while that’s fair, it can also be problematic for writers.
Tameri Guide for Writers provides the following guidelines for word counts:
Short-Short Story or Article | 500 – 2,000 Words
Short Story or Long Article | 2,500 – 5,000 Words
Novella | 20,000 – 40,000 Words
Novel | 80,000 – 150,000 Words
Epic (no real limit) | 200,000 or more Words
LitRejection breaks word counts for fiction down by genre:
Literary/Commercial | 80,000 – 110,000 Words
Romance | 40,000 – 100,000 Words
Mystery/Thriller/Suspense | 70,000 to 90,000 Words
Paranormal | 75,000 – 95,000 Words
Horror | 80,000 – 100,000 Words
Crime | 90,000 – 110,000 Words
Fantasy | 90,000 – 100,000 Words
Science-Fiction | 90,000 – 125,000 Words
Historical | 100,000 – 120,000 Words
Please note these figures are subject to change based on the preferences or submission guidelines of any publisher, editor, agent, etc.
These figures can provide a guideline for authors wondering how long of a work they should aim for, especially those who are in the process of crafting their first novel. As great as it is to have this become a goal, it can also be a hindrance.
There’s the sad fact that newer authors may be more likely to have a harder time getting their work published if their manuscript is exceedingly long. It’s a costly process, from the agent to the editors and the publisher on the business side of things, not to mention the materials used in production. Taking a chance on an author with an exceptionally lengthy work can be a bit of a gamble, in that the publisher cannot bet on the book selling as well as a more established or known author with several titles to their name. Provided things go as we all hope they do, the publisher may be more likely to take on another of your works even if it’s longer.
It may sound easier to self-publish larger works, in that you wouldn’t have a mass of higher-ups strongly suggesting you make substantial cuts, but this side of word counts is still something to keep in mind. Potential readers who may be unfamiliar with your works may be a little hesitant to purchase a novel listed as 200,000 words compared to one that is only 100,000. No matter which publication path you intend to set out on, the longer a book is, the more of an investment it becomes for everyone involved.
As someone who presently intends on taking the more “traditional” route, this 100,000 word cutoff point is a little intimidating. Not because I’m worried about writing enough to hit that mark, but writing too much and not being able to cut my work down to that size without causing any detrimental damage to the story I want to tell.
I currently have two finished novels in the self-editing stage.
As of writing this post, the more recent of the two (which was written over three months for a college project) comes in at an approximate 86,000 words as of the first draft’s completion.
The other, however, is roughly 172,000.
Speaking honestly, this is the one I began in my early teens and have been working on almost constantly for eight years now, so a lot more time has been spent on it. From the storytelling perspective, I feel it has more depth in terms of its plot and subplots with more interwoven components. When people ask me about it, I tend to describe it as being something along the lines of Regency Era Downton Abbey because it revolves around both the upper-class genteel and the lower class servants, switching back and forth between the various sides of the ongoing plot. The structure can make it feel like I’m writing two books at once, which reflects in the massive word count; I did consider releasing them as two companion novels, but it felt to me like breaking them apart in such a fashion would detract from the overall complexity of all the moving parts and perspectives in the situation these characters are confronted with.
All the same, there’s still that little voice in the back of my head screaming every time the word count feels like it’s getting even more out of hand.
But does size really matter?
From the technical side, it seems to. But on the side of the writer, maybe not so much.
Take a look at the list of popular novels and their word counts below (a broader version can be found at commonplacebook.com)
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury | 46,118 Words
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald | 47,094 Words
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne | 63,604 Words
Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery | 97,364 Words
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte | 107,945 Words
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen | 119,394 Words
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens | 155,960 Words
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte | 183,858 Words
Moby Dick by Herman Melville | 206,052 Words
The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand | 311,596 Words
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy | 349,736 Words
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell | 418,053 Words
The word counts are all over the place!
In all fairness, the argument could be made that many of these examples were published before the introduction of things like television that provide other outlets of entertainment, and that we as a society are less inclined to gather around the parlor listening to one another read aloud from a book on a rainy afternoon. The length of a novel may not have mattered as much because of how engaging the experience of reading it was.
And it cannot be forgotten that a number of these titles are worked into the curriculums of high school and college classes. I remember reading many of the classics like Of Mice and Men, The Scarlet Letter, and Pride and Prejudice in high school. Yet, in my experience, the focus was always more on getting something out of the reading or seeing the point the author was trying to make (or, rather, the point the instructor thought the author was trying to make). Rarely was the length brought up. It didn’t matter.
But we also read for our own enjoyment. I’ve read titles like Gone with the Wind, Anna Karenina, and Little Women for this purpose. When we find a story that truly captures our attention, we forget how many pages it is. It doesn’t matter.
While it is important to keep things like word counts in mind, that shouldn’t be the only factor determining the length of your novel. Focus on crafting something an escape for your reader to get lost in~and maybe even find themselves in. Worry about the words you are using, not the number of them. Let the story decide how long it needs to be in order to be told in the most effective and meaningful way.
As my favorite Jane Austen quote says, “If a book is well written, I always find it too short.”
How long is your WIP? Does the idea of meeting a goal for the number of words used within it daunt you or drive you? Let me know in the comments below!
Before I go, I’ve got a special announcement!
I recently passed my first goal of 100 followers on Twitter!
To celebrate, I’d like to dedicate next week’s post to a Q&A session. If you’d like to participate, you can leave a question in the comments of this post, respond to the Twitter post I’ve pinned to my profile, or visit my Facebook page. I’ll be answering a handful of them in next week’s post, so stay tuned.
I hope to hear from you soon!