word count in novels

Does Word Count Matter When Writing Novels?

Ann O'Brien

Ann O'Brien

July 21, 2022

Writing a novel is a dream for many, but one of the biggest mental hurdles that authors face relates to the length of the book they hope to write. While some novels are huge, like Tolstoy’s almost 1,300-page tome War and Peace, the vast majority of novels are much shorter in length.

When writing aspirations lead you to write a long novel or even a shorter one, getting the novel length and corresponding word count just right can be challenging. Books that are too short might not feel complete to the author or the reader. Longer books might be too lengthy for some readers to even attempt, or they may put it down before reading the final lines. So let’s look at how many words in novels are typical, how novel length is viewed, and what ambitious writers need to know about the length of their next novel.

Does Word Count Matter?

When you have a great book in your hands, thinking about the number of words in the book is not that important right then. Excellent writing focuses the reader’s attention on the compelling characters, the twists and turns in the plot, and the page-turning anticipation of a great story. But word count in a novel does make a difference in some ways.

  • For the self-published author, word count directly relates to printing costs and how many books will be published at a given time.
  • Books with an excessive word count look larger, too. For some readers, that oversized spine on the shelf may deter them from picking up your novel to read. Book shoppers seeking a fun beach read may skip right over your War and Peace-length book for a shorter, more average-sized novel.
  • Retail sellers may shy away from books that fall too far out of the normal word count length and overall size as well. Your novel might be the next blockbuster book, but if a bookstore thinks its too-big or too-small size will deter readers from buying it, your novel may go unread and unsold by many.

Word Counting: Minimums and Maximums

For self-publishing authors, the length of a novel is most likely based on their writing, their budget, and what they want to do. But some commonly understood industry standards have been around a while mainly due to traditional publishing house preferences. The large publishing house editors typically viewed books over 120,000 words as simply too long to work with.

While some books of that length or even longer do make it to publication, traditional publishers know that a manuscript of this length will take hundreds of man-hours to edit, revise, and perfect for publication and so shy away from them. Similarly, to be considered a traditional novel, the manuscript needs to reach at least 40,000 words in length, so shorter books would also not be a top consideration for publication by large publishers unless a popular or well-known author wrote it.

Standard Word Count by Genre

An average novel length by word count is really just that, an average. A more accurate description of word count for any fiction novel actually is based more upon the genre of the book. Of course, some outliers become popular that fall outside of these generally accepted norms. But for a new novelist aiming to create a compelling manuscript, keeping these word count expectations in mind while writing provides a good goal for a sellable, marketable book length.

  • Fiction: 80,000 – 100,000 words
    The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan (91,419)
    The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton (48,523)
  • Fantasy: 100,000 – 115,000 words
    The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (95,022)
    Prisoner of Azkaban by JK Rowling (106,821)
  • Middle Grades: 20,000 – 55,000 words
    The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate (26,263)
    Holes by Louis Sachar (46,554)
  • Memoir: 80,000 – 90,000 words
    My Sisters Keeper by Jodi Picoult (119,529)
    Beyond Band of Brothers: The War Memoirs of Major Dick Winters by Dick Winters (72,048)
  • Mystery: 75,000 – 100,000 words
    Postmortem by Patricia Cornwell (98,130)
    The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown (138,952)
  • Romance: 80,000 – 100,000 words
    The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger (155,717)
    The Secret Diaries of Miss Miranda Cheever by Julia Quinn (84,255)
  • Thriller: 90,000 – 100,000 words
    Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane (81,666)
    The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (101,704)
  • Western: 45,000 – 75,000 words
    The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper (145,469)
    All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy (99,277)
  • Young Adult: 55,000 – 70,000 words
    The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (67,203)
    The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (99,750)

Hitting the Mark: Making Your Word Count Work

Setting a realistic goal for words in novel writing depends on many factors, including how quickly you plan on finishing your novel, what other commitments you have to fulfill (like work or school), and your own writing pace. Setting unrealistic writing goals can be mentally detrimental to a writer, too. When you don’t hit your daily, weekly, or monthly goals, you can get discouraged, lose faith in your writing abilities, or even quit in frustration when in reality the goal itself was the problem, not your writing abilities.

What is a Realistic Writing Goal?

While every writer is different and pacing can vary widely from time to time for every author, setting a goal to write a portion of your novel length that you can reach regularly is a good idea. Aiming to write about 500 words a day is a realistic goal for most writers and especially those that are writing in addition to another job or career as well as planning creatively for the bigger picture of the story you are writing.

Once you have mastered the goal of 500 words a day easily, increase it to 750 or 1,000 words and become comfortable at that volume. Remember that the purpose of setting a writing goal is to learn to be consistent and push through writing blocks so you can keep your momentum moving forward during the arduous task of creating a novel. You can always write more than your goal number of words.

But if you are consistently unable to meet your daily goal, lower it back to your previous level and work at hitting that word count consistently again. The process of writing is not always linear so it is understandable when writers have creative highs and some lows as well. Keeping the creative juices flowing can be a challenge, but sometimes authors love to feel the camaraderie with other writers in this normally solo activity.

Writers Encouraging Writers

Planning out your writing schedule sounds easy but in practice, many writers find it difficult. It’s easy for a writer of any expertise to lose motivation when they feel like they are the only one working towards this challenging goal.

So some authors join National Novel Writing Month’s November 1 start date each year with other writers who want motivation and encouragement for 30 consecutive days of writing. By completing 1,667 words each day, participants can produce a 50K word novel by the end of the month. While this hardcore style of writing may not work for every writer or every book, participating in the NaMoWriMo challenge is a good way for aspiring novel writers to see how well they can turn the words.

Ready, Set, Write!

Getting started on your novel is just the first step, but sometimes it may seem like the hardest one to take for aspiring writers. But thinking about setting a daily word count writing target can help you reach your overall words in novel goal in a timeframe you are comfortable with. Considerations like average word counts by genre are excellent guides for authors to keep in mind but they are only guides and not strict parameters.

Authors that choose to self-publish their book with respected printing companies like Publishing Xpress have the freedom to create a novel of any length and still be guaranteed that it will be published exactly the way the author wants. From working with a design professional to get the cover just right to choosing the best binding to show off the novel to ordering exactly how many copies the author chooses, self-publishing is a great way for authors to get their stories into the hands of readers.

At 28,000 words, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol was a novel that no publisher would touch, so Dickens decided to self-publish his story. Its length was too short for adult novels and too long for a children’s book by most standards, yet he decided to self-publish 6,000 copies and take a chance. It sold out almost immediately and the rest is history for this beloved author. The next classic book might be just around the corner for another self-publishing author – will it be yours?

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