How Long Should Your Novel Be? Our Editors Have the Answers
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.”
How many words in a novel?
When it comes to the number of words a novel should have, different definitions come up. For instance, in its famous Nebula Awards series, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America classifies submissions 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
These numbers are quoted popularly amongst other writing associations, too. Then again, according to NaNoWriMo, manuscripts must be over 50k words to qualify.
If you think that seems short for a novel, you’re not alone. The sweet spot for a novel’s word count is generally quoted as sitting around 80-90k. However, many books have managed to win the love of readers over the years with just 40-50k words: Fahrenheit 451, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, The Great Gatsby, and Slaughterhouse-Five, to name a few, are all between 46-50,000 words.
Standard word count by genre
You should also 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.
- Commercial and literary novels: 80,000 – 100,000
- Science fiction and fantasy: 100,000 – 115,000
- Young adult: 55,000 – 70,000
- Middle grade: 20,000 – 55,000
- Romance: 80,000 – 100,000
- Mystery: 75,000 – 100,000
- Thriller: 90,000 – 100,000
- Memoir: 80,000 – 90,000
- Western: 45,000 – 75,000
Of course, many books will 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. Granted, of all the industry standard novel lengths per genre, fantasy sits at the top. But even with that in mind, these novels are long and are actually classified as “epic novels” due to their length. They were also all published by authors after they’d already become famous and built a huge fanbase, making the companies that published them lots of money. So if you’re at that point in your career as well, go for it!
This is not to say that epic novels are a form of storytelling reserved only for bestselling writers. Diana Gabaldon’s breakout 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.
8 revision tips from our editors to help you stick to word count guidelines
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 words." — 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?" — 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
Should you 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 push your manuscript to the side.
This sentiment 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.