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On Word Count: How Long Should It Be?

Yesterday I gave you some of the reasons why writers (and people who deal with writers) spend so much time talking about word count. It all started with a story about the word count of Ivanhoe, though, which rocked my world.

I dealt with a lot of these same issues when my little sister started writing for the first time. She sent me a list of questions about writing, and right up near the top was, “How long should it be? How long is a book? How long is a chapter?”

Those are good questions, but the answers are complicated — not least because she was really asking in terms of pages, but as I explained yesterday, pages aren’t a very helpful metric for measuring. That said, there are some common or average numbers you can use when generalizations are good enough.

For instance, an average page (filled mostly with text) will hold something on the order of 250 to 333 words. (250 word per page is by far the most common number I’ve heard quoted, but I almost always find in practice that it ends up somewhere a bit above 300.)

Some Precise and Helpful Values

In fiction we talk about documents of varying lengths. There’s the short story, which Poe famously demanded “must be able to be read in one sitting.” That’s precision for you!

Then there’s the novella, which everyone famously defines as, “Umm….”

If you give them some time, they might add, “Well, it’s longer than a short story and shorter than a novel.”

So how long is a novel? That will get you another, “Umm….”

Hard Numbers

If you dig hard enough, these are some of the most common numbers you’ll see given:

  • Short story: 5,000-15,000 words
  • Novella: 20,000-40,000 words
  • Novel: 50,000+ words

Lots of people use the 50,000 number to define novels, but unless you’re writing books for kids in grade school, most publishers and agents don’t seem to be interested in anything under 70-80,000.

There’s also some wisdom floating around lately that really long books (anything over 120,000 words) cost too much to print, so publishers would rather see something at or around 100,000 words. I can’t vouch for that, but I’ve heard it often enough that I feel like I should repeat it.

As to Shannon’s other question, how long should a chapter be…that’s an even more subjective question. The right answer to all of these (of course) is “long enough…and no longer.”

For my own stuff, I aim for chapters somewhere between 4,000 and 6,000 words. That’s room enough for two complete scenes, on average, plus transitions, and it gives me 15-25 chapters per book, which I divide evenly into a 3-act or 5-act structure depending on the genre and plot.

Figure Out Your Own (Technical Writing Exercise)

The lovely Kelley, writing at a coffee shopSo how long is the stuff you’re writing? And how long does it need to be?

I’ve talked a lot about books because they’re a very visible medium. It’s incredibly likely, though, that no matter what you’re writing, there’s somebody you work with (or should work with) who cares about its word count.

If you’re a blogger, you’ve probably heard something close to Poe’s advice for short stories. “Blog readers are busy people, so be sure to keep it short.” Some people are even generous enough to suggest targets.

I’ve heard 600-800 words quoted as an ideal, and I know at least one popular blogger who aims for 400 words per post. Still, like always, the right answer depends on your style, your material, and your target audience.

So what can you do? Make a guess how much time your readers will be willing to spend reading one of your posts. Then figure out how long it takes to sit and read 100 words (by reading someone else’s blog posts, not your own), and that will give you a rough target word count.

If you’re a manager sending out memos or a copywriter preparing sales text, you could probably benefit from the same exercise. Either way, your readers are busy people. Make sure you know exactly how much you’re asking of them.

If you’re writing fiction, it’s a little easier, because those people are always talking about word count. Spend some time on Google, and get to know your genre. Figure out what the average or suggested word count is for your target audience, and do what you need to hit that.

In every case, you can make your job easier (and make your writing better) by finding someone who’s already done it right, and using that as a model. Now that I think about it, you should really turn that process into a habit. It’s how we do everything from mastering style to designing new document templates. Come back next week for more on that very topic!

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