How Long Should Your Novel Be? Our Editors Have the Answers
[Last updated: 6/27/2019]
With NaNoWriMo around the corner, many authors are gearing up to weave worlds, characters, and stories into novels with their words. But… how many words does a novel make? And when it comes to creating art, just how important is it to stick to the rules — such as standard word counts?
Well, if your goal is to publish and sell your novel, those rules are pretty darn important. As with many publishing standards, word count guidelines exist for a number of reasons — including marketing and sales — but also to help create stories that are free from plot or pacing issues that can exhaust readers. You wouldn’t be reading this article right now if a quick scroll down showed an apparent 10,000 words, would you?
Why does word count matter?
“Word count limits sometimes seem as though they are stifling artistic flow, but they are usually there for a reason,” says Freelance Editor Lisa Howard.
If you’re hoping to land a book deal with a traditional publisher, you don’t want to give an editor a reason to turn your book away. That’s why Freelance Editor Jessica Hatch urges you to follow their rules. “In the New York agencies I worked for, it was rare to see a 120,000-word manuscript avoid the slush pile. This is because we were groomed to understand that, even if a long manuscript is strong from start to finish, it would take considerable work to convince an editor to buy it at auction.”
Similarly, if your book is published and lands in a bookstore, you don’t want to turn away prospective readers with a bizarrely small or large book spine. Word count signals to people what kind of book they’re dealing with. Readers looking for a good beach-read in the ‘Mystery’ section will not likely gravitate towards a 1,000-page book.
Regarding the value of adhering to standard word counts, Jackie Bates, a former Managing Editor at AA Publishing, adds: “Like everything in writing, you may write a work of genius that smashes all the rules. But for print publishing, the physical cost of producing the book is an issue, and the market does generally know what it likes. I do find if someone has written a very short or overly long novel, they often don't quite have a grip on their story. Word counts give writers something to aim for and an idea of what a reader's expectations might be.”
PRO-TIP: If you're curious about how long a chapter should be, check out this post that's all about chapter length.
How many words should my novel be?
Put simply, the sweet spot for a novel’s word count is generally said to be around 80-90k. Shorter novels such as Fahrenheit 451, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, The Great Gatsby, and Slaughterhouse-Five are between 40-50,000 words. Longer novels top the 100k mark.
That said, this figure differs from book to book and organization to organization. According to NaNoWriMo, manuscripts must be over 50k words to qualify.The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, on the other hand, classifies submissions for its famous Nebula Awards series into four categories:
- Short story: under 7,500
- Novelette: between 7,500 and 17,500
- Novella: between 17,500 and 40,000
- Novel: over 40,000
Is 40,000 words enough for a novel?
A story that is over 40,000 words is generally considered a novel. However, it will be on the short side, as the average length of a novel hovers around 50,000-70,000 words.
That said, if your book is around 40,000 words, you're in good company. C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and George Orwell's Animal Farm all came in under the 40,000 mark (38,421 words, 30,644 words, and 29,966 words, respectively).
But before you celebrate and race to send your manuscript off to the presses as a novel, there's something else that you should consider. Whether a word count is "enough" for a novel depends on one thing and one thing only: its genre.
What are the standard word counts by genre?
You should be aware that word count standards differ vastly by genre. Could you, as a first-time novelist, get an agent or publisher to bite at your 200k-word YA epic? Maybe — but it would be tough. To verify whether your novel falls above, below, or in the ideal word count for its genre, take a gander at the recommended word counts from Reedsy’s editors below.
How many words should a fiction novel be?
Commercial and literary novels are generally 80,000 to 110,000 words. Some examples for this category include: The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (85,199 words), The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan (91,419 words), Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison (97,364 words), Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery (119,394 words), and Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (119,394 words).
How many words should a fantasy novel be?
Fantasy and science fiction novels are known to be lengthier than other books. Fantasy, in particular, takes the cake: some books in a fantasy series end up exceeding 140,000 words. That said, the average word count for science fiction and fantasy novels generally lies between 100,000 and 115,000. Examples include: The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman (112,815 words), Prisoner of Azkaban by JK Rowling (106,821 words), and Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (100,609 words).
How many words should a romance novel be?
Romance novels tend to be shorter, lying between 80,000 and 100,000 words. However, since romance has many sub-genres, this figure may vary. (For instance, regency romances and paranormal romances must be above 40,000 words). We recommend researching the niche and checking specific imprints before you start writing your romance book.
How many words should a middle-grade novel be?
Middle-grade novels are generally 20,000 to 55,000 words. Chapter books will come in at the lower end of the spectrum, while middle-grade books meant for older readers may even slightly exceed 55,000 words. For more information on word counts for children's book, check out this post.
And, in case you're wondering, here are the average word counts for other popular genres:
- Young adult: 55,000 – 70,000
- Mystery: 75,000 – 100,000
- Thriller: 90,000 – 100,000
- Memoir: 80,000 – 90,000
- Western: 45,000 – 75,000
Of course, there will be books that smash these "rules." George R.R. Martin’s longest novel in the A Song of Ice and Fire series is A Storm of Swords, at 424,000 words. JK Rowling’s longest novel is Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, totaling 257,045 words. And The Fellowship of the Ring sits at 187,790 words. However, they have one similarity: they were all published by authors after they’d already become famous and built a huge fanbase, making the companies that published them lots of money.
This is not to say that epic novels are a form of storytelling reserved only for bestselling writers. Diana Gabaldon’s debut novel, Outlander, totals a cool 305k words. But if you’re still getting your start, proceed into the 100K+ word count with caution.
