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How long is a book supposed to be, anyway?

(or: word counts and what they mean)

Most of us have a general idea of what constitutes a the correct word count for a short story, a novella and a novel. But some stories are on the cusp, leaving the waters muddy.

I see some different notions, but the following is a general guideline as to story types and their typical word length, as suggested in the rules for the Hugo Awards. There can be variations on that, but I’ll get to those in a moment.

Story TypeWord CountComment
Novel40,000+Expected word counts may depend on genre. Romance and SF and some crime fiction may tend to the shorter end, but most novels will be at least 50,000 words.
Novella17,500 to 39,999E-books make the distinction between novels and novellas fuzzier, because we can’t see the size of the book we’re buying.
Novellette7,500 to 17,499 wordsAnother name for novellette might just be ‘longish short story’. Some anthology publishers may accept closer to 10,000 words for a “short” story.
Short Story1000 to 7,499Some publishers have strict words limits shorter than the maximum. Clan Destine Press usually has a limit of 5,000 words for budgeting reasons.
Flash Fiction25 to 999 wordsThe various types of flash fiction have different rules, but they generally fall somewhere in here.
6 Word Story6 wordsJust what it says on the tin. These stories are usually found on Twitter.
A table of story types and their typical word counts.

Word counts for novels

Although a novel is considered anything above 40,000 words according to the Hugos, in reality, 50,000 is generally the shortest a novel can be. I was asked to rewrite Grounded to bring it from 35,000 words to at least 50,000 words to make it a full romance novel for Escape Publishing.

Writing website Literative once published a list of suggested word lengths for different genres of fiction too. As it’s on their site in image format, I’ll replicate it here in text, but here’s a summary of their ‘best practice’ guidelines.

GenreIdeal LengthComment
Romance40,000 to 100,000 Many romance novels are deliciously fast reads, while others are epic sagas. There are genres within romance too, so consider which one you’re writing and investigate the common lengths of those as well. Contemporary romance and comedic romance are often shorter, while family sagas and historical romance tend to the longer end.
Western50,000 to 80,000 Westerns, like romance, seems to be designed for a quick and exciting read.
Young Adult50,000 to 80,000 Let’s put aside my annoyance that ‘YA’ is an audience, not a genre, but yes, most YA is at the shorter end.
New Adult60,000 to 85,000 Also an audience and not a genre, but what do I know?
Thriller70,000 to 90,000 It’s like a crime book, only faster-paced, and maybe with more explosions?
Paranormal75,000 to 95,000 Paranormal fiction is often blended with other genres, which might be why it sits here in the word count centre, averaging out the numbers.
Memoir80,000 to 90,000 Another sweet spot near the middle, guidance for how much you should talk about yourself.
Horror80,000 to 100,000 Fairly standard, and Stephen King even managed to write a few books within this bracket. And then there’s It, at 445,000 words.
Fantasy90,000 to 100,000 World-building takes a while. Especially if you’re George RR Martin, whose The Game of Thrones series can be anything from 300,000 to 424,000 words, twice anything JRR Tolkein managed.
Crime90,000 to 100,000 Plenty of room for red herrings in a longer story. Having said that, Agatha Christie’s works usually come in at around 200 pages – that is, 50,000 to 60,000 words.
Science Fiction90,000 to 125,000 World-building takes pages and pages and pages, y’all. And then there’s Fahrenheit 451, a slice of perfection clocking in at 46,000 words. The Time Machine is only 32,000.
History100,000 to 120,000I imagine this length is to allow the author (and reader) to soak up all that historical detail.
Word counts per genre

Children’s Fiction

Naturally, word length guidelines apply to children’s fiction as well. I found this guide once upon a time, and alas cannot find the source now, but here is their table of suggestions.

Book typeAge rangeWord Count
Board Book0-3 years0 to 200 words
Early Picture Book2-5 years200 to 500 words
Picture Book3-7 years500 to 800 words
Older Picture Book4-8 years600 to 1,000 words
Chapter Book5-10 years3,000 to 10,000 words
Middle Grade7-12 years10,000 to 30,000 words
Word counts for kids books

Guidelines aren’t laws of physics

These tables offer some good general guidelines on what’s currently standard in story lengths per type and per genre.

If you’re well under or well over those counts for a particular genre, your story might need filling out or pruning to make sure it is both deep enough and tight enough as a tale.

But as I always say, guidelines aren’t rules carved in stone. They can be a spotlight on your work and a prompt to consider when revising, but you need to do what works for your story.

The publisher’s last word is what counts

On the whole, we should always look to the publisher for guidelines on what they prefer, since they can vary. This is especially true of short stories for anthologies – some publishers will accept stories even over 10,000 words while others (as I mentioned in the table) have a strict and lower word limit as a way of managing the costs of an anthology.

So I’ll end on yet another cry to, for the love of all you hold dear, always, always, ALWAYS check a publisher’s submission guidelines. It will save everyone a lot of time and the writer, especially, the grief of having work rejected unread since it didn’t even meet the most basic criteria of length and format.

But maybe that’s a blog post for next time.

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