How do Reedsy books compare?
While writing this article, we became curious about how the length of manuscripts submitted to editors through Reedsy compared to industry standards. This is what we found:
Overall, manuscripts received by Reedsy editors seem to fall squarely within the industry averages, with a few minor outliers.
“Like with anything, an exceptional manuscript can result in exceptions to the rule,” says Jackie Bates. However, working with a professional editor is really a rule of thumb for ensuring your manuscript is in tip-top shape — and that includes your manuscript’s word count.
What’s important to remember is that a word count that exceeds industry standards is not merely an arbitrary reason for publishers and agents to refuse a query or pitch. Most of the time, an overly long word count is a symptom of major plot or pacing problems in a novel — issues that need to be solved during the revision process.
Of course, hiring a professional editor does come with a price tag, and most freelancers calculate their costs based on the number of words. In light of this, several Reedsy editors have been kind enough to offer tips for authors who are in the revision process and looking to cut down on word count.
How to stick to word count guidelines
The rule of thumb is that you shouldn't worry about word count when you're writing your first draft — and it should be even less of a concern in the outlining phase. If you'd like to learn more about that topic, we write extensively about how to outline a novel here.
However, if you're done with your first draft and you're shocked by the amount of words in it, it might be time to cut down. Let the words of Truman Capote be your revising mantra: “I’m all for the scissors. I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.” Grab your scissors and take these tips into account.
1) Don’t edit until the first draft is completed
"Put your manuscript aside for a few weeks before going back to it. With a little distance, you'll be able to see where there are superfluous scenes or unnecessary purple prose." — Alli Brydon, former Associate Editor at Sterling Publishing Co., Inc.
2) Send extraneous movement of characters to the cutting room floor
“Extraneous movement of characters through space is something that beginning writers tend to be loyal to. It’s challenging to figure out how to move characters from one scene to the next. But readers don’t need to see every step a character makes. It’s good to leave some things to the imagination, and the reader in their own mind can fill in the blanks between scene cuts.” — Kelly Lydick, Associate Editor at Immanence Journal
3) Ask yourself, “Does the reader really need to know this?”
“One bad habit that inflates word count in historical fiction especially is the tendency to info-dump historical facts into the narration. This is a tough habit to break. In order to create a world of verisimilitude, the writer has to research all of this information, and so it's difficult for them to believe the reader doesn't need to know it, too. I recommend curtailing historical information to those tidbits that further the plot or help to develop a main character. This can be applied to any genre, however: if a detail doesn't serve a purpose, it's extraneous and should be cut.” — Jessica Hatch
4) Avoid the “brother and sister explaining family life to each other” exposition
“Be aware of what characters would know about each other/themselves, and try to be creative when imparting this information to the reader. It is possible to explain all sorts of things without being obvious or writing it directly into dialogue. Some things can be inferred.” — Jackie Bates
5) Edit out adverbs in favor of stronger verbs
"Instead of 'walking quickly,' why can't your hero 'stride' across the room? This is especially something to keep in mind when you're writing fight scenes." — Jessica Hatch
6) Be aware of your over-used words
“I think every writer has 'pet' words they use all the time, often without realizing it. Words I tend to notice and always flag include frequently starting dialogue with 'Well,' — I often see more than one example of this per page, even in traditionally-published novels. I also always suggest authors do a search of their manuscript for the word ‘that’ and really question the necessity of each one. It’s a useful word but often unnecessary.” — Jackie Bates
7) Too many adjectives are not necessarily a good thing
“Great writing creates a skillful balance between what the writer provides on the page and what the reader brings to the story with their own imagination. One lean but carefully chosen, perfect-for-the-context description is much more valuable than fluffier, or lengthy descriptions of character or scene. Knowing what to keep and what to cut should be driven by voice and tone — they will dictate the cadence of the language used in the story.” — Kelly Lydick
8) Don’t shy away from contractions
“People frequently avoid contractions, both in narrative and dialogue, and this often (depending on when a book is set and what the characters are like) gives a sense of formality that I find quite intrusive. If appropriate to the text, I always encourage writers to use more contractions for a more direct and natural feel.” — Jackie Bates
CHEATSHEET: What Should My Word Count Be?
To make all of this info easier for you to digest, we created this cheatsheet for you to refer back to whenever you need.
It has everything you might want to know about word counts — even how long a chapter should be. Unlock it below!
To bend or not to bend the rules
We said it already, but it's worth repeating: authors should not underestimate the value of staying within standard word counts. Editors in traditional publishing houses believe that it’s easier to market books that meet genre expectations, and if you’re hunting for a book deal or for an agent, you want to eliminate any reason for them to eliminate you. Not to mention that the longer your book is, the more time it will take to write it.
These sentiments acknowledged, these days self-publishing has given authors the ability to play around with the rules. A good example of this is is John McCrae’s (aka Wildbow’s) novel, Worm, which was published as a web serial and is 1.75 million words long. And — in the vein of four-letter titles that start with “W” — there’s Hugh Howey’s Wool, which was originally self-published as a series of e-novellas.
While sticking to standard word counts is definitely important from a sales or marketing standpoint, a greater pool of publishing options means that writers do not need to view “the rules” as entirely rigid and unbendable — especially when going against the grain ultimately serves the story. As Kelly Lydick, advises, “Adhering to standard word counts can be important — but even more important than that is the telling of a good story. Even better — a great story.”
What are your thoughts on publishing standards, such as word counts? Share your thoughts in the comments below